Gaza war weighs heavily as Israel marks memorial day

Home US & World Gaza war weighs heavily as Israel marks memorial day
Gaza war weighs heavily as Israel marks memorial day

It wasn’t just the past they were remembering today. Beside the rows of fresh graves at Israel’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, new plots were still being marked out – too recent for a memorial stone, their empty shapes heaped with flowers.

Next to them, the vacant space stretched, shadowed with the future losses of Israel’s ongoing war.

The crowd packed around them – some in uniform, some in tears – saluted or bowed their heads as the morning siren sounded to mark Remembrance Day; the price of Israel’s previous conflicts laid out in the cemetery, beneath the pines, across the years.

Israel’s defence ministry says the names of 826 people from the security forces were added to the list of the country’s fallen this year, along with 834 victims of terrorist attacks – almost all of them from the 7 October Hamas attacks and the Gaza War that followed.

Faced with the human cost of his current war, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, offered a reminder of why he was asking families to pay it.

“It’s either us – Israel; or them – the monsters of Hamas,” he said. “It’s either existence, liberty, security and prosperity; or annihilation, massacre, rape and subjugation. We are determined to win.”

His speech was noticeably less belligerent than usual – his calls to continue “until victory” toned down – but he again justified the continuation of the war by quoting those paying the highest price. A soldier who had both legs amputated, he said, had urged him to “continue until the end”.

Doron Perez said he had only been half-listening to the prime minister – his mind had been on his son, Daniel, a tank commander who was killed during 7 October attacks.

Two months ago the family buried Daniel’s bloodied uniform beneath his memorial at Mount Herzl – his body is still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

“[Almost] 25,000 soldiers have lost their lives since the establishment of the State of Israel,” Doron said. “And for me, this particular battle was the most obvious in terms of the need to put our lives on the line. This is not a political issue, this is about the very existence of Israel. It was one of those ‘to be or not to be’ moments.”

Despite the support from some families, this Memorial Day is a sensitive moment for Israel’s prime minister. Beneath the national unity shown for the country’s war dead are growing questions – and growing divisions – about Israel’s war aims, and their results.

Israel’s army is currently fighting Hamas in areas of northern and central Gaza that were previously declared clear. Fourteen Israeli soldiers were reported dead last week alone. The deaths of many more Palestinians last week barely figure here.

Standing before the grave of his daughter Rebecca, Robert Baruch said there was family history scattered around the cemetery – an uncle buried yards away, killed during Israel’s war of independence in 1948.

“I don’t know how we’ll look back on this in twenty years – I hope we’ll say this was a last terrible phase in something that ended in good. But at what cost?”

Without a clear plan for the day after the war, and with more than 130 hostages still being held there, Mr Netanyahu’s determination to continue fighting in Gaza is creating growing conflict at home too.

On Sunday night, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, said he felt the weight of the Hamas attacks on his shoulders every day. “I am responsible for answering the poignant questions that drive sleep from your eyes,” he told bereaved families.

Israel’s prime minister, by contrast, has been full of praise for his forces’ sense of responsibility, almost silent on his own.

But his focus on fallen heroes does not address the accusations against him: that it was on his watch that Hamas grew strong enough to launch last October’s attack; on his watch that Israel’s intelligence failed – and that his choice to continue the conflict now is rooted in his own political survival.

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a military war in Gaza, and a growing political war at home.

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