Israelis started celebrating the country’s 75th Independence Day on Tuesday night but the day was marred earlier by disturbances at military cemeteries around the country as some bereaved families protested the participation of government officials at Memorial Day ceremonies.
With the country bitterly divided over plans by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition – made up entirely of right-wing and religious parties – to weaken the judiciary and radically alter the constitutional system of checks and balances, thousands of relatives of fallen soldiers had asked for politicians not to take part in Memorial Day ceremonies this year, particularly those who had not served in the military.
Some withdrew their participation but others insisted on taking part and speaking, resulting in unprecedented confrontations on a day considered sacred for many Israelis.
At the Beersheba military cemetery mourners shouted “Go home; shame, shame; respect the venue”. Others sang a song from Israel’s 1948 war of independence when national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir started to speak. Some of the people in attendance applauded Mr Ben Gvir and scuffles broke out between the opposing camps. Some families chose to visit the graves of their loved ones earlier in the day to avoid being present when Mr Ben-Gvir arrived.
Eli Ben Shem, chair of Yad Labanim, Israel’s leading support network for the families and friends of fallen soldiers, blamed Mr Ben-Gvir for the violence.
“I apologise to the fallen for failing to preserve their honour,” he said. “Ben-Gvir did not behave wisely. He caused families to fight each other,” he said adding that has never happened before. “We asked him not to come but he insisted.”
When defence minister Yoav Gallant spoke at the state ceremony at a military cemetery in Tel Aviv, a protest placard was raised reading: My brother was killed in the Yom Kippur War. My nephew was kidnapped and murdered in Lebanon. With their death they commanded democracy to us and no, no to dictatorship.
Elsewhere ministers were turned away from cemeteries or heckled.
A suspected Palestinian gunman opened fire on a group of Israeli joggers in the West Bank taking part in a memorial run for fallen soldiers. One of the joggers sustained moderate wounds. The car from which the shots were fired fled the scene.
As Memorial Day drew to a close on Tuesday night, Independence Day was ushered in at the state ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, as mourning turned to celebration.
This year, fearing protests, Mr Netanyahu delivered his speech via a pre-recorded video clip and organisers were ready to switch to a recording of the rehearsal of the ceremony in the event of any anti-government disruption.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations walked out of the Security Council and read the names of Israelis killed in the past year to protest the body holding a session critical of Israel on Memorial Day.
“Today is one of the most sacred days of the year for the state of Israel,” Gilad Erdan said. “We made numerous requests to reschedule today’s debate, describing the deep importance of the day, yet tragically, this council refused to budge. Today’s debate has crossed all lines. While Israelis mourn, this council, as usual, will hear more blatant lies condemning Israel and falsely painting it as the root of all the region’s problems.”