Israel marked the beginning of Memorial Day with a minute of silence as a siren sounds across the country on Sunday.
The State ceremony was held at the Western Wall and attended by President Shimon Peres and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, both of whom will lit a memorial candle for the fallen.
Photo: Gil Yohanan
President Peres opened the ceremony, saying "our son, our daughter, the brother, the husband, will remain as they were when we last saw them before they left. In their death they willed that we live according to the values of the Ten Commandments: To be an enlightened and productive society; to be a free and democratic society; to strive for peace.
"67 years ago the UN voted to establish the State of Israel," Peres said at the beginning of his speech, "but it was not that announcement which really established the state. It was founded with the blood of our sons, with the sweat of the pioneers and the foresight of the prophets.
"For generations the pain does not stop, even during the happy times. Our happiness is always marred by a void, a cloud of sadness which engulfs us."
Turning to the bereaved parents, Peres said "as he who was a partner in the building the state, for all its pain and achievement, I ask – despite the pain – be proud of this amazing creation called the State of Israel."
Gantz also spoke at the ceremony. He said that "while the siren sounds and cuts through the cloudy darkness, I return to my friends and partners from along the way, who worked to build Israel's defense brick by brick.
"I recall their laughter, their gaze, their faces, I carry with me the determination and resolve they had in our way. I recall them and turn my gaze at their torchbearers – the commanders and soldiers of the IDF, our forces.
"I stand before them today, at the head of those forces – and walk the path they never would. They knew well and good that at times the mission is very costly, and they were willing to pay the price. Here in this special place, we stand as one, with one heart, and remember the fallen, and promise to do everything in our power to deserve the dedication of the fallen, for our future and the future generations."
"I know the relative quiet in our security situation over the recent years is a misleading allusion. A spark can ignite everything in a second. But we are prepared and can respond to any escalation, and will carry out any mission it takes to secure Israel. This is our mandate and it is a demanding one which we require of our forces. We will not be able to promise all our forces will all return .
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon sent a letter to the bereaved families in honor of Memorial Day, and wrote: "It seems that there is no Israeli citizen who is unaffected or touched by such a loss, either personally or through friends who fell. It has hard to describe the depth of the pain."
Ya'alon further wrote that "the strength you exhibit, and your ability to return to your daily routine, despite your loss and the massive void it left behind, are for me the height of bravery, an example for us all."
Events honoring Memorial Day began earlier with the traditional ceremony at Yad LeBanim in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the 23,169 soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the service of the State of Israel.
Netanyahu said: "The fallen of Israel's wars are our national heroes. We would not be here today if not for their willingness to lay down their lives so we could be here. Never, not even for a moment, do we forget we are here thanks to them."
Speaking of his brother Yonatan, the sole casualty of Operation Entebbe, Netanyahu said "it is hard, almost impossible to explain to someone who has not experienced it what sorrow overtook us, the shock that shook us, the feeling of loss that filled us."
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz published a statement at the beginning of Memorial Day, which was distributed to the entire army.
"In this hour, while we come together at the cemeteries and monuments for ceremonies and memorials, we remember those who gave the country everything there is to give," Gantz wrote.
"The fallen soldiers and those killed by terror activities walk with us in their absence in every step we take. On this day, the siren will cut through the silence, and the citizens of Israel will bow their head and in their mind's eye they will see a figure in uniform: An IDF soldier. The names we remember today create the character of the IDF, the people' s army, to which we enlisted to serve the State of Israel."
Two minutes of silence will be observed Monday morning along with more sirens throughout the country at 11am followed by ceremonies at military cemeteries expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands.
The memorial service to be held at Mount Herzl will be attended by Harriet Levin, mother of first-sergeant Michael Levin, an American who was fatally wounded in the Second Lebanon War.
Harriet lives in Philadelphia but tries to come to Israel to her son's grave every Memorial Day. "My son gave his life for the nation of Israel, and I feel like I have to be here every Memorial Day," said Levin.
Memorial Day will end at 8pm on Monday.