May 13, 2024 | Townhall

As Expanded War Looms, a Subdued Israel Marks Memorial Day

May 13, 2024 | Townhall

As Expanded War Looms, a Subdued Israel Marks Memorial Day

Mournful sirens wailed across Israel on Monday morning as the Jewish state paid tribute to its fallen soldiers and civilians on Israel’s annual Memorial Day.

The remembrance is always moving: busy highways become still as cars, trucks, and buses pull over so passengers can stand to observe the two-minute of silence. In the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, Haifa, and other cities across this tiny country, pedestrians come to an abrupt halt, standing perfectly still in memory of those who gave their lives for the dream and reality of an independent Jewish state. And in a remarkable scene today, passengers on El Al, Israel’s national airline, stood up in mid-flight in commemoration, with total silence enveloping the cabin.

This year, Memorial Day took on special significance. In part, this was because while memorial sirens commemorated those who lost their lives in the series of wars Israel was forced to fight since its creation in 1948, other sirens sounded at the same time on the Gaza periphery and Lebanese border to warn of incoming rockets and drones launched by Hamas and Hezbollah.  

Indeed, the last year has been exceptionally brutal for Israelis as they saw their country  dragged into a conflict triggered by the Hamas-led Palestinian rampage in southern Israel on October 7, as well as staggering numbers of missiles from across the northern Israel-Lebanon frontier. The numbers are sobering; 766 members of Israel’s security forces have been killed, 716 of them since the Hamas pogrom. Broken down, these include 642 IDF soldiers, 39 members of security units, 68 police officers and six members of the Shin Bet security agency. Additionally, 822 civilians have lost their lives, including 40 children under the age of 18. As a direct result of this carnage, a total of 630 children are growing up as orphans – an excruciating cost for a war that was imposed on Israel by an Iran-backed terrorist organization bent on its destruction.

These losses are the country’s worst since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Unsurprisingly, it has led to much soul-searching among both Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens, a reckoning made all the more painful by the knowledge that of the more than 250 hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on October 7, at least 132 still languish or died in captivity in Gaza. “As the commander of the Israel Defense Forces during the war, I bear responsibility for the fact that the IDF failed in its mission to protect the citizens of the State of Israel on October 7,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Herzl Halevi declared with courageous honesty during his Memorial Day address. “I carry with me every day the memory of the fallen, and I am responsible for answering the sharp questions that keep you awake.”

Israelis are also deeply divided about the character of their current government and agonized over the continuing plight of the hostages, with many of them urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to admit his own failures and resign. But few would disagree with his description on Monday of the stakes that Israel confronts. “It’s either us – Israel – or them – the monsters of Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “Either continued existence, liberty, security and prosperity – or ruin, slaughter, rape and enslavement. And we are determined to prevail in this struggle.” 

Last month, Iran directly attacked Israel with more than 300 missiles, underscoring that Israel’s struggle is much wider than just Gaza. Iranian proxies – Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and a slew of militias in Iraq and Syria – have all been activated in a war that isn’t intended to bring about a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but the removal of Israel from the map of the world.

The impact of Hamas’ brutal surprise attack on Israel, a country of fewer than 10 million citizens, cannot be overstated. One fifth of all Israelis killed in terrorist attacks since the country’s founding were murdered in the space of a few hours on that black morning, while the military losses so far account for three percent of the total personnel killed in the line of duty. That Israel continues to fight, risking troops who are mostly conscripts or reservists rather than career professionals, speaks volumes about its determination to survive and thrive.

Yom Hazikaron — Memorial Day — is always immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day – which in comparatively normal times is an occasion for outdoor barbecues, parties or a day at the beach. This year, however, Israelis will be far more subdued, reluctant to celebrate in the face of so much bloodshed, but no less committed to securing the continued existence of the only country they have.

Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Iran Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War