Israel marks somber Memorial Day with wailing siren

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis came to a standstill for two minutes on Wednesday to honor the memory of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism on the country’s Memorial Day.

At Jerusalem’s ordinarily boisterous and bustling Mahane Yehuda market, shoppers and vendors froze in place and cafe patrons stood at their tables during the two-minute siren at 11 a.m. (0800 GMT). Motor vehicles stopped on highways and their passengers exited to stand with heads bowed.

Bereaved Israeli families visited cemeteries and attended memorial ceremonies. Television and radio aired somber music, documentaries about slain soldiers, and broadcasts of state memorial services.

Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighboring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured dozens of deadly militant attacks since its founding in 1948. The country honors 23,471 fallen soldiers, and the list of slain civilians, over 3,100 long, grew after four Israelis were killed by Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza over the weekend.

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Speaking at a state memorial ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Iran’s announcement that it would partially withdraw from its nuclear deal with world powers in response to U.S. pressure.

“We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to fight those who seek to take our lives, and we will thrust our roots even deeper into the soil of our homeland.”

At Memorial Day’s commencement on Tuesday evening, approximately 9,000 people attended a joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony in Tel Aviv. Around 100 Palestinians from the West Bank attended the memorial event after Israel’s High Court of Justice overturned an order by Netanyahu, as the country’s defense minister, to refuse them entry to Israel for the ceremony.

Israeli police said five people were arrested for public disturbance during a protest outside the joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony.

Combatants for Peace, the event’s organizers, said a record number of people attended this year’s ceremony, which aims to “acknowledge the pain of those living on the ‘other side,'” by bringing together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families.

At sundown, the country transitioned from solemn remembrance to joyous celebration, kicking off its 71st Independence Day. Thousands gathered for the festive ceremony at Mount Herzl, where live orchestras played and patriotic fireworks burst above the stage.

In an annual ritual, 12 honorees lit torches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Jeff Finkelstein, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, where 11 congregants were killed in a synagogue shooting last fall, was chosen to light a torch on behalf of the greater Jewish Diaspora. He dedicated it to the Pittsburgh shooting victims, who “loved the land of Israel and the nation of Israel with all their hearts and all their souls.”

In a subtle reference to tensions between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and liberal Jewish communities overseas, Finkelstein called for unity between Israeli society and the Jewish Diaspora, including members of “all streams and all opinions.”

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