JERUSALEM — Israel marked its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of militant attacks on Tuesday against the backdrop of some of the deepest political divisions in its history and soaring tensions with Palestinians.
Memorial Day is one of the most solemn moments on Israel’s national calendar, in honor of its 24,213 war dead and 4,255 attack victims. People come to a standstill when a two-minute siren sounds late in the morning. Motorists and pedestrians halt in the street, stop their cars and stand with heads bowed.
Bereaved families visit cemeteries and attend ceremonies while television and radio programming shifts to somber music and documentaries about slain soldiers.
This year, Memorial Day is tainted by deep divisions roiling the country over a contentious plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judiciary. “Citizens of Israel, the siren this year, the intensely Israeli signature call, is a wake-up call for all of us. The cost of internal strife is heavy,” Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog said late Monday at the official ceremony marking the start of the day of remembrance.
Herzog, who is mediating talks between the government and the opposition to try to find a compromise on the legal changes, said he was working to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The solemnity of the occasion is typically a moment of national unity. At sunset, the mourning turns to exuberance for Independence Day. This year, as Israel turns 75 years old, it has much to celebrate.
But all of it is shadowed by a bitter split over the legal overhaul plan. Fighter pilots have threatened to stop reporting for duty. The nation’s leaders have openly warned of civil war, and families of fallen soldiers have called on politicians to stay away from the ceremonies. Many Israelis wonder if the deep split can ever heal.
Netanyahu has paused the overhaul push after weeks of massive protests that shut down highways, sparked a short general strike and spooked investors. The plan would give Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, power to overturn court decisions and appoint judges.
Memorial Day this year also comes as Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank are embroiled in some of the deadliest violence in that area in years. Just a day earlier, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man in a West Bank raid and several people were wounded when a Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians near a busy Jerusalem market.
Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighboring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured scores of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948.
At sundown on Tuesday, the country will shift from remembrance to celebration, kicking off its 75th Independence Day.