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Unique Memorial Ceremony Unites Israelis, Palestinians
Akiva Eldar
Al Monitor

“In their death they willed us life.”
This is the immortal final line of the poem “Should Your Soul Wish to Know” by Israel’s national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, which has become the link connecting the Memorial Day ceremonies with the festivities of the Independence Day — just like the barrage of colorful fireworks at the end of the “main event” on Mount Herzl ending Memorial Day. In the year that has passed since the last Memorial Day, an additional 92 IDF soldiers “willed us their lives” as did 10 victims of terror attacks. Since 1870, 23,085 IDF soldiers and 2,493 victims of terror attacks have “willed us their lives.”
No one really knows the last wills of those thousands of victims who crowd the country’s military cemeteries. Was their will that we live forever on our sword? Or maybe their last will was that we send their bereaved brothers to risk their lives, too, in an endless war against a people struggling for its freedom and land? Perhaps their bequest instructs us to do all that’s humanly possible to ensure that their children get to live in a peace-loving and not in a territory-loving state? In a democratic state, rather than one that deprives others? In a Jewish state rather than a nationalistic state? Perhaps they willed us reconciliation with our Arab neighbors, recognition of the Palestinian pain and a joint striving for prosperity in our blood-soaked land?
A few of these questions were answered at the alternative Memorial Day ceremony held [on April 14] by Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds, at the same time as the official ceremonies were being conducted around the country. The spacious auditorium was jam packed with more than 2,000 people. Hundreds more remained in the lobby, watching on giant screens as the bereaved parents and brothers addressed the crowd inside. Palestinian activists from the Forum of Bereaved Families and the Combatants for Peace organization were scattered between the rows. After pleas and pressure by Meretz Party chairperson Zehava Gal-On, Israeli authorities agreed to allow 44 Palestinians to cross the roadblocks from the West Bank to Tel Aviv.
Ben Kfir did not presume to know what his daughter, officer Yael Kfir, willed him and us when she was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Bassam Armin did not say what his 10-year-old daughter Abir willed before she was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rifle bullet.
“We paid a terrible price and we continue to pay it,” said Kfir, struggling to hold back his tears. “Revenge will not bring back our loved ones. It is the duty of each bereaved family to seek ways to lead our peoples to peace for the sake of future generations.” Before giving the floor to Armin, Kfir thanked those who had produced the one-of-its-kind event, “the tremendous enterprise for the eternity and glory of the fallen.”
Armin said that each year, on this day, the Memorial Day for the fallen of Israel’s wars, he remembers his daughter Abir, as well as Smadar Elhanan, the daughter of Rami and Nurit, who was killed in a terror bombing in the center of Jerusalem. “Both were victims of the hatred and occupation. We are not in competition over whose pain is deeper or who is more justified. The pain is joined. We must use our memories and our past in order to make peace.” He ended his words with a question that was left hanging in the air long after he left the stage. “Will we keep sharing the same land, which each side claims, in order to bury our loved ones?” Armin was quick to respond categorically. “No and no. We are more important than the land.”
Avner Horvitz, whose father Shmuel, a city and settlement planner, was killed in a murderous attack on a tour bus in the south, said it was time to stop singing about peace and to start making it. He spoke of the great similarity between the picture of his mother dragging his dying father from the burning bus to the picture of the Palestinian who tried to extricate what was left of his good friend after a rocket fired from an Israeli helicopter smashed into his car. “We are all responsible for my father’s death,” said Horvitz, an activist with Combatants for Peace, “this is not pre-ordained. Change is possible.”
In the front lines I noticed the white beard of veteran peace fighter, former Knesset member Uri Avnery. Not far from him I could see the small kipa [skullcap] on the bald head of Avraham Burg, who served as speaker of the Knesset and chairperson of the Jewish Agency. Knesset Member Dov Khenin [of the Arab-Jewish Party Hadash] waved in my direction. What I wouldn’t give to hear the master of ceremonies at next year’s, Memorial Day ceremony announcing the arrival of President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his wife, of course) and immediately after them of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and of the elected prime minister of the new state.
I have no idea what was the last will of my good friends who died in Israel’s wars. I only know what I would like Israel’s leaders to do so that my children and grandchildren won’t ask what their loved ones bequeathed before dying in unnecessary wars. I want Israel to be a state like all other democratic and enlightened states on our next Independence Day, a state with physical and moral boundaries, free of the burden of occupying another people. In its 66th year I would like Israel to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been waiting on its doorstep for 11 years. And more than anything, next year on Memorial Day I want to hear that in the past year no one had to will us a thing.

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic. In 2006, the Financial Times named him among the world’s most influential commentators.
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