Image: Israel Memorial Day
Dan Balilty  /  AP
Israeli soldiers stand in formation during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday.
updated 4/28/2009 5:35:55 AM ET 2009-04-28T09:35:55

Israelis put aside their many divisions Tuesday to remember more than 22,000 fallen soldiers and terror victims.

In an annual ritual marking Memorial Day, air-raid sirens sounded, traffic halted and people stood silently at attention for two minutes at midmorning. Israeli leaders gathered at Israel's national cemetery for a memorial service for fallen soldiers.

Memories of the recent war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip are raw. Although Israeli casualties were low — 13 dead compared with more than 1,400 Palestinians — Israel emerged from the offensive facing war crimes allegations and the realization that the widespread devastation in Gaza has done little to assure the Jewish state peace and security.

The specter of a nuclear Iran also loomed large, as military chief Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi noted Monday night, when official Memorial Day ceremonies began.

Statements against Israel delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a U.N. conference last week "still resonate and remind us well that in the 61st year of Israel's independence, the threats against it haven't stopped or slowed," Ashkenazi said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hawkish government is expected to toughen Israel's stance against the Palestinians and Iran, said Monday that Israel must remain strong militarily to fend off threats.

But "in spite of the difficulties, we will continue our efforts to complete the circle of peace with our neighbors," he added. Since Netanyahu took office a month ago, his government has signaled a willingness to restart peace negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians, but his hard-line approach to peacemaking clouds prospects for success.

Decades of conflict
Memorial Day is one of the most emotional days on the Israeli calendar. Nearly every Israeli family has been touched by decades of conflict, either losing a relative in battle or knowing someone else who has.

Ceremonies were planned throughout the day at military cemeteries across the country. Radio and television stations played somber music and devoted programs to retelling the stories of soldiers killed in battle. Movie theaters, restaurants and other places of entertainment were closed and schools held memorial services.

On Tuesday evening, the melancholy observances were to transform seamlessly into celebrations marking the 61st anniversary of Israel's independence. The juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Independence Day underscores the country's perception of its military as a guarantor of the state's existence.

Israel has fought in more than half a dozen wars — some forced upon it, others it initiated — since its establishment in 1948. The Defense Ministry's tally of 22,570 war dead dates back to 1860, when Jews began settling in neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The widow of the last Israeli soldier to die in combat lit the memorial flame at the state ceremony Monday night at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray.

In a routine security precaution, Palestinians were barred from entering Israel until after Independence Day Wednesday night.

More on Israel | Jerusalem

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