Peres, Gantz honor nation’s fallen soldiers

At Kotel ceremony , President Peres says: "Our sacrifice has transformed our grief and bound us together into an exceptional family."

May 9, 2011 00:37

Torch lighting Yom Hazikaron 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

In the presence of loved ones they left behind, a solemn memorial flame-kindling ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday night ushered in Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.

The ceremony took place in the fiercely windy plaza opposite the Wall with the participation of President Shimon Peres and Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz.

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Peres recalled that toward the end of the Six Day War in 1967, the first Israeli paratroopers to enter the Old City of Jerusalem had come to all that remains of the ancient Holy Temple, and had fingered the Wall’s stones in awe.

Referring to all the wars in which Israel had stood alone against the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Peres emphasized the unity of the IDF: kibbutzniks, yeshiva students, religious, secular, Druse, Muslims, Circassians, city dwellers, villagers, Mizrachim, Ashkenazim, left wing and right wing.

The bullets of the enemy did not differentiate between them, said Peres.

Coming back to the Six Day War, the president spoke of the hard-fought battles that took place in the alleyways of the Old City, and of how the victorious Israeli forces gathered in the very place where the memorial ceremony was now being held for their fallen comrades.

“They recited kaddish together in loud but pained voices. After years of silence, the Western Wall once again heard the prayer that for centuries, from generation to generation, has accompanied our people. Immediately after concluding the prayer, the weary soldiers again raised their voices to sing Hatikva, the song of yearning of the Jewish people for the land of its fathers.”

While the prayer is ancient, the national hymn is only a hundred years old, Peres observed, again using the paradigm of the unity of opposites: old and new, holy and secular. He saw it as “a meeting between history and redemption.”

In military cemeteries around the country, soldiers who died defending the nation lie side by side, and through their sacrifice, have turned their grieving loved ones into one big and exceptional family, he said.

Israel never sought wars, said Peres.

“They were thrust upon us, and we did not have the luxury of losing even one of them. After we won, we returned to the pursuit of peace.”

No matter what, Israel would never relinquish the chance for a true and comprehensive peace, Peres said.

“If one opportunity fails, we’ll look for another.”

Assuring the bereaved families around him that Israel is stronger than ever, Peres said that the wars had broken out because those who had attacked us had misjudged Israel’s strength.

Even today, he said, he would not advise anyone seeking war to try again, or to underestimate Israel’s hidden power.

Peres is no stranger to the anguish of losing a family member. Since the very beginning of the state, he has made it his business to visit bereaved families to offer them words of comfort.

These visits have affected him deeply, he said.

Before visiting each family, he learned everything he could about the fallen soldier, including the battle in which he fell. He had looked at countless family albums, gazing at photographs of fallen soldiers from the time they were in their cradles to their proud strut toward the battlefield in their IDF uniforms.

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The families are from every part of Israel and almost every part of the world. They have come back to the homeland where they have lost what is dearest to them.

Israel will not rest until every soldier missing in action comes home and until St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit returns safe and sound, the president said.

Gantz paid tribute to those soldiers who gave their lives for the realization of a dream, and cited examples of heroism in skirmishes and battles from before the establishment of the state until the present day.

Like Peres, he focused on contrasts. The Western Wall represented 2,000 years of dreams and tears, he said. It was a symbol of joy and pain, a place where hallel, the psalms of praise, is sung and where yizkor, the prayer for the dead, is recited.

On Remembrance Day, the nation unites in pain and in pride, Gantz said.

Pain is in the loss of a total of 22,867 soldiers, each of whose names are engraved on a tombstone or a memorial board. Each was an individual with a personal story.

Pride is in the legacy they created.

In his three decades of military service, he had learned that there are no words of comfort to ease the pain of bereavement, Gantz said.

He praised the brave way in which the families had dealt with their loss.

Like Peres, he spoke of the power of the IDF, and declared that it is ready to face any challenge and can withstand any enemy that seeks to disrupt the lives of the people.

In this respect, Israel has proved itself to the world, he said.

“It has also demonstrated that it operates in accordance with the highest moral standards,” Gantz said.

Earlier in the day at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that he understood from personal experience the loss and pain felt by the families whose loved ones had fallen in battle on behalf of the State of Israel.

“As a son of a bereaved family, I am too familiar with the pain, the sense of loss and the hopelessness, as well as the sorrow at all the missed opportunities.

“We will never know what would have happened had our loved ones survived, had they raised families, had they fulfilled and realized dreams. Our grief is overwhelming, our hearts ache, where will we find comfort?” he said.

Had the fallen soldiers survived they would have witnessed the many miraculous transformations of Israel from a small undeveloped country in the desert to one of the most advanced and prosperous in the world, he said.

“They would see that a huge earthquake shook the Middle East region in the past year. Strongholds have collapsed, leaders have fallen, and the turbulence has yet to subside. But as the days go by, one thing is becoming clear – Israel is an island of freedom, democracy and progress in a vast, important swath of land.

“We hope that freedom and democracy will light the skies of other countries; we hope they will live with us in peace,” he said.

Meanwhile, congratulatory Independence Day messages from world leaders have begun to pour into Beit Hanassi.

US President Barack Obama wrote, “On behalf of the American people, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the people of Israel on the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s independence. Israel’s remarkable accomplishments are a testament to its patriotic citizenry, innovative economy and long-standing commitment to democratic traditions.

“The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable and our commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering. We will continue to work with Israel and her Arab neighbors to achieve our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” Obama said.

In sending “cordial greetings” to Peres and the people of Israel, Pope Benedict XVI invoked divine blessings on the nation and prayed that “the Most High may sustain the efforts of all who work together for the promotion of peace, justice and the common good.”

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, after expressing his good wishes, said he was sure that “multiaspect Russian-Israeli relations will further steady development for the benefit of our countries in the interest of a just and stable peace in the Middle East.”

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