Ceremony honors Israel's fallen soldiers with unknown burials

Netanyahu urged grieving families not to ever lose hope.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at the annual ceremony at Mount Herzl for the nation's fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at the annual ceremony at Mount Herzl for the nation's fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
Throughout his term, President Reuven Rivlin has spoken at many memorial ceremonies, but none is emotionally moving as that of the annual ceremony for the nation’s fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown, the president said on Thursday. The pain of loss is harder when one does not know where a loved one is buried, he said.
Speaking in the Hall of Remembrance at Mount Herzl, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz also emphasized Israel’s duty to fallen soldiers and their families, Rivlin had a more personal reason than in past years for his attendance. Sec.-Lt. Muhammad (Qasem) Sayed Ahmad, the grandfather of the president’s military attaché, Brig.-Gen. Ala Abu Rukon, is among those IDF soldiers whose graves are unknown.
Engaged in special operations behind enemy lines, Sayed Ahmad fell in battle on November 28, 1956. Yitzhak Rabin, who had been OC Northern Command at the time, gave Sayed Ahmad a posthumous commendation for daring and bravery in the covert operation in which he had participated.
The Flame of Remembrance was kindled by Abu Rukon’s mother, Samira Abu Rukon, in memory of her father and all other soldiers whose places of burial remain unknown.
Noting that the ceremony was previously a meeting place for relatives of missing soldiers who came together in their grief, Rivlin said that unfortunately such a gathering could not be held this year due to coronavirus restrictions.
“It is so difficult to hold this ceremony without you,” he said to the absentees. “It is difficult not to be able to stand with you, difficult not to be able to embrace you, as if for a moment, we ourselves feel something of the pain you feel every year, and which has no respite.”
Empathizing with the grieving families, Rivlin said: “The pain of a bereaved family is unbearable.” It was compounded, he added, not only by the absence of a grave, but of not knowing the fate of the loved ones they lost.
Rivlin stated that the task of finding missing soldiers beyond Israel’s borders and bringing them home for burial was “a sacred duty” until the last one comes home dead or alive. “That is the unwritten contract between us and you, the bereaved families. We must not breach it under any circumstance.”
In what seemed to be a veiled message to the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in Gaza in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge and whose remains Hamas has not yet returned to Israel, Netanyahu urged grieving families not to ever lose hope.
He had lost comrades in arms during the War of Attrition, he said, and it had taken many weeks before the Egyptians had returned their bodies.
Netanyahu recalled that two years ago, following an intensive 37-year search for Sgt. Zachary Baumel who had been killed in June 1982 during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, his body had been returned to the state. He said this was an outcome of the special relation he has with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has considerable influence with the Syrians who controlled that part of Lebanon where Baumel was buried. The Baumel family now has a grave to visit, the prime minister said, adding that he was hopeful that the families of Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who were also killed in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, would one day be able to visit their graves as well.
“We do not leave soldiers behind,” he said. “We are responsible for each other.”
Gantz said some progress was being made in honoring soldiers who fought in Lebanon. He recalled his own initial experience in Lebanon as a 19-year-old soldier in Operation Litani, just a few days after 11 PLO terrorists had infiltrated Israel from the sea. He and his comrades had been accosted by two terrorists whom they had succeeded in eliminating. That was the beginning of his 22 years of service in Lebanon, he said.
He was pleased to endorse the decision by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi to award a special decoration to all soldiers (including missing soldiers) who had served in Lebanon, in recognition of their service to the state. “It is correct for them,” Gantz said. “It is correct for a whole generation.”