Tears, sorrow at Lebanon war memorial ceremony, anger at Olmert's absence

Hundreds of tearful families gathered on Monday evening for a memorial ceremony as the sun set over Jerusalem's Mount Herzl and the graves of their loved ones who lost their lives in the Second Lebanon War. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not attend the ceremony, drawing harsh criticism from the families. Dina Swede, the aunt of one of the last military casualties of the war, Emmanuel Moranu, said she was upset that the prime minister failed to attend. "Of course I am upset," she told The Jerusalem Post following the brief ceremony which included speeches and the laying of wreaths. "I have been upset for a year because I lost someone so dear to me, and I don't understand exactly why." The state ceremony to commemorate the 162 people - 119 soldiers and 43 civilians - who were killed during the war was attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Acting President and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as former army chief Dan Halutz and former defense minister Amir Peretz - making Olmert all the more conspicuous by his absence. According to the Prime Minister's Office, he was unable to attend due to the inability to provide adequate security at the event. Aides said that if Olmert had taken part, security precautions at the site would have been prohibitive. Many relatives of the fallen soldiers rejected that explanation. "I didn't expect the prime minister to show up," said Eliphaz Byeloa, whose son Nadav was killed in a battle in south Lebanon. "I didn't expect him to accept our invitation and request because I think ... he's a coward. He does not have the courage to look the bereaved families in the eye." Barak told the somber crowd that Israel must be ready to protect itself but also must continue to work for peace. He also questioned whether the government at the time was prepared to fight the war. He implied criticism of the war, noting that families of fallen soldiers always ask questions after a conflict: "Was it necessary? Was there any other way? Did politicians do everything, everything to prevent the casualties? Was the army ready?" In a reference to the final Winograd Report due later this year, Barak said the "inquisitive" Israeli society "demands answers to these questions." Itzik opened the ceremony with critical remarks about Olmert's failure to heed her call for an emergency government during the war. Itzik acknowledged that "mistakes and failures" plagued the war, and appealed to the leaders of Hizbullah to give a first sign of life from Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers it captured at the outset of the war. The ceremony began with the lighting of a memorial candle, followed by the reciting of Kaddish under a large blue and white striped canopy protecting the hundreds of soldiers and grieving families from the setting sun. Yonat Sa'ar, who lost her brother in Lebanon, said it was important for her to attend the official ceremony as another way to remember her brother's sacrifice. "I must take part, even though this is not part of the healing process," she said. "It is not about the politics of who is here or who said what; it is about remembering the first day of the war that took my brother's life." Prior to the event, at the small gravesite just below where the ceremony took place, grieving families and soldiers gathered to pay their respects to those who lost their lives during the war. Gil Shemesh, 20, of Jerusalem, fought in Lebanon and vividly remembered when his friend Nimrod Cohen lost his life during the first day of the war as Hizbullah attacked an outpost Cohen's unit captured and was holding. "The war started with us," said Shemesh. "The hardest part was as soon as it started, we knew it was war and how horrible it would be. We were afraid of death, not just for ourselves but for our friends. "One year after, it is still hard to get the full picture of what happened to me there. I am learning how to appreciate life again. I am not angry that the prime minister is not here," he said, casting his brown eyes rimmed with red down toward his shined boots. "What is the point?" In addition to security concerns, Olmert social affairs adviser Vered Swed explained the premier's absence by citing a policy that the prime minister attends only the ceremony for fallen soldiers of all wars on Israel's annual Remembrance Day. "He can't go to a ceremony for one war and not another, insulting the other families. That's why a unified ceremony was set for that day," she told Army Radio.