Israel came to a standstill on Sunday night to mark Yom Hazikaron, national Memorial Day, and to commemorate the 23,544 fallen IDF soldiers and 3,117 victims of terrorist attacks who have died over the course of the last 150 years.

Yom Hazikaron is one of the most somber dates on the Israeli calendar. Places of entertainment are shut down. Radio and TV stations air documentaries about the fallen soldiers and terror victims.

The figure of 23,544 includes those who died defending the new Jewish communities established outside of Jerusalem in the 1860s, marking the beginning of the modern Zionist movement.

Since last year, 97 IDF officers and soldiers were killed.

Since the establishment of the Jewish state, 3,117 civilians were murdered in acts of terrorism. Since last year’s Yom Hazikaron, 11 civilians were killed in terror attacks, the latest being British exchange student Hannah Bladon, who was stabbed to death in Jerusalem.

The dead include members of the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Service), the Mossad, the Israel Police, the Israel Prisons Service and the World War II Jewish Brigade, and soldiers who eventually succumbed to wounds suffered during combat; 148 fallen soldiers were also Holocaust survivors.

There are currently 9,157 bereaved parents in Israel, 4,881 widows of fallen security service men, 1,843 orphans under the age of 30 and thousands of bereaved siblings and older orphans.

More than 1.5 million Israelis are expected to visit Israel’s 52 military and other cemeteries throughout Yom Hazikaron.

Sirens wailed Sunday night, and a two-minute siren was heard across Israel at 11 a.m. on Monday, marking the start of memorial ceremonies at military cemeteries.
‘Like an Accursed Decree of Fate’
President Reuven Rivlin addressed the opening Yom Hazikaron ceremony at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, where he was joined in kindling the memorial flame by Moriah Ben Ari, widow of Major Hagai Ben Ari, and two of their sons.

Major Ben Ari was severely wounded during Operation Protective Edge and finally succumbed to his wounds this past January.

In his address, Rivlin spoke of his memories of the fallen soldiers throughout the years and of his visits to the homes of bereaved families since becoming president.

“Like an accursed decree of fate I always arrive too late. I always miss meeting them. I see their names inside a black border [a death announcement]. I see the pictures, and the videos, and the last ‘selfie’ taken with their little brother, and the last text message to their mother, and my heart breaks. And suddenly their uniforms are too big, and their beret doesn’t fit, and death takes away from the smile. And Grandma and Grandpa, you, who are sitting there, always on the side, and crying quietly. And you, no longer young, you sit there in silence, and I am silent with you,” he said.

This year’s memorial day falls just as Jerusalem prepares to celebrate half a century since the liberation of the Old City, the president noted. “Our liberty is sacred, both sacred and hard. We know that there is a price to be paid for our existence here, for our liberty. There is a price, and we, in awe and terror, are willing to pay that price.” he stressed. “Dear bereaved families, we are living that privilege. You paid the price. The price of our liberty purchased in blood.”

Rivlin concluded with a prayer that “we shall be able to carry forward this sacred togetherness we feel on this day, to all the days of the year. That we shall remember the price, and those who pay it, that we shall be worthy of it, that we shall be worthy of you.”

The day’s events conclude with a candle-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl . The melancholic atmosphere ends at sundown Monday, when Israel kicks off its 69th Independence Day celebrations.