JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel came to a standstill Sunday as air raid sirens sounded across the country for one minute after nightfall to mark the beginning of its annual memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of attacks. (Scroll down for photos)
Speaking at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem before relatives of fallen soldiers, Israeli President Shimon Peres said the recent calls for democratization in the Arab world offered hope for the future, but Israel would remain vigilant.
"We did not look for wars. They were forced upon us. But when we were attacked, we did not have the right to lose a single time. And when we won we returned to seeking peace," he said. "Today, I suggest to those who seek war not to make the same mistake again. Do not disrespect our ability ... we are prepared to physically defend out land and morally defend our heritage."
Memorial Day is one of the most somber and emotional days on the Israeli calendar. Nearly every Israeli family has been touched during decades of conflict, either losing a relative or knowing someone else who has had a loved one die in battle.
Ahead of Memorial Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the grave of his older brother, Yoni, an army commando who was killed in a famed 1976 hostage rescue in Uganda.
"Every bereaved family cherishes the memory of its loved ones all year long," Netanyahu said at the graveside. "On Memorial Day the entire nation unites in a moment of sorrow and gratitude for those who gave their lives for the state of Israel."
At an alternative Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv, the brother of a Jewish settler who was killed along with his wife and three children appealed for peace. Moti Fogel joined Palestinian peace activists for the event. He said, "the use of the memory of the dead to justify war and the killing of others is no worse that than the use of their memory to promote peace."
Five members of the Fogel family were stabbed at their West Bank settlement March 11. Israeli security forces arrested two young residents of a nearby Palestinian village in connection with the attack.
During its six decades, Israel has fought a half dozen wars against neighboring nations and battled two Palestinian uprisings.
According to Israeli government statistics, 22,867 soldiers and civilians have been killed since 1860, the date cited as the beginning of modern Jewish immigration.
The Defense Ministry said 183 Israelis have been added to the list over the past year. The figure includes soldiers killed in training and traffic accidents.
Places of entertainment were closed Sunday evening. The Israeli flag flew at half-staff and Israeli radio and TV stations aired documentaries about Israel's wars and stories of fallen soldiers.
On Monday morning, a second siren will sound across the country signaling two minutes of silence, followed by the beginning of state ceremonies at the military cemeteries.
The somber tone transforms suddenly into Independence Day celebrations after sundown Monday at a colorful ceremony in Jerusalem, capped with a fireworks display.
In a routine measure, Israel barred Palestinians from entering Israel until after Independence Day Tuesday night. Thousands of Palestinians enter the country each day for jobs, medical care and family visits. Israel says the move is a security precaution.
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.