Jerusalem's volunteer gravediggers take up shovels to help Israel's war effort

Israel is reeling from the aftermath of its bloodiest day since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war

Israeli volunteers dig graves at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.  Reuters
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When mourners at a funeral on Israel’s main military cemetery in Jerusalem began to file out early on Wednesday morning, a group of men and a forklift carrying plywood slabs and water bottles lingered.

The men were volunteers, some shouldering large spades, who were going to dig the next batch of graves, right next to the ones that had just been filled, as the Israel-Hamas conflict enters its fifth day.

The dead were soldiers, some of at least 169 killed in a surprise offensive by Hamas and other militant allies last Saturday, which also killed more than 1,000 civilians.

The graves were too fresh to be covered in stone. Instead, they were topped with dirt.

Some of the volunteers were comrades of the dead, with tears in their eyes.

Israeli retaliatory air strikes on Gaza have killed about 1,000 people. Saturday's offensive meanwhile, is now regarded as the bloodiest day for Israel in its history. Around 350 Israelis died in a single day in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, mainly fought between Israel and an alliance of Syria and Egypt.

Yet Jerusalem has remained relatively quiet throughout the conflict. Save a few rockets, almost all of which were intercepted, those in the city were among the safest people in Israel. A police shooting reportedly took place in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. Two Palestinians were killed. Clashes broke out elsewhere.

At the cemetery, police were reluctant to let anyone through at first.

“We had 50 people yesterday,” an officer said. “Now the invitation to volunteers has gone viral, and we’re worried 5,000 could turn up.”

When the cemetery had emptied of the mourning families, still weeping, the determined group on the periphery were allowed in.

They broke out in song as they climbed the steps going up Mount Herzl, right next to the Holocaust museum and research centre, Yad Vashem.

In the rush to get there and help, they knocked over buckets of roses just laid at the new graves. They were met by a co-ordinator barking instructions through a megaphone in Hebrew. Two diggers who were trying to get through to start the operation could not make it through the crowds.

An American who was there with his son told The National that the co-ordinator was imploring the unregistered volunteers to leave the site.

“He’s asking them to go up the mountain and come back down in an hour for the next shift – the current volunteers will be exhausted by then.”

He then left to help his son drag through a large plastic sack filled with newly dug dirt, off through the crowd of volunteers and into the dark where a container was being filled.

As order started to be imposed, half an hour after all the helpers arrived, the tone of the man with megaphone started to lighten. He was soon joking and laughing.

It was indicative of so many moments in this war. First grief, then chaos, after which an immense pride and national solidarity starts to emerge.

Israel is shattered, but there are many here who want to help pick up the pieces. In Jerusalem, which is relatively safe at the moment, they did not need to take up arms. They took up shovels instead.

Updated: October 11, 2023, 12:48 PM