Palestinians and Israelis remember war victims

Memorial Day in Israel consists of honouring only its dead, but now, despite opposition, a group from both sides mourns all lives lost. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // For years, Sarit, a 48-year-old Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv, took part in state-backed Memorial Day events grieving the deaths of Israeli soldiers in conflicts with Israel's Arab neighbours.

On Sunday night, the eve of Memorial Day, she did something different. She attended a ceremony, along with more than 2,000 other Israeli Jews, held by an Israeli-Palestinian group that mourned the loss of not only Israeli lives but also those of Palestinians.

"I wanted to hear the Palestinian side - it's difficult to hear them speak of their losses. It makes me think of how stupid it is to continue this conflict for so long," said Sarit, who would only provide her first name, as she left the packed auditorium.

She said that none of her friends or colleagues at a financial company with a staff of some 13,000 would participate in such an event.

"Most Israelis say they need to glorify soldiers and they pat themselves on the back and say that we are the good guys and the Arabs are the bad ones."

With Sunday's event, Combatants for Peace, an organisation founded in 2005 by former Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian militants, aimed its sights on persuading mainstream Israeli Jews like Sarit to question Israel's near-sacred view of its army and wide approval of its actions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Most Israelis observed Memorial Day yesterday in the more traditional way, with the usual ceremonies at military cemeteries, a nationwide pause for a two-minute siren in honour of fallen soldiers during which even cars on the road come to halt, as radio stations play songs that mourn those who were killed.

Ceremonies today to mark Independence Day, which falls a day after Memorial Day, glorify Israel's resilience in the face of its enemies.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian group's bid to break the consensus on the military has faced controversy.

On Friday, the Israeli defence ministry imposed a ban on West Bank Palestinians entering Israeli territory to attend the event.

It was the first such prohibition encountered by the ceremony's organisers since they launched the annual function eight years ago.

After rights lawyers filed a petition to the Israeli state attorney's office, the defence ministry cancelled the ban and allowed the entry of 44 Palestinians out of a total of 109 requested by the group.

The ceremony also has drawn opposition from the far right. In the past week, an online petition demanded that the Tel Aviv municipality cancel the event.

On Sunday, as it took place, about two dozen ultranationalist youths demonstrated outside the auditorium.

Wrapping themselves in Israeli flags, the protesters chanted "Shame on you for desecrating the fallen" and "You have no place in Israel".

Despite such calls, the leaders of Combatants for Peace said they were encouraged by the hundreds of people who stood in line to enter the two-hour-long ceremony, in which several Israelis and Palestinians spoke of how losing family members in the conflict moved them to reach out to the other side.

Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot dead by an Israeli border policeman in January 2007 as she walked down a street with her sister and two friends in the West Bank village of Anata, told the audience that both sides are losers in the long-simmering dispute.

Mr Aramin, 45, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, said after the ceremony: "It was amazing to see the 44 Palestinians standing together with the Israelis on the stage. It really drove home that we feel the same pain."

Mr Aramin, who works at the Palestinian Authority's higher council for sports and youths, said signs such as dozens of Palestinian youths becoming members of the group in the past year or an encounter on Sunday with an Israeli soldier who expressed interest in joining, made him optimistic about drawing both sides together to end the conflict.

"We don't want to invest another 50 years in competing on who is right and who is wrong. We have killed Israelis because we are under occupation and Israelis killed us because they are the occupiers. Both sides have an interest to stop this," he said.

Ben Kfir, whose 22-year-old soldier daughter, Yael, was killed in 2003 at a bus stop by the entrance to a military training camp in a suicide bombing by a Palestinian, told participants: "We've paid a terrible price and we keep on paying it every day. A stubborn and consistent bid to advance peace will be our comfort and a tremendous way to commemorate those who fell."

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