JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel came to a standstill Wednesday as sirens wailed across the country on Memorial Day, one of the most somber dates on the Israeli calendar, honoring fallen soldiers, those killed in fighting with Palestinians and victims of militant attacks.
Israel has fought half a dozen wars with Arab countries since its establishment in 1948 and has battled two Palestinian uprisings. After decades of conflict, most Israelis have lost loved ones or know someone who has.
This year's commemorations come on the heels of last summer's 50-day war in Gaza, which killed about 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people on the Israeli side. Out of that figure, 67 were Israeli soldiers — the highest military death toll since the 2006 summer war against the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon.
Across Israel at 11 a.m., people stopped what they were doing and stood silently for two minutes to honor and remember the dead. Traffic halted and people got out of their vehicles on highways and roads to stand with heads bowed.
Bereaved families gathered at cemeteries across the country. Cafes and places of entertainment shut for the day. Radio and TV stopped their regular shows and instead broadcast war documentaries and stories about soldiers killed in action.
Israel says 23,320 security personnel have been killed since 1860, when Jews began moving back to the area. Of those, 116 died in the past year.
At the main ceremony in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled his own personal tragedy — being informed of the death of his older brother in battle and having to break the news to his parents. Yoni Netanyahu, an army commando, was killed during the rescue mission to free passengers of a hijacked plane in Uganda in 1976.
"To those of us who have been through it ... we know that the wound never really heals," Netanyahu said.
At a ceremony for the war dead the previous night, Netanyahu noted that this year saw many more Israeli families joining the circle of the bereaved.
"To our sorrow, in the current Middle East we are obliged to continue fighting for our existence, and our existence here is not self-evident without this sacrifice," he said. "Only thanks to them can we continue to live our lives here and continue to raise our children and grandchildren here."
The sad atmosphere ends sharply at sundown when Israelis take to the streets for Independence Day celebrations with dancing, fireworks and parties.