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Israelis and Palestinians held a joint memorial for all victims of the ongoing war

Viewers in Tel Aviv gather to watch the joint Memorial Day ceremony honoring victims from all sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Daniel Estrin
Viewers in Tel Aviv gather to watch the joint Memorial Day ceremony honoring victims from all sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israelis and Palestinians joining together for any reason during these days of war is rare. Some did for a memorial ceremony honoring victims from all sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The 19th annual joint Memorial Day ceremony, presented Sunday at the start of Israel's national day of honoring fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of attacks, offered an alternative commemoration of both Israeli and Palestinian victims.

Around 20,000 viewers watched the ceremony Sunday night as it was streamed on Facebook and YouTube and screened at scores of small gatherings in Israel and the U.S., including a couple of gatherings with Palestinians in the West Bank, organizers said.

Remembering Palestinians alongside Israelis on Israeli Memorial Day makes many in both societies uncomfortable. In recent years, the Israeli government has imposed entry bans, overturned by the Supreme Court, on Palestinian participants from the occupied West Bank. The annual ceremony has also attracted Israeli protesters, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right activist who now serves as Israel's minister of national security.

This year, the ceremony faced new obstacles. It could not be held in person. It was prerecorded before an audience a few days in advance and was streamed because of sweeping wartime restrictions against Palestinians visiting Israel and security concerns surrounding the ceremony.

Israeli and Palestinian peace activists face new challenges

During the war, there have been tensions among the joint Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation groups that helped organize the memorial ceremony.

"Being a peace activist nowadays in Israel and in Palestine is challenging," says Oren Balaban from the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who lost loved ones to conflict, which helped organize the ceremony.

Since the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel prompted Israel's deadly ongoing offensive in Gaza, the group has met on Zoom. Their conversations have been more tense than before the war, because of the dissonant perceptions of reality that divide Israelis and Palestinians since the war began, Balaban says.

"Israel still lives in Oct. 7th. If you open TV, it's Oct. 7th. And actually in Palestine, they don't recognize Oct. 7th. They live from Oct. 8th. So the narratives became really different, and actually, it's hard to talk, Israelis and Palestinians nowadays," Balaban says.

His wife, Yasmin Gamliel, watched the memorial ceremony with a couple dozen Israelis at a screening at a Tel Aviv cinema, and left feeling deflated.

"It's such a small amount of people compared to so much hatred above. I know you should keep hope, but it's really hard to right now," she says.

"War is not inevitable"

Israel's Memorial Day began Sunday night with a siren. When the minute of silence ended, and Israeli memorial ceremonies began at cemeteries and community centers, Israelis gathered at screenings throughout the country to watch the prerecorded alternative joint ceremony.

The emcees were Rima Jawabra Khatib, a Palestinian, and Guy Elhanan, an Israeli, both from Combatants for Peace, a group founded by former combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Combatants for Peace organized the ceremony with the Parents Circle-Families Forum.

"We chose to gather here today to remind ourselves: war is not inevitable," said Elhanan, a former Israeli soldier whose sister was killed in a Palestinian attack.

Combatants for Peace member Ahmad Helou, a Palestinian in the West Bank who joined Hamas as a teen and served months in Israeli prison in the 1990s, gave a speech. More than 60 members of his family have been killed in the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

"I personally understand the great fear and hurt that struck Israelis after the events of Oct. 7," he said. "However, does killing tens of thousands of people, causing hunger, fear, terror and indescribable pain, promise security and peace for Israelis?"

The number of bereaved families is growing

Michal Halev, whose son was killed by Hamas-led militants at a music festival Oct. 7, spoke at the ceremony.

"There are, and will be, no winners in this war. We have all already lost," she said. "May we always choose compassion and love over everything else."

Then, two musicians sang in Hebrew and Arabic.

The Parents Circle-Families Forum says its organization numbered about 600 Israeli and Palestinian families before this war. Since the war, some 150 families have joined.

Many more Palestinian and Israeli families have not joined the reconciliation group, but are newly bereaved all the same.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.