At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Israel’s annual Memorial Day, the hundreds of families gathered at the military cemetery in the southern city of Beersheba fell silent as a siren wailed to honor the country’s war dead.
Minutes later, commotion broke out when Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultra-nationalist minister of National Security, began to speak on behalf of the government, and loud shouting erupted over the graves between the families opposed to his presence at the cemetery and his supporters.
Many mourners left in shock and tears after the ceremony, but angry confrontations continued outside the cemetery gates. Locals who supported Mr Ben-Gvir and who had applauded his speech insulted those who criticized them or who quietly protested, calling them ‘leftists’, ‘anarchists’ and ‘traitors’.
Despite earlier calls for unity by the country’s political and military leaders, who had called on Israelis to put politics aside for the day, the scenes in Beersheba exposed the depth of the cracks in Israeli society , as the state celebrates the nation’s 75th birthday. founding in 1948.
For 16 consecutive weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest an attempt by the government – the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history – to overhaul the judiciary in a way critics say would undermine the country’s democracy. will undermine. .
As Israel prepared to mark the start of Independence Day festivities on Tuesday night with a state ceremony featuring a traditional flag parade, music performances and fireworks, the mood in the country was muted. Many citizens said they wondered if Israel would survive its political and social divisions as well as its outside enemies.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Adi Lugasi, an artist who had come to the Beersheba military cemetery from her home in Ramat Gan, bordering Tel Aviv, as every year. Her father, who died in 1974 at the age of 33 while serving on the Golan Heights, is buried here.
“The feeling is very hard and we all know why – because an extremely controversial man insisted on coming here,” she said, referring to Mr Ben-Gvir, who was turned down for military service for being too extreme and had been rejected. convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group.
Irit Isaac, 47, a resident of Beersheba, had come with her family to honor her brother-in-law, who was killed in 1997 at the age of 20. She said Mr Ben-Gvir was doing his job by coming through and the government and noted that he spoke briefly and respectfully and avoided any political discourse.
But she said she couldn’t hear him very well because her brother-in-law’s grave was near the cemetery fence. Anti-government protesters chanted outside to drown out Mr Ben-Gvir and some of his supporters rushed out of the cemetery to confront them.
“I’m so disappointed in my people who didn’t respect this day,” Ms. Isaac said. “They didn’t let us mourn.”
The government’s proposal for a judicial change is currently on hold to allow time for talks with the opposition parties to try and reach some consensus. But it has already caused great turmoil in Israeli society, highlighting long-standing resentments and rifts. Surveys have shown that about a third of Israelis fear it will end in civil war.
Critics say the plan will weaken the country’s Supreme Court, remove protections for minorities and undermine the democratic nature of the state. Supporters of the government sworn in late last year say the judicial plan is a necessary one that will give more power to voters and their elected representatives and curb the authorities of an unelected judiciary.
Following protests, at least half a dozen politicians have canceled their scheduled performances at other military cemeteries across the country in recent days. Among them were prominent ultra-Orthodox politicians who failed to complete military service and some ministers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
Mr. Netanyahu spoke uninterruptedly at the main state commemoration ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. His brother himself came from a bereaved family and was killed in 1976 during an Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages from Entebbe, Uganda. He is buried in the military cemetery on the mountain.
“I know the grief and sorrow, the pride and the longing,” said Mr. Netanyahu, adding: “Together we will stand as brothers – and we will ensure our independence for generations.”
But several other politicians were harassed in other cemeteries. Gila Gamliel, a Likud minister, was prevented from speaking by Druze protesters in Isfiya, a Druze city in northern Israel, and had to settle for laying a wreath. Another Likud minister, Ofir Akunis, gave up his right to speak to a grieving mother at a cemetery near Tel Aviv.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.