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Joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony honors all war victims: NPR

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

Daniel Estrin/NPR

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Daniel Estrin/NPR

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

Daniel Estrin/NPR

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israelis and Palestinians come together for whatever reason in these days of war. Some did so for a memorial ceremony honoring victims on all sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

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

About 20,000 viewers watched the ceremony Sunday evening as it was broadcast on Facebook and YouTube and screened at numerous small gatherings in Israel and the United States, including some gatherings with Palestinians in the West Bank, organizers said.

Remembering Palestinians alongside Israelis on Israeli Remembrance Day makes many members of 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 also attracted Israeli protesters, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right activist who is now Israel’s minister of national security.

This year, the ceremony faced new obstacles. It could not take place in person. It was pre-recorded in front of an audience days in advance and was streamed due to drastic wartime restrictions on Palestinians visiting Israel and security concerns surrounding the ceremony.

Israeli and Palestinian peace activists face new challenges

During the war, tensions arose between Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation groups who helped organize the memorial ceremony.

“Being an activist for peace in Israel and Palestine is a challenge these days,” says Oren Balaban of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the conflict, which helped organize the ceremony.

Since Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attacks on southern Israel sparked Israel’s deadly offensive in Gaza, the group has been meeting on Zoom. Their conversations were more tense than before the war, due to the dissonant perceptions of reality that have divided Israelis and Palestinians since the start of the war, Balaban said.

“Israel still lives on October 7. If you turn on the television, it’s October 7. And actually, in Palestine, they don’t recognize October 7. They live from October 8. So the narratives have become really different , and actually, it’s hard to talk, Israelis and Palestinians these days,” Balaban says.

His wife, Yasmin Gamliel, attended the memorial ceremony with about 20 Israelis at a screening in a Tel Aviv cinema and left feeling deflated.

“It’s such a small number of people compared to so much hate above. I know you have to have hope, but it’s really hard right now,” she said.

“War is not inevitable”

Remembrance Day in Israel began Sunday evening with a siren. When the moment of silence ended and Israeli memorial ceremonies began in cemeteries and community centers, Israelis gathered at screenings across the country to watch the pre-recorded alternative joint ceremony.

The hosts were Rima Jawabra Khatib, a Palestinian, and Guy Elhanan, an Israeli, both of Fighters for Peace, a group founded by veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Combatants pour la Paix organized the ceremony with the Parents’ Circle-Family Forum.

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

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

“Personally, I understand the great fear and suffering that struck Israelis after the events of October 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 increasing

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

“There are not and will be no winners in this war. We have all already lost,” she said. “May we always choose compassion and love above all else.”

Then two musicians sang in Hebrew and Arabic.

The Parents’ Circle-Family Forum says its organization had around 600 Israeli and Palestinian families before this war. Since the war, some 150 families have joined them.

Many other Palestinian and Israeli families have not joined the reconciliation group, but they are still grieving.

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