Gaza war: Israel marks 76th Independence Day worried and deeply fractured

Every year, Israel marks Independence Day with a livestreamed torch-lighting ceremony at its Jerusalem national cemetery.

Select citizens light 12 beacons, creating a transition from a mournful 24 hours focused on fallen warriors and terror victims to fireworks and parades celebrating Jewish national sovereignty.

This year, as Israel turns 76 in the middle of a ferocious war, things are different.

It’s not just that the fireworks and air force flyover have been cancelled. It’s that the government is afraid to livestream the event for fear of disruption from Hamas or citizens furious over the failure to bring home hostages held in Gaza since October 7. The event will be taped and distributed to TV channels later.

A Memorial Day commemoration for fallen Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem. Photo: AFP

So while much of the world is focused on Palestinian misery and civilian deaths brought by Israel’s war in Gaza, Israelis themselves will mourn what they’ve lost as a result of Hamas’ attack – hundreds of civilians and soldiers along with a sense of national safety.

“It’s difficult this year to find strength,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Stav in the right-leaning Makor Rishon newspaper. “Despite displays of bravery and determination, our sense of security and stability here have been dramatically reversed.”

Because of October 7, there’s never been a year in which so many of its civilians died – some 820. And the last year this many security forces were killed – 716 including more than 270 in combat since that day – was 1973 during the Yom Kippur war. With some 130 Israelis still held hostage in Gaza, the mood this year is dark.

“It’s a feeling that I’ve lost my country, that we don’t know what to do with ourselves or who we are,” said Daniel Ben Simon, who served as a Labour Party parliamentarian and has written a book about Israel’s drift to a more insular, religious society. “I fear that the animosity within can’t be bridged by Independence Day.”

While the sense of loss is profound across the nation, at a few rare joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremonies a much higher toll will be invoked – 35,000 dead in Gaza, according to Hamas health officials. For many Israelis, however, the trauma of October 7 has pushed aside any sense of empathy with Palestinians.

And as Israelis plunge into the 48-hour period of Memorial Day with Independence Day, their forces are back at work in Gaza. In the north, centre and south there is heavy artillery aimed at taking out Hamas rocket launchers and fighting forces. Deaths are again mounting.

Meanwhile, some 300,000 Gazans are once again on the move, many of them for the third or fourth time in seven months. They’re filling wagons and trucks with bedding and children, desperately seeking refuge from the building Israeli military operations in the southern city of Rafah.

Rockets and mortars are again flying from Gaza into southern Israel, including to cities like Ashkelon and Beersheba.

The funeral for an Israeli soldier who was killed during Israel’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Photo: AP

The US is trying to keep Israel from waging a full invasion of Rafah. General Michael Kurilla, head of the US Central Command, arrived over the weekend to confer with Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi.

Ceasefire negotiations in Cairo haven’t fallen apart but they’re stuck. Mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar, the goal has been to find a formula that Hamas could interpret as promising an end to the war and Israel could embrace as temporary. The formula has been elusive.

For a moment last week, it looked like a deal might emerge when Hamas, classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, said it had accepted a compromise. But when Israeli officials looked at the changes, they called it unacceptable. It’s now made a counteroffer that Hamas is studying.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the citizens chosen this year to light the torches, striking a defiant tone seeking to raise spirits. The US is withholding arms and ammunition to prevent Israel from invading Rafah, but Israel won’t let that influence it, he said.

Israel, now with a population just shy of 10 million, had 600,000 citizens at its War of Independence in 1948, he said. It had few weapons when it was attacked then by five Arab armies.

“How did we win?” he asked. “With heroes of the spirit and of action. With the spirit of our people. That was our secret weapon, we have no other weapon.”



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