April 28, 2020 / 10:37 AM / a month ago

Cemeteries off-limits as Israelis honour war dead under coronavirus

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - With military cemeteries and ceremonies off-limits, Israelis went online on Tuesday to mourn their war dead in annual remembrances held under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

An Israeli nurse wears a face mask and gloves as she stands next to fallen soldiers graves while a siren sound marks Memorial Day to commemorate the fallen soldiers, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Jerusalem April 28, 2020 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

As on every Memorial Day, a siren to honour soldiers and Israeli civilians killed in Palestinian bombings and other attacks sounded in the morning, bringing thin traffic to a halt.

People who have been staying home under partial lockdowns stood at flag-draped balconies to observe a two-minute silence during one of Israel’s most solemn days.

After sunset on Tuesday, the mood shifts, with the start of Independence Day celebrations. But this year public events are banned and some cities will forgo fireworks to save money in an economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Bereaved families were instructed to stay away from military cemeteries in the name of public health. On their behalf, troops in surgical masks videotaped themselves saluting at the graves.

“I know how hard this is,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message, noting that he had also been denied the customary graveside visit to pay respects to his brother Yoni, who died leading a 1976 rescue of Israeli hostages in Uganda.

“This year, on this day, we will remember them in many other ways - with stories, songs, films, lit candles, meetings screened online and, above all, in our hearts.”

Israel - population 9 million - has reported 15,589 coronavirus cases and 208 deaths.

Around 100 ventilators have been taken up by COVID-19 sufferers, leaving another 2,000 on standby and allowing the government to ease curbs. It reimposed lockdowns for the back-to-back Memorial Day and Independence Day.

The former began on Monday night with a state ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a Jewish holy site. Under social-distancing rules, the televised event was held without an audience present.

From home, war veterans held video chats about lost comrades or watched roll-calls of the dead aired by Israeli TV stations.

The relative quiet on Israel’s borders with the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria have freed up the military to focus on helping in what its chief, Lieutenant-General Aviv Kohavi, described as a “war” against the pandemic coronavirus.

But in what police called a terrorist attack, a man stabbed and wounded an elderly woman in the town of Kfar Sava on Tuesday before being shot. Medics said he was hospitalised with injuries. His identity was not immediately given.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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