The elderly man walked slowly round his son’s grave, carefully watering the shrubs and potted plants that lay either side of it. When he finished watering, he took a large cloth and gently cleaned the gravestone. I saw from the inscription that his son had been killed, aged 27, in the Yom Kippur War. More than forty years on, the pain is still etched on the father’s face.
This was just one of many poignant scenes at Ra’anana’s military cemetery this morning. I stayed on for a while after the official ceremony had finished and the main crowd had dispersed, so I could pay my respects to the bereaved families I know, at each of the gravesides.
It is one military cemetery in one city, but the brutal and painful history of Israel can be charted just by walking through. In fact, the first graves date back eighty years to British Mandate times, when a group of Jewish immigrants established Ra’anana as an agricultural settlement. Arabs from neighboring villages murdered some of the pioneers while they guarded the new settlement.
Soldiers from Ra’anana were killed in the War of Independence, which began on the first night of Israel’s existence as a state, and they have died in every war since. In October 1973 alone, 32 local soldiers were killed.
Two soldiers from Ra’anana died in the twin helicopter crash which killed 73 soldiers and aircrew over northern Israel in February 1997. A local soldier was killed in Lebanon just months before Israel withdrew its forces in 2000, and another was killed in Jenin in April 2002.
Some of the fallen soldiers came from Ra’anana’s immigrant community. Gary Myers was killed, aged 20, in December 1981. Last night his mother lit the memorial flame at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony in the center of town. Yosef Fink was missing in action after being kidnapped and ambushed by Hezbollah, while serving in Lebanon in 1986. His body was finally returned for burial in 1996. Daniel Muller was killed, aged 21, in the infamous “night of the hang-glider” terror attack near Kiryat Shmona in November 1987. Ari Weiss was killed fighting Palestinian terrorists in Nablus in 2002, when he was 21. Benji Hillman was killed in the Second Lebanon War aged 26, three weeks after his wedding. Aharon Tsarfati died during a pre-army tryout for Shayetet, the elite naval commando unit. He was just 18.
Given the violence that is by definition associated with it, the military cemetery is a very tranquil place. Before leaving, I sat on a bench for a few minutes. The elderly man had finished tending his son’s grave and now stood with a small group of people, sadly contemplating the gravestone.
The IDF is not made up of professional conscripts known to only a small section of society. Israel’s army comprises our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours. Our wars aren’t fought on some remote battlefield, they are right here on our own doorstep.
In such a small country, everybody has some personal connection to a fallen soldier or victim of terror. And you just have to visit any military cemetery on Yom Hazikaron to see that for the bereaved families, their loss remains an ever-open wound.