April 28, 2020 / 9:52 AM / a month ago

Cemeteries off-limits as Israelis honour war dead under coronavirus

* Mourning ceremonies held online as lockdown reimposed

* Military mobilised for “war” on pandemic, general says

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, April 28 (Reuters) - With military cemeteries and ceremonies off-limits, Israelis went online on Tuesday to honour the dead in annual remembrances held under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

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 lighter-than-usual traffic to a halt.

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

After sunset on Tuesday, the country’s 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.

With bereaved families urged to stay away in the name of public health, troops in surgical masks videotaped themselves saluting graves in military cemeteries. The footage was sent to relatives of the dead as a tribute.

“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, with a population of 9 million, has reported 15,589 coronavirus cases and 208 deaths.

With around 100 ventilators taken up by COVID-19 sufferers and another 2,000 on standby, the government is easing curbs. But it reimposed lockdowns for the back-to-back Memorial Day and Independence Day.

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

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

With shared pandemic concerns in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria having contributed to relative quiet on Israel’s borders, armed forces chief Lieutenant-General Aviv Kohavi noted the military role in curbing the coronavirus and developing counter-measures.

“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is mobilised with all its might in the war against the contagion,” he said in a speech. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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