On Memorial Day, Israel mourns, reflects on vets’ trauma

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel marked its national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers on Wednesday, in a year when national attention has been focused on the plight of veterans suffering from psychological trauma.

Memorial Day is the most solemn day on Israel’s national calendar. Bereaved families visit cemeteries and attend memorial ceremonies, and television and radio shift programming to somber music, broadcasts of memorial services and documentaries about slain soldiers. This year also included a nationwide discussion about soldiers’ mental health after a despondent young combat veteran set himself on fire outside a government office. The soldier, Itzik Saidian, was in critical condition.

In an annual ritual, the sounding of a two-minute siren around the country brought people to a momentary halt. Pedestrians stood still in the street and motorists stopped on the highway and stood with heads bowed.

Israel has fought half a dozen wars with neighboring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured scores of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948. On Memorial Day, Israel honors 23,928 fallen soldiers and over 3,100 people killed in militant attacks.

At sundown on Wednesday, the country will transition from remembrance to joyous celebration, kicking off its 73rd Independence Day.

Speaking at a memorial service at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel “must never remain apathetic to the threats of war and extermination of those who seek to eliminate us.” His remarks came in the midst of heightened tensions between Israel and regional arch-enemy Iran, following an explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility earlier this week. Iran has blamed Israel for the incident.

“For the State of Israel not to be a passing episode in the history of our people, we must hold onto our land with all our might and determination,” he said.

In a country where military service is mandatory for Jewish males, many leaders spoke about the need to take better care of military veterans after Saidian’s self-immolation.

Saidian, 26, served in the Israeli military during the 2014 war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, taking part in some of the fiercest fighting during the month-long conflict and watching several comrades die. His family said he suffered severe depression from the trauma of the war, but struggled to receive financial support from the Defense Ministry.

On Monday, Saidian set himself on fire at a veteran rehabilitation office in central Israel. The Sheba Medical Center said Tuesday that Saidian was in critical condition with burns all over his body.

Saidian’s brother, Avi, told reporters that the authorities “neglected him. He saw terrible things and nobody cared. Everyone thought he was just talking.” His sister-in-law told Israeli news site Ynet that “the state forgot the soldiers that fought for it and has neglected them. When they need help, the door is slammed in their faces.”

Israel’s president, prime minister, and defense minister issued statements wishing Saidian a speedy recovery and expressing support for veterans suffering from trauma.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, said Israel “owes a great debt to those who risk their lives and their souls for the defense of the country and we must do everything to fight for their sake.”

But Edan Kleiman, director of Israel’s disabled veterans association, told Israeli public radio on Tuesday that Saidian’s case points to major shortcomings in the government’s veteran’s affairs bureau. He accused the Defense Ministry’s medical committees, which determine disability benefits for veterans, of abuse, saying they “treating them like swindlers, and treatment of their cases sometimes drags out for a decade.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he held an urgent discussion with senior officials and opened an investigation.

“In the last few months, we have taken a number of actions to promote the treatment of post-trauma injuries and mental injuries in general — but the system is still lacking and there is a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.

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