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Israelis Honor War Dead

May 9, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The piercing wail of sirens sounded across Israel today, bringing the country to a standstill to remember its war dead _ and reflect over an uncertain future.

Israel looks toward a summer withdrawal from the 18-year quagmire in Lebanon that could turn bloody if Lebanese guerillas take advantage of the pullout to attack northern Israeli towns.

Meanwhile, a September deadline for a peace treaty with the Palestinians promises painful territorial concessions and an escalation of the political infighting that accompanies them.

As the two-minute air raid siren sounded this morning, the usually bustling country came to a halt. Motorists stopped their cars, fruit vendors ceased selling, farmers stopped tilling, and all stood at attention.

Mourning those who died in battle or terror attacks unifies the majority of the country but also highlights deep rifts within.

In Arab Israeli and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, whose residents tend to place communal identity above nationalist sentiment, many ignored the siren’s call. Both communities are exempt from Israel’s universal draft.

In the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, posters appeared overnight telling people not to stop for the siren because it is not a Jewish tradition. Last year, religious and secular Jews scuffled over the issue even as the sirens wailed.

Today, men cloaked in traditional long black coats crossed a main intersection where traffic had stopped, greeting each other with smiles and handshakes. Women wearing headscarves chatted and laughed loudly as others like Yaakov Zilberman stood nearby in silence.

Zilberman, 26, served in Israel’s elite paratrooper unit before becoming ultra-Orthodox soon after his army service was completed.

The bearded manager of a Jewish seminary said before he became Orthodox, he resented those who refused to stand at attention for the siren, but now he understood them.

``We remember the fallen best through psalms and prayer,″ Zilberman said.

This Memorial Day, Israelis worry about an escalation in the regional violence that has claimed 19,109 Israeli lives since 1947.

In an interview with the daily Yediot Ahronot, army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz spoke openly of his fears for the withdrawal from Lebanon, promised by July 7.

``There is great uncertainty,″ Mofaz said. ``I hope that the risks will not prove real, and it will be quiet, but I have to be prepared″ for the worst, he said.

In a country of just 6.3 million people, Memorial Day ceremonies take on a deeply personal tone. Most Israelis know someone who was killed in uniform.

The somber day, which began at sundown Monday with a first siren call, includes state ceremonies and smaller memorials in neighborhoods and communal villages. Israelis visit cemeteries to honor fallen friends, relatives and schoolmates. The airwaves are filled with mournful Hebrew songs, and television programming is dedicated to stories of those who fell in battle and the families they left behind.

In a sudden emotional shift, Memorial Day is then followed immediately by raucous Independence Day celebrations this evening, underlining the link the people see between the wars and their nation’s fate.

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