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Israel honors war dead with somber Memorial Day

JERUSALEM — Israelis paused Monday to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism with sirens and ceremonies on the country's annual Memorial Day.

It is one of the most melancholy dates on the Israeli calendar. After decades of conflict, most Israelis have lost loved ones or know someone who has.

Cafes and places of entertainment shut for the day. Radio and TV stopped their regular shows and instead broadcast war documentaries and stories about soldiers killed in action.

Nationwide, Israelis stopped and stood in silence as air raid sirens sounded at 11:00 a.m. Traffic stopped and people got out of their vehicles on highways and roads to stand with heads bowed for two minutes.

Israel said 23,085 soldiers and defense personnel have been killed in fighting since 1860, when Jews began moving back to the area.

Israel has fought half a dozen wars with Arab countries since its establishment in 1948 and has and battled two Palestinian uprisings.

Bereaved families gathered at cemeteries across the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a ceremony for the war dead that it is impossible to completely ease the pain of losing a loved one. Netanyahu's brother, an army commando, was killed during the rescue mission to free passengers of a hijacked plane in Uganda in 1976.

Netanyahu said many tried to eradicate Israel from the day of its inception but "will never succeed." At a separate ceremony for victims of terrorist attacks, Netanyahu said that the country will never give into terror and will pursue its perpetrators.

At another ceremony, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel wants peace but is ready to deal with threats.

"The world cannot sweep the problem of a nuclear Iran under the carpet, as history, both recent and ancient, has proven that concessions and a lack of determination now are recipes for a lack of control and disaster in the years to come," he said.

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state and its support for violent anti-Israel groups. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful, a claim that Israel and many Western countries doubt.

The sad atmosphere ends sharply at sundown when in jarring contrast, Israelis take to the streets for Independence Day celebrations with dancing, fireworks and parties.