Families of fallen soldiers clashed at the Beersheba military cemetery on Tuesday, as emotions were running high with the appearance of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a Memorial Day ceremony.
With societal frictions inflamed over the government’s controversial push to remake the judicial system, some relatives of fallen soldiers had urged members of the ruling coalition who did not serve in the military to cancel their plans to participate in Memorial Day events. Multiple bereaved families had publicly called on the controversial politician — who did not serve and has a long history of extremist actions and remarks — to steer clear of the Beersheba event, though Ben Gvir insisted on attending.
There was a tense calm at the cemetery before Ben Gvir’s arrival. The area surrounding the main stage had been blocked off, leaving some graves inaccessible.
Due to Ben Gvir’s visit and speculation that the minister from the hardline government would be heckled and face protests, there was a notable presence of security forces at the cemetery.
Ben Gvir was brought to the stage through a back entrance, without coming into contact with the crowd.
Police and security forces closed off the main entrance anyway shortly before the ceremony began, and were only allowing families of fallen soldiers to enter. Barriers were also raised to separate the local civilian cemetery from the military one.
Minutes before the 11 a.m. siren sounded, a bereaved man shouted at security forces, after apparently being blocked from reaching his brother’s grave.
Military officers offered to escort the man to the grave through the blocked-off area near the stage, but he refused.
“Tell him to stop preventing bereaved families from reaching their children’s graves. Nobody has ever blocked me from reaching my brother’s grave… don’t escort me, nobody escorted me for 40 or 50 years… what happened this year that I need your escort?” the man shouted.
Another man in the crowd shouted back: “Who are you, why are you better than us?” and then called him a “leftist.”
A verbal altercation broke out between several people in attendance, which then turned physical. Expletives were yelled amid the scuffle, as soldiers attempted to separate the sides.
עימות בין משפחות שכולות בבית העלמין הצבאי בבאר שבע, על רקע הגעתו של השר איתמר בן גביר לטקס הממלכתי.???? בושה וחרפה pic.twitter.com/DriVRDvIJK
— דורית ????????❤???????? (@doritshw) April 25, 2023
After the siren sounded and as Ben Gvir began to speak, shouting erupted at the cemetery.
Reacting to one bereaved man who had shouted at him, the minister said: “He’s a patriot, he’s allowed to shout… I bow my head,” before continuing his speech to the backdrop of continued murmurs from the crowd.
A mix of applause and shouting erupted at the conclusion of his speech.
“Get out of here, terrorist,” one man shouted.
“We love you, Ben Gvir,” another said and others called out Ben Gvir’s name, as the minister left the cemetery.
בן גביר מסיים לנאום – וזוכה למחיאות כפיים מצד רבים מהקהל.
אחרים צועקים: “לך מפה טרוריסט” pic.twitter.com/zFMA6NknCd
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) April 25, 2023
As families left the crowded cemetery, clashes began to break out outside. Several people were shouting at each other, and some engaged in physical scuffles.
“It’s Memorial Day, don’t cause disturbances… respect the day,” one man shouted. “I’m right-wing,” a woman responded, before an open plastic water bottle, handed out to the attendees, was hurled at her.
Police officers worked to physically hold the sides apart as the clashes spread to nearby roads. No arrests were made.
The chairman of the Yad Labanim commemoration organization, Eli Ben-Shem, said Ben Gvir was to blame for the fighting at the Beersheba cemetery.
“I apologize to the fallen for not being able to safeguard your honor. Ben Gvir did not act with wisdom. He caused people to come to blows and caused a rift between bereaved families,” Ben-Shem, himself a bereaved father, told the Ynet news site, adding that Ben Gvir should have just laid a wreath like other some other ministers and not insisted on speaking.
“Never before have we seen bereaved families raise their hands against each other. We asked him over the last two weeks not to come, but he insisted. He needs to search his soul on Yom Kippur over managing to create a rift between bereaved families,” Ben-Shem said.
“Activists came and applauded,” Ben-Shem added, in comments to Channel 12. “It was contemptible — contemptible behavior at a military cemetery, the State of Israel’s holy of holies. Applauding a minister? Who ever heard of such a thing? He shamed the honor of the fallen… It was shameful and I am crying for the fallen of Beersheba.”
Several other ministers faced disturbances at various military cemeteries around the country.