Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, polaže vjenac.jpg
Photograph: EPA/DAN BALITY / POOL Pool

Israel came to a halt for two minutes Wednesday when sirens sounded and people stood in mute remembrance, as the country marked its annual Memorial Day for the fallen.

As the sirens wailed at 11 am (0800 GMT), pedestrians stopped in their tracks, vehicles came to a halt and drivers and passengers joined those on the sidewalks and inside buildings standing to attention, some with heads bowed.

A total of 23,477 people have been killed in hostile acts since 1860, when Jews first ventured to live outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

They include soldiers killed in wars - from the fighting that erupted before and as Israel declared statehood in 1948, to the 2014 Gaza war - but also people killed in militant attacks, which have claimed 68 lives over the past year.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis flocked to military cemeteries across the country, where memorial ceremonies began following the two-minute siren.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a central state ceremony for victims of militant attacks in Jerusalem that his hand was "stretched out in peace, but our enemies refuse to reconcile with our presence here."

He was heckled by an Israeli who was injured in an attack and accused the hardline government of being "forgiving toward terrorists." Netanyahu also addressed an earlier state ceremony for fallen soldiers.

Nathan Meir, whose wife was stabbed to death in front of her daughter on their doorstep by a 16-year-old Palestinian who had infiltrated their southern West Bank settlement of Otniel in January, blamed the attack on "blind hatred."

Memorial Day, held according to Jewish tradition from sunset to sunset and marked by the Hebrew calendar, is due to end Wednesday night, when celebrations for Israel's 68th Independence Day begin.

Israel traditionally marks its Independence Day a week after its national Holocaust Remembrance Day - to symbolize its rebirth from the ashes of the attempted Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe - and immediately after its Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, a reminder that statehood came at a price.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the country's total population is currently over 8.5 million people - compared to 806,000 in 1948.

Some 6.38 million, or 74.8 per cent, are Jews, and 1,77 million, or 20.8 per cent, Arab. The rest are defined as "other."

The Israeli military for two days closed crossings and checkpoints in the West Bank and into and out of Gaza, to prevent attacks during the busy Memorial Day services and Independence Day festivities.

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