TEL AVIV (Dec. 27)
Protests have erupted in the Knesset and throughout Israel over a decision not to bury a Jewish Israeli soldier next to the grave of a Muslim war hero who fought for Israel in the early days of the Jewish state.
The incident received public attention Monday following a news report that Israeli police had found a 26-year-old army officer dead the day before in his Tel Aviv apartment with his service revolver at his side. Police declared it a case of suicide and withheld the officer’s name.
According to the report, the Defense Ministry Graves Unit, which is responsible for choosing and maintaining the gravesites of Israeli soldiers, subsequently chose a plot for the officer in the military section of Tel Aviv’s Kiryat Shaul Cemetery.
The plot was located between the grave of a soldier who had been declared non-Jewish because his mother was not a Jew and the grave of Lt. Col. Amos Yarkoni, a Bedouin who led a crack Israeli commando unit after he threw in his lot with the early Jewish state.
Yarkoni was buried a few years ago in the military section of the Tel Aviv cemetery with full military honors during a Muslim ceremony.
Both his original name, Abd el-Majed Khader, and his adopted Hebrew name, Amos Yarkoni, were inscribed on his headstone.
When the Military Chaplain’s Unit, which prepares bodies for burial and conducts funeral services, discovered that the Jewish officer who was declared a suicide was to be buried between two non-Jews, it informed the chief military chaplain, Maj. Gen. Gad Navon.
According to initial media reports, Navon decided to bury the officer at a different site, among Jewish graves.
Labor Knesset member Ori Orr, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, disclosed that Navon had discussed the matter with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and that Rabin had upheld Navon’s decision.
In interviews conducted by Israel Radio throughout Monday, a vast majority of Israeli soldiers –including many who described themselves as Orthodox Jews — said they firmly believed that anyone who fought and died alongside Jews in the defense of Israel should be buried among Jews, regardless of his religious affiliation.
The matter came before the Knesset, where Labor member Ephraim Sneh proposed a bill that would prevent such decisions by the Military Chaplain’s Unit in the future.
Moledet Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi, a former general, announced he had made arrangements to purchase a burial plot for himself next to the grave of Yarkoni.
Many of Yarkoni’s friends and army colleagues gathered at his flower-bedecked gravesite Monday to express their sorrow at what they believed was an insult to his memory.