JERUSALEM — They came by the hundreds to a hilltop military cemetery overlooking this holy city to pay their last respects to a fallen 20-year-old soldier.
Relatives and friends, comrades and politicians, and even scores of strangers who had never heard of Staff Sgt. Moshe Melako gathered under a tan canopy beside rows of graves. All listened solemnly to the prayers and the hymns, the eulogies and the wails.
At any other time, Melako would have perhaps died in anonymity. But he perished Sunday, along with 12 other Israeli soldiers, while fighting Hamas militants in a Gaza City neighborhood on the bloodiest day of the two-week-old conflict. Their deaths shocked a nation that hasn’t seen so many of its own killed since Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006.
Perhaps Melako’s death was made more tragic because of his history. Israel had saved his family from war and political instability in their native Ethiopia, covertly airlifting them and thousands of Ethiopian Jews in 1991 to give them a better future. Melako, who was born here, died fighting in the latest chapter of a long, intractable war that Israel believes it must win to secure its future.
Monday morning, Melako’s photo was in the local newspapers — a striking figure in olive green clutching two large, black machine guns, evoking at once Israel’s loss and its resilience.
Later Monday, at 4:09 p.m., Melako’s comrades from the elite Golani Brigade carried his casket, draped with the Israeli flag. The wailing grew louder. Tears slid down the cheeks of even hardened soldiers.
“We are burying one of our sons here today, a son of Jerusalem who died in a battle for the state of Israel,” Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, said as he began his eulogy.
“Moshe, we will continue to challenge our enemies and send them a strong message that we are not going away, that we will be here forever,” the mayor ended.
Standing before Melako’s casket, a group of Ethiopian rabbis, wearing white turbans and clutching colorful umbrellas, said prayers in Amharic. It was a language understood only by the Ethiopian mourners, but from the sobs and grief-stricken faces all around, the rabbis’ messages required no translation.
Melako’s friends and comrades described him as brave, kind and modest, a person everyone loved and respected. He had always dreamed of joining his elder brother in the Golani Brigade, they said. The government sent its cabinet minister in charge of absorbing immigrants into Israel to thank his family.
“Standing by your fresh grave, I look here at your mother, father, brothers and sisters, and I know there is no way to console them,” said Sofa Landver, the minister. “You went to a battle and you never came back, but we will all go on living without you. We will continue. We have no other country to go to, and you fought the battle for us. You died for us.”
No one at the funeral spoke about withdrawing Israel’s troops from the Gaza Strip. No one spoke about a cease-fire. No one thought Melako and his comrades had paid too high a price.
Melako’s sister Esther delivered a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the war against Hamas that every mourner seemed to want to say.
“Don’t stop now,” she cried, her voice suddenly swelling. “Don’t stop, so that my brother’s blood was not spilled in vain. Don’t stop till you destroy them.”
At 4:54 p.m., Melako’s comrades and others began to place at his grave garlands of red and white flowers, so many that they eventually covered it.
At 4:59 p.m., the soldiers of the Golani Brigade fired guns in a salute to their fallen comrade, and everyone filed out of the cemetery, save for those who remained to cry by his grave.