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'Bad apple' narrative still rotten 57 years after Kafr Qasim Massacre

Though individual soldiers were convicted in the 1956 Kafr Qasim Massacre, Israel’s courts never even questioned why civilians were under military rule and curfews. Today, individual soldiers are still convicted of crimes but the occupation itself is never questioned and wrongdoing is dismissed as the work of ‘bad apples.’

By Leehee Rothschild

Memorial for the Kafr Qasim Massacre, in Kafr Qasim. (Photo: Avishai Teicher)

Fifty-seven years ago, on the afternoon of October 29, 1956, an Israeli Border Police unit shot to death 49, men, women and children from Kafr Qasim as they returned home from a day of work in the fields.

Kafr Qasim, located in central Israel’s Triangle area, was under military rule like most Palestinian villages and towns at the time. From 1949 until 1966 Palestinian citizens of Israel were governed under martial law, which limited their movement, and subjected them to curfews, administrative detention and expulsions. The Israeli Border Police, a unit within the IDF at the time, was in charge of maintaining the military imposed law and order in Palestinian population centers.

The day of the massacre was the first day of the 1956 Suez War. Instructed to take all precautionary measures to keep the Jordanian border quiet, Border Police Central District commander Col. Issachar Shadmi decided to change the start time of the nightly curfew to 5 p.m. The order was issued only in the early afternoon, which resulted in Palestinian farmers working their fields not hearing about the change of the curfew time. Maj. Shmual Malinki, who was in charge of one of the battalions enforcing the curfew on the ground, asked Shadmi what should be done with those who broke the curfew. Shadmi said, “Allah Yerachmu” (an Arabic blessing for the dead). Malanki passed this message to his officers, instructing them “to shot to kill” every person who violates the curfew. Nevertheless, out of eight officers, only one, Gabriel Dahan, carried out his order. Dahan’s platoon was stationed at the entrance to Kafr Qasim.

As the villagers made their way back from the fields, in trucks and wagons, they were stopped by the soldiers, to whom they offered their identification papers. In response, the soldiers started shooting at them. In nine shooting incidents that day, the border policemen killed 19 men, six women, 17 boys, six girls and injured many more. The dead were buried in a mass grave, dug by Palestinians from the nearby village of Jaljulya who the army brought over for that purpose. The wounded were left unattended. They couldn’t be reached by their families, due to the 24-hour curfew; only after it was lifted were they transported to the hospital.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion placed the matter under a media black out, which was only lifted after two months of intense lobbying. Due to public pressure 11 border police officers were charged with murder. Eight were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms (Malenki was sentenced to 17 years and Dahan to 15). In its ruling, the court specifically stated that the soldiers had been obliged to disobey the order to shoot unarmed civilians because it was an illegal order, defining the term for the first time. Following various appeals, a presidential commutation and the decision of a Prison Service committee, however, all of the soldiers involved were freed after less than a year. Malanki and Dahan were promoted after their release to higher offices in the Israeli security forces. In a separate trial, Shadmi was found guilty of extending the curfew without authority, and fined one-tenth of one lira.

The Kafr Qasim massacre is almost completely absent from Israeli educational curriculum. It is mentioned neither in history classes nor in the abundance of memorial and commemoration ceremonies that take place in Israeli schools. It is only mentioned in the Israeli ‘citizenship studies’ book, but even there, is only taught as part of a discussion of refusing “illegal orders.” Its de-contextualization, detaching it from any discussion of the treatment of the state’s Palestinian citizens or of the military administration at the time, is aimed at showing that the Kafr Qasim massacre was a unique failure of a few soldiers, not a telling event. It is built deep into the ‘bad apple’ narrative, which blames war crimes on the individual soldiers who committed them – allowing the system to wash its hands of any culpability.

That the public Israeli consciousness coined the term “illegal order” in the context of the Kafr Qasim massacre in a sense strips it of much of its effectiveness. For an order to be deemed illegal, it needs to meet the level of horrendousness that results from a very direct, very visible massacre. Thus, regularly shooting at fishermen in Gaza, the disruption and detention of farmers in the West Bank, shooting at unarmed protestors and preventing of medical treatment are all seen as legal orders.

Furthermore, the Israeli court system never called into question the military’s very presence in Kafr Qasim, the necessity of the curfew or the legitimacy of the military regime in place at the time. Likewise, in any of its criticisms and rulings on various military actions since 1967, the Israeli Supreme Court has never condemned the occupation itself. By sanctioning certain actions but never doubting the greater plot line over the years, the Israeli court system has in fact given its seal of approval: first to military rule over the Palestinian citizens of the state, and later, similar military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

But despite its absence from the Jewish Israeli collective memory, in Kafr Qasim the massacre is still very much alive. Its troubled ghosts haunt the village to this day. Every resident of Kafr Qasim came out to the yearly memorial service on the anniversary of the massacre, MK Dov Khenin reported yesterday, from the youngest to the oldest.

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    1. Joel

      Yes Leehee. There’s no history more boring than ancient history save that ancient history that perpetuates Palestinian victimhood.

      Why not a story about Arabs in Israel as success stories?

      Why not? Because of the Left’s ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.

      Reply to Comment
      • I dare you Joel, to say how the holocaust (which I am NOT comparing to this massacre in magnitude) does not serve to “perpetuates Jewish victimhood” when Israel is now a nuclear power state with one of the world’s most powerful armies.
        At least the Palestinians are STILL suffering from the same laws and attitudes of people like you and a state like Israel which was built on the land and the dreams of those same NATIVES whose suffering you refuse to acknowledge.

        Reply to Comment
      • tod

        Joel, perhaps because you can think that it’s successful only if you are biased or blind?

        “The Palestinian NATIVES are” not living comfortably in Israel and the fact that they are exploited by the “Arab brothers”, that anyway are not living in Ein Houd and other similar villages, does not make them a “successful case”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          I live in Israel and I see NATIVE Arabs everyday. They’re doing quite well by most standards.

          I can’t figure out what else you said.

          BTW. Arabs do live in Ein Awad. It’s an Arab village right next to (Jewish) Ein Hod.

          Your point is what?

          Reply to Comment
          • sh

            The Palestinian descendants of those who built the beautiful houses and planted the beautiful gardens of what is now called Ein Hod – to live in – took refuge down the mountain behind it in 1948 and served as cheap labour for restoring the homes when it was decided to turn it into a Jews only artist’s colony. Their village goes by the name of Ayn Hawd (not Ein Awad), an “unrecognized” village until about 2005 when Israel finally agreed to connect it to the electricity grid. Last time I saw it there was still no road down there.

            Is that what you mean by comfortable? If not, what is your point?

            Reply to Comment
          • In order to get the electricity and other basic services (rubbish collection) in 2005, Ayn Hawd had to form a campaigning group with other Galilean communities in the same position (the Association of Forty) and lobby the government. Before then, they had to collect all their mail from a nearby Jewish town; they covered their kindergarten with tin sheeting so that the authorities would assume it was a shed and not order its demolition. The government responded to Ayn Hawd’s demand for services by announcing that the whole village was under demolition order, which put the villagers between a rock and a hard place – unable to return to their original Ayn Hawd (now the artists’ colony Ein Hod), with no compensation for the lost homes, no recognition for their new ones, and now the threat of imminent destruction on top of everything else. The state officially termed them and all the other internally displaced Palestinians as ‘present absentees’, a phrase that illustrated just how welcome these Arab citizens were, and what equality they had. They won that fight, so this is an ‘Arab success story’ – after a fashion. Their gains were not great (they still struggle to get building permits and permission for further town planning) but at least the present absentees weren’t forced to become absent again.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      Re-examining the Holocaust doesn’t perpetuate Jewish victimhood, it memorializes 6 million dead innocents and serves as a warning to all humanity.

      The Palestinian NATIVES are living comfortably in Israel or miserably in the Arab States. Why?

      Why has the world ‘gotten over’ the population of +500,000 ‘Arab Jews’ from their homes? Why?

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel, you had no complaints to make about boredom when 972 printed an article about Palestinian youths throwing snowballs at charedi men. You didn’t ask why 972 wasn’t covering ‘charedi successes’. To you, that incident was important enough and violent enough to deserve your full attention (plus a comment from you on how the incident fit right in with historic persecution of Jews). A massacre that led to the chief perpetrator being fined a handful of pennies is ‘boring’ and ‘ancient’ by comparison. Has it even occurred to you in your rush to dismiss this as ancient history that close relatives of the massacre victims are still alive?

        There are many lessons from the Kafr Qassim incident that have not been learnt – you only have to look at the travesty of justice for Palestinians who are killed or physically abused in the OPT today to see this. The killer of thirteen-year-old Iman al-Hams, a company commander, got off with no punishment after he walked up to her and emptied his magazine into her prone body in order ‘to confirm the kill’. She was murdered under the same martial law that made the Kfar Qassim massacre possible. But presumably that’s ancient history too, even though it will repeat itself again and again until these people’s lives are actually held to the same value as Jewish lives, which means full equal rights under the law.

        Of course you would much rather read about ‘Arab success stories’; they can be used as window-dressing in a way that boring old massacres can’t. But preserving your comfort level and a society’s self-image isn’t the most important thing here, no matter how dull you might find dead people when they’re the wrong sort of people.

        Reply to Comment
      • Jan

        Joel, all of the Holocaust memorials, all of the teaching of the Holocaust all of it is not just for remembering the victims of the Holocaust but to ensure that Jews around the world, especially in Israel, continue to see themselves as victims even as they continue to victimize the people on whose lands they built the Jewish state.

        It is beyond sad that you cannot see a reason for any rememberance of the 1956 massacre by Israeli border guards. It would seem that to you memorials are only in order when the victims are Jews.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Oren

      I studied this case in high-school in Israel. It should be mentioned that this case is also taught to every soldier in basic training.

      I think Ms. Rothschild is the one detached in her description of the case. Indeed, why was there martial law in Qafr Kasim? 1956 was only 7 years after a very bitter war between jews and arabs ceased, the discourse of neighboring countries was very hostile, frequent border incidents were still happening, and Kafr Qasim was right on the border, and not very far from the central cities of Israel. The existence of martial law in Kafr Qasim needs to be viewed considering this reality, too.

      Reply to Comment
      • The background you provide makes the refusal of 7 of 8 officers even more impressive.

        Reply to Comment
    4. 7 of 8 officers refused the shoot to kill order and were later indirectly vindicated by the High Court. That is impressive–worth knowing. It seem to me that this principle of “too far” could have been used in the case of a Palestinian boy forced to open a possible booby trap.

      I am not disparaging the post author’s global take on superior force (shooting at Gaza fishermen, disrupting farmers), but a stand alone principle has merit in itself. As the officer following shooting orders in 1956 was not given immunity overt or as outcome, those forcing said boy could be seen similarly in law.

      If you ask for everything, how can there be incremental advance?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Brendan

      Actually Shadmi was fined 10 prutot or 1/100 of a lira, popularly known as a grush.

      Reply to Comment
      • That’s beyond pathetic. Big words from the Court, little enforcement from them or the IDF. Generally, the Court has yet to enforce what it believes. But the decisions are there, and can be used to challenge the Court now and later.

        Reply to Comment