Sixty years on, the Kafr Qasim massacre is a stark reminder of the buried past of the world’s ‘most moral army.’
By Sam Bahour
If your Palestinian neighbors and friends seem slightly on edge today, please excuse them. October 29th brings back horrific memories to Palestinians everywhere, young and old. It was 60 years ago today that a scene of cold-blooded murder fell upon the hilltop village of Kafr Qasim, located in Israel about 20 km east of Tel Aviv near the Green Line. It was in Kafr Qasim on this day in 1956 where the Israeli military mowed down in cold blood 48 innocent civilians, one of them a pregnant woman, whose fetus is counted as the 49th victim. It was said that all of this was done in the service of the almighty Israeli “military order,” which no one dared to challenge.
Sixty years is a long time to mourn a death, even cold-blooded murder. It is even longer when you must live among those, and under the system of those, who murdered your loved ones. Had this been merely an isolated incident of the Israeli military machine killing Palestinians, one may have already regulated it to the history books. But it was and is not.
There were others massacres prior to Kafr Qasim, such as the case of Deir Yassin in 1948. Since then there have been numerous other incidents, too many to list. One that comes to mind is 13-year-old Iman al-Homs who, in October 2004, was walking home from school in Gaza when an Israeli soldier emptied his magazine into her after she was wounded and lay on the ground. The soldier was caught saying he was “confirming the kill.” The most recent example that comes to mind is Elor Azaria, who was caught on camera in Hebron this past March as he executed an immobilized Palestinian, by firing a bullet into his head as his fellow soldiers casually watched on.
Unlike today, decades ago Israel did undertake more serious investigations its military’s actions. This is not to say that justice was ever served — it rarely is. One example of these investigations was the Kahan Commission, established by the Israeli government on September 28, 1982, to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which between 1,000-3,000 (the exact number is disputed) Palestinians were slaughtered over three days.
The Kahan Commission was chaired by the Israeli President of the Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan; its other two members were Israeli Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak and Major general (res.) Yona Efrat. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility for the massacre: Sharon’s negligence in protecting the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, resulted in a recommendation that he be dismissed from the position of defense minister. Although Sharon grudgingly resigned as, he remained in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Years later, Sharon would be elected prime minister.
Back to Kafr Qasim.
An article published on Friday by Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet takes a look at the massacre 60 years on. Aderet writes:
In the 60 years since the [Kafr Qasem] carnage Israel’s attitude has been complicated. Those involved in it were court martialed, convicted and some sentenced at first to long prison terms [these ‘long terms’ were less than what the law stipulated for premeditated murder]. [Israeli] Judge Benjamin Halevy coined the phrase ‘a blatantly illegal order’ in his verdict. The instruction to Israel Defense Forces soldiers that they are obliged to refuse an order “that has a black flag flying over it” has become part of the Kafr Qasem legacy.
‘But the convicted parties’ sentence was soon commuted by the chief of staff, they were pardoned by the president and released from jail. The most senior defendant, Col. Issachar Shadmi, commander of the brigade in charge of the area, was sentenced to a symbolic fine of 10 pennies for exceeding authority. Major Shmuel Malinki, commander of the Border Police battalion, testified at the trial that Shadmi had ordered him to enforce the curfew with gunshots. Asked what would happen to those who return to the village after the curfew, Kedmi said Shadmi had said ‘may God have mercy on their soul.’
Perhaps the most shocking of all was how the comparison between the Kafr Qasim massacre and the Holocaust was first made at the trial, when the judge asked one of the defendants if he would have justified a Nazi soldier who obeyed orders. “In 1986, 30 years after the massacre, Shalom Ofer, one of the convicted soldiers, said in an interview to Ha’ir: ‘We were like the Germans. They stopped trucks, took the Jews off and shot them. What we did is the same. We were obeying orders like a German soldier during the war, when he was ordered to slaughter Jews.'”
Many, especially those in the Jewish community in Israel and abroad, will rightfully find the above words hard to swallow. I don’t blame them. The massacre was a horrendous act, especially when undertaken in “your” name.
Aderet’s article offers but a glimpse into the legal proceedings surrounding Kafr Qasim. One of the first people to document those proceedings was Palestinian attorney Sabri Jiryis, in his landmark book, The Arabs in Israel, published in 1966. A fuller account of the testimonies recorded by the Israeli commanders and soldiers who took part in this killing spree can be found printed here in English. Warning: it’s a disturbing read.
And this, my friends, is the buried past and not so buried present, of the Israeli Defense Forces, “the most moral army in the world.” It is imperative that we all redouble our efforts to not make it its future as well, military orders or not.
Sam Bahour is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy; Co-editor of HOMELAND: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press). He blogs at www.epalestine.com. @SamBahour