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One almighty military order and 49 dead Palestinians

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

Knesset Member Ibrahim Sarsur stands by a monument for the victims of the Kafr Qasim massacre, October 28, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Knesset Member Ibrahim Sarsur stands by a monument for the victims of the Kafr Qasim massacre, October 28, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

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.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin greets an Arab-Israeli elder during a memorial ceremony in honor of the Kafr Qassim massacre October 26, 2014, held in the Arab-Israeli town Kfar Qassem. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin greets an Arab-Israeli elder during a memorial ceremony in honor of the Kafr Qassim massacre October 26, 2014, held in the Arab-Israeli town Kfar Qassem. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

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.

He continues:

‘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

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    1. Carmen

      “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.’

      Who claimed that truth was beautiful, something to be proud of? The truth, once you get past the excuses and whataboutery and allow yourself to feel the pain and the shame, will set you free. The lessons to be learned – those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, is one. Don’t beat your breasts – too late for that. Make a difference today. If you see yourself in those you behold, you’ll realize we’re all the same, all flesh and blood, and all, if you believe, family. If you don’t believe, you should at the very least believe we are all human beings, with more that unites us than divides us.

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      A terrible incident. Israelis regret it very much. However, how does Mr Bahour feel about his Palestinian Authority honoring the Palestinian terrorists who have killed or wounded thousands of Israelis with suicide bombs, rockets, terror tunnels and the such? Kafr Qasem happened 60 years ago, and people like Mr Bahour keep stoking their victimization feelings but seem to ignore atrocities HIS people have carried out on a MUCH bigger scale in recent years, with the encouragement of official Palestinian organs.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Kafr Qasem happened 60 years ago”

        This kind of selective and obvious contrition for a high profile event many years ago, while making sure to note how long ago, has the air of being cost free and pretending that in the present your troops do not commit brutalities day after day, night after night. That somehow the Israeli crimes and brutalities in the West Bank are rare events when we know they are numbingly regular. Now, not sixty years ago. On an everyday basis. It is the very spirit and letter of the Israeli occupation, it is baked into IDF military doctrine, in fact, to make the brutality mind-numbingly regular and relentless. Breaking the Silence has made this clear. Yehuda Shaul has spoken about this with great clarity and unimpeachable authority. And earned for his efforts Israelis’ unceasing vilification and vituperation and refusal to listen. And then these same Israelis complain that Breaking the Silence takes their message “outside.”

        Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          Ben complains about selective contrition by Zionists. Well, at least we are contrite and we prosecute our own when we step out of line.

          Ben and his kind on the other hand? They are never contrite about the blood of Israeli Jews spilled by his Arabs. They only make excuses for them.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Well, at least we are contrite and we prosecute our own when we step out of line.”

            My whole point to Ike was that you do *not* do this.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            But we do. We have jailed a number of our people who overstepped the mark.

            Your point was that we do not meet your idea of perfection yet you are very easy on yourself and your Arabs.

            My point stands. You lot are NEVER contrite. You want US to be better? Then show us. Be better YOURSELVES. At least meet us half way instead of pointing the finger only at us.

            You don’t wanna? Ok then, don’t expect more from us either.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No you do not.

            You don’t get to occupy more of Palestine because they committed violence in resisting you. It doesn’t work that way. Intifada does mean “shaking off.” You are on top of them. They are not on top of you. Nor on this blog site is it a contest between “us” and “you” about who can say more bad things or “point the finger” about the “other side.” This is a distraction game you have always wanted to play. It reminds me of dogs tirelessly fetching balls.

            What you would love to do is turn this discourse into an empty exercise in “even-handedness,” that peculiar self-serving Israeli idea that the conflict is some kind of perpetually balanced scale and always will be until Israel decides to do something. Two metaphors: balanced scale versus shaking off. And meanwhile the occupation is indefinitely justified.

            “Well yes we are illegally occupying and brutalizing them but you see it’s ok because they committed suicide bombings. We are even steven. And lone teens try to stab us and they get executed. So natch, that’s good for more settler housing tenders.” “I’ll trade you two terrorist attacks for three illegal outposts and two attempted stabbings by girls for seven non-violent protests shut down by ruger rifle knee capping and skunk water. I’ll trade you two corrupt Palestinian officials for seventeen under the table settler council funding deals… I’ll trade you six suicide bombings for 49 years of defiance of the Geneva conventions. I’ll trade my personal sense of outrage at Hanin Zoabi for my illegal administrative detention of Khalida Jarrar because we feel like it….. I’ll trade all the bad things you did to us for my entitlement to your land and meanwhile I’ll discount all the bad things we keep doing to you as just ‘no big deal’ and as ‘what we have to do to you because you won’t “sign a peace deal” on our terms.’ ….”

            It is ALL a distraction. It mesmerizes you. Me? Not so much.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “because they committed violence in resisting you”

            Notice how niftily Ben changed the convesation from what we were discussing. Namely: about “who is” and “who isn’t” contrite about crimes?

            Never mind, I’ll address this bit of his nonsense too. Ben is all mixed up about who is resisting who. Let me remind him about how things came to be as they are:

            1. In 1967, Jordan joined the war which erupted between Israel and Egypt. Jordan attacked Israel as a result of which Israel ended up controlling the West Bank.

            2. After the war, Israel offered to withdraw from most of the West Bank in exchange for a peace agreement and recognised border, in line with UN resolution 242.

            3. The Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs, responded with the three ‘NOs’ of Khartoum (google it). That is, “no peace”, “no negotiations”, “no recognition”.

            That is how it has been ever since, barring some pretended negotiations which always ended the same way. They all ended with violence.

            Why is that so? Because we want peace and recognition? No! Because the Arabs want to eliminate the Jewish state. How do we know that they still have not changed their old goals of 1947 when they rioted and attacked the Jews of Palestine following UN Resolution 181? A resolution for the creation of two states, one Jewish state, one Arab state. How do we know that their aim is still the destruction of the Jewish state?

            We know because:

            1. They say they refuse to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

            2. They demand that we should allow the “return” of millions of descendants of refugees into Israel proper. If we would, then Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. It would become an Arab state instead.

            So what is really happening? We are resisting Arab attempts to destroy the state of the Jewish people (by hook or by crook). In other words, the ongoing occupation is a consequence of Arab intransigence.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @AJew

            Well. True and not true.

            1. In 1967, Jordan joined the war which erupted between Israel and Egypt. Jordan attacked Israel as a result of which Israel ended up controlling the West Bank.

            Jordan was treaty-bound to Egypt. And Israel attacked Egypt first. Maybe there was a legitimate causus belli,to provoke Israel to attack. Maybe not.

            2. After the war, Israel offered to withdraw from most of the West Bank in exchange for a peace agreement and recognised border, in line with UN resolution 242.

            After the war, Israel immediately cast about for local Palestinians who would agree to an ‘autonomy’ in the West Bank. There were no takers. Israel choose not to pursue the ‘Jordanian track’, and return the West Bank to Jordan. A ‘what if’ question for the ages.

            3. The Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs, responded with the three ‘NOs’ of Khartoum (google it). That is, “no peace”, “no negotiations”, “no recognition”.

            True. But if Israel had pursued the ‘Jordanian track’, the Khartoum Conference might never have happened. Who knows.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            1. Nevertheless, Jordan attacked the Jewish state, not the other way around. And not for the first time either. It did the same thing in 1948.

            2. I’ll paraphrase Bernie: Israel tried this but did not try that. But if….

            QUESTION: what did the Arabs try? ANSWER: they tried bluster and rhetoric. But they certainly did not try to make peace with Israel.

            3. See (2) above.

            PS
            Whatever happened to the discussion about “contrariness” between me and Ben?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @AJew

            “Nevertheless, Jordan attacked the Jewish state, not the other way around”

            Jordan did indeed attack Israel, after Israel attacked Egypt, to whom Jordan was treaty bound.

            In 1948 Jordan attacked Israeli forces fighting outside of the declared borders of Israel. Jordan fought Israel in those areas designated for the Arab State, and, in Jerusalem, which was designated an ‘international city’, and not part of Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “Jordan did indeed attack Israel, after Israel attacked Egypt, to whom Jordan was treaty bound.”

            That makes it as right as Italy declaring war on the allies in WW2 because it was treaty bound with Germany who committed aggression against the allies.

            Now, Bernie. Do you or don’t you admit that Israel had every right to carry out a pre-emptive strike against Egypt because Egypt:

            1. Unilaterally ordered out the UN peace keeping forces from Sinai even though these peace keepers were placed there as part of an agreement after the 1956 war.

            2. Egypt subsequently declared to all and sundry that in the forthcoming battle their intention was to eliminate Israel.

            3. To punctuate that promise, Egypt allowed Palestinian Fedayeen to infiltrate southern Israel and murder Israeli civilians.

            4. Egypt also blockaded the Tiran straits, an international waterway, and threatened to sink any Israeli ship which would sail that way. Again, this was in contravention to their undertaking in 1956 which was to keep the waterway open in return for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai.

            5. Both Egypt and Syria mobilised their army and lined them up along Israel’s borders and taunted Israel to attack.

            Don’t you accept that the above actions constituted an act of war by Egypt? At least as much an aggression as the aggression of the third Reich at the onset of WWII?

            If not, we clearly don’t agree. But I ask you. What other choice did Israel have other than the action it took? It has been said that Israel could have agreed to negotiate a solution to the impasse. It actually tried that tack for a few weeks. But President Johnson of the USA made it clear that America was not willing to break the blockade on behalf of Israel and that Israel was on it’s own. In the meanwhile, Israel’s citizen army had to be mobilised too which meant that Israel’s industry ground to a halt. Oil supplies were drying up. The civilian population was under periodic attack by terrorists via the Egyptian border. But Israel was supposed to just patiently wait it out? Not bloody likely! Israel was more than justified to carry out it’s preemptive strike against Egypt.

            Jordan was then treaty bound to Egypt to attack Israel? So what did you expect Israel to do? Nothing in response? Just say to Jordan, please attack us? We understand your treaty obligations and we won’t respond to your attack? If you do, then you gotta be kidding.

            PS
            The fact that Egypt’s actions were triggered by Soviet mischief and misinformation is of no relevance whatsoever. Israel protested the Soviet accusations against it. The fact that Egypt chose to disbelieve Israel was Egypt’s problem. Nobody forced them to commit agression against Israel in response. Why didn’t THEY choose to negotiate instead? By reacting the way they did, they knew, absolutely knew, that Israel’s response had to be to attack. That is what Egypt wanted because they believed that they were militarily stronger. But they miscalculated.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Ditto for 1948. Jordan intervened in a civil war between Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs. A civil war which the Palestinian Arabs initiated when they rioted following the announcement of UN Resolution 181 which the Palestinian Arabs rejected but which the Jews of Palestine accepted.

            You say the Jews took the war to the Palestinian Arabs by fighting outside the designated borders of the Jewish state (designated by UN resolution 181). That, if you don’t mind me saying so, is a ludicrous stance. I am not aware of any written rule of warfare which says that if a party gets attacked by someone else who rejects those borders, that the attacked party is not allowed to cross those borders and take the war to it’s attackers on their territories.

            In any case, the borders declared by the UN would have only become recognised borders if both parties would have declared their willingness to accept those borders. The Arabs of Palestine certainly didn’t do so. In fact they rejected it outright. After that of course the new state of Israel too refused to recognise those borders which were only recommendations by the UN General Assembly. You do know that the UN GA resolutions are non mandatory?

            As for Jordan. It wasn’t their business at all. Once again they intervened on the side of the agressors and they ended up being in it for their own little selves. By 1949, they ended up controlling all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Did they then create an Arab Palestinian state? No they did not. So what were the Jordanians? If you want to be consistent, you need to have called them occupiers. After all that’s how you ended up describing Israel after 1967 when Israel ended up with the control of the WB!

            PS
            It is worth commenting though that the Palestinian Arabs didn’t end up attacking the Jordanians because of their occupation. Makes one think, doesn’t it? Could it be that they felt to be part of Jordan? If so, wouldn’t that still be a practical solution today, rather than declare yet another independent Arab state called Palestine?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @AJew

            Not to put too fine a point on it, Mussolini was not bound by the Tripartite Agreement to declare war on America. That was voluntary act, not a compulsory act.

            I already said, “Maybe there was a legitimate causus belli,to provoke Israel to attack. Maybe not.”

            I don’t have that answer myself, but, I’d never say that Israel was the aggressor in the ’67 War.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            You should if it was. But it wasn’t, for the reasons that I outlined in my previous post.

            1967 was an open and shut case. Had Israel done anything else, chances are we would now not be arguing over Israel because we would not be here. A more ambiguous case is 1956. One could argue that Israel had less of a case to attack then. But that’s another discussion.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Duh

      Israel has of course killed far more Palestinians who are rightful citizens of the post-British Mandate entity that have been denied citizenship and entry into ’48 Palestine by the Zionist regime.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bernie X

        @Duh

        What country are you from?

        *Duh heads for the tall grass*

        Reply to Comment
        • Duh

          A country that used the Palestine issue to avoid taking Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and the DP camps after the war.

          You can’t criticize Zionism and let the US off the hook.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @Duh

            I’m a citizen of the United States, too. The United States is a country founded on land stolen from indigenous Native Americans and worked and built up by chattel slavery. Colonial wars against Mexico and Spain and the Philipines, etc.

            Knowing my own American history, makes me slow to point a finger at others.

            I don’t want to come off as some kind of hypocrite.

            Reply to Comment
          • Duh

            Bernie, I could begin to care less about coming off as a hypocrite to Israelis. Now, if I attempted to cover up or justify the colonial-settler nature of the US, that would be hypocritical. Whether I do enough to oppose US settler-colonialism and imperialism is another matter. Most of us obviously don’t. However, Israel’s actions are bound up with the US.

            Reply to Comment
          • ANew

            “Most of us obviously don’t”

            I think that what Bernie was trying to tell you was that you have the wrong set of priorities. Fix your own home first before you fix someone elses place.

            As for Zionist “colonialism”, you really don’t know what you are talking about. I can discuss it with you if you want. But first I need to understand your stance. So please clarify. Are you one of those people who feels that Jews have no right to have our state at all? If you are, then I don’t even want to waste my time with you. Otherwise, we may be able to at least discuss. It’s up to you.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Veggieburger

      To any here who have suggested that Palestinians let go of or ‘get over’ their painful attachment to the massacre at Kafr Qasim….should consider what the reaction would be to such a suggestion to survivors of the Holocaust. I make NO moral equivalency here…..but we who have not suffered a particular loss have no legitimate right to tell others when, if ever to have closure.

      I was a guest in Kafr Qasim for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration….10 years ago and the pain of remembrance was patently palpable. It may be inconvenient for we who are not Palestinian….but assisting in their process, by being patiently empathic…..will go a long way toward the Truth & Reconciliation which people of good-will seek.

      Reply to Comment
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