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In a conflict that has produced more than its share of suffering and tragedy, the name of Kafr Qassem lives on in infamy more than half a century after Israeli police gunned down 47 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the village.
This week Kafr Qassem’s inhabitants, joined by a handful of Israeli Jewish sympathisers, commemorated the anniversary of the deaths 52 years ago by marching to the cemetery where the victims were laid to rest.
They did so as the local media revisited the events, publishing testimonies from two former senior police officers who recalled the order from their commander to shoot all civilians breaking a last-minute curfew imposed on the village, which lies just inside Israel’s borders.
The two men, who were stationed at villages close to Kafr Qassem, suggested that, had they not personally disobeyed the order when confronted with Palestinians returning from work, the death toll would have been far higher.
Taking part in the annual march was one of the few survivors of the massacre. Saleh Khalil Issa is today 71, but back in 1956 he was an 18-year-old agricultural worker.
He remembered returning to the village on his bicycle, along with a dozen other workers, just after 5pm on 29 October 1956.
What he and the other villagers did not know was that earlier that day the Border Police, a special paramilitary unit that operates inside both Israel and the occupied territories, had agreed to set up checkpoints unannounced at the entrance to half a dozen Palestinian villages inside Israel.
The villages were selected because they lie close to the Green Line, the ceasefire line between Israel and Jordan, which was then occupying the West Bank, following the 1948 war.
At a briefing the commanding officer, Major Shmuel Malinki, ordered his men to shoot any civilian arriving home after 5pm.
Asked about the fate of women or children returning late, Malinki replied: “Without sentiment, the curfew applies to everyone.” Pressed on the point, he responded in Arabic: “Allah yarahmum [God have mercy on them]”, adding that this was the order from the brigade commander, Colonel Issachar Shadmi.
Mr Issa said that, when his group reached the village, they were stopped by three policemen. “They told us to get off our bikes and form a line. The commander asked where we were from. When we replied ‘Kafr Qassem’, he took three steps back and told his colleagues, ‘Cut them down!’”
Mr Issa, who was shot in the arm and leg, pretended to be dead among the bodies. He heard villagers’ cars arriving and the policemen ask the same question. Each new arrival was executed.
“Finally, I heard a bus arrive with female passengers, including young girls. I later learnt that there were 12 of them on board. They were forced to get out and shot too, though one survived like me.”
Mr Issa said the policemen checked to see if any of the victims were moving, and then fired more bullets at them. While the police officers were not watching, he crawled away and hid behind a tree. He was found the next morning and taken to a hospital in nearby Petah Tikva, along with 12 other injured.
Of the dead, seven were children and nine women, including one who was pregnant.
Mohammed Arabi, today 84, arrived at the same checkpoint later that evening. A tailor, he had spent the day in Tel Aviv buying materials and hitched a lift home in the back of a truck with 26 other villagers.
When the driver tried to drop 11 of them off just outside the village, they came under fire. The 11 jumped back into the truck, he said, and the driver sped up the hill towards the village.
“When we reached the entrance to the village, we saw bodies everywhere. The driver panicked, frightened to go back, but forced to drive over several corpses lying in the street to get away.”
A short distance ahead, however, a detachment of policemen stopped them. Mr Arabi overheard a debate between the policemen about whether to let them go home or take them to the eastern side of the village.
“I knew what was being suggested. The eastern side was the border with the West Bank. Palestinians were regularly shot on sight by the police for trying to cross into Israel. If we were killed there, it would look like we were infiltrators.”
The commander said he would follow behind the truck in his jeep and escort them to the village’s eastern entrance.
“We were saved by a shepherd who at that moment was driving a large flock of sheep into the village. The sheep separated us from the police, and the truck driver saw his chance. He drove off at top speed and escaped.
“He took us to his home and all 27 of us hid there for three days, too frightened to come out.”
Despite the appalling loss of life, Israel has been slow to come to terms with the massacre. Mr Issa and other villagers were repeatedly arrested in subsequent years as they tried to stage a commemoration.
On the insistence of the government, the plaque erected in the village square to commemorate the deaths refers to the event as a “tragedy” rather a “massacre”. No government official has ever attended the annual march.
Kafr Qassem had to wait until December last year to receive what some interpreted as an official apology. President Shimon Peres, who in 1956 headed the Defence Ministry, told the villagers that “in the past a very serious event occurred that we greatly regret”.
In another possible sign of shifting attitudes, the Israeli media re-examined the massacre this month by interviewing two former officers in the Border Police who were given the task of imposing the last-minute curfew on villages neighbouring Kafr Qassem.
The curfew was imposed in the immediate build-up to Israel’s surprise attack on the Sinai as part of the Suez war.
According to Israeli historian Tom Segev, it later emerged that the decision to seal off the villages was one element of a contingency plan to expel the inhabitants to Jordan under cover of the war. Mr Arabi pointed out that the entrances to Kafr Qassem were shut on three sides, leaving open only an exit to the West Bank.
The government hushed up the massacre for two months. Excerpts from the Israeli state archives released in 2001 reveal a heated cabinet debate as ministers argued about whether to try the police officers in secret.
The prime minister of the day, David Ben-Gurion, eventually decided to go public, adding that “those who gave the order will get a strict verdict. I don’t think the soldiers are guilty.”
In fact, the Israeli media reported at the time that the policemen involved “all received a 50 per cent increase in their salaries” and that they were treated in the courtroom “as heroes”.
When a trial was held, the commander, Col Shadmi, was found guilty of making an “administrative error” and fined a penny. Although his men received lengthy prison terms, they were pardoned and released after a short time.
Several went on to distinguished careers in public service, including Lieutenant Gavriel Dahan, who carried out the executions in Kafr Qassem. He was later appointed head of Arab affairs in the mixed town of Ramle.
Mr Issa, who was called to testify, said: “The trial was a farce. It was a game, to make it look as though they were dealing with the matter seriously.” He was later awarded 700 lire compensation, less than a year’s wage.
The main outcome of the trial was a recommendation from the court that some orders were “manifestly unlawful” and should be disobeyed – or what has come to be referred to as a “black flag order”.
This month the Haaretz newspaper published lengthy interviews with two surviving former Border Police officers who were part of a team charged with enforcing the curfew.
They admitted that Major Malinki had urged them to shoot civilians at the briefing.
Nimrod Lampert, now aged 74 but then a 22-year-old lieutenant posted at Kafr Bara, recalled that Malinki thought “it would be desirable to have a few people killed in each village … It was also clear to me that Malinki’s order was effectively to murder people in cold blood.”
When faced with villagers arriving after the 5pm curfew, Lampert ignored his instructions and told his men to spare them.
Lampert remembered the company commander Haim Levy’s arrival at Bara. “He asked, ‘Well, not one person has been killed here? In other places people have been killed.’ I replied: What to do – should we take people out of their homes and shoot them?”
As news of the massacre broke, Lampert was ordered to drive to Kafr Qassem. “When I got there I thought I was going to pass out. There was no one there – only dozens of bodies scattered everywhere.”
Lampert said that during the subsequent trial his fellow officers “were very angry with me for not doing what they did … I also received threats on my life. For two years after the trial I received telephone threats.”
Lampert was not alone in refusing the order. Binyamin Kol, now 77, was 25 in 1956 and the senior officer assigned to the village of Jaljulya.
A refugee from Nazi Germany, he had experienced Kristallnacht in 1938 when Nazi troops conducted a pogrom against the local Jewish population. He was saved when a Nazi policeman warned him: “Run home fast, boy.”
Remembering that moment 18 years later as Arab workers arrived at his checkpoint, he said: “I fired in the air and shouted in Arabic – ‘Yallah, go home fast’ – just like the German policeman who warned me on Kristallnacht.”
Like Lampert, Kol admitted to feeling ashamed during the trial for refusing to obey his orders. He testified in court that, when he heard about the growing number of dead in Kafr Qasem, he felt “envious” of the commander there, Lieutenant Dahan.
Analysing the transcripts of the trial, Mr Segev has noted that the reason why many of the policemen followed a “manifestly unlawful” order was because of a general racism in Israeli society: “They hated Arabs”.
The threat of expulsion continues to haunt the inhabitants of Kafr Qassem and its neighbouring villages. It is the main platform of Avigdor Lieberman, a politician who was appointed deputy prime minister at one point in Ehud Olmert’s government.
Mr Arabi observed that the massacre at Kafr Qassem had changed Palestinians’ response to Israeli violence. “In the 1948 war, many people fled when faced with the Israeli army, expecting to return after the fighting. After Kafr Qassem, Palestinians learnt that Israel did not play by the rules of war. We learnt that sumud [steadfastness] was our only defence.”
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.