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Massacre at Rishon Kezion: Killer of Gaza

On the Morning of May 20, 1990, Israeli Ami Popper, who would quickly be described as a “madman” by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, murdered seven Gaza workers and wounded 11 others in the “slave market” of Rishon Lezion, an Israeli town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. As word of the massacre spread, protests broke out in refugee camps and villages throughout Gaza and the West Bank. In the hours that followed, Israeli soldiers shot and killed six more Palestinians and wounded several hundred with a combination of  live fire and rubber-coated steel bullets. In the succeeding, days the numbers of dead and wounded would increase dramatically.

Four hours after the shooting, at the scene of the initial crime, with “the thick pool [of blood] dried already by the heat of the morning,” Israeli journalist Yigal Serna visited the scene and spoke with one of the surviving workers.

“We stand here already for 13 years,” said Najah, a young Palestinian from Khan Yunis. “My father stood here waiting for work and brought us, the children, to wait with him, and now I wait here, too. We built a big part of this city, but today, after they killed our friends and let them lie in the garbage, in the sun, until their last breath, until the ambulance came at last, even after that the policemen beat us up. So what do you think we should do?” (Yediot Ahronot, 5/21/90).

What he was describing was the reaction of passing Israeli motorists to the wounded laying by the side of the road which ranged from celebration–giving the “V” sign–to indifference. Later, Serna reported, “a small red car stopped. A jolly young man, with the identification of a worker from the [Israeli] Paz company, got out and when he found the blood pool covering the earth, he began to dance on it. ‘Why only seven?’ he laughed, ‘this is the slogan today, why only seven?’ After saying this, he went away.”

I was standing for two hours in the ‘slave market junction’ of Rishon Lezion,” wrote Serna, “and during that time I did not see any sign of sorrow.”

Beginning at 3 am every day but Saturday (a Jewish holiday), some 150 to 200 Palestinian workers, mainly from Gaza, gather at the Rishon Lezion “slave market,” according to a report by the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center in Jerusalem. It is one of at least 50 such locations throughout Israel where Israeli contractors hire Palestinians for day labor.

A representative from the Center also interviewed one of those workers who survived the attack, Yahya Musa Swei’ed, 30, from Rafah, on the Gaza-Egyptian border. Yahya had left Gaza at 3:30 am and arrived at the “slave market” about 5:45.  He told the PHRIC:

“At 6:10 am, a man came out of an orange orchard and walked towards us. He was wearing army pants and a jacket like a police jacket, and was carrying an automatic rifle… He did not look nervous. He quietly asked the workers, in Hebrew, to show him their ID cards. As they did so, he ordered each one to kneel on the ground in rows, close together. This sort of thing happens daily to us with police and border guards. We saw a car with Gaza plates coming; the man stopped the car… he ordered the driver and the five passengers to get out and sit with us.

“He looked at the traffic lights,” Yahya continued, “and when they were red, he asked us: ‘Do you know why you are here?’ then said: “It’s better that you don’t know.’ He was standing three meters away. He started shooting at us, using three cartridges [of 36 bullets]. I lay on the ground… When he stopped, I saw that he was looking in his clothes for more bullets… He got into the car and drove away.”

Yahya, who was not injured, got up and began searching for his brother, Ziad, who had been sitting in the first row: “I found him dead, bleeding from all parts of his body, especially the pelvic area. We asked the Israeli cars to stop and help us, but they refused. After about 15 minutes, police cars arrived and closed the area.”

In the week that preceded the attack, several events took place in Israel that according to critics of the government’s “madman” explanation, created the atmosphere which allowed the attack to occur.

Five Months for Killing a Palestinian

The first was the release from prison of Michal Hallal who had been given a life sentence for the murder of a Palestinian taxi driver but “on account of poor health” was freed after serving three years. This was followed by the triumphal procession to prison of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of the  settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), who had been sentenced to five months for shooting to death an unarmed Palestinian merchant in Hebron.

At a rally for Levinger, following his sentence, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriya, the winner of the Israeli Education Prize and described in the Israeli press as the most senior of the national-religious educators, read to a rally of 100 rabbis from a document he had written which “was received as a religious ruling by tens of thousands of his followers.” (Dan Margalit, Ha’aretz, 5/13/90).

“This is not the time to think,” Neriya wrote, “but rather the time to shoot right and left, as long as one disperses the murderers who rise against you; the imprisonment of Rabbi Levinger is a sign of alarm for all of us to gather and protect our souls…”

This incident have provides an insight into what Prof. Israel Shahak, long-time Israeli human rights activist, (who provided the previous translations and those that follow), points to as “the polarization existing and increasing in the Jewish society in Israel” between what Shahak, himself a concentration camp survivor, describes as those pushing for the “Nazification” of Israeli society and those opposing it as represented by “the greater part of the Hebrew press.”

The Buddies of “Our Israeli Hero”

Serna, whose articles from Yediot Ahronot,  Israeli’s largest circulation daily, have previously been reprinted in the MELB,  is one such representative. Five days after the massacre, he wrote of his visit  to Popper’s home and his interviews with the killer’s friends. When he arrived and introduced himself, two of them identified as Barak and Avi told Ben-Hur, “a young boy who caught on quickly,” ‘Go and get all the guys, go get all the buddies of our Israeli hero.’ ”

“They spoke about his action with a great deal of enthusiasm,” wrote Serna, “and revealed how sorry they were about the long sentence he could expect, ‘like the [Jewish] Underground, in a comfortable prison. Not with Arabs.’”

‘Yesterday night,” one of them named Gideon recounted, ‘six of us guys were sitting up after midnight in Barak’s house… We decided that Ami had made only two mistakes: one, that he didn’t kill all [the Palestinians] that were there, and two, that he turned himself in rather than try to make a run for it. He could have come over to me… I would have taken good care of him.’”

I found a newspaper supplement in a pile of newspapers at Gideon’s house,” wrote Serna. “There on page 23, six days before the massacre, there was photo of Levinger brandishing his pistol in the courtyard of the [Israeli] court and saying: ‘I am happy to be going on a five month holiday.’ Such were the words of the man who shot dead an Arab shoe merchant. The reporter described the public tribute that accompanied the rabbi to prison: a festive morning prayer service in the Cave of the Patriarchs, a reception at the synagogue, and a convoy of cars to Jerusalem for a meeting with the Chief Rabbis. ‘It doesn’t make sense that the victim should be punished for the crime,’ said Levinger. The idea that the murderer is actually the victim is a sentiment that is shared by Ami Popper’s friends.”

“‘This is a polarized world,” Israeli psychologist Emmanuel Berman told Serna. “In this world a total distinction is drawn between the value of our lives and the value of their lives. Murderous impulses receive partial legitimation. The pardons given to Jews who kill Arabs send a clear message about what this society truly thinks about the murder of Arabs and what kind of punishment [the murderers] deserve.”

Berman sees the slave market murders as a chilling caricature of an almost undiscussed Israeli phenomenon,” wrote Serna. “Ami Popper, who emerged from the orchard in order to commit murder, first made the Arabs stand in a line and show him their identity papers. This is a ritual of everyday life in the Israel of the intifada. It is shown day after day on television and you see it happening on every street you travel along.”

“‘Popper,’ said Berman,” ‘took part in an impersonation. He came along wearing a few pieces of an army uniform and carrying a gun. All the accounts of how Arabs are beaten by Border Guards or members of the civil guard begin with the ritual of them checking identity papers. This is how Jewish authority is being established all the time.”

“The Arabs Obeyed Him”

‘’The Arabs standing opposite Popper obeyed him, as they always do, even though Popper didn’t prove that he had the authority to examine or arrest them. This stems from their ignorance and the breakdown of clear lines of demarcation. Arabs are accustomed to everyone Jewish checking up on them, be it the Border Guards, the Civil Guards, soldiers, police or the Shabak (Intelligence).’”

Dr. Dvora Carmiel of the Institute for the Study of Stress at Haifa University, told Serna that   “in the final analysis, Popper’s act was a group action, and not the action of a single deranged person.”

Her analysis, writes Serna, deepens the responsibility for the atrocity and does not allow any room for the excuse which the [Israeli] media and politicians put forward the morning after the murders.  “‘Popper.’” said Carmiel, “‘did not act contrary to the basic values of the society in which we live. The victory march of Levinger, the Arab killer… created the image of the heroic murderer.’”

“Chilling Message” 

She referred to the “chilling message given by the judicial system” that gave the Rabbi Levinger five months in prison for the murder of an Arab and six months in prison for peace activist Abie Nathan  for speaking to the PLO.

While the Israeli and US media focused attention on Popper, the identities of the murdered Palestinians received little attention, except from the Israeli army, whose soldiers raided the homes of five of the dead, beating mourners and killing one more, according to the PHRIC.

The five and their stories: Zayed Zidan Abdul Majid Imour, 33, of Khan Yunis, married with three children. After the funeral, soldiers raided his house and fired tear gas at mourners causing his wife to lose consciousness; Ziad Musa Mohammed Swei’d, 20, married, of Rafah and Yahya’s brother. After his funeral, soldiers came to his home and beat the young men they found there.

Omar Hammad Ahmed Dahlit 24, of Rafah, married. Two days after his funeral, soldiers led by the military commander raided the family’s house, beat relatives, tore the deceased’s photograph and damaged the furniture.

Abdul Rahim Salem Barakeh, 43 of Bani Suhailia, married with five children. After his funeral, at ll:30 pm, soldiers raided his house and his family was beaten; Yusef Ibrahim Mansour Abu Daqqa, 36, from Bani Suhella, married with seven children. Two days after his funeral, soldiers raided his family’s house, killing one person and injuring ten others.

The two others who were killed and whose homes and families were left alone to mourn, at least temporarily, were Zaki Mohammad Hamdan Qadih, 35, of Abasan Kabira, married with nine children and Suleiman Abu Razeq Mohammad Abu Anza, from the same village.

Three Postscripts

Postscript: Two days after the massacre,  seven-year old Mustafa Awas Mahmud al Fajem of Bani Suhaila in Gaza, was playing with other children about 100 yards from his house and nearly 1000 yards from the main street.

A border guard in a vehicle on the street shouted: “Whoever wants to die can throw a stone,” and “You bastards, seven were killed at Rishon Lezion and I am going to kill the eighth.”

An eyewitness, a relative of Mustafa,  told the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC} that one border guard got out of the jeep “took his gun, and fired one bullet towards the children; it hit Mustafa on the forehead. Then another soldier shot several rubber [over steel]  bullets towards the children. Mustafa died the next day.

When his father went to the hospital he was beaten by Israeli soldiers and four of his relatives arrested.

A second post script: On July 20, two months to the day after the massacre, Prince George’s County,  Maryland, established an official sister-county relationship with Rishon Lezion. Rishon Mayor Meir Nitzam came for the signing ceremony and Givanim Israeli folk dancers  gave a free performance at Prince George’s County College. (Washington Jewish Week, 7/12 and 7/26/90).

Although the county spokesperson Jackie Woody told the Middle East Labor Bulletin that the arrangement between the Maryland and Israeli communities had been in the works for some time, it was not presented to the Prince George’s County Council for approval until July 12. She said that the massacre had not effected the county’s decision.

And a third post script: Rabbi Levinger was released from prison on August 13 for “good behavior” He had served 92 days.

(This article originally appeared in the Middle East Labor Bulletinm Vol, 2 No. 3, Summer, 1990) 

Jeffrey Blankfort is  a journalist and radio host currently living in Northern California. He can be contacted at jblankfort@earthlink.net

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Jeffrey Blankfort is a radio host and journalist in Northern California and can be contacted at jblankfort@earthlink.net.

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