“We Acted Like the Nazis”: Kfar Qassem, Israel’s Babi Yar

At about half past six in the evening of on October 29th, 1956, the last vehicle arrived at the Kafr Qassem junction. It was a truck. Fourteen women and girls rode in it, with four men and boys. Squad commander Shalom Ofer stopped the truck, but the passengers – laborers returning from their day’s work – refused to step out. They had noticed the twenty-five bodies already strewn around the junction.

The driver soothed the women, put a ladder up against the back of the truck and helped them climb down. Ofer ordered the passengers and driver to line up. Then he returned to his men, ordered them to point their guns and gave the order: “mow them down!”

Every one of the forty-nine victims killed in incidents around Kafr Qassem that evening was a citizen of Israel. The youngest victim was only four; the oldest, sixty-six. The site of the massacre was later renamed “Tzomet Kessem”. This is Hebrew for “Magic Junction”.

History would pinpoint this to be a defining moment for the Israeli army.

It would be later that evening that Israel would attack Egypt, in an operation eventually known as the Suez War. Israel’s attack was coordinated with Britain and France, and its goal was to bring about the collapse of Gamal Nasser’s regime. Britain and France were to take back the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by Nasser; Israel’s prize would be the Sinai Peninsula.

Fearful of Arab response to this aggression, Israel applied powers it had been using for the 18 years of its existence, when its Arab citizens were subject to military rule. A decision was taken to impose a curfew, to make squash any possibility of an uprising. Arab towns were already subject to night curfews as of 9 pm, but that night the curfew was pushed forward to 5 pm and orders were given to shoot curfew-breakers on sight. This posed a problem: what was to be done with the villagers who would return from work, and would not be aware that the curfew was starting earlier?

Regiment commander Isaskhar Shadmi had no qualms about this. “Allah yerachmo, a phrase in Arabic – may God have mercy on them – was his answer.

Although a murderous order was given, most officers and soldiers under Shadmi’s command chose not to carry it out. They had options, and they exercised these options to carry out their task – imposing a curfew – without perpetrating a massacre.

But one platoon, led by Gavriel Dahan, who would change his name to Dagan after being paroled and become the Israel Bonds representative to France, chose otherwise.

Dahan rounded up his men and instructed them as follows: they were to enforce a curfew between 5 pm and 6 am. they were forbidden to enter the houses of the village; they were to shoot and kill any person they saw after 5 pm. Dahan made the argument to the soldiers that when they kill a person outside of a building they are only obeying orders, and for that reason it is merely killing – which is a soldier’s duty. If they were to enter the houses and kill the residents, that would be a murder. It was thus that Dahan laid out the ground rules for the evening’s activity.

Thereafter, Dahan split his men into squads. One squad, which was led by Ofer, was positioned at the only road into the village. Others were positioned at other spots, and Dahan himself patrolled in a jeep, with three more of his men. This patrol force killed four people, including a six year old boy and a fifteen year old.

During his trial Ofer explained that “We operated liked the Nazis”, referring to the mechanical obedience and disregard for human sentiment. This was not an attitude one would expect in an Israeli soldier carrying out policing activities in his own country, without being in any danger whatsoever. So what happened? The answer lies, perhaps, in consideration of the Nazis themselves.

According to Christopher Browning’s aptly named book, Ordinary Men, about 20% of the Nazi’s 101st Police Brigade did their best to avoid tasks involving massacre; 70% of the men obeyed the order because of their adherence to value of camaraderie: they did not want to leave the loathsome task to their friends.

And about 10% of the members of 101 were sadists, who actually enjoyed their job and volunteered to do them, people who ventured on them again and again with a glimmer in their eyes. They had the perfect excuse to pacify any normative qualms: they had been following orders. When this excuse fell away during trials, justifications were made: the victims had tried to escape and so, had to be shot. Courts have found this to be untrue.

But this is not the whole story. Dahan and Ofer needed another excuse. An ordinary person doesn’t go around killing civilians – he needs a reason to do so. An order is far from being sufficient when it comes to killing a four year old girl. The reason, however, was easily found and is still in the air to this day.

When the Germans murdered Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others, they perceived them to be enemies. Unarmed enemies of the race, operating deviously behind the scenes. The more these people were mistreated, the greater the fear of them: German society knew that it was an iniquitous society. Rather than internalizing this information, it externalized it. In the last months of the war on the eastern front, German soldiers fought with desperate savagery, because they knew how high a price their country would have to pay for the crimes they had committed, if there was indeed justice in the world.

A similar myth was developing in Israel at the time. The mass expulsions in 1948 significantly reduced its Arab population. As to those who remained, the more Israel persecuted them, confiscated their lands, imposed night curfews on them, systematically damaged their livelihoods, demeaned them, and made them live under military rule for 18 years, the more Israel also feared them. This brought forth the myth that Israel’s Arabs were “a fifth column”, waiting anxiously for the opportunity to join an external military force.

This was not grounded in fact. The vast majority of Israel’s Arabs – more than 99% of them – were not and have never been involved in any form of hostile activity. Those fears arose with a special intensity on that October night in 1956, when Israel ventured into its second war. Would the uprising come now?

And so, a four year old girl was shot and killed.

Israel’s government dealt with the issue by unsuccessfully concealing it, trying to shift the blame from the army to the Border Patrol, and finally creating a token “forgiveness” ceremony in Kafr Qassem itself – and then sweeping the entire story under the carpet. The date of the massacre was not commemorated in any official way, and attempts by ministers of education to include it in the official calendar or history of Israel were met with a public outcry.

The criminals were brought to trial before Justice Halevi, who had tried other weighty matters, such as the first Jewish underground (the Tzrifin gang). After defining what constitutes a manifestly illegal order – “a criminality that stabs the eye and causes the heart to rebel – that is the measure of “manifest” illegality that is required in order to cancel the soldier’s duty to obey and place upon him the criminal liability for his actions” – Justice Haelvi sentenced the perpetrators to relatively short jail terms. They were all paroled secretly, within less than a year. The Ben Gurion regime quietly helped them to find jobs, which at the time was unheard of for convicted criminals. Shadmi, an officer of some repute, was tried, found guilty, and for the death of over 40 human beings was fined the sum of one penny.

Subsequent massacres perpetrated by Jews upon Arabs, such as the events of February 1994, when Barukh Goldstein killed 29 worshipers in the Ibrahimi shrine in Hebron, and in May 1990, when Ami Popper’s shot of seven unarmed Arab day laborers in Rishon Letziyon, serve to underline the prevalence of the fear of such an uprising.

Fifty years later, in Israel in 2006, killing an unarmed thirteen year old girl by an entire company of the Israeli army does not “stab the heart”, does not “cause the eye to rebel”. The company commander responsible for her death was indicted for abusing her corpse – and acquitted. No charge was demanded for the blood of Ayman Al Hams, who was running for her life, described on the military communication network as “a little girl, scared to death”. The company commander, heard over the radio saying “We have confirmed the killing” and ordering his men to “shoot anyone you see, even three-years-old girls”, was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the killing, and has actually sued for compensation, claiming injurious libel.

Fifty years later, military orders remain a supreme value in Israel, beyond considerations of human life. Fifty years later, a majority of the Jewish public feels that the Arab citizens should be expelled from the country, and that the requisite price should be paid, a price which – just like in 1947-49, would be a massacre. Fifty years later, in Israel in 2006, the eye has long since turned blind, and the heart has been seared and blackened beyond any capacity for compassion.

(This is a shortened an updated translation of an article published in Nana News on 29 October 2006. Translation: Dena Bugel-Shunra).

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