Forty-eight civilians, 1 fetus, and 10 pennies
If your Palestinian neighbors and friends seem slightly on edge today, please excuse them. October 29 brings back horrific memories to Palestinians everywhere, young and old. It was 64 years ago today that a scene of cold-blooded murder fell upon the hill-top Palestinian village of Kafr Qassem (also written Kfar Kassim), located in Israel about 20 km east of Tel Aviv, near the Green Line (1949 Armistice Agreement’s demarcation line) separating Israel and the West Bank. It was in Kafr Qassem on this day in 1956 where the Israeli military mowed down in cold blood 48 innocent civilians, one being 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-four years is a long time to mourn a death, even a 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 other massacres before Kafr Qasssem, such as the case of Deir Yassin in 1948. Since that dark day in Kafr Qassem, 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 heard on radio communications saying he was “confirming the kill.” Another example that comes to mind is the Israeli soldier caught on camera in Hebron as he executed a wounded and immobilized Palestinian man lying on the ground by firing a bullet into his head as his fellow soldiers casually watched on. Large parts of Israeli society, including the Israeli prime minister, rallied to his defense.
Unlike today, decades ago Israel did undertake more serious investigations of actions of its military. This is not to say that justice was ever served — it rarely is. Such a landmark investigation was the Israeli Kahan Commission, established by the Israeli government on September 28, 1982, to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre (September 16–18, 1982) where 1,000–3,000 (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. The Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility. Sharon’s negligence in protecting the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, resulted in a recommendation that Sharon be dismissed as Defense Minister. Although Sharon grudgingly resigned as Defense Minister, he remained in the Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio. Years later, Sharon would be elected Israel’s Prime Minister.
A monument in Kafr Qassem to the victims of the massacre in 1956
Back to Kafr Qassem
Several years ago, the Israeli English newspaper, Haaretz, reported in a story by correspondent Ofer Aderet (60 years after massacre, Kafr Qasem doesn’t want an apology from the Israeli government, October 28, 2016) that, “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.”
The Haaretz story goes on, “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 Patrol 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.’”
And maybe most shocking of all coming from an Israeli newspaper is that “The comparison between the Kafr Qasem massacre and the Holocaust was first made at the trial, when the [Israeli] judge asked one of the defendants if he would have justified a Nazi soldier who was obeying orders.” The Haaretz correspondent continues, “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. This horrendous act was revolting and when undertaken in “your” name it makes one sick to their stomach.
Aderet’s article offers but a glimpse into the legal proceedings surrounding Kafr Qassem. Since this groundbreaking article, many other Israeli journalists and historians, such as Adam Raz, have revealed additional details of this historic period, many using newly declassified Israeli documents.
One of the first people to document those proceedings was Palestinian attorney Sabri Jiryis in his landmark book, The Arabs in Israel, published in Haifa in Hebrew 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 [with the author’s permission] in English. Warning: it’s a disturbing read.
And this, my friends, is the buried past and not so buried present, of the state of Israel and its celebrated Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), “the most moral army in the world.” We all must redouble our efforts to ensure that those persons and entities responsible for these atrocities are held accountable. We can all be inspired that this is happening, albeit slowly, when we listen to the jailed Israeli conscientious objector Hallel Rabin refuse to take part in a system of Israeli-made oppression.
Israel must not be given carte blanche immunity — military order, or not.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on October 29, 2020 on ePalestine, a website featuring commentary by Sam Bahour, as well as Medium. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Bahour.
Cover photo: Photographs of the victims are displayed at the Kafr Qassem Massacre Museum.