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
sympathizers, 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
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
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
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 Defense
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 reexamined
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 neighboring
The curfew was imposed in the immediate buildup 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,
Analyzing 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 neighboring 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 defense."
A version of this article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.