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As Evidence Mounts, Toll of Israeli Prisoner of War Massacres Grows

By Katherine M. Metres
February/March 1996, pgs. 17, 104-105


"If I were to be put on trial for what I did, then it would be necessary to put on trial at least one-half the Israeli army which, in similar circumstances, did what I did."—Israeli Brig. Gen. Aryeh Biro, who admitted to killing hundereds of unresisting Egyptians.

In July 1995, the long, hidden story began to leak. Publication in the Israeli press of a study undertaken for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) briefly noted that 35 Egyptian "soldiers"—actually civilian Public Works employees, it was later admitted—were murdered during the 1956 Suez War, ostensibly because there was insufficient manpower to guard them (Davar, 7/21/95). After this little-noticed article was published, the military censor could no longer prevent the publication of historian Ronal Fisher's research on Israeli massacres of 273 Egyptians who, according to international law, should have been prisoners of war (Ma'ariv, 8/8/95).*

Former soldiers' recollections of the massacres they committed gained momentum, and soon a host of war crimes previously known only to the participants came to light in the mainstream Israeli press. Israelis admitted that in the 1967 Six-Day War, the IDF executed Palestinian POWs who were fighting in the Egyptian army, a thousand unresisting Egyptians, and dozens of unarmed Palestinian refugees.

The 1956 massacres occurred in the context of the lsraeli invasion of the Egyptian Sinai, which was planned in collusion with Britain and France in order to overthrow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and return the Suez Canal to European control. The war began when Israeli Battalion 890 parachuted onto the eastern side of Sinai's Mitla Pass. The battalion was commanded by Raphael (Raful) Eitan, who later helped carry out Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and who played a role in the massacres of Palestinian and Lebanese civilian residents of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut.

The Israeli paratroopers rounded up 49 Egyptian and Sudanese civil engineers who were camped near the invaders. Later, when Eitan received orders to move on, the Israelis tied the workers' hands and executed them. Aryeh Biro, the commander who ordered the deed and subsequently was promoted to brigadier general, says his unit killed them because there was no manpower for guarding prisoners and he feared they could inform the Egyptian troops of the Israeli unit's whereabouts. Biro's action constitutes a clear violation of the international prohibition on the execution of innocent civilians.

Fisher's eyewitnesses continue: On the fourth day of the 1956 invasion, a truck approached Eitan's Israeli battalion at Ras Sudar in Sinai. One of the men on the truck fired "a few aimless bullets," but the truck stopped short when an IDF anti-tank grenade hit it, killing the driver. According to Shaul Ziv, who fired that grenade, the exchange should have ended then, since the men in the truck, Palestinian and Egyptian irregulars, were stunned and unmoving. Yet Biro ordered his men to shoot until the last of the 56 men in the truck was dead.

The Real Carnage Begins

And then the real carnage began. On the sixth day of the campaign, Eitan's battalion set out for Sharm al-Sheikh. Before the Israeli soldiers reached their destination, they killed at least another 168 Egyptians. (According  to Biro himself, that number is low. He says his men killed "most of" a company of about 400. Prof. Israel Shahak, an Israeli writer and translator of Hebrew-language reports, says at least 2,000 Egyptians were killed.) The IDF says the "unit confronted an Egyptian division, a small part of which began a battle with our troops and was eliminated in the course of exchanges of fire. Most of the Egyptians were then taken prisoner and held until transferred to Israeli territory."

Independent Israeli historians disagree with the army's sanitized version of events. Uri Milstein, a right-winger, and Meir Pa'il, a former general associated with the far left, agree on this point. Milstein says that the Egyptians were surrounded by advancing Israeli units and "in the course of their attempt to escape, the Egyptians lost all of their operational capabilities and fell into groups, thirsty, hungry and exhausted, and then into the hands of Raful and his soldiers. The men of Battalion 890 understood  that nothing would be done to them if they eliminated a few dozen or a  few hundred POWs, as long as they won the war and returned home as heroes...Therefore, nearly every Egyptian who confronted him and his soldiers was eliminated in the course of the advance to the south."

Pa'il concurs: "In actual fact, what happened was that Battalion 890 met a disintegrated and defeated unit of the Egyptian army in Sharm  al-Sheikh, a unit which could not fight and which was only seeking a way to be taken prisoner. If, nevertheless, there were several Egyptian soldiers who fired a bullet or two, no one really thought that they intended to fight. Raful saw that he did not have enough men to put in charge of the gathering of Egyptian soldiers who wanted to surrender and gave an order to kill all of them...For him, a soldier who takes a transistor radio as booty is a criminal. But a soldier who kills an Arab, hands up or hands down, is blessed."

In spite of the facts of history—ranging from the 1948 massacre of Palestinian civilians in Deir Yassin to the 1994 murders of Muslim men  and boys at prayer in Hebron—many Israelis continue to see themselves as morally superior to their neighbors. The news of the massacres pierced this persistent myth once again. Predictably, the Israeli public reacted with shock. However, while some were shocked at the crimes ("How  could we?"), others were shocked only at the revelation of the crimes ("Why did these former soldiers and historians reveal this damaging information now?").

Ben Dror Yemini, a Labor party activist, is an example of the latter. He asserted that the uproar over the massacres amounted to the "rewriting  of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." His reference to an infamous "plan" by Jews to rule the world, thought to be a fabrication  of Czarist Russian secret police, was an attempt to paint those who have made the massacres public as self-destructive accessories to anti-Semitism. He concluded smugly, "Not everyone among our fighters is the best person in the world, but compared to what happened in other places, we the Jews are nevertheless almost angels" (Ma'ariv, 8/20/95).

In reality, Israeli forces' not infrequent failure to distinguish between armed enemy soldiers who have not surrendered, soldiers who have laid down their arms, and noncombatants has been far from angelic. For example, the day before the murders at Mitla, Israeli border guards had killed 49 Palestinian farmers, citizens of Israel. Their only crime was attempting to return to their homes in the village of Kufr Qassem which, unknown to them, had been placed under curfew while they were at work in their fields. Likewise, in 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank, many families who had fled across the Jordan River during the fighting were shot by the IDF while they were trying to return to their West Bank homes (News From Within, 9/95).

Just as reports of the 1956 massacres implicate Rafael Eitan, a prominent right-wing figure in contemporary Israeli politics, reports now coming out of Israel regarding the 1967 war pose a serious threat to the current Labor government, because they implicate "Fouad" Ben Eliezer, the minister of housing. Aryeh Yitzhaki, a mainstream historian, states that "in the Six Day War the IDF killed approximately 1,000 Egyptian soldiers who had ceased functioning as a fighting force." Apparently, Eliezer's Shaked unit was responsible for one-third of those murders, which occurred during an operation called "Gazelle Hunt" because the IDF slaughtered the soldiers as they retreated (Ha'aretz, 8/17/95).

Dr. Yitzhaki reports that Palestinian volunteers in the Egyptian army were executed Nazi-style in E1-Arish, another area of the Sinai, in 1967. Gabby Biron, a right-wing journalist who witnessed the murder of about 10 POWs before being forced to leave, confirmed Yitzhaki's report. Biron says that Israeli intelligence officers put POWs one by one through a short  interrogation. If the IDF determined by the prisoner's accent that he was Palestinian, he was taken behind the building, forced to dig his own grave, and shot. According to Holocaust survivors, the incident bears a striking similarity to Nazi tactics.

Were these crimes of passion or part of a planned campaign?

Were these crimes of passion or part of a planned campaign? Until a comprehensive investigation is undertaken, we can only speculate. As regards the "Gazelle Hunt" murders, Israeli leftist activist Eli Aminov  says, "It is clear to any military expert that the order given to the Shaked patrol was part of a more extensive body of orders. This is evident from the large number of Egyptian soldiers killed in battle during  June 1967 compared to the number of prisoners taken. The Egyptian army was crushed and fell apart after a few battles and most of it retreated in disorganization" (News From Within, 9/95).

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian public is outraged by these reports. (Palestinians may be equally outraged, but for them the new reports merely elaborate on known atrocities that, however, Western reporters had refused to credit until Israelis confirmed the reports in print.) After Cairo's semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Egyptian officials found two mass graves near El-Arish in September said to contain the remains of POWs and unarmed civilians executed by the IDF in 1967, opposition papers called on the Mubarak regime to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest. The Muslim Brotherhood has linked its denunciation of the massacres with its opposition to the peace process.

From the center and left of the political spectrum, more than 200 prominent citizens formed a committee to seek justice. Egyptian judges and international law professors met at Cairo University to assert that Egypt has the right to demand extradition and to try those allegedly responsible. Several private lawyers have filed lawsuits against the Israeli government on behalf of  the victims' families. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights sent evidence to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and called for a full U.N. inquiry.

Prior Knowledge?

Some believe that the Egyptian government knew about the incidents before the recent reports were published in the Hebrew press. Aminov says that Nasser kept the information under wraps because he did not want the public to know the extent of the Egyptian defeat. Likewise, later governments, criticized at home and in Arab circles for making peace with the enemy, preferred not to make an issue of past atrocities. A physician who witnessed the massacres in 1956, Ahmed Shawki el-Fangari, wrote about them in his 1960 book Israel As I Knew It, but Egyptian authorities banned it (Geneive Abdo, The Dallas Morning News, 9/16/95).

However, the coverup theory is not altogether compelling. First of all, el-Fangari's book may have been censored for a variety of reasons. More importantly, it would have been difficult, after the fact, for the Egyptian government to determine the exact circumstances in which it lost soldiers. Finally, between Nasser's death in 1970 and the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 peace initiative, Egypt had every reason to reveal any knowledge of Israeli wrongdoing in order to mobilize the international community against Israel's occupation of the Sinai.

In any case, after a cautious initial reaction, the Egyptian government pledged that there would be no business as usual until Israel investigates the incidents and puts the guilty behind bars. The Ministry of Justice is compiling evidence to be used if Egypt takes legal action against Israel.

The Israeli government, embarrassed by the fact that some of the allegations came from the actual Israeli participants, belatedly apologized and offered compensation to the victims. In December, it also announced that it would undertake an investigation. However, according to the Israeli attorney general, his country will not prosecute because of its 20-year statute of limitations on crimes.

This excuse ignores the fact that war crimes are covered by international law, which does not impose a time limit on prosecution. No one knows this better than the Israelis, who continue to prosecute persons believed to be Nazi war criminals.

The legal instrument that covers these acts is the (Third) Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, to which Israel is a party. According to Stephen Marks, an international law professor at Columbia University and former U.N. official, the key provision is Article 4's definition of prisoners of war as "members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces that have fallen into the power of the enemy." Thus the acts described here appear to be grave breaches of international humanitarian law.

Israel says, in a phrase that rang through the incremental peace process engineered by the late Yitzhak Rabin, that the issue will be resolved not according to international law but through inter-state negotiation. "We don't think that putting history as the number one agenda item will benefit the relationship," Gideon Mark, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York told the Washington Report in a Nov. 17 phone interview.

Making the issue its sole priority does not appear to be the intention of the Egyptian government, not least because its own human rights record contains serious violations incurred in its efforts to repress its violent and nonviolent Islamist opposition. Rather, its efforts seem in large part to have been prompted by public rage.

Furthermore, Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Nabil Elaraby noted in a Nov. 18 interview that Egypt does not condemn the Israeli government for the killings but merely wants the individual perpetrators to be punished. Asked if he is concerned by allegations that Egyptians have committed war crimes against Israelis, Elaraby says the Egyptian government is prepared to investigate and prosecute any such criminal.

Meanwhile, Israelis like Yemini have argued that the revelations are a right-wing conspiracy to sabotage the peace process, particularly the sensitive relationship with Egypt. Yet the information has come from all parts of the Israeli political spectrum. Indeed, many Israelis say that they knew about the incidents all along.

In fact, the only real controversy is whether the incidents should have been discussed so openly in the press. The late Prime Minister Rabin and a Belz Hassidic journalist named A. Avramson both called the revelations a form of "suicide." Others worried, "If Hezbollah knew  that we murder prisoners of war—why should they not murder our men who fall into their hands?" (Michael Ben-Zohar, Ma'ariv, 8/17/95)

There is little doubt that the climate of impunity that accompanied the 1956 massacres made the 1967 atrocities possible. To usher in an era of Middle Eastern peace based on justice, the states of the region must come clean, establish a climate of responsibility by prosecuting past crimes, and thereby put the future on a more humane footing. Despite the wishful thinking of ideologues, there are no angels among Middle Eastern states. The only angels are the innocent dead.

* Except for the Davar article, all translations can be found in Dr. Israel Shahak's "From the Hebrew Press," Woodbridge, VA: Middle East Data Center, October 1995.

Katherine M. Metres is a graduate student in international affairs at Columbia University, where she is concentrating on human rights and the Middle East.

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