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The almighty military order

60 years ago, a scene of cold-blooded murder fell upon the hill-top Palestinian village of Kafr Qassem. This is the buried past but the not so buried present of the IDF.

Dylan Collins. All rights reserved. Photographs of the victims are displayed at the Kafr Qassem Massacre Museum. Dylan Collins. All rights reserved.If your Palestinian neighbors and friends seem slightly on edge, please excuse them. The 29th of October brings back horrific memories to Palestinians everywhere, young and old.

It was 60 years ago 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.

In 1956 the Israeli military literally mowed down 48 innocent civilians in cold blood, one was 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 years is a long time to mourn a death, even a cold-blooded murder. It is even longer when you must live among those who murdered your loved ones, and under their system. Had this been merely an isolated incident of the Israeli military machine killing Palestinians, one may have already relegated it to the history books. But it was not. 

There were other massacres prior to Kafr Qasssem, such as Deir Yassin in 1948. and since then there have been numerous other incidents, too many to list.

One incident comes to mind when the 13-year old Iman al-Homs was walking home from school in Gaza in October 2004 and an Israeli soldier emptied his magazine into her. As she lay wounded on the ground, the soldier was caught saying he was “confirming the kill” on his radio. 

A more recent example is the Israeli soldier caught on camera in Hebron last March executing a wounded and immobilized Palestinian man lying on the ground. He fires a bullet into his head as his fellow soldiers casually watched. 

Unlike today, decades ago Israel did undertake more serious investigations of its military actions. This is not to say that justice was ever served—it rarely is. One landmark investigation was the Israeli Kahan Commission, established by the Israeli government on the 28th of September 1982, to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre (September 16 -18, 1982) where 1,000 - 3,000 (exact numbers are 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. 

Back to Kafr Qassem.

On the 28th of October, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported in a story by correspondent Ofer Aderet titled 60 years after massacre, Kafr Qasem doesn’t want an apology from the Israeli government, 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 ten 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.””

Perhaps the most shocking part 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 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. One of the first people to document those proceedings was 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 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), “the most moral army in the world.” It is imperative that we all redouble our efforts to not make it its future as well, military order or not.


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