Israel’s Next Political Battle: Recognition of 1956 Massacre of Arab Citizens

October 26, 2021
The Kafr Qasem massacre took place 65 years ago this week. Now, a bill to formally recognize it and teach it in schools could potentially create some very unlikely bedfellows in the Knesset

The memorial in the Arab Israeli town of Kafr Qasem, marking the massacre that took place here in 1956 when 48 locals were gunned down by Israeli troops.

David B, Green writes in Haaretz, 26 October 2012, “Knesset observers could be excused this week if they found themselves confused over the political jockeying taking place over a bill calling for Israel to officially recognize a massacre carried out against its Arab citizens 65 years ago. The 48 victims of the Kafr Qasem massacre were Arab citizens who were shot to death by soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces and Border Police because they were violating a curfew that most of them probably weren’t aware of.

There is no dispute in Israel that such a mass killing took place, but the question of official “recognition,” and especially whether it should be taught in schools as an example of a “manifestly illegal order” that soldiers are obligated to disobey, is a perennial political football that remains in play more than six decades later, depending on the attitude that the government of the moment is manifesting toward the Arab population. What’s novel this year, as the October 29 anniversary of the Kafr Qasem massacre looms, is that a bill about it could actually pass in the Knesset. What’s not clear is whether, if it does pass, it will be with the support of the opposition, led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, or with that of the governing coalition, which has a total of nine Arab or Druze lawmakers. Or might the unthinkable happen, with both blocs voting in favor?

A senior Israeli police officer talking with a village elder from Kafr Qasem in 1957, a year after the massacre

A ‘good example’

The Kafr Qasem killings took place against the backdrop of a regime of military law that applied to Israel’s Arab citizens during the first 18 years of statehood, This limited their ability to move freely around the country and to organize politically.

On October 29, 1956, when Israel invaded the Sinai desert at the start of the military campaign coordinated with Britain and France, the government decided to impose a nighttime curfew, effective immediately, on the Arab towns situated along the border with Jordan, to the east. There was a fear at the time that Jordan might respond to Israel’s offensive on Egypt by sending troops across the border, and that Arab citizens might be tempted to join them.

Kafr Qasem was one of the 12 villages that were subject to the curfew, which prohibited residents from being outside their homes between 5 P.M. and 6 A.M. The village mayor informed the local military commanders that some 400 inhabitants of the town worked in agriculture outside of Kafr Qasem and would not have heard about the curfew. He was told not to worry.

At the same time, however, the IDF officer in command of the region, Col. Yissachar Shadmi, told Maj. Shmuel Malinki, who oversaw Kafr Qasem, that his men should shoot on sight anyone who was found outside his or her home, and that they weren’t to make a distinction between civilians and suspected  militants. According to Malinki, Shadmi even told him that it would be a good example if, early on, the soldiers were to shoot some Arab citizens. Shadmi later denied saying that.

The consequences were gruesome: Forty-eight residents of Kafr Qasem were shot to death that day, including six women and 13 children under age 15. No such shootings were carried out in any of the 11 neighboring Arab villages. For two months, a gag order prevented the press from reporting on the killings, and even after the order was lifted, the town remained sealed off to journalists.

Then-President Reuven Rivlin visiting Kafr Qasem in 2014.

Eventually, the army tried 11 soldiers for the murders, and, in October 1958, eight of them were found guilty and sentenced to prison. By November 1959, however, all eight of the defendants were free, their sentences having been commuted by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Shadmi himself was tried separately for murder, but acquitted. Though the punishments were trivial, the case is remembered in Israeli judicial history because of the statement by Judge Benjamin Halevy addressing the “manifest illegality” of the shoot-on-sight order.

According to Halevy, that illegality “must wave like a black flag over the given order, a warning that says: ‘Forbidden!’ … This is the measure of manifest illegality needed to override the soldier’s duty to obey and to impose on him criminal liability for his action.”

Consternation in the opposition

In recent years, two Israeli presidents, Shimon Peres (in 2007) and Reuven Rivlin (in 2014), have come to Kafr Qasem during its annual memorial event to express their sorrow and regret for the killings. There have also been periods when the massacre was taught in Israeli schools as well. This year, President Isaac Herzog planned a similar excursion. But the bill proposed by opposition lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman has created a politically awkward situation and put Herzog’s visit in doubt.

Touma-Sliman is an Arab legislator from Hadash, one of three parties making up the Joint List (breakaway Islamist party the United Arab List joined the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett). The Jewish members of the opposition range from right-wingers to Kahanists. Would the opposition support a bill committing the education system to teaching the lessons of the Kafr Qasem massacre to Jewish students? And how would the coalition vote on such a bill?

Lawmakers from the left flank of the coalition, as well as the other Arab and Druze members of the coalition, are saying they will insist on the right to vote according to their consciences on the bill.

The Arab Israeli town on Kafr Qasem in the distance, with Rosh Ha’ayin in the foreground.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige (Meretz) says he is trying to negotiate a compromise that will allow both coalition and opposition members to support a bill that would include official recognition of Israeli responsibility for the massacre and required study of the subject in the schools.

Freige, himself a resident of Kafr Qasem, notes that his grandfather survived the massacre in 1956, but that several other close family members were among those killed. “There are many voices from the left in the government saying the time has come to show compassion and sensitivity about this event. And I hope I can take this understanding to places that will allow for the passing of the bill,” Freige says. He adds that his proposal “is now making its way around the various ministers for consideration.”

And what if the opposition brings its bill to a vote? Freige: “If only Likud and [Religious Zionism leader Bezalel] Smotrich would support such a bill. That’s something I pray for day and night.” This article is printed in its entirety.


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