Ofer Aderet reports in Haaretz on 29 July 2022:
Newly uncovered transcripts from the trial of the infamous 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre quotes an Israeli Border Police company commander as saying that “it was desirable for there to be a number of fatalities.”
The company commander operated in the sector where the massacre took place, and his comment has remained secret in the ensuing decades until being revealed in the trial transcripts released for the first time on Friday.
During the massacre, 50 Arab civilians, including children, were killed by Border Police troops when they returned home without knowing the time a curfew began had been changed.
The transcripts have been revealed to the public by the Defense Ministry following an appeal by historian Adam Raz of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. The state initially refused to release the transcripts, claiming their content could jeopardize national security.
Chaim Levy, who commanded the Border Police’s southern company, whose sector included Kafr Qasem, was asked during the 1957 trial by attorney Asher Levitsky: “You always [say] the commander allegedly said that it’s best if there be some casualties.”
The commander in question was Col. Issachar “Yiska” Shadmi, who oversaw the sector that included Kafr Qasem. To this, Levy replied: He said, “It’s desirable that there be some fatalities.’” Later, the lawyer asked: “Despite this, he emphasized not to commit murder, right?” to which Levy replied: “I see no difference.”
The Kafr Qasem massacre took place on the first day of the Sinai Campaign, in October of 1956. Arabs in the country were still subject to martial law at the time. At the time, the IDF feared that the clash with Egypt on its southern front would ignite an all-out war that might also include Jordan on the eastern front, then very close to Kafr Qasem. The village was placed under curfew.
But some of the residents didn’t know of the change in the curfew time, as they were still working outside the village. Upon their return, they were gunned down by Border Police troops. The number of dead as the people of Kafr Qasem count them is 50, including children, elderly residents, and a pregnant woman.
In his testimony, Levy confirmed that he heard the order “the same goes for them as anyone else” regarding the order to shoot at citizens coming back from the fields after curfew hour, even if they didn’t know that it had been brought forward.
Levy was asked: “Doesn’t your reason tell you that ‘violating a curfew’ means by someone who knows that there is a curfew?” Levy replied in the affirmative. He was later asked: “How can you say that someone told you to kill people who don’t know that there is a curfew?” To which he replied: “Because I was given such an order… Today I find this unreasonable. At the time, I thought it was reasonable.”
Levy was further asked: “From what you understood, the policy was to get rid of Arabs?” To this, he replied that the order wasn’t given in writing, but verbally. “The company commander said that the eastern side should be open. When they want to leave, they’ll leave… I understood that it would be no great calamity if they took this opportunity to go away.” Here Levy referred to a plan – active or passive – to deport the Arabs of the Little Triangle area in central Israel to Jordan.
This plan, code-named Hafarperet (Mole), was ultimately shelved. It was first revealed by the journalist and author Ruvik Rosenthal, but its full details have never been revealed. The testimony now uncovered in the court minutes allow a partial glimpse into the details of the plan, as related behind closed doors by witnesses at the trial of those accused of ordering and carrying out the massacre.
The transcripts quote a few phrases regarding the secret, shelved plan. Among them is “evacuation notice to village elders” – evidence that there was a plan to transfer some or all of the Arabs in the Little Triangle should the war escalate. Some of the witnesses speak of deporting them east, meaning toward Jordan. Others indicate that the intention was to expel them from their homes to other places within Israel.
Either way, the plan remained on paper. Levy’s testimony referred to two other aspects of the plan: “Creating enclosures” and “transporting people,” as he put it. This can be translated into the detention of Israeli Arabs in camps and expulsion from their homes.
Levy was asked in this context: “What do Arabs fleeing have to do with the order to shoot curfew violators?” He responded: “The connection is that as a result, part of the population would get scared and decide that it’s best to live on the other side. That’s how I interpret it.” He was later asked: “Enforcing the curfew could have helped increase the desire to flee in relation to Mole?” – in other words, did he understand there to be a connection between the curfew and encouraging the expulsion of Arabs? He replied in the affirmative.
The transcripts also include parts of the testimony of Col. Shadmi, who commanded the sector and was the most senior officer to stand trial for his part in the massacre. He was eventually acquitted of murder. “Anyone versed in the matter knows that Israeli Arabs may pose a very troublesome problem, perhaps an obstacle, to any operation that might take place in the Little Triangle,” he said in his testimony.
When asked, “do we heartily encourage them to leave our borders?” he replied: “I don’t think that’s a secret.” Replying to the question of whether a curfew or shooting at curfew violators may encourage the residents of Kafr Qasem to flee across the border, he replied: “It may encourage that thought…that the killing of a few people as an intimidation measure can encourage movement eastward, as long as we hint to them [the Arabs] about the movement eastward.”
There is also testimony by soldiers who interpreted the intention of the curfew order on the area’s villages to terrify their residents or encourage them to flee to Jordan.
“The immediate goal is to keep them in their houses, and the second goal is to not need to intimidate them in the future, as well as to require less manpower because they will eventually be like innocent sheep,” one of the soldiers testified.
When asked whether he explained to his platoon that there was an intention to leave several people dead in each village, one soldier answered in the affirmative, adding that “the major general said that it would be desirable to have a few casualties, meaning dead… I said it would be best to knock out a few people… so that in the future there would be quiet, and we would not need to have this much manpower overseeing these villages.”
Another soldier testified that the method was “to seriously frighten them with a curfew. There was a tendency to leave a few dead in each village so that tomorrow the borders would be opened and the Arabs would divide into two: those who escape through the border; and those who remain and will be like innocent sheep and not do anything.”
According to additional testimony, the goal was to scare Arabs “so that some run away and those who stay become more loyal to the state and sit quietly.”
The head of Central Command at the time, Tzvi Tzur (later chief of staff) was asked whether the assertion that, in case of war, “The Arabs’ eastward migration would be looked on favorably,” Tzur said he was “willing to agree that there was a place for this thought, too.” However, he emphasized that there was no such policy, but just a “thought” about the matter.
Tzur added that while “it might appear strange,” the goal of the curfew imposed on Kafr Qasem was to protect its residents and avoid a friction between them and the Israeli army.
Regional Cooperation Minister and Kafr Qasem resident Esawi Freige, who lost relatives in the massacre, said after the release of the transcripts: “I’m finally reading the words I dreamt to read my entire life. The testimonies on this planned murder, on Kafr Qasem’s eastern gate that was left open in the hope that the survivors would get the message and run away. But alongside the pain there is peace.
“After 66 years, the truth comes out. For so long, our government wished to hide the truth from us about the massacre that hurt every family in Kafr Qasem, including my family, and this follows us to this day.”
Freige added that after Israel asked for forgiveness and published the transcripts, “We have only left to ensure that the memory of the massacre and its lessons are not forgotten. That it will be mentioned in school books, and not just as a footnote.”
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