On October 29, 1956, a little after 5 P.M., several dozen Kafr Qasem residents were coming home from work, unaware that a curfew had been declared because of the start of the Sinai Campaign. Border police lined them up and shot them dead: 47 people, Arabs, citizens of Israel.
The monument erected for them also perpetuates the memory of an elderly man who suffered a stroke when he was informed that his son was among those killed, along with the fetus that one of the murdered women was carrying in her womb. People were also wounded. The slaughter was anchored in a contingency plan to expel the village's inhabitants to Jordan.
At first, the authorities tried to suppress the news through the military censor. Shimon Peres, now Israel's president, was the Defense Ministry's director general at the time. Only about a half dozen survivors of the massacre are still alive today. Most of the 18,000 inhabitants of the village were born after the slaughter, about 15 percent of them are related to the victims. They live with the heritage of the massacre as a key element in their identities.
Last week President Peres went to Kafr Qasem - his office said it was to honor the Id al-Adha holiday. He carefully phrased his words on the massacre as part of a statement praising peace: "I have chosen to visit Kafr Qasem, where in the past a very serious event occurred that we greatly regret, and today in practice there is cooperation and a life of peace between Jews and Arabs." Kafr Qasem Mayor Sami Issa interprets these words as an apology. "'We regret' and 'We apologize' are the same thing," he said. Speaking with local leaders, Peres also used the word apology, according to the president's spokeswoman. Peres is the first sitting president to apologize for the massacre.
Ceremonious apologies for historical injustices and gestures of national reconciliation have become a rather common phenomenon everywhere in recent years, from South Africa to Argentina. To evaluate them correctly we must examine to what degree they express sincere remorse and true recognition of responsibility. We must also examine the extent to which lessons have been learned that have shaped policies on the ground. The Israeli case is not unambiguous.
The Kafr Qasem massacre shocked the country and gave rise to a public debate on basic questions of morality and democracy. Twelve years after the end of World War II this discussion took place against the backdrop of the Holocaust. The murderers were put on public trial. Benjamin Halevi, who was later one of the judges in Adolf Eichmann's trial, asked one of the accused whether he would also justify a Nazi soldier who obeyed orders. The trial gave rise to every Israel Defense Forces soldier's obligation to refuse to obey a "blatantly illegal" order such as one to murder civilians.
However, not long after they were convicted and sentenced to prison, the murderers were released, and a few years later the military government was revoked. The IDF is not doing enough to instill in its soldiers the obligation to refuse to obey a blatantly illegal order; it is acting with determination against conscientious objection.
In the decades since the Kafr Qasem massacre, IDF soldiers have killed thousands of innocent Palestinians, the vast majority of them in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. From time to time they have also killed Arab demonstrators, citizens of Israel. To this day the Arabs of Israel are not citizens with equal rights, and Israel insists that it does not want to be a state of all its citizens but rather a "Jewish and democratic" state. Government representatives do not participate in the annual memorial service for the Kafr Qasem massacre, but the president's apology is likely to be mentioned one day as a first step toward a historic declaration of reconciliation between the Jews and Palestinians.
Most Israelis still find it hard to acknowledge that they bear historical responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The Zionist vision is based, among other things, on the assumption that its fulfillment need not cause injustice to anyone: If only the Arabs would relinquish their nationalist yearnings and agree to the fulfillment of our dream, it would be good for everyone, including them.
This historical fiction is very harmful because as long as we convince ourselves that we have no part in the responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian tragedy, we have no real reason to try to correct the injustice. This is the importance of acknowledging our responsibility. When the day comes to publish the historic declaration of reconciliation, it will be possible to remember Peres' Kafr Qasem apology and the main lesson that emerges from it: It does not hurt to ask forgiveness.
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