At least 86 Israeli soldiers taken captive during the 1973 Yom Kippur War were murdered after surrendering, almost all of them killed before reaching prison in Cairo or Damascus.
This information does not appear in any Israel Defense Forces archive, official army sources said. It was revealed in classified briefings to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in November and December 1973, a few weeks after the war ended. The minutes of those briefings were recently declassified and can be viewed at the Israel State Archives.
Altogether, some 300 IDF soldiers were taken prisoner during the Yom Kippur War – most in Sinai, but some on the Syrian front. Israeli prisoners of war in Egypt returned home in November 1973, but the POWs captured in Syria were not released until June 1974. As a result, the figures on slain POWs given at the briefings in late 1973 were incomplete. At least two officers were apparently added later to the final tally.
Maj. Gen. Herzl Shafir, who headed the IDF Personnel Directorate during the war, told the Knesset committee on November 23 that the army knew for certain of 42 Israeli POWs who had been killed while in Syrian hands. This conclusion was based on “findings in the field, interrogations of our people ... Syrian POWs that were captured ... and various intelligence sources,” he said.
The findings were submitted to the office of the Military Advocate General and subsequently to the Foreign Ministry, which lodged an official complaint with international bodies. Shafir said at the time that the complaint might be revised in the event the POWs still in Syria returned with new information.
The IDF concluded that Egyptian forces killed between 42 and 44 Israeli soldiers after capturing them “The information is based on interrogating our [returned] POWs, on interrogating Egyptian POWs and on intelligence information,” Shafir told the committee. The Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint over these deaths as well.
Shafir said the uncertainty over the exact number was due to conflicting reports from soldiers: One soldier may have reported seeing two members of his unit killed after being taken prisoner, while another reported three and a third reported four. He said he hoped this uncertainty would be cleared up once arrangements were made for the IDF to evacuate its dead from certain areas where fighting had taken place.
Shafir also noted that the intelligence on slain POWs wasn’t particularly reliable on the Egyptian front, “because there was Egyptian boasting in some cases that we know was inaccurate. The numbers the Egyptians talk about aren’t true. If they talk about dozens [of slain prisoners], we know that just a few were killed.”
MK Yitzhak Raphael asked whether all the slain POWs were killed immediately after being taken prisoner. Shafir replied that the killings may have happened at any time while fighting continued in the area.
Raphael then pressed him as to whether any POWs had been killed away from the front, in prison. “There were people who saw [their relatives] on television, but they didn’t return. So I’m asking: Weren’t there also cases of murder while in captivity in Egypt?”
“Not a single case,” Shafir replied. “There’s not one single case where I can point to an Israeli soldier who was in captivity, or heard on the radio, or seen in the newspapers, who wasn’t returned from captivity. But there were three or four cases of soldiers who died in captivity and, based on testimony, the Egyptians helped them die in captivity. That, yes.”
As an example, Shafir cited one POW who was “murdered in the hospital when an Egyptian medic disconnected him from the oxygen and kept him from getting an intravenous drip.”
But asked by MK Gideon Hausner whether any of the soldiers’ bodies that were returned by the Egyptians bore signs that could prove such abuse, Shafir replied that unfortunately, there was no physical evidence to prove any of the cases of abuse known to the army. In the hospital incident, for instance, as with other cases, the information was based solely on “testimony from another POW who was in the hospital with less severe wounds.”
Regarding the initial suspicions that some POWs had been killed in prison, Shafir said these arose from cases of mistaken identity. For instance, members of 11 soldiers’ families were certain they recognized their loved ones in photos that were published of POWs, but in fact the pictures were of soldiers who did return.
On the Syrian front, Shafir continued, while it was more difficult to determine exactly when the POWs were killed he thought it was probably “when the IDF pressed [the Syrians] and they began to retreat.”
Shafir’s briefing to the committee followed a public statement by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan announcing that some Israeli POWs had been killed after they were captured. Dayan said this conclusion was based on testimony from other IDF soldiers who saw their comrades being shot.
“I talked with [returned] POWs who said, ‘They killed captives before our eyes.’ So I thought it was impossible to hide that,” Dayan said. “The POWs are saying this at home, and I’m going to say I don’t know what happened? And then they’ll say the Israel and Egyptian governments are working together to cover it up?”
At another briefing of the Knesset committee, Chief of Staff David Elazar said, “I know some of our POWs were murdered on their way to prison from the front. We know of a few cases like that. Their bodies haven’t been returned.”
When Elazar added that between 20 and 25 Israelis had been killed in the city of Suez but none were taken prisoner, Hausner challenged him, noting that at a previous briefing Elazar said that Israelis were captured in Suez. “That’s what we thought,” Elazar replied. “Maybe they murdered them.”
After the war, Egyptian officers admitted that some Israeli soldiers were killed after surrendering, according to them in retaliation for what they claimed was Israel’s killing of Egyptian POWs in previous wars.