In 1948, during the War of Independence’s Operation Hiram, the soldiers of the Carmeli Brigade took over the Hula village in Lebanon. The commander was Shmuel Lahis, 22. “It was a notorious, nasty village,” Shmuel Lahis later recalled.
Lahis reported to the deputy battalion commander, Dov Yirmiya, that the village had been taken without a fight and that most of its residents had fled. He added, however, that about 35 men remained in the village and that he had put them all in a building. “Do you want us to deport them?” Lahis asked Yirmiya, as Dan Yahav wrote in his book “Purity of Arms – Ethos, Myth and Reality 1936-1956.” Yirmiya left to consult with headquarters. When he returned to the village the next day he noticed that the faces of the soldiers around him were pale. “Where are the prisoners?” he asked.
“The company commander and sergeant major shot them all with a machine gun,” he was told, “and then they blew up the house on them, so that they could have a mass grave.” Different accounts put the number of dead from 34 to 58.
“I never imagined that a guy like Lahis would be able to murder captives in cold blood,” Yirmiya said. He said Lahis claimed that the murder was an act of revenge for the slaughter of his friends in Haifa.
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“Hula was but one in a series of atrocities committed during Operation Hiram,” Benny Morris wrote in his book “1948.” According to Morris, some 200 Arab civilians and prisoners were killed in the operation.
Lahis was charged with murder. His lawyers said in the special military tribunal in Haifa that the judges had no authority to try him, as his offenses had been committed outside the borders of the state. The issue reached the High Court of Justice. The justices first dealt with the principle issue of whether the military courts were subordinate to the High Court – and answered in the affirmative. The court later rejected the claim that it wasn’t authorized to try a soldier for offenses he committed outside Israel.
Yirmiya, who later became a left-wing activist and died in 2016 at the age of 101, testified at the trial that the murder victims were captives. Lahis said in his defense that his motives in killing them were military-related. The court convicted Lahis of murder, and sentenced him to seven years in prison – reduced to one year after an appeal. “The community was thrown into a whirlpool of blood,” the judges wrote, “and it was clear that not only our existence as a state, but our physical existence, was in grave danger. It is no surprise that an intense hatred for the Arabs was born.”
In later years, Justice Chaim Dvorin said that “It was hard for me to accept a situation in which we sit behind a table and try a man who acted in battle the way he did. Could he have known at the time who was innocent and who was an enemy?”
Later, President Weizmann revoked Lahis’ punishment, and Lahis received a pardon from President Ben Zvi. This enabled him to become a lawyer, after having studied law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Lahis was born in Chortkiv, Poland (now Ukraine) in 1926 and immigrated to Israel with his parents in 1933. The family settled in Haifa and Lahis studied in the Netzah Yisrael school in the city, after which he enlisted in the Hagana. He took part in the IDF’s first officers course and fought in several battles and operations – including the defense of Haifa, during which he was ordered to “clean the area of Arabs,” as he told the NGO Toldot Yisrael.
In June 1948, Lahis was called on to guard the detainees of the Altalena ship in Tel Aviv, and shot at one of them – accidentally, he said. In his defense, he claimed that he was trying to quiet the commotion among the detainees, and asked to fire a warning shot to bring back the detainees who escaped.
In Operation Hiram, he took pride in receiving 11 letters of surrender from Arab villages in the north, but never spoke of his participation in the Hula massacre. After his military service, Lahis established a law office for the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. In 1978, he was named president of the Jewish Agency. His commander M., Yirmiya, and one of the Altalena detainees attempted to block his selection for the position, but failed.
In 1979, Lahis recommended making Jerusalem Day a national holiday to commemorate the liberation of the city in the 1967 war, a recommendation that was codified 18 years later. In 1980, he published a report on immigration from Israel to the United States, garnering criticism. He argued that those who return after leaving the country should receive the same benefits that new immigrants get upon their return. A year later, he was fired.
He continued in his effort, and started the NGO “Citizens for the Prevention of Yerida,” using the Zionist term “descent” to mean leaving Israel. He received the Chairman of the Knesset prize in 1989 for “increasing Aliyah, preventing yerida, and easing integration.” He died this month at the age of 93, leaving behind a spouse, two daughters and a granddaughter.