Residents of Arab Village Demand Israel Open Archives on 1956 Massacre

About 50 residents of Kafr Qasem were killed by Border Police, unaware that a curfew had been imposed on their village

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A military court hearing about the disclosure of secret documents regarding the Kafr Qasem massacre, on July 15, 2018
A military court hearing about the disclosure of secret documents regarding the Kafr Qasem massacre, on July 15, 2018Credit: Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Relatives of some of the approximately 50 men, women and children killed by Israeli Border Police in 1956 in the Israeli­-Arab village of Kafr Qasem appeared Sunday in Tel Aviv Military Court for the closing hearing in a case filed to force the disclosure of classified documents about the massacre that the Israeli army archives has refused to make public.

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“I never knew my father. I want to know why he was murdered and what he did,” Mohammad Freige told Haaretz. Freige who lives in Kafr Qasem, was three years old when his father and other victims of the massacre, all Israeli citizens,were shot to death while returned from their day’s work.

They had been unaware that the central Israeli village, which lies just west of the border with West Bank, had been put under curfew a few hours earlier, due to tension with Jordan, which controlled the West Bank at the time.

“The documents are important for the Jewish people. We, the Arabs, already know the truth,” said Hamdallah Sarsour, whose father was killed in the massacre. “Every country has sins, but only if the truth comes out will it not repeat those sins,” Sarsour added.

Over the past year and a half, the president of the military court of appeals, Maj. Gen. Doron Piles, has been presiding over the unusual case, at the heart of which is a request from historian Adam Raz to gain access to confidential files related to the case. Raz directed his request to the military appeals court after the army archives refused to allow him to see the material.

The documents that he is seeking to study are the minutes and findings from the trial of the border police officers who committed the massacre, beyond what has already been made public. It was that trial that the court coined the term “patently illegal order,” which has become a fixture of Israeli jurisprudence.

“I made a preliminary examination of the historical documents, and I realized that the most sensitive materials were still classified confidential. Then I did what a good historian is supposed to do. I submitted a request to reveal the information,” Raz told Haaretz.

The main interest of Raz and the residents of Kafr Qasem is to make public the secret report documenting Operation Mole, a plan to expel inhabitants of the predominantly Arab area of central Israel known as the Little Triangle to Jordan. Kafr Qasem residents are convinced that the massacre was designed to frighten the inhabitants and spur them to flee Israel as part of the plan.

In hearings behind closed doors over the past few months, numerous government officials, including the Foreign Ministry, the military censor, the state archivist and the army archivist gave testimony. The military prosecutor is opposed to making the information public. The main reasons were given behind closed doors, but the general grounds were stated as follows: “At this time, any additional revelation of the minutes from the Kafr Qasem trial, beyond those that the public can already examine, will harm the security of the state, its foreign relations, and in certain cases will certainly compromise people’s privacy and well-being, precluding release of the material from a legal standpoint.”

At Sunday’s hearing, Knesset member Esawi Freige (Meretz), a resident of Kafr Qasem and a relative of the massacre’s victims, testified at length. “After 62 years, the State of Israel does not need to fear the truth. A democracy must not only defend itself. It must confront [the truth]. The truth does not hurt the security of the state.”

Freige said the effort to disclose the material is also motivated by concern that such events could repeat themselves. “After 62 years, they are still hiding [information]. I fear that this will happen again. The moment the truth comes out and people talk about it, I as a citizen will begin to feel more secure in my country,” he said.

The judge asked Freige if publication of the documents could anger the residents of Kafr Qasem and create a wave of unrest. The answer, Freige said, was that there has been anger for decades in any event and the residents are not seeking revenge, although they know where the brigade commander who was in charge of the area at the time of the massacre lives. “We have no interest in harming the security of the state or anyone’s life,” the lawmaker told the court.

In his testimony, Freige mentioned the case of children from Yemenite Jewish immigrant families who were taken from their families and whose fate remains unknown, a matter that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered opened two years ago. The files of those he called the “orphans of Kafr Qasem” should be similarly opened,” he said.

Ibrahim Sarsour, a former Knesset member and former mayor of Kafr Qasem who was present at the hearing Sunday, said: “As long as the state refuses to reveal the documents, from our point of view, this says that it fears what might be in them. Its conduct proves that its mentality has not changed since the massacre,” he told Haaretz.

Lior Yavne, director of Akevot, an organization seeking to make documents pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict public and who has provided support for Raz, the historian, in the course of the trial, told Haaretz: “The state presented a series of opinions and worked very hard to prevent the exposure of documents from 60 years ago, which are of great importance for our knowledge of history as well as to the relatives of the victims.” The state should take into account the desire of the victims to obtain information in its possession about the circumstances of the massacre, he added.

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