60 Years After Massacre, Kafr Qasem Doesn’t Want an Apology From the Israeli Government

The 1956 massacre of 48 innocent villagers by Border Policemen remains a festering wound in Israeli Arab society. Its current residents are launching an audio-visual spectacle to convey the message: Take responsibility for what happened here.

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Jazi Isa, a member of the organizing committee for the Kafr Qasem memorial.
Jazi Isa, a member of the organizing committee for the Kafr Qasem memorial.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

No government officials have been invited to Saturday’s memorial events of the 60th anniversary of the Kafr Qasem massacre. “I won’t invite the murderer into my home,” Jazi Isa, a member of the organizing committee, said this week.

Isa is named after his 20-year-old relative who was murdered in the massacre Border Policemen carried out in the village on October 29, 1956, the first day of the Suez Crisis. Forty-eight men, women and children were murdered, including a pregnant woman. Her fetus is counted in the village as the 49th murder victim. They were shot to death when they returned from their day’s work, unaware the village had been put under curfew a few hours earlier, due to tension with neighboring Jordan.

Asked if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to the memorial events, Isa says: “I’m not saying Bibi is the murderer, but he represents the murderers. In the Arab community, when a ‘sulha’ [peace between enemies] is made, the murderer cannot enter the victim’s house unless he says ‘yes, I did it, here is my head for you, do with it as you will.’ He must ask for forgiveness in front of everyone and pay the price.”

Sixty years after the massacre, Kafr Qasem is no longer waiting for an apology from the government. But the residents stress its comparison to the Holocaust and are launching an audio-visual spectacle including bodies, blood and brutal soldiers to convey the message: Take responsibility for what happened here.

In the 60 years since the carnage Israel’s attitude has been complicated. Those involved in it were court martialed, convicted and some sentenced at first to long prison terms. Judge Benjamin Halevy coined the phrase “a blatantly illegal order” in his verdict. The instruction to Israel Defense Forces soldiers that they are obliged to refuse an order “that has a black flag flying over it” has become part of the Kafr Qasem legacy.

But the convicted parties’ sentence was soon commuted by the chief of staff, they were pardoned by the president and released from jail. The most senior defendant, Col. Issachar Shadmi, commander of the brigade in charge of the area, was sentenced to a symbolic fine of 10 pennies for exceeding authority. Major Shmuel Malinki, commander of the Border Patrol battalion, testified at the trial that Shadmi had ordered him to enforce the curfew with gunshots. Asked what would happen to those who return to the village after the curfew, Kedmi said Shadmi had said “may God have mercy on their soul.”

Ministers and presidents who visited the village over the years used words like “sorry,” “disgrace” and “apology.” But the Knesset last year rejected with a large majority bills under which Israel would officially acknowledge its responsibility for the bloodbath.

“We don’t need your apology. We’ve stopped playing that game,” said former MK (Joint Arab List) and former Kafr Qasem council head Ibrahim Sarsur, on a tour of the village, whose streets were adorned with black flags.

“I have no doubt the dignitaries who visited here, like President Rivlin, expressed sincere feelings. But none of them had the courage to stand here and say: ‘I apologize for the State of Israel, and announce that it bears full responsibility for what happened that terrible evening.’”

Sarsur was born two and a half years after the massacre. “Twelve of my close family members were murdered in it. Two of them returned in a truck from work in the Petah Tikva area and were murdered in cold blood. The order was to mow them down and put a bullet into everyone’s head. They were shot again to verify their death,” he tells Haaretz.

The annual commemoration will open Saturday with a march from the village’s main square to the cemetery. The organizers have published a brochure in Arabic, Hebrew and English, placing the massacre on a continuum of a series of atrocities – the Deir Yassin slaughter of 1948, Land Day in 1976, the October events of 2000, the murder of Shfar’am residents in 2005 and others.

“Sixty years have gone by and Kafr Qasem villagers are still waiting for justice to be done,” the text says. “The black flag is still flying over hundreds of blatantly illegal orders, which the Israeli security forces carry out almost daily.”

Rim Amar, 44, lost her paternal grandmother in the massacre, Kamisa Amar. She was 50 when she was murdered. Rim’s father was saved. “They told me that grandmother, who raised seven sons, held the whole household together and was independent and strong,” she says.

On the day of the massacre her grandmother replaced another relative picking olives outside the village. When she returned she was still singing with her friends in the car when she saw bodies strewn around. “She and her friends begged for mercy. But they were shot dead before they could get out of the car. They fell on top of each other in a heap. Only one was saved,” Rim says.

“Israel’s recognition of the massacre would be, for us, also a recognition of Israel’s injustices from 1948 to this day,” says Amar. “It would be a recognition of all the traumas Israel caused us – 1948, 1956, 1965, 1976, the second intifada and what’s happening in Gaza today – it’s all the same system and the same government policy through the generations.”

This year the organizers decided to stress the comparison between the event and the Holocaust. “Jews don’t like this kind of comparison, but Ben-Gurion sat down with the murderers of the Jewish people and signed an agreement with them under which Germany is still paying Israel to this day,” says Sarsur, referring to the 1952 Reparations Agreement with Germany.

“In this case – we’re the victims. We’re like the Jews facing Germany.”

Later he says, “true, the Jews are not Nazis, but they murdered my people. Poor farmers, women, old people, children. It’s time they sit with us just like the Germans sat with them, and do for us the same things they asked from the Germans.”

A paper from 1957 lists the reparations the state gave the families of the murdered and wounded massacre victims, according to a commission’s recommendations – 5,000 Israeli lire for the heirs of each murdered victim and 300 lire to each wounded person. “The committee sees the incident hereby closed,” the paper says.

“Ben-Gurion wanted to ensure that the victims’ families didn’t have a chance to sue the state for the crime it committed against their sons,” the brochure says.

The comparison between the Kafr Qasem massacre and the Holocaust was first made at the trial, when the judge asked one of the defendants if he would have justified a Nazi soldier who was obeying orders. In 1986, 30 years after the massacre, Shalom Ofer, one of the convicted soldiers, said in an interview to Ha’ir: “We were like the Germans. They stopped trucks, took the Jews off and shot them. What we did is the same. We were obeying orders like a German soldier during the war, when he was ordered to slaughter Jews.”

The brochure has photographs of Nazi Holocaust victims. An audio-visual display includes drawings and sculptures of soldiers shooting a group of Arab women in a truck at point blank, alongside blood stains, bodies and flags with the slogans “we won’t forget” and “we won’t forgive.”

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