Secrets of the 'World's Most Moral Army'

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Be’er Sheva’s Great Mosque, where Israeli soldiers carries out a massacre during the War of Independence. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This column would not have been written if it were not for the fact that the Israeli Defense Forces were “the most moral army in the world,” as they say, if it were like all the other armies, if its wars were like all wars and if its mess were not the same mess.

In one week, I saw Mor Loushy’s film “Censored Voices,” featuring previously-censored segments of conversations that did not make it into the book “Siach Lochamim” (published in English as “The Seventh Day) with soldiers who fought in the Six-Day War, and I also read Prof. Ze’ev Tzahor’s book “Hayinu Hatkuma” (“We were the revival”) which relates in part to the years leading up the Israel’s founding. These are two important pieces of work that also brought me to total despair.

At the time that “The Seventh Day” appeared, I didn’t know the book had been heavily censored so as not to douse the great euphoria, like the Greater Land of Israel that resulted from the 1967 war. After a delay of nearly 50 years, memories are being dredged up. What follows is an initial attempt to cut short the history of the shooting and crying.

In his book, Tzahor relies on accounts by the author Yaakov Sharett, one of the founders of Kibbutz Hatzerim and the son of the second prime minister, Moshe Sharett. One day the body of one of the members of the kibbutz was found, with signs that the victim had met a violent death. The residents of the kibbutz gathered, shaken by what had happened. Two Bedouin, one of them old and the other young, were making their way along a path. They were captured and thrown in a generator shaft. As Yaakov Sharett recounted it, the two didn’t understand what the kibbutzniks wanted from them. After they were tortured and dragged outside the kibbutz fence, they were handed hoes and told to dig their own graves. Standing over the holes, they were shot and buried. To this day, the veil of silence, which we cast on a lake of tears, has not been breached.

Let’s proceed chronologically. When Be’er Sheva was captured during the War of Independence, the writer Haim Gouri was a deputy company commander. In the 1950 anthology about the history of the Palmach, Gouri provides a vague description of the killing of prisoners, of Bedouin who happened to be in the area, of women and children, in the courtyard of the city’s great mosque. In the late 1980s, Tzahor hosted Gouri for a talk at Ben-Gurion University and asked him about the slaughter. “The hall fell silent,” Tzahor says. “After a very long pause, Gouri shook his head no, and covered his face from the audience with his arms. I was sitting next to him and saw him wiping away tears.”

Tzahor, who had high security clearance due to his work with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was permitted to examine secret studies. In his doctoral work, Motti Golani, now a professor, discovered for the first time that after parachutists from Batallion 890 were dropped into the Mitla Pass in Sinai in 1956, under the command of Rafael Eitan, they captured 35 Egyptian laborers who had been working in the area and gathered them together. After several days, before redeploying, the paratroopers tied the laborers up, blindfolded them and killed them. Tzahor found it hard to believe this and decided to check the account out himself. He met with a colleague, who admitted, “They begged, they cried, and it wasn’t pleasant. Who carried out the killing? The officers. Just the officers. The regular soldiers were sent on ahead.”

The deeds of the elders of 1948 and 1956 are a sign to the sons of 1967 and the occupier grandchildren since. “Censored Voices,” Loushy’s film, discloses other war crimes and admonishes the country not to cover its tears, even if they are the tears of others. No, we are not any worse, but we’re not any better either, and certainly not “the best.” Mishke, a handsome kid from Kibbutz Hulda, never returned from the Six-Day War. Amos Oz, who initiated the “Seventh Day” project and was one of the interviewers for it, went to visit Mishke’s parents. In the movie, he quotes the soldier’s grieving mother: “’The Western Wall isn’t worth my son’s fingernail.’ And Oz adds: “If I could get Mishke back in return for the Wall, I would be ready to blow it up.”

Here they are, those good, adored guys. Sometimes you can see them approach. They won’t be coming home if we also don’t blow up the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb. Who is our matriarch mourning if not her sons and ours, and why did Haim Gouri cry if not over himself and us?

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