Israel's 'Most Moral Army in the World' Can't Keep Running Away From Its Past

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Palestinian refugees evacuated under U.N. supervision headed, with all their belongings, to Gaza in 1949.
Palestinian refugees evacuated under U.N. supervision headed, with all their belongings, to Gaza in 1949.Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Soldiers of the Israeli army committed war crimes during the War of Independence, chief among them were massacres in Palestinian villages that were captured in the decisive battles in the lowland plain between the coast and Jerusalem, in the Galilee and in the Negev.

>> Haaretz investigation: Classified docs reveal massacres of Palestinians in '48 – and what Israeli leaders knew

People who were alive then described mass murders of Palestinian civilians by the troops who conquered their villages; execution squads; dozens of people being herded into a building that was then blown up; children’s skulls smashed with sticks; brutal rapes and villagers who were ordered to dig pits in which they were then shot to death.

The massacres – the best-known of them in Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, and the lesser-known ones in Al-Dawayima, Hula, Reineh, Salha, Meron, Al-Burj, Majd al-Krum, and Safsaf – are part of the Israel Defense Forces' combat heritage and part of Israel’s history, no less than the heroic battles at the Mitla Pass, Ammunition Hill and the Chinese Farm, which were fought by regular armies.

But Al-Dawayima isn’t taught in the public schools, and the cadets at the army’s officers’ training schools don’t take field trips to see the remains of the village on which Moshav Amatzia was established. They don’t read testimonies from the survivors of the massacre and they and don’t discuss the moral dilemmas of combat in a civilian environment – even though today, as in 1948, much of the military’s operations are directed at unarmed Palestinians.

This silence is not coincidental, and it is dictated from above. The massacres were known at the time, discussed by the political leadership and investigated to some extent. One officer was even tried for the murder of civilians, convicted, given a ludicrously light punishment and eventually received an important public appointment. But official Israel has been fleeing from the story ever since, making every effort to prevent the crimes’ disclosure and to purge the archives of all remaining evidence.

The historian Adam Raz was the first to disclose (Haaretz, December 10) the content of discussions in cabinet meetings devoted to “the army’s behavior in the Galilee and the Negev” in its major operations in October 1948. A few cabinet members expressed genuine shock and demanded punishment of those responsible. Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion described the actions as “shocking,” but in practice he covered for the army and prevented a genuine investigation. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the culture of support and cover-up still prevalent in the IDF (and the Israel Police) regarding brutality against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

A 73-year-old state has no need to run away from its past or cover it in the false blanket of “purity of arms” and “the most moral army in the world.” It is time to acknowledge the truth, and first to publish the report by the first attorney general, Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira, on the massacres of the dark autumn of 1948; to restore the redacted text to the minutes of the cabinet meeting in which Shapira presented his findings and to hold a penetrating public discussion of their implications today.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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