Sixty-five years ago this week, on October 29, 1956, 47 Arab citizens were murdered in Kafr Qasem. Among the dead were children, women and the elderly. Their only sin was that they were outside their home after a curfew, about which they hadn’t been notified, was imposed.
The commander of a Border Police unit, whose soldiers were responsible for the massacre, testified that the army officer responsible for the area had told him: “Better a few go that way, so that they rest will know next time.” When the officer was asked what would be the fate of someone on his way home and unaware of a curfew, he answered: “God will have mercy.”
This week, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige (Meretz), a resident of the village, proposed that the state formally take responsibility for the massacre, memorialize its victims, include it in the educational curriculum and order the still-classified documents relating to it be released to the public. We can only hope that the proposal receives wide support from Israel’s leaders.
In contrast to other bloody stains in the history of Zionism, which remain fertile ground for ideological disputes between the left and right, no one disputes that Kafr Qasem was a shameful crime and that the justice system’s response was disgraceful. Eight of the soldiers involved were convicted of murder and sent to prison, but their sentences were later commuted and within a few years all had been freed. Some of them were awarded desirable jobs with the government’s help. The commander of the area, Yissachar “Yiska” Shadmi, was exonerated of murder charges. Instead, the court convicted him of the technical violation of “exceeding [his] authority” and fined a ridiculous 10 prutot and given a reprimand.
After the massacre, a “sulha” was made with the village and the government paid compensation to the families of the murdered in line with the recommendations of a committee appointed by then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Today, the village regards it as a “forced sulha,” designed to sweep the whole affair under the carpet.
Over the years, several presidents and ministers visited the village and spokes words like “forgiveness,” “sorry,” “apologies” and even “shame” in relation to what occurred. But the Knesset has many times rejected legislation that would have institutionalized Israeli recognition of its responsibility for the massacre.
The army has been doing that for a long time. After Judge Benjamin Halevy coined the term “manifestly illegal order” in the trial of the defendants of the massacre, the lesson of Kafr Qasem for the generations that followed is that soldiers must disobey an order “over which a black flag flies.”
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Today, with the current Knesset coalition, there’s an opportunity to correct this historical injustice and formally recognize the state’s responsibility for this crime, to apologize in full and from the bottom of our hearts to the victims’ families and to give a place to the massacre in the Israeli curriculum.