Message of Massacre Lives on for Palestinians
In a conflict that has produced more than its share of suffering and tragedy, the name of Kafr Qassem lives on in infamy more than half a century after Israeli police gunned down 47 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the village.
This week Kafr Qassem’s inhabitants, joined by a handful of Israeli Jewish sympathisers, commemorated the anniversary of the deaths 52 years ago by marching to the cemetery where the victims were laid to rest.
They did so as the local media revisited the events, publishing testimonies from two former senior police officers who recalled the order from their commander to shoot all civilians breaking a last-minute curfew imposed on the village, which lies just inside Israel’s borders.
The two men, who were stationed at villages close to Kafr Qassem, suggested that, had they not personally disobeyed the order when confronted with Palestinians returning from work, the death toll would have been far higher.
Taking part in the annual march was one of the few survivors of the massacre. Saleh Khalil Issa is today 71, but back in 1956 he was an 18-year-old agricultural worker.
He remembered returning to the village on his bicycle, along with a dozen other workers, just after 5pm on 29 October 1956.
What he and the other villagers did not know was that earlier that day the Border Police, a special paramilitary unit that operates inside both Israel and the occupied territories, had agreed to set up checkpoints unannounced at the entrance to half a dozen Palestinian villages inside Israel.
The villages were selected because they lie close to the Green Line, the ceasefire line between Israel and Jordan, which was then occupying the West Bank, following the 1948 war.
At a briefing the commanding officer, Major Shmuel Malinki, ordered his men to shoot any civilian arriving home after 5pm.
Asked about the fate of women or children returning late, Malinki replied: “Without sentiment, the curfew applies to everyone.” Pressed on the point, he responded in Arabic: “Allah yarahmum [God have mercy on them]”, adding that this was the order from the brigade commander, Colonel Issachar Shadmi.
Mr Issa said that, when his group reached the village, they were stopped by three policemen. “They told us to get off our bikes and form a line. The commander asked where we were from. When we replied ‘Kafr Qassem’, he took three steps back and told his colleagues, ‘Cut them down!’”
Mr Issa, who was shot in the arm and leg, pretended to be dead among the bodies. He heard villagers’ cars arriving and the policemen ask the same question. Each new arrival was executed.
“Finally, I heard a bus arrive with female passengers, including young girls. I later learnt that there were 12 of them on board. They were forced to get out and shot too, though one survived like me.”
Mr Issa said the policemen checked to see if any of the victims were moving, and then fired more bullets at them. While the police officers were not watching, he crawled away and hid behind a tree. He was found the next morning and taken to a hospital in nearby Petah Tikva, along with 12 other injured.
Of the dead, seven were children and nine women, including one who was pregnant.
Mohammed Arabi, today 84, arrived at the same checkpoint later that evening. A tailor, he had spent the day in Tel Aviv buying materials and hitched a lift home in the back of a truck with 26 other villagers.
When the driver tried to drop 11 of them off just outside the village, they came under fire. The 11 jumped back into the truck, he said, and the driver sped up the hill towards the village.
“When we reached the entrance to the village, we saw bodies everywhere. The driver panicked, frightened to go back, but forced to drive over several corpses lying in the street to get away.”
A short distance ahead, however, a detachment of policemen stopped them. Mr Arabi overheard a debate between the policemen about whether to let them go home or take them to the eastern side of the village.
“I knew what was being suggested. The eastern side was the border with the West Bank. Palestinians were regularly shot on sight by the police for trying to cross into Israel. If we were killed there, it would look like we were infiltrators.”
The commander said he would follow behind the truck in his jeep and escort them to the village’s eastern entrance.
“We were saved by a shepherd who at that moment was driving a large flock of sheep into the village. The sheep separated us from the police, and the truck driver saw his chance. He drove off at top speed and escaped.
“He took us to his home and all 27 of us hid there for three days, too frightened to come out.”
Despite the appalling loss of life, Israel has been slow to come to terms with the massacre. Mr Issa and other villagers were repeatedly arrested in subsequent years as they tried to stage a commemoration.
On the insistence of the government, the plaque erected in the village square to commemorate the deaths refers to the event as a “tragedy” rather a “massacre”. No government official has ever attended the annual march.Continued . . .