The controversy over Israel’s Prawer plan to dispossess 30-40,000 Negev Bedouin of their traditional lands and congregate them in reservation-style accommodations brought back to an Israeli friend the nightmare memory of a horrific incident in the early annals of the IDF and the State.
Those who follow the work of Israel’s New Historians, particularly Benny Morris before he went off the rails and became a fan of ethnic cleansing, will recall that they documented for the first time that the Palmach and later IDF engaged in forced expulsions, civilian murder and rape of indigenous Palestinians during the 1948 War.
After that War, the IDF was charged with protecting its new borders. Still lingering under a sense of vulnerability and encirclement, while suspicious of any efforts to return by refugees expelled by Nakba, the IDF was charged with defending those borders. Though there were instances of fedayeen “infiltrators” who sought to engage in acts of sabotage and terror, most of these fears weren’t well-founded. In fact, the IDF often created enemies where none existed. Border units in the Negv were also tasked with expelling to Egypt any Bedouin tribes who had not collaborated during the 1948 War.
Orders at the time told IDF units patrolling the borders that any Arab caught within six miles of the border was to be handed over to military intelligence if they offered useful intelligence information. If not, they were to be killed. In other words, this was a message of terror to be sent to the local Palestinian population, that if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you’d be dead. That’s certainly one way to cow the local non-Jewish population.
This policy was displayed in all its horrific detail by the infamous Nirim incident, in which an IDF unit, fittingly known as the Sdom Battalion, was patrolling a Negev border zone. It came across three Bedouin, two men and a young girl. The soldiers scared off the two men by firing rifle shots at them. They took the girl back to their encampment.
On their return, they found two of their commanding officers visiting the outpost. When they were apprised of the status of the girl prisoner he told them that after interrogating her they wer to let her go; and that they were not to abuse her.
Later that evening, after a vote among the troops about whether she should become their kitchen worker or their sex slave, they enthusiastically shouted, “we want to fuck.” Thus her fate was sealed. Over the course of the next three days each of three squads got a day in which they almost all the soldiers took turns raping her.
The next morning, she went to the officer’s tent (he had raped her as well) and complained of her treatment. He then commanded his sergeant to take her away with two other soldiers and kill her. They did so. Then they buried her. The following evening, the commander of the unit traveled to Beersheba to see a movie. There he met his own commanding officer, who asked what had happened to the girl. When he was told she’d been killed he sent another officer to investigate.
The unit commander then asked his sergeant to write a report about the incident. This poor schlemiel, not having the good sense to lie or clean up the facts, signed his own arrest warrant, and the lieutenant joined him by signing his name to the report:
“Nirim Outpost. To: Company Commander. From: Commander, Nirim Outpost.
Re: Report on the captive
In my patrol on 12.8.49 I encountered Arabs in the territory under my command, one of them armed. I killed the armed Arab on the spot and took his weapon. I took the Arab female captive. On the first night the soldiers abused her and the next day I saw fit to remove her from the world.
Signed: Moshe, second lieutenant.”
There was an investigation. There almost always is when the crime is too embarrassing to sweep away. But military justice gave out light, almost non-existent sentences of a few years in prison. Only one of those who raped the victim was convicted of the actual rape.
In fact, the wise solons of the court found that because there was no one except the accused who actually witnessed the rape (the victim was conveniently tucked away under a few feet of earth with her body riddled with bullet holes), it could not find “beyond a reasonable doubt” that rape had been committed. Apparently, a stream of men each spending five minutes in a tent with a female prisoner, after which they exit the tent buttoning their pants wasn’t sufficient proof of what they’d actually been doing there. Thankfully, the judges didn’t argue she was a prostitute and had consensual sex. I suppose it would be hard to explain her murder in that context.
No one was convicted of murdering her. Most of the convictions involved dereliction of duty for allowing the rape to happen.
To this day, the Bedouin girl has never been given the dignity of a name. Naturally the IDF wasn’t eager to find her original Arab male companions to learn anything about her. Though Haaretz has all the names of those convicted it would not publish them. They were conveniently protected at the time of the incident as well, so they could return to regular life after their crime and have no ongoing stigma with which to deal.
Jewish Voice for Peace also translated the sidebar articles from the original Hebrew version of the article, which offer important historical background to the case.
I’ve written in the past about the bad case of historical amnesia which besets Israel regarding its sins against the indigenous non-Jewish communities of Israel. This affliction seems also to have beset two of the soldiers who were found guilty of involvement in this crime. Neither one of them could remember what happened or what they’d done. The best both could muster was that they had nothing to do with it. They were on guard duty and only heard “rumors” about what had happened after the fact. This forgetting is abetted by the excision of the identities of the guilty from both the Haaretz article and the historical record. If we cannot call a crime by its name and identify the victims and guilty by their names, how can we ever excise the guilt and do true reparation for the victims?
These guilty men also claim that the IDF personnel of the Sdom Battalion were “a rabble,” soldiers pressed into service with no military background nor even prior ties to the State, since they were almost all new immigrants from diverse nations. He even claims the soldiers could barely communicate and had to use hand signals to make themselves understood. This claim is undercut by the narrative itself, which includes reference to a vote taken by the men about the fate of the Bedouin girl. When the commander asks the men to vote on whether to rape her or make her a kitchen slave, they’re heard to cheer in unison: “We want to fuck.” They seem to have been able to communicate this quite well despite the alleged language barriers.
What happened at Nirim would’ve been buried in the dustbin of history were it not for the trial of those responsible for the Kfar Kassem massacre during the 1956 War of 50 Palestinian villagers returning from work, who knew nothing about a shoot to kill curfew. The Border Police killed scores of these innocent Palestinians. Defense lawyers in the case offered the Nirim incident as an example of previous IDF murders of civilians to show a pattern of such conduct. One of the lawyers brought the case files to the Tel Aviv University law school archives, where they were preserved until two Haaretz reporters reported this tragedy in 2003.
I bring this up in the context of the recent events concerning the Negev Bedouin to point out that Israel has been screwing the Bedouin (literally and figuratively) since the establishment of the State. Another way contemporary Israeli apologists continue this abuse of indigenous Bedouin tribes is by turning them into uncivilized savages. Al Monitor allowed Einat Wilf to use similar terms in her rant against the ungrateful Bedouin who refuse the “generous deal” offered them by State authorities. Haaretz also quoted the leading State official responsible for implementing Prawer as claiming, despite protests around the country by Israeli Bedouin and Palestinians, that the majority of Bedouin actually supported the proposal but were cowed into submission by a radical minority who forced them into silence. It hasn’t produced any of these “cowed” individuals or anyone supporting the Plan, naturally.
There will be some astute hasbarists who will point to the American genocide against Native Americans. Similar crimes, involving hundreds of thousands of dead from illness, war, and economic privation haunt this country to this day. One national crime does not justify another.
Israel must deal with the Original Sin of Nakba. It must allow refugees to return. It must legalize the traditional lands of the Bedouin tribes. Israel must become a “normal” state and the only way to do this is by facing the past and accepting responsibility for it.