חשיפה: הכתבה המצונזרת ב”הארץ” על רצח שבויים בידי צה”ל מתארת את טבח ראס סודר ב-1967
حصري: تقرير “هارتس” المبهم عن قتل اسرى الحرب يصف مجررة راس سدر عام ١٩٦٧
UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect new information I’ve learned about the identities of the officers involved in the Ras Sudr massacre.
Aluf Benn published a report (English) in today’s Haaretz which, though it dealt with events of fifty years ago, was nevertheless heavily censored. As usual, I’m here to tell you what the censor excised–and it was a ton!
In all three of Israel’s major wars between 1948-1967 there are documented reports of potential war crimes in which IDF units murdered Egyptian POWs. In 1956 alone, up to 2,000 were reported killed by a single Israeli unit commanded by the infamous Rafael Eitan (who once said after Israel finished settling the Territories there would be nothing left for the Palestinians to do but scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle–imagine what his childhood was like!). There are so many reports (here’s another from 1967) that it’s sometimes difficult to keep incidents apart. For example, there were POW massacres at one place (Ras al-Sudr) in both 1956 and 1967.
In some instances commanders were either so proud of their actions or so indignant at criticism that they boasted at what they did. Others, like former IDF Gen. Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who died last week, claimed those massacred by troops under his command weren’t Egyptian, but Palestinian fedayeen; and that they weren’t POWs, but rather were retreating without having surrendered. Still, Fuad’s slaughter of 250 enemy retreating enemy troops sounds more like an outright massacre than a legitimate military engagement.
In Tom Segev’s definitive work on the 1967 war he says that Israeli soldiers witnessed “tens of thousands” of Egyptian soldiers wandering the desert dying of thirst and hunger; or being hunted by special IDF units whose mission was to kill such soldiers when they found them (pgs. 374 ff.). Between deliberate murder and dying of thirst, it seems the number of dead might reach such a large number.
What You Do Unto Others Shall Be Done Unto You
Israel’s systematic execution of thousands of Egyptian soldiers during the wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967 aroused a sense of outrage in the Egyptian military. So when it had a chance to exact revenge in 1973, when it routed the IDF in the initial stages of that war, the Egyptians too killed Israeli captives. Though a Channel 10 TV documentary says the number was “dozens, if not hundreds,” Amir Oren reports in Haaretz that a total of 86 captives were killed in 1973, half in the Golan and half in the Sinai. One thing Israel refuses to recognize in these matters is that what goes around comes around. The Israeli attitude is that we will always be on the winning side, so whatever we do to our enemies will never be done to us. And if God forbid, Israel ever is on the losing side it screams a blue streak about the bloodthirsty Arab savages who live only to kill and maim their civilized Jewish victims.
The Massacre at Ras Sudr
Benn’s story today concerns the massacre at a battle called Ras al Sudr (Hebrew) in the Egyptian Sinai during the 1967 War (all of this information is censored from Benn’s report. After the battle, “tens” (an earlier Haaretz report speaks of the remains of 52 or 62, depending on the source, Egyptian soldiers uncovered) of disarmed Egyptian soldiers were herded into an enclosed inner courtyard, where they were fed. The Israelis conversed with them about their respective military service. But this unit prepared to leave for another mission and was replaced by a second unit. This force refused to accept the prisoners and the first unit, which was an armored corps, had no logistical means of transporting them. Further, the entire Israeli battle plan was based on lightning fast tank attack and the troops could not afford to be bogged down with prisoners.
At that point, the tank commander of the original unit felt he had no choice but to kill the prisoners. They were lined up, ordered to face the wall, then summarily executed. The Egyptian commanding officer turned to flee and was hunted down by soldiers from the relief unit, who followed him in a jeep and shot him to death as well. All the bodies were buried on the spot by a bulldozer.
The story was reported to Benn by two witnesses to the killings. The first told the journalist that he had refused his superior’s order to kill the captives because he had earlier promised them they would not be killed. Though the officer threatened to bring him up on charges if he failed to comply, the soldier still refused. Then another soldier volunteered to carry out the illegal order, in which he was joined by three others.
Then they were killed. Some of these were severely wounded before being killed. The IDF commanding officer (see below) who ordered the murders was punished lightly with a three-year sentence, reduced to seven months (presumably after he agreed to keep his mouth shut). During his trial, he claimed that the order to massacre the prisoners was given to him by his own superior officer. When approached by Benn, he told the reporter that the matter was secret and that he should approach the defense ministry with his inquiry.
The senior commander, who may’ve ordered the massacre, was never punished. He went on to promotions which led him to “the most senior of military posts.” This would indicate that the latter possibly was later named chief of staff, though I can’t be certain of this (yet). The incident was later suppressed so that neither the army, the political echelon or the media ever reported it.
Israel Censorship: Protecting War Criminals
The names of both were also censored from the report. It seems that the censor’s job is not to protect Israeli national security, but to conceal war crimes. Unless such concealment is part and parcel of protecting Israel’s national security.
In 2000, Walla reported on the same incident and interviewed Yeshayahu Gavish, who it described as the commander of the southern front (he was later the CEO of one of Israel’s largest industrial conglomerates, Koor Industries). According to Walla, Gavish told its reporter the name of the commander in charge of the Ras Sudr front:
“I know of no incident involving the murder of captives.” According to him no information about the killing of captives at Ras Sudr was ever brought to his attention during the fighting. He pointed out that Ras Sudr was captured with a fight by troops under the command of Avraham Yoffe, and that all the residents fled.
He seems to be saying that if there were executions of prisoners, Yoffe didn’t inform him. It’s also convenient that at the time of Gavish’s interview, Yoffe was dead and couldn’t speak for himself. But since publishing this post, I’ve subsequently learned that while both Gavish and Yoffe were in the chain of command over the Ras Sudr front, they weren’t the officers mentioned in Benn’s report. They were too senior to be directly responsible. The two officers Benn mentions were junior to them and we still don’t know their identity. That also means that Gavish’s identification of Yoffe was a sort of deflection that both absolved the former of responsibility and identified an individual who also wasn’t directly involved or responsible.
Even if there were war crimes committed on the southern front under Gavish’s command, why would you report a war crime to your commanding officer? You’d arrange to sweep it under the rug. Clearly, an ambitious commander like Gavish would prefer not to know when troops under his command commit a war crime. It looks bad on your resume. And you’d especially look the other way about a massacre which other units had committed in the past and were committing during the same combat operation in which you were fighting. Interestingly, in 1970 Gavish was nominated to become IDF chief of staff, but in an internal conflict between various political party factions, David Eleazer was appointed in his stead.
We also do not know the name of the local commander who executed the orders to kill the captives. I have approached many Israelis who might know the answer. So far, none has offered any direct information. If anyone reading this knows the name or knows someone who might, please let me know.
Why Censor Information Already Known and Reported?
Now it becomes easier to understand why the IDF censor found reason to censor a story that is a half century old. Gavish and Yoffe went on to long and distinguished careers both in the army and in private life. They served their country and any blemish on their record was washed clean by deliberate historical amnesia. Revelation of the nation’s refusal to address their crimes would be a further blemish on Israel, a nation already embroiled in numerous accusations of more recent war crimes. So why permit a journalist to stick the country’s finger in this beehive, only to be stung by it?
Then again, every aspect of Benn’s report has been previously published. Indeed, the Walla report is even more detailed than Benn’s and names the two commanding officers which were censored from today’s report. Not to mention, that media outlets in Egypt and Saudi Arabia reported on this very incident. The horse has left the barn and now you want to bar the door? It’s typical of the stupidity of the IDF censor, Col. Ariella Ben Avraham. Not that she has a monopoly on this quality. She just is afflicted with it worse than some of her predecessors.
“They Did it, So Why Can’t We?”
To be clear, armies of many nations have killed prisoners of war. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner, admitted that his special forces operations could not afford to take enemy prisoners while operating behind enemy lines, which left no choice but to murder any witnesses they encountered. However, I’ve rarely seen accounts of massacres of disarmed soldiers in such numbers and spanning three different wars. There is no question but that this is a systematic, long-term war crime which was countenanced at the highest IDF command levels. IDF supporters will no doubt point out that there were scores of IDF units operating in the same territory which managed not to commit such war crimes. This would supposedly clear the IDF as a whole of guilt in systematic war crimes for which the entire army could be blamed. But when you have this many massacres involving many different units in multiple wars, it is systematic. The fact that most of these crimes were never investigated or prosecuted also taints the army with the stain of refusal to hold itself accountable for its own crimes. Under international law, a nation which refuses to prosecute war crimes opens it to trial before the ICC. Israel will have much to answer for in the dock at the Hague some day.