חשיפה: משה לוי (לימים הרמטכ”ל) הוא הקצין שהורה לרצוח שבויים בראס סודר ב-1967
حصري: موشيه ليفي (الذي تولى فيما بعد منصب رئيس الاركان) هو الذي امر بقتل اسرى الحرب قي راس سدر عام ١٩٦٧
On Friday, I published a post exposing an Israeli war crime committed during the 1967 War in the Sinai campaign. My post was based on a heavily censored article published the same day in Haaretz by Aluf Benn. Like many readers, I like to unravel a good mystery and the censorship of Benn’s piece piqued my interest. A confidential Israeli source told me that his story dealt with the massacre of captive Egyptian prisoners at Ras Sudr. Benn mentioned that there were two IDF officers implicated in the incident: one, the junior officer, received a light sentence of three years, reduced to seven months; his commanding officer was never charged and later went on to a career at the “highest levels” of the IDF, according to Benn. I immediately suspected this meant the officer later became chief of staff or at least a member of the General Command (the Israeli equivalent of the Joint Chiefs). This offered a tantalizing clue. There were a number of prospective officers who might’ve been the culprits. They included Avraham Yoffe, Rafael Eitan, and Moshe Levi (English), each of whose units were active in Ras Sudr and environs during the War.
Unfortunately, after extensive research, my first hunches proved wrong. This was confirmed by knowledgeable sources who told me they believed I had identified the wrong individuals (Yeshaya “Shaike” Gavish and Yoffe). As a result, I rewrote a small section of that post and went back to work. Now, again with assistance from various knowledgeable collaborators, I’ve put together a riveting and dramatic story almost as interesting as the one concerning the war crime itself.
Israeli tactics during the 1967 War were derived, ironically, from the experience of the Wehrmacht during World War II. Blitzkrieg was the element of speed and lightning surprise to confuse and disable the enemy, his will to resist, and ability to organize a defense. The Israeli strategy involved armored attacks through terrain, the Mitla Pass, the Egyptians never believed could be traversed by tanks. It also involved parachuting troops behind enemy lines to both confuse them and cut off their line of retreat. That is where our story begins.
Paratroopers under the command of Levi were dropped by helicopter into Ras Sudr, where they met a unit of Egyptian defenders which surrendered almost immediately. According to various accounts, there were anywhere from 50-70 troops captured. They were bound, gagged and masked and marched into an enclosed area, where they were held in the burning sun for hours. The prisoners begged for water, which their jailers provided from their own canteens. There were also conversations between the Israelis and Egyptians about their respective army lives and routines.
Since the Israeli battle plan was to move quickly, capture targets and then move on to new assignments, the paratroop unit received orders to move on. But, they asked, what were they to do with the prisoners? They were paratroopers, after all. They’d dropped onto Ras Sudr from helicopters. They couldn’t move them or take them with them. The commander who’d ordered them to move out, according to different sources, either directed them to kill the prisoners or told them to “solve the problem.” At any rate, the IDF soldiers, under a junior officer, then lined the men up and executed them.
After completing the killings, an armored relief unit came on the scene which had a bulldozer. It dug a grave and buried the bodies in it. Though we don’t know what exactly transpired, the IDF discovered the incident and the junior officer was later tried and sentenced to three years in prison for the murders. His sentence was later reduced to seven months. The senior commander who ordered the murders was never charged with any crime. Later, he was rewarded in the fashion I mentioned above.
But who were the two officers? Since both Raful and Levi later became chiefs of staff, they appeared to be the most likely candidates for the senior officer. After extensive research, I concluded it had to be Levi who gave the order. This history of the paratroops portrays Levi’s service on June 9, 1967:
Seven IAF helicopters landed paratroop forces under the command of then Lt. Col. Moshe Levi (later to be chief of staff), in the Ras Sudr region of Egypt. A pair of Mirage fighters aided in the attack and strafed the Egyptian forces dug-in there. The paratroops landed 100 meters from the Egyptian troops, storming their position and quickly overran it, gaining control of the Ras Sudr airfield.
These clearly are the soldiers captured by Levi’s unit.
Now let’s move on to another interesting piece of evidence that adds further depth to the massacre. In 1997, veteran Israeli TV director, Ram Loevy, decided to tell the story of Ras Sudr. Because Loevy knew the incident had been controversial and would touch a raw nerve, he couldn’t tell the story as a documentary. So he decided to enlist one of Israel’s leading mystery writers, Batya Gur, as his screenwriter. Together they developed an intriguing plot that involved a murder on a TV soundstage. It became a 2000 TV mini-series called Murder, Shooting (Retzach Metzalmim). Afterward, Gur turned it into a novel which was translated as Murder in Jerusalem.
The victim is a woman who is the set designer for a TV production being filmed. The motive for the crime involved Ras Sudr, naturally. She discovers that one of the characters perpetrated a massacre there and demands that he expose what happened. Since this is a part of their past which none of the soldiers who were there spoke of afterward, naturally they felt threatened and wanted to silence her. She told them if they didn’t go public she would, and that sealed her fate.
A critical point to remember is that the series opens with the following message on screen: “All the events mentioned in this film, aside from one, are fictional.”
Here is how Gur describes the Ras Sur incident. The killer is named Rubin, his victim is Tirzah, and the detective who solves the case is Michael:
“What do you want?” Rubin asked in a harsh voice.
“Me,” Michael responded. “I want to hear about Ras Sudar during the war, from your mouth, without any middle-man.”
And so they were, at that moment–the killer and the hunter–complete partners in one matter; and this matter was infused more than anything with grief and disappointment.
“Okay,” Rubin said peacefully, his voice now distant and detached…”We were paratroopers,” Rubin said, “Each one a great guy, real quality; idealistic and all that. You and I are about the same age, right?”
Michael nodded silently.
“So you know what I’m talking about,” Rubin said…”Paratroopers, great guys to the last man. Back then, thirty years ago, I don’t know, it’s tough to explain. What can I tell you? That I wanted to be an officer? That I was filled with military ambitions? That that’s the reason I carried out an order? Was it even possible to disobey an order? Maybe it all happened because of the heat, because we’d already lost so many of our comrades; who knows the real reason why someone does something at a given moment? This is the way it was: they brought us in to guard Egyptian prisoners of war. There were maybe sixty, seventy of them, they were subdued, quiet. They were at our mercy, as the saying goes, bound at their hands and feet. The heat that day in Ras Sudar was insufferable…I can see it all now, just like it was yesterday or an hour ago,” he said. “Their eyes were blindfolded. Maybe that was why…”
“That was why…” Michael’s voice echoed Rubin’s, urging him on.
“That was why,” Rubin said,” all of us afterward were able…they were sitting the whole time, we couldn’t see their faces. We gave them water, and that was all. The only one we talked to was the doctor, and that was why we couldn’t…that was why we told him to walk away. And only when he was at a distance…only then, we shot him in the back. I swear I don’t know who it was. We were told, ‘the tanks are on their way.’ We thought that meant Egyptian soldiers were on the hilltops surrounding us. The commander of our platoon, Sasson–there was this order–I don’t know why we didn’t refuse to carry it out, I don’t know why. The whole affair was so unnecessary that it’s hard for me even to describe it: in the hills there were thousands more Egyptian soldiers, like the sixty or seventy we were guarding, but nobody did a thing about them. Our prisoners? They sat for half a day in the sun and we gave them water. Then came our orders to move out. ‘Head up north,’ we were told. We said, ‘What are we supposed to do with them?’ So over the radio…can you believe it, over the radio they tell us, ‘Figure it out.’
…Sixty or seventy men were sitting cross-legged in the desert sand, and I’m telling you”–his voice suddenly cracked, and he whimpered–“that…having them get to their feet and hustling them into three rows; I can’t forget how their legs shook after all those hours of sitting,” Rubin said, hiding his face in his hands and sobbing. “It was terrible, terrible to see that. After that we carried out the order and mowed them down with their hands and legs bound and their eyes blindfolded. And after that…”
“After that?” Michael prodded him gently, amazed at the tone of his own voice.
Rubin exhaled noisily, then speaking quickly, said, “After that our tank corps arrived, along with a bulldozer, and they plowed all the bodies into a pit. And the doctor…” He covered his face with his hands again and spoke from behind them. “He…he…he was…” He moved his hands away and looked at Michael. “He was the only one I’d spoken to. In English. The rest of them were faceless…”
“So someone shot him in the back? Who was it?”
“We couldn’t shoot him in the face,” Rubin said, as if he were offering condolences. “He had a face…”
“And no one knew about this whole affair?” Michael asked. “Not even Tirzah, until her last meeting with Sroul in Los Angeles?”
“We never spoke about it,” Rubin said…”Not a word. Not with Sroul over the phone, either, or when I visited him there two years ago. Nothing. Not until Sroul told Tirzah. Because he was sick. He knew his days were numbered. Sroul told her, and when she came back from America, she said, ‘You have a week to get organized. If you don’t come clean with this story on your own, I’ll tell it. To the whole country, on TV, in the papers. I won’t let it remain buried under the sands of Ras Sudar.'”
Michael stared at length at Rubin, then said, his voice full of compassion, “She wasn’t prepared to keep quiet. So you had no choice, you had to kill her.”
Loevy himself explains his rationale for exposing the Ras Sudr massacre to the broader Israeli public (and potentially Egyptians as well) via the mini-series:
“When the Six Day War ended, everyone thought that the ‘mother of all wars’ was over and we won. I was terrified and thought to myself, ‘What would happen to our prisoners there if this story gets out?’ Nevertheless, I feel that we must not be silent…. People say that these things happen in wartime and that there is loyalty to the army and loyalty among the troops, which causes these things to disappear beneath the carpet. But I believe that we are betraying our real responsibility, which is to take these skeletons out of the closet, even if we think that the enemy has more skeletons than us. We must not be silent. We are all part of this terrible conspiracy of silence, and it is eating us up inside.”
Moshe Levi was the IDF’s 12th chief of staff (1983-87). He was also known as Moishe va’cheytzi (Moshe and a half) because of his great height. Other than that he was a rather dull, undistinguished chief of staff, something sought after the tumultuous tenure of his predecessor, Rafael Eitan, who led Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
You won’t find a word of this scandal in any biography or even any press report about his life. The slate has been wiped clean. And thanks to the IDF military censor, Aluf Benn could not tell Israel that he committed a war crime. What is a state worth that is beset by historical amnesia? That sinks its head in those desert sands, that kills the character who wants to tell the truth, that forces the director to mask the crime in fiction?
I tried to speak with Ram Loevy about the Ras Sudr element of his plot. He was very gracious, but preferred not to speak to a media source outside Israel about this sensitive incident.
NOTE: During a Twitter debate on Aluf Benn’s article, Amos Schocken retweeted a link to this post indicating that it confirms what was in Benn’s original report before the censor got her hands on it.