The Kafr Qasim massacre and Israel's politics of denial

A Palestinian man walks past a mural on a wall in the West Bank city of Jenin reading in Arabic: "So that we don't forget the sacred right to return" on May 13, 2013
8 min read
10 November, 2021

At the end of October, the Israeli Knesset voted down by a sweeping majority of 93 to 12 a bill to commemorate the victims of the 1956 Kafr Qasim massacre.

The bill was proposed by Knesset Members (MKs) Aida Touma-Sliman, Ayman Odeh, and Ofer Cassif from the Joint List, an alliance comprising four of the Palestinian-majority political parties in Israel: Balad, Hadash, the Arab Democratic Party, and Ta'al.

The bill would have seen the Israeli government officially recognise its responsibility for the massacre, as well as making it part of the Israeli school curriculum and declassifying the documents pertaining to it.  

Whilst the vote was expectedly and overwhelmingly against the bill, the heated debate that preceded the sessions also saw some Palestinian MKs lash out at Touma-Sliman.

"The massacre reflects Israel's politics of denial and the fragile relationship between the Israeli state and its Palestinian citizens"

Born in Kafr Qasim, MK Issawi Freij, currently the second Muslim minister in the coalition government for Meretz - and whose grandfather was killed in the massacre - erupted at the Joint List for proposing a bill doomed to be shot down.

Angrily, he shouted at Touma-Sliman: “Be quiet! You play games with the Arabs’ feelings…you want to use our pain for politics,” to which Touma-Sliman responded: “you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Meretz’ representatives were absent from the session.

Ayman Odeh accused Ra’am and Meretz of double standards, “the coalition now has among its ministers MKs who submitted the bill in previous administrations. But their coalition failed the bill and continues to deny the massacre”.  

“We will continue to present the bill, until the massacre has been officially recognised,” Odeh added.

In previous years, typically near the 29 October anniversary, Palestinian MKs and their allies have proposed several bills to push the government to officially recognise the massacre, only to be repeatedly struck down by the Knesset’s Jewish majority.

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Israeli-Jewish MKs argued that the state has done enough already to acknowledge what happened and remedy the victims’ families.

Palestinians in Israel see the massacre as a painful event representing two primary realities in their collective memory: the 1948 Nakba and the ongoing reality of being a second-class minority.

Both realities reflect Israel's continuous politics of denial and the fragile relationship between the Israeli state and its Palestinian citizens.

The massacre

The village of Kafr Qasim lies 20km east of Tel Aviv on the Israeli side of the Green Line, demarcated following the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan.

Palestinian-British academic and historian, Professor Nur Masalha, explained that few in Kafr Qasim remained on their land after the Nakba, becoming part of 160,000 other Palestinians (out of 900,000) who did not end up dispersed as refugees in neighbouring countries or internally in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

Together with the remaining Palestinian population centres in the newly established Israeli state, Masalha told The New Arab that “Kafr Qasim came under 18 years of military rule, restricting the residents’ activities and controlling many aspects of their lives”.

In this context, and on the first day of Israel’s Suez War against Egypt - known in the Arab world as the Tripartite Aggression - Israeli authorities imposed a 5pm curfew on the villages near the border with the Jordanian-controlled Palestinian West Bank.

Many of the villagers were out in the field and did not know a curfew was in effect. Upon their return, they were met with a barrage of gunfire by Israeli border patrols. Over the next hour, twenty-two children aged eight to seventeen, six women (one of whom was pregnant), and nineteen men were killed. 

In-depth Lod
A vehicle in Lod damaged during a dramatic escalation in May between Palestinians and Israelis following tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque. [Getty]

Cover-up and denial

Considering the high death toll, the Israeli government and military employed a variety of tactics to cover up the massacre. As the news travelled beyond the military censor’s control, the authorities were forced to take the perpetrators to court.

To this day, the mainstream story in Israel is that the perpetrators were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to seventeen years; the government paid damages to the victims’ families; and the Israeli army - following a judicial ruling - established a new rule obliging soldiers to refuse to follow orders they deemed “manifestly illegal”.  

At the time, the newspapers al-Ittihad and al-Mirsad, sponsored by the non-Zionist parties MAKI and MAPAM, decried the state’s compensations as fraud. The newspapers also spoke of the pressure exercised by the Israeli army on the male representatives of the victims’ families to attend the post-massacre ceremony and thereby legitimise the officially imposed truce”.

“Not only did the authorities prevent the commemoration of the massacre, they also coerced the villagers into a so-called sulha (traditional/tribal forgiveness ceremony) between the Israeli state and Kafr Qasim’s inhabitants,” Masalha told The New Arab.  The goal was to shape the narrative to align with the state’s master version of events.

“Zionism is not only about colonising the land, it’s also about colonising the minds,” added Masalha; in other words, controlling the narrative in favour of the coloniser to absolve them of responsibility.

"The government's cover-up and continued effort to thwart recognition ultimately transformed the massacre's memory into a form of resistance, initially, to military rule, and thereafter, to Israel's marginalisation of its Palestinian minority"

As such, the massacre has long been depicted, as history scholar Shira Robinson points out,  as “a tragic blipon the screen of the states otherwise fair treatment of its Arab minority, and carried out by uneducated Moroccan immigrants who did not reflect the wider population of citizen-soldiers or the ethos and conduct of the army".

The last of the perpetrators was released by 1960, and later, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and other military and political leaders attempted to “compensate” some of them with high positions.

Deep wounds

From a Palestinian perspective, the massacre was an inevitable result of the Nakba and the subsequent state of oppression that characterised Israeli military rule between 1948 and 1966.

It was speculated, based on archival evidence, that some Israeli leaders planned to expel (euphemised as “transfer”) the population in the border villages of the Triangle area (a concentration of Palestinian towns and villages in the north), and that the massacre was an attempt at achieving that objective.

That, and the government’s cover-up and continued effort to thwart recognition, ultimately transformed the massacre’s memory into a form of resistance, initially, to military rule, and thereafter, to Israel’s marginalisation of its Palestinian minority.

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As their political representation in Israeli society increased, Palestinian politicians took the “commemorative resistance” from the popular sites of memory within Palestinian villages and towns to the state’s official bodies, particularly the Knesset.

On one level, the repeated attempts to get the government to officially recognise the massacre is part of the momentum that its memory generated over the years. Along with Land Day of 1976, it set in motion an organised protest against civil inequality and strengthened the assertion of a distinct Palestinian memory, history, and identity in Israel.

On another level, the existence of Palestinian commemorative resistance within Israel’s highest legislative institution suggests there has been some shift in the Jewish mainstream’s perception of the country’s past.

Changing attitudes?

American-born Israeli Rabbi and the co-founder of Clergy for Peace, Jeremy Milgrom, seems to think that Israeli society has made a transition towards acknowledging some of Israel’s past crimes.

“From the Israeli public’s perspective, two massacres are well known: Sabra and Shatila and Kafr Qasim,” he told The New Arab. With the former, “the public are aware that Israel was not directly involved, but there’s a certain understanding that Israel allowed it”.

With the latter, “Israelis know something terrible happened because there was a trial. One of the judges came with the notion of black flag in illegality; that is, certain orders must be refused, if perceived as blatantly amoral. This notion is now taught in the army - in some cases, you have to refuse a certain order.”

Milgrom, however, points out that there’s a certain belief that refusing orders happens only in extreme cases, which means, “a lot of illegal/immoral practices are ignored.”

He refers to the 2014 visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Kafr Qasim and Shimon Peres’ 2007 apology for the massacre, as well as the partial participation of some Jewish officials in Youm al-Dhekra (Kafr Qasim’s remembrance ceremony) as evidence of the changes in Israeli attitudes toward the past.

Asked if Israeli Jews are also willing to recognise the 1948 massacres, which professor Masalha estimated to number at least 30, Rabbi Milgrom said: “there should be more recognition of the massacres of 48. However, here it becomes too complicated for Israel. Many of the massacres were committed by army officers who later became Israeli heroes, like former PM Yitzhak Rabin”.  

“The changes are incremental,” he added, “thirty years ago, very few Israelis knew what the word Nakba meant or acknowledged Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem.”

"From a Palestinian perspective, the massacre was an inevitable result of the Nakba and the subsequent state of oppression that characterised Israeli military rule between 1948 and 1966"

The transition has been largely credited to Israel’s “New Historians” movement which peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By challenging the official state narratives of 1948, this new historiography facilitated a more moderate attitude toward the Palestinians and increased awareness of the complex historical roots of the conflict.

The 2000 outbreak of the Second Intifada, however, saw the movement’s decline and the rise of Israel’s far right. Nowadays, seemingly, one progressive step forward towards recognition of the past is met with several steps backwards, disrupting the initial belief that Israeli society’s historical trajectory was linear or steadily progressive. 

As encouraging as it might seem, debating Kafr Qasim at the Knesset is still a far cry from actually achieving formal recognition by the state.

The parliamentary majority is still entrenched in firm ideological convictions, and institutionalised hurdles are specifically designed to relieve the state of its responsibility towards both Israel’s Palestinian minority and Palestinians in general. A situation that Rabbi Milgrom describes as “pathetic ideology.”

What’s at stake is a lot more than an admission of guilt and restitution; many are fearful that owning up to the past may bring into question the very ideological foundations of the state of Israel.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa