Who was responsible for Israel's 1967 massacre?

Who was responsible for Israel's 1967 massacre?
Comment: Richard Silverstein asks: Why did the Israeli army censor try to hide a story that is a half century old?
8 min read
24 Oct, 2016
Israel's massacre in Ras Sud will come back to haunt it, writes Silverstein [Getty]

Haaretz's editor, Aluf Benn recently published a heavily censored report which described an Israeli war crime of fifty years ago.

Despite the dated nature of the incident, Israel's military censor excised most of the important details from the published story. Benn couldn't write when it happened (1967), nor where it happened (in Egyptian Sinai), nor what happened (60 Egyptian prisoners of war were summarily executed). 

Nor could he assign blame to the two officers who were responsible. I learned the background of the incident from a confidential Israeli source and publish it here.

In all three of Israel's major wars between 1948 and 1967 there were documented reports that Israeli army units murdered Egyptian POWs. And there were POW massacres at one place (Ras al-Sudr) in both 1956 and 1967.

In Israeli historian 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 Israeli army units whose mission was to kill such soldiers when they found them. Between deliberate murder and dying of thirst, it seems the number of dead might have reached such a large number.

What goes around comes around

Israel's systematic execution of thousands of Egyptian soldiers during these three wars aroused a sense of outrage in the Egyptian military. So when it had a chance to exact revenge in 1973 (it routed the Israeli army in the initial stages of that war) the Egyptians too killed dozens of Israeli captives.  

One thing Israel refuses to recognise in these matters is that what goes around comes around. What you do to others will eventually be done to you.

The massacre at Ras Sudr

My Israeli source told me that Benn's story concerns the massacre at a battle called Ras Sudr in Sinai during the 1967 War. Israeli tactics during the war were reportedly derived from the experience of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. 

Blitzkrieg was the element of speed and lightning surprise to confuse and disable the enemy, his will to resist and ability to organise defence. The Israeli strategy involved armoured 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. This is where the story begins.

It's a case of deliberate historical amnesia

Paratroopers were dropped by helicopter into Ras Sudr, where they met a unit of Egyptian troops which surrendered almost immediately. According to various accounts, there were between 50-70 troops captured. They were bound, gagged, masked and marched into an enclosed area, where they were held in the burning sun for hours.

The prisoners begged for water, which their Israeli 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 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 merely to "solve the problem". At any rate, the Israeli army soldiers, under a junior officer, then lined the men up and executed them.

After completing the killings, an armoured relief unit arrived on the scene with bulldozer. It dug a grave and buried the bodies in it. They were subsequently discovered by Egyptians in 2000.

Though we don't know what exactly transpired immediately after the killings, the Israeli army 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.

You won't find any of this scandal in any biography of Moshe Levi. The slate has been wiped clean

But who were the two officers? After extensive research and consultation with several individuals with knowledge of the Israeli army and the incident, I concluded it was Moshe Levi who gave the order. He later became the twelfth army chief of staff and served in that role from 1983-87. 

This official history of the paratroops portrays Levi's service on 9 June 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.

The massacre 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 his commanding officer threatened to bring him up on charges if he failed to comply, the soldier still refused. Another soldier volunteered to carry out the order, in which he was joined by three others.

Israel censorship: Protecting war criminals

Why did the Israeli army censor try to hide a story that is a half century old?

Levi went on to long and distinguished career in the army. He served his country well. Any blemish on his record was averted by the refusal to investigate or prosecute him. It's a case of deliberate historical amnesia.

Revelation of the army's refusal to address crimes committed in 1967 under his command would be a further stain on Israel, already embroiled in accusations of war crimes in Gaza and Lebanon. As a result, the censor refused to permit Haaretz to open this Pandora's Box.

Ras Sudr in Israeli popular culture

In 1997, veteran Israeli TV director, Ram Loevy, decided to tell the story of Ras Sudr. Because the incident had been controversial and would touch a raw nerve in Israel, he couldn't tell it as a non-fiction docmentary.

So he enlisted one of Israel's leading mystery writers, Batya Gur, as his screenwriter. Together they developed an intriguing plot that involved murder on a TV soundstage. It became a 2000 TV mini-series called Murder, Shooting (Retzach Metzalmim). Afterwards, Gur turned it into a novel which was translated as Murder in Jerusalem.

In the novel, the victim is a set designer for a TV production. The motive for the crime involves Ras Sudr, naturally. She discovers that one of the characters perpetrated a massacre there, and demands that he expose what happened publicly. She told him if he didn't, she would. That sealed her fate. The survivors of the incident, feeling shame and guilt for their roles, felt threatened and determined to silence her.  

What is a state worth that is beset by historical amnesia?

When I spoke with Loevy, he told me he preferred not to discuss Ras Sudr with a foreigner. He also offered a demurral by claiming that the film was merely fiction. I reminded him that the series opens with the following onscreen message: "All the events mentioned in this film, aside from one, are fictional."

Here is how the movie's murderer, Rubin, describes the Ras Sur incident and the murder of the Egyptian commanding officer (who is a doctor in the film script) to the detective who solves the crime:

"Sixty or seventy men were sitting cross-legged in the desert sand, and I'm telling you… that... having them get to their feet and hustling them into three rows…" 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… 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..."

You won't find any of this scandal in any biography of Moshe Levi. The slate has been wiped clean. And thanks to the Israeli army military censor, Aluf Benn could not tell Israel that he committed a war crime. What is a state worth that is beset by such historical amnesia? That sinks its head in those desert sands, that kills the character who wants to tell the truth, and which forces the director to mask the crime in fiction?

'They did it, so why can't we?'

To be clear, armies of many nations have killed POWs.  However, I've rarely seen modern accounts of massacres of disarmed soldiers in such numbers and spanning three different wars over a quarter-century.

This is a systematic, long-term war crime countenanced at the highest Israeli army command levels. Some may point out there were scores of Israeli army units operating in the same territory which managed not to commit such war crimes.

This, for some, might clear the Israeli army of guilt. 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 impunity, the 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 International Criminal Court. Israel may answer for it in the dock at the Hague someday.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.