It was a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem to the town of Kufur Qassem in the Palestinian triangle inside Israel proper. I had arranged a number of interviews with survivors of a massacre the Israeli army committed four decades ago. The road leading into the town was full of olive trees on both sides. Only a few people were collecting their olives. The harvest was close to its end. And so it was those days forty years ago. On 29 October 1956, just hours after the tripartite attack of Israel, France and Britain started on Egypt in what was known as the Sinai Campaign, 49 villagers from Kufur Qassem were slaughtered in cold blood as they made their way back from their fields to their homes.
In the town center stood a monument commemorating those who were killed. The list of names carved on the big square stone gave all 49 names and a blank space was left without any name. I later was told it was left for the 50th victim whose name nobody could tell. One of the murdered women was pregnant in her eighth month and the baby died in her womb. No one could ever come up with a suitable name to that unborn victim. I went through the list and matched it with names of people who were slated for interviews later in the day. Many names sounded familiar. Many of them were relatives of some of those I was going to see. The view of those picking their olives whom I saw on my way into the town crossed my mind to intercut later with images of those who returned to their homes on the day of the massacre. The scene moved me and I felt teardrops were about to roll down my face. At that moment, rain started to fall, lightly first and later very heavily. The sky. I wondered, was crying in Kufur Qassem!
Israel did not spare any effort to hide the crime and to cover up for those who committed it. The strict censorship it clamped on the story lasted for only a week. On 6 November 1956, one Israeli newspaper reported that a commission of inquiry "was set to investigate the incidents in Kufur Qassem where some civilians were killed and others wounded during a curfew in Kufur Qassem". A month and a half later, details on the massacre started to flow in through the media. A number of left wing and Arab Knesset members played a leading role and contributed to the exposure. Tewfiq Toubi and Meir Wilner of the Israeli Communist Party sent hundreds of letters about the events on that day to public figures in the country. Latif Dori, an active member of left-wing Zionist Mapam Party infiltrated into the village three days after the massacre and collected first hand testimonies from survivors. Uri Avneri, also a leading leftist who was the first to visit PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the Lebanese capital in 1982, played an effective role through his weekly magazine, Ha'Oiam Hazeh (This World.) Yet all what was published in those days could not give an exact account of the motives behind the massacre. The villagers gave the only explanation. They insisted the slaughtering of innocent villagers was meant to force them out of their country into Jordan. Kufur Qassem was no more than ten kilometers away from the 1967 borders between Israel and Jordan.
Only in 1991, part of the truth started to come out. Rupik Rozenthal, an Israeli journalist, wrote in "Hadashot" on 25 November saying the massacre was part of an overall plan by the Israeli army to deport as many Palestinians as possible out of the country. Rozenthal was allowed to go through the army archives and read the minutes of the military trial of the 11 soldiers and officers who were involved in the massacre. He found out that the plan was to try and move the Palestinians out of the Arab villages in the Triangle and send them into Jordan should the latter intervenes in support for Egypt. Jordan did not enter the 1956 war. The plan was not carried out in full. Only the first phase was done. The dire price was 49 villagers from Kufur Qassem.
When the crime was too heinous to hide, Israel decided to put those involved on military trial, which according to the villagers was no more than a joke. Colonel Yishishkar Shedmi, who changed the timing for the curfew and reportedly gave his soldiers the green light to go ahead with the massacre, was only found guilty of exceeding his authority when he moved the curfew hour.
The court fined him one piaster fine only. The verdict, at least as far as the villagers were concerned, meant that the one piaster was the price Israel was ready to give for the 49 victims. The rest of those on trial were sentenced between seven to 17 years imprisonment but all were released before the end of the third year of their penalty. Major Avraham Melinki, who commanded the Border Police force in the village and was the one who gave the orders to shoot, was promoted right after his release from prison. Then Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben Gurion placed him in charge of security arrangements in Israel's maximum-security nuclear reactor in Dimona. Colonel Shedmi continued his service in the army. In 1967, he was a mechanized brigade commander and in 1973 he served as advisor to the commander of the northern district and was wounded when their helicopter crashed over Mount of Hermon on the Golan Heights.
Testimonies of survivors:
Jamal Freij was 17 years old the day the massacre took place. He was among a number of villagers working their fields. Among their group, there were some 25 girls and women. "Two kids from the village came to notify us that curfew hour was moved earlier to five in the afternoon. I told the women to head back to their homes. I went, along with a number of men, to a warehouse to change our clothes. On our way back, and at a distance of two kilometers, we heard heavy shooting coming from the village direction. We started to retreat but a lorry driver who came rushing towards the village told us there was no need to run away simply because, he thought and we believed, the shooting was not that serious or indiscriminate. At the entrance to the village, three soldiers stopped us. Their officer ordered us to get out of the lorry, which drove us to the village. The minute we told him we all were from Kufur Qassem he ordered his soldiers to open fire. They shot at us. Many fell on the ground, dead or wounded. I was among a number of men who ran away but I fell a minute later and hid myself behind the lorry's wheel until the soldiers discovered me late at night and took me back to the village."
Talal Issa Shaker was eight years only. Villagers still remember the tragedy that involved his death. He went out to return the flock of sheep from the neighboring fields. A villager I met confirmed that the soldiers "saw Talal and shot him dead. When his father went out to check what was happening, they soldiers shot and seriously wounded him. The mother later went out and was shot and so was the daughter, Noura."
Mustafa Khamis Amer is now 58 years old. He explains how he miraculously escaped death: "The soldiers at the southern entrance to the village stopped us and checked our identity cards. Immediately afterwards, their officer ordered them to shoot. I started to run away and managed to disappear from them while many others were shot dead or wounded." On that day, Mustafa added, villagers from nearby Jaijoulya were brought in by the army to dig a huge hole, which at the time they never knew it was meant to become the collective grave for the victims. All bodies were put in nylon bags and put aside ready for burial, he said.
Saleh Khalil Issa was 19 years old. His testimony, given in detail to Latif Dori three days after the massacre, gave the following account: "We were heading back to the village on our bicycles. We arrived at about ten to five in the afternoon. Three soldiers at the western entrance to the village ordered us to stop. Each of us put his hand in his pocket to pull out his identity card but the officer did not wait. He gave orders to open fire. They shot and immediately killed my cousin Abed Salim Issa and injured his brother Asaad and myself. We fell on the ground and then we saw another group of people riding their bicycles approaching. They were a group of eleven people, whose names are known to me. I heard the officer giving orders using a term HARVEST THEM and they opened fire. We fell on the ground. I saw a car approaching driven by Ata Yaacob who had some passengers with him. They all were ordered to step out of the car and to stand in a queue. The officer again used the same term and fire was opened at them. The soldiers then pulled all bodies to a nearby field. At a certain moment, we found out the soldiers were looking in the opposite direction and we started to run away. We ran for some 50 meters and fire was shot at us again. I took the ground and stayed there until the next morning. Throughout the night, I heard soldiers giving instructions to move the bodies. In the morning, the soldiers saw me and took me to the hospital.
Abdel-Rahim Sarsour was also 17 years old on that day. He remembers how he was injured on his way back to the village when soldiers opened fire at him and at the group that returned with him. He pretended he was dead to escape being shot at again by the soldiers. He said he still feels guilty for the death of his brother, whom their mother sent to inform Abdel-Rahim and the others that the curfew hour was changed. "Had he stayed home, he would be alive today, "said Abdel-Rahim who gave the following account: "We arrived in the village. Soldiers were manning a roadblock on the entrance. They ordered us out of the car. An officer then gave his orders to HARVEST US and fire was opened indiscriminately in our direction. I fell on the ground and so did many others, some were killed immediately and others wounded. My brother fell next to me. He murmured asking if I was hit. I gave him a blow with my elbow to remain silent but it was too late. A soldier approached and fired four bullets at me, hitting both my right leg and arm. The soldier then pointed his gun to my brother's head and fired several rounds of bullets. The head exploded in pieces while I was watching but did not dare say a single word. I cannot forget that moment at all. I still remember how my brother, frightened by the soldiers, was pressing with his hands on my chest. When the soldier fire at him, I felt the pressure increasing for a second or two until his hands went loose. Jumaah Sarsour, another wounded. Lay next to me. He was moaning with pain. I tried to ask him to remain silent but it was too late too. One of the soldiers drew close to him and shot him dead. A third main badly wounded was screaming at the soldiers. A soldier approached him and shouted WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH and shot him dead. A car approached with a number of women aboard singing. One of the girls saw the bodies and yelled on the rest to stop singing. The driver sped away from the scene but some 150 meters away we heard plenty of shooting."Abdel-Rahim said he lost conscience sometime at night and woke up to find a soldier pulling him from the leg. He told the soldier to stop dragging him along with the dead bodies. "The soldier took out his gun and was about to shoot me when an ambulance arrived and its driver asked if the soldiers had any wounded. It was my lucky minute. The driver put me in his ambulance and drove to the hospital."