In response to Egypt's request, Israel's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday asked defense officials to investigate a retired general's claim that he and other Israeli soldiers killed scores of Egyptian prisoners of war in the 1956 Sinai campaign.
The assertion by Arye Biro and other soldiers in the Israeli-Egyptian war are potentially embarrassing to Israel and its most important Arab ally, forcing them to confront events of nearly 40 years ago when they were bitter enemies.
The case reaches high into Israel's honored military elite because Biro's commanding officers were former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and former Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan--both colonels at the time and now right-wing members of the Knesset, or Parliament.
Egyptian officials summoned Israeli diplomats in Cairo on Monday to ask them to clarify the general's boastful account of the wartime killings. It was published in the Israeli newspaper Maariv earlier this month.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials then asked their colleagues in the Defense Ministry to provide information on events described by Biro and determine if legal action might be in order, a military source said, noting: "It's something that nobody is very happy about, but, as the military, we have a moral duty to look into it. This is a question of war crimes, and it's something that won't just go away."
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also a former army general, declined to comment on the investigation.
With their history of successful battles against bigger, more powerful Arab enemies, Israel's soldiers have long enjoyed an exalted status in Israeli society. They were heroes who, until recently, have been relatively free of criticism and public scrutiny in the name of national security interests.
Uri Avneri, a journalist and leftist former member of the Knesset, said he had tried to publish accounts of the killings for decades but was prohibited by government censors. He said the Egyptian government also knew about the killings and chose not to make an issue of them.
Maariv explained that it completed its report in December, 1993, but complied with Israeli censors' demands not to publish it. But the editors said they decided to print the report because the army's own history department recently published an account of the killings by historian Moti Golani.
In his stunningly frank, unrepentant account in the paper, Biro told of landing in the Sinai, east of the Mitla Pass, on Oct. 29, 1956, as commander of a paratroop company in Eytan's Battalion 890--part of Sharon's 202 Parachute Brigade.
Paratroopers found two large tents with civilian Egyptian workers and took them captive. Two days later, they moved out toward Ras Sudar and killed their prisoners, he said.
"There were exactly 49," Biro said. "We tied their hands and made them go down to the quarry. They were startled, broken and shattered. Raful [Eytan's nickname] didn't give an explicit instruction, and I didn't ask for one. Only a fool can ask his commander for permission to do what he has to do.
"Anyway, I can tell you that Raful didn't mourn over the bodies of the workers at Parker Quarry," he says. "He didn't even punish those who finished the job and got rid of them. They were a burden. . . . They died and that's it."
He then tells of a prisoner who had escaped into the desert with bullet wounds but returned to the Israeli soldiers rather than die of thirst. "I'm not responsible for the enemy's stupidity, and surely he very quickly found himself together with his friends," Biro told Maariv.
"As for the question who exactly shot or didn't shoot the workers at the quarry, why is it important? Between us, the main thing is that they shot," he said.
The general did not say whether the brigade commander, Sharon, knew of the killings.
Neither Eytan nor Sharon could be reached for comment Tuesday. In Maariv, Eytan denied any knowledge that Israeli soldiers killed the Egyptian workers and said he had "no problem of conscience, neither today nor then, regarding what happened in the Sinai during the war."
Danni Wolf, a colonel in the army reserves and one of Biro's soldiers in the Sinai, corroborated Biro's account, telling Maariv: "Theoretically it was possible to leave them there with a little water and food, but the truth is that we didn't have enough water even for ourselves. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to find excuses for what we did now. But really, any way you look at it, there was nothing to do with these workers."
Asked who did the shooting, he said, "Arye Biro, the company commander." And as for who gave the order: "Raful, the battalion commander."
In another case, Biro and Shaul Ziv, a colonel in the army reserves, described firing hundreds of bullets into a truck full of civilians on the road to Ras Sudar.
"It was simply shocking," Ziv said. "When they opened the back of the truck, the bodies poured out one on top of the other. . . . I couldn't stand the thought that we shot these people without a battle."
Biro added: "There were 56 men on the truck. Six remained alive after the first [round of] fire. They too 'went to sleep' later on."
A third incident, in which chained prisoners were massacred at Ras Sudar, was documented by the United Nations after the war, and Israel was asked for an explanation at that time. Eytan reportedly was reprimanded but never tried or formally punished.
Biro denied in the article that Eytan was even reprimanded, saying: "After all, it was really my mistake. I mean, not the shooting of the prisoners, but the fact that I forgot to unchain their hands after they were killed and before we cleared off."