Israel’s revered army came under fire Wednesday for the second time this week with new assertions that its soldiers killed Egyptian prisoners of war--this time in the 1967 Middle East War.
These charges, atop claims that Israeli soldiers killed prisoners of war in the 1956 Sinai campaign, are being made publicly for the first time on national television and radio. They strike at the long-held belief here that the country’s Jewish army is morally superior to other forces.
The alleged crimes directly and indirectly implicate many of Israel’s most respected past military leaders who now belong to the country’s political elite.
The accusations are becoming a political football between those who emphasize that alleged atrocities occurred in the 1956 war with Egypt--when rightists Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan were in positions of command--and those who stress that they happened in the 1967 war, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party was chief of staff.
The latest accusation is that the army’s elite infantry unit, “Shaked,” under the command of then-Lt. Col Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who is now housing minister, took 300 Egyptians as prisoners and fatally shot them at El Arish in the Sinai in 1967.
“In effect, in a matter of hours, the whole Egyptian force was liquidated,” Israeli historian Arieh Yitzhaki asserted on national radio. “Around 300 soldiers were shot and killed after a good number of them surrendered.”
Through a spokesman, Ben Eliezer denied any knowledge of the killings.
Yitzhaki, of Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, made the allegation a day after officials said Egypt had asked Israel to investigate reports that Israeli soldiers killed scores of prisoners of war in the Sinai campaign in October, 1956.
Egyptian Ambassador Mohammed Bassouny met Wednesday with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Eli Dayan to discuss the reports of the 1956 killings. He repeated that Egypt is awaiting results of a probe by the Israel Defense Forces.
The case threatens to become an issue between the two countries, neither of which appears to want to reopen old wounds from a time when they were lethal enemies. In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.
Retired Gen. Arye Biro said in interviews with Israeli media earlier this month that, in one case, he ordered the killing of 49 civilian workers in the Sinai. He has said that, in another instance, he ordered his troops to open fire on a truckload of civilians, killing 56.
His commanders at the time were Eitan and Sharon, who have not commented on the case. Eitan later became chief of staff and Sharon became defense minister. Today, they both are prominent conservative members of the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament.
Biro’s callous--almost boastful--recounting of the killings outraged many Israelis and provoked national debate.
They prompted remarks on Wednesday from Michael Bar Zohar, an army veteran and historian who told Israel Radio that he saw two army cooks fatally stab three Egyptian prisoners of war in the Sinai Peninsula in 1967.
Besides the fury created in 1982, when Israeli forces in Lebanon were accused of allowing Falangist forces to enter Palestinian camps where they massacred many of the inhabitants, one of the few cases of alleged wrongdoing by Israel’s forces that has gone public was the mass killing in 1956 of Arab villagers at Kafr Kassem.
That case eventually went to the highest appellate military court, which issued the decision that soldiers have a duty to disobey manifestly illegal orders. This became military doctrine of an army in which all Israelis must serve.
In the discussion Wednesday, some military historians asserted that there were several other cases in which soldiers killed Arab prisoners and were put on trial by military courts in secret. They said that the belief of the military leadership then was that Israel should not publicize potentially scandalous cases, particularly because Israeli prisoners in Arab hands might suffer as a result.
Rabin, a former general and defense minister, appeared reluctant Wednesday to condemn the alleged actions.
“In the army’s early years . . . it was characterized by birth pains of an army that did not yet have battle norms, behavior, discipline. In those years there were exceptions alongside hard combat with poor equipment,” he said.
Of Gen. Biro’s recollections of the 1956 wartime killings, Rabin added: “I condemn them and the acts to which they relate. Exceptional cases do not reflect the norm.”