An investigative report by Haaretz Newspaper and Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research has unearthed the exchanges between ministers on the subject of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Testimonies further reveal information about massacres, three of which, it is claimed by Ha’aretz were previously unknown.
A great deal of knowledge on the atrocities committed by Zionist forced during the war of 1948 is derived from varied historical documents: unpublished memoirs, minutes of meetings held by political parties, soldiers’ letters, and testimonies of victims, while reports about military and governmental investigations are mostly classified. Millions of documents originating from the founding years of the State of Israel are stored in government archives and are banned from publication. Beyond this, the Israeli military has the power to censor any documents which it believes to be a danger to Israel’s national security or foreign relations. For instance, an investigative report in published by Haartez in 2019 revealed that members of the Malmab (Director of Security of the Defense Establishment) Unit have combed through Israel’s various archives and removed evidence of war crimes committed by Zionist forces in the 1948 war. Nevertheless, open sources available to reporters and historians continue to be accreted and have helped in building a clearer picture of the Palestinian Nakba.
Background on the Massacres
In October 1948, the IDF launched two-large operations. One in the south, Operation Yoav, and another in the North, Operation Hiram. In the latter operation, dozens of Arab villages in the North were expelled from their homes, and within fewer than three days, the IDF conquered the Galilee, even reaching as far as Southern Lebanon. Some 120,000 Palestinians remained are said to have remained in the Galilee at the time of Israel’s campaign, half the number who had resided in the region at the time of the United Nations’ adoption of the partition plan. Testimonies revealed by the collaborative investigative report reveal previously three unknown massacres that took place in the Galilee, in Reineh, Al-Burj and Meron, as well as new details about the known massacre in Hula, Southern Lebanon.
Reineh, Galilee Region
Reineh, a village near Nazareth, was conquered prior to Operation Hiram, in July 1948. The now-declassified documents published by Haaretz show that, a few months after its Israeli forces conquered the village, a member of the Histadrut, a labour federation that controlled the Arab population, demanded of his Mapam counterpart, a left-wing party that was part of the coalition government at the time, clarify the following:
“Why were 14 Arabs murdered in the village of Reineh at the beginning of September, among them a Bedouin woman and also a member of the Land of Israel Workers Alliance, Yusuf al-Turki? They were seized next to the village, accused of smuggling, taken to the village and murdered.”
According to Haaretz, one of the leaders of the Palestinian community in the north, Sheikh Taher Al-Taveri, maintained that the Reineh massacre “is not the only one” and that these acts were “being carried out for the purpose of robbery.” Furthermore, the victims’ families claim that those murdered had in their possession hundreds of liras, a substantial amount of money at the time.
Al-Burj, Ramle Subdistrict
The Village of the Al-Burj, which todays Modi’in sits atop, was also captured in 1948 prior to operation Dani. According to a document found in the Yad Yaari Archive by those who conducted the investigative report a few village elders remained after its capture: “Hajj Ibrahim, who helped out in the military kitchen, a sick elderly woman and another elderly man and [elderly] woman.” Three of the elders were:
“Taken to an isolated house. Afterward an antitank shell (‘Fiat’) was fired. When the shell missed the target, six hand grenades were thrown into the house. They killed an elderly man and woman, and the elderly woman was put to death with a firearm. Afterward they torched the house and burned the three bodies.”
Meron, Upper Galilee
According to the testimonies discovered by Haaretz of Shmuel Mikunis, a member of the Provisional State Council (the predecessor to the Knesset), atrocities were also committed in the Meron region. Mikunis, who adroitly circumvented the military censors in real time by asking the then-prime minister a parliamentary question, which ended up in the Knesset Archive, demanded clarification from David Ben-Gurion about acts allegedly committed by members of the underground Irgun militia:
“A. They annihilated with a machine gun 35 Arabs who had surrendered to that company with a white flag in their hands. B. They took as captives’ peaceful residents, among them women and children, ordered them to dig a pit, pushed them into it with long French bayonets and shot the unfortunates until they were all murdered. There was even a woman with an infant in her arms. C. Arab children of about 13-14 who were playing with grenades were all shot. D. A girl of about 19-20 was raped by men from Altalena [an Irgun unit]; afterward she was stabbed with a bayonet and a wooden stick was thrust into her body.”
Hula, Southern Lebanon
Hula was captured by a company of the Carmeli Brigade, 22nd battalion, under the command of Shmuel Lahis. Hundreds fled the village, though some stayed, surrendering without resistance. After Hula’s conquest, two massacres were perpetrated on consecutive days. According to Ilan Pappé in his book ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ (2006), “Jewish forces executed more than eighty villagers in the village of Hula alone.”
According to Haaretz, Company Commander Lahis was the only combatant to be tried on murder charges during Operation Hiram. “He was acquitted by reason of doubt in the first episode, but was convicted of the second day’s massacre, which he carried out himself.” Records of the verdict survive in the law archive of Tel Aviv University, and an excerpt from the ruling on his appeal was published by Haaretz. Lahis allegedly ordered the removal of:
“Those […] Arabs from the house they were in and led them to an isolated house which was some distance from the village’s Muslim cemetery. When they got there, the appellant [Lahis] ordered the Arabs to be taken into one of the rooms and there he commanded them to stand in a line with their faces to the wall… The appellant then shot the Arabs with the Sten [gun] he held and emptied two clips on them. After the people fell, the appellant checked the bodies and observed whether there was life in them. Some of them still showed signs of life and the appellant then fired additional shots into them.”
In his defence, Lahis argued that he had operated with the ethos of the battalion commander, who assured him that “there is no need to burden intelligence [personnel] with captives.” Lahis was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served only one, and did so in comfortable conditions in a Northern military base.
In Justifying the prison sentence, Judge Chaim Dvorin said of the issue that:
“As a judge it was difficult for me to come to terms with a situation in which we are sitting behind a table and judging a person who behaved during battle as he behaved. Could he have known at the time who was innocent and who was an enemy?”
Lahis was pardoned by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi following his released, and later became the director general of the Jewish Agency – one of the highest and most prestigiuous positions in Israel.
In Late 1948, at the tail-end of the Arab Israeli War, the government began to discuss reports of massacres that had taken place by Israeli forces. According to Haaretz’s investigative report, the archival records of meetings prove that the country’s leaders knew in real time that atrocities accompanied the conquest of Arab villages. The minutes of these cabinet meetings have been available for some time. However, the sections of the discussions devoted to “the army’s behaviour in the Galilee and the Negev” – where the massacres took place – remained censored until recently, though the transcripts are still not available in full. After 73 years of obscurity and concealment, we are provided a rare sight of the air of perturbation that hung over these cabinet meetings. Below are excerpts from the meetings as published by Haaretz, as well as the response to the requests of concerned ministers of then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion:
Minister of Immigration and Health Haim-Moshe Shapira (Hapoel Hamizrahi):
“To go that far is forbidden even in times of war. These matters have come up more than once in cabinet meetings, and the defense minister investigated and demanded, and orders were given. I believe that in order to create the impression that we take this matter very seriously, we must choose a committee of ministers who will travel to those places and see for themselves what happened. People who commit these acts must be punished. The matter was not a secret. My proposal is to choose a committee of three ministers who will address the gravity of the matter.”
Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum (General Zionists):
“I too intended to ask a question along these lines. I have learned that an order exists to cleanse the territory.” At this point Gruenbaum talks about an officer who transported residents in a bus to enemy lines, where they were expelled, and adds, “But apparently others lack the same intelligence and the same feeling. Apparently the order can be executed by other means.”
Labour Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam):
“The people who did this claimed they had received orders in this spirit. It seems to me that we have not been as helpless about any issue as we are, apparently, about this issue. In my opinion this is not an Arab question, it is a Jewish question. The question is which Jews will remain in the country after the war. I see no way but to eradicate the evil with a strong hand. As we have not seen that strong hand in [army] headquarters or in the Defense Ministry, I support Mr. Shapira’s proposal for a committee to be chosen, which will be given the authority by the government to investigate every person it wishes. It’s necessary to investigate the chains of command, who received orders from whom, how things are being done without written orders. These things are done according to a particular method. It turns out that an order is one thing and procedure another.”
Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion (Mapai):
“If they flee, there is no need to run after them. However, it is different with regard to residents who remain in their places and our armies chase them away. That can be prevented. There is no need to chase them away. In Lod and Ramle explicit orders were given not to chase away the inhabitants and it turned out that they were forced [to leave]. I wanted to go to Lod in the first days after the conquest, and I was given a few excuses as to why I shouldn’t go. The first time I accepted them naively. A more serious matter is that of the theft. The situation in that regard is horrible.”
At the conclusion of the cabinet meeting, the Ministers involved decided to establish a committee to examine testimonies about the massacres. A week later, they informed the cabinet that the meagre powers conferred to them made them powerless to get to the truth of the matter. Labour Minister Mordechai Bentov said of the matter that “It is known to me that there are circles in the army who want to sabotage the government’s decisions.”
Another Minister expressed his fears that the moral foundations of the newly found State of Israel had been eroded by the atrocities committed by the IDF and the failure to investigate them:
“We must find the best way to stop the plague. The situation in this matter is like a plague. Today the committee heard one witness, and I buried my face in my hands, in shame and disgrace. If this is the situation, I don’t know from which side a greater danger exists to the state – from the side of the Arabs or from our own side. In my opinion, all our moral foundations have been undermined and we need to look for ways to curb these instincts. We have reached this state of affairs because we did not know how to control things when this first started. My impression is that we are living in a fools’ paradise. If no shift occurs, then we are undermining the government’s moral basis with our own hands.”
Despite this, Haaretz newspaper allege that Ben-Gurion’s intentions to not properly investigate the alleged atrocities were clear. He refused to grant the committee of three the authority to subpoena witnesses, and blamed its members’ laziness for its failure. He went on to declare incisively that, “since the committee did not fulfil the role it was tasked with, it is hereby abolished”, to which Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum replied, “we are burying the matter.”
Code of Silence
Throughout the Cabinet meetings, the ministers often made mention of a code of silence existing among soldiers about war crimes. This is Haaretz’s record of minister Shapira on the matter:
“The fact is that the soldiers are afraid to testify. I asked one soldier whether he would be willing to appear before the committee. He asked me not to mention his name, to forget that he spoke with me and to consider him someone who doesn’t know a thing.”
The code of silence was instrumental in exonerating those under investigation for war crimes. Not even the massacre committed in Al-Dawayima, which was investigated internally by the IDF, produced indictments.
These seem to be the formative events of the IDF’s culture of impunity. It is clear that the IDF, who systematically deny Palestinians right to justice by not investigating the crimes against them by its soldiers, started this policy during the founding war of the State of Israel and in the process of ethnically cleansing of Palestinians.