Fatalities “desirable”: Israeli documents on Kafr Qasim massacre declassified

Israeli Border Police forces killed at least 48 Palestinians in the village of Kafr Qasim in 1956. Now-unsealed court transcripts reveal a deliberate plot for displacement.

August 01, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
(Image via Documenting Palestine)

A slate of newly-declassified court documents have revealed additional details about the massacre of Palestinians by Israeli forces in the village of Kafr Qasim on October 29, 1956. At least 48 people were brutally gunned down and killed by the Israeli Border Police (a unit of the Israeli occupation forces) on what became the first day of the Suez Crisis, beginning with the invasion of Egypt.

Before the massacre, fearing that Jordan might get involved in the with Egypt, Israel imposed a curfew on the Palestinian villages along the border on the eastern side, including Kafr Qasim. Palestinians citizens of Israel had already been under martial law since 1949, a practice that would continue until 1966. 

Kafr Qasim was located in the southern portion of the land that Jordan had surrendered to Israel in the 1949 armistice agreement. The area, known as the “Little Triangle”, stretched to more northern villages such as Umm al-Fahm.

At 4:30 PM on October 29, an Israeli border police officer informed the mayor of Kafr Qasim that a curfew would be imposed, starting at 5 PM. Israel issued “shoot to kill” orders to soldiers against anyone seen outside their homes beyond the curfew. This was despite the fact that hundreds of people from the village had gone out to work, and as such, had no way of knowing that a curfew had come into force. 

In nine attacks that day, Israeli border police killed 48 Palestinians. Among those killed was a pregnant woman, whose unborn fetus was counted among the casualties by the local villagers, bringing the toll to 49. Israeli forces shot Palestinians at close range after forcing them out of their vehicles. A boy and a man from nearby villages were reportedly also killed. Israel forced Palestinians from Jaljulya, a neighboring village, to dig a mass grave for the massacre’s victims. Those who were injured were only brought to the hospital after the 24-hour curfew had expired.

Escalating outrage meant that Israel could not cover up the massacre, despite imposing a media blackout. Israel was eventually forced to bring soldiers to trial in 1957.

Israel kept the court transcripts of the trial sealed for decades, claiming that their release would pose a threat to national security. The documents were finally released to the public by the Defense Ministry on July 30, following a request by Adam Raz of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.

Among those called to testify was Chaim Levy, the commander of the Border Police unit responsible for Kafr Qasim. His statements confirmed that the Israeli forces knew that the Palestinians were unarmed and unaware of the curfew. He was asked, “Doesn’t your reason tell you that ‘violating a curfew’ means by someone who knows that there is a curfew?” Levy would agree, stating later that at the time he thought an order to kill people who were unaware of the curfew was “reasonable”. 

Levy was also questioned as to why he had always said that “the commander [referring to Colonel Issachar “Yiska” Shadmi, the commander of the Border Police Central District in charge of the area] allegedly said that it’s best if there be some casualties”. Levy stated that Shadmi had said that “it’s desirable that there be some fatalities”. 

While the fact that the Kafr Qasim massacre was even brought to trial was unusual, the proceedings and testimonies laid bare the fact that little would change in terms of actual accountability and justice. As has been customary in instances where Israel has “investigated” its own crimes, the soldiers were given light sentences. All were released and pardoned within two years.

Shadmi, who would be the highest-level official prosecuted for the massacre, was asked to pay a fine of one pruta (a discontinued coin amounting to one thousandth of the Israeli pound prior to 1960). 

Meanwhile, the people of Kafr Qasim were forced to observe the massacre’s first anniversary and to attend a traditional “reconciliation ceremony” or sulha. They were also coerced into accepting a privately-arranged settlement for damages. 

In 2021, 65 years after the massacre, the Israeli Knesset rejected a bill that would have had the government recognize its responsibility for the killings, including the massacre in the Israeli school curriculum, and declassifying related documents. In March 2022, an Israeli court ruled that classified documents could be released, however, it issued a two-month gag order on the verdict itself. 

Operation Hafarperet

The unsealed documents show that during the trial, Levy was also asked if the policy was to “get rid of Arabs”. He replied, as reported by Israeli news outlet Haaretz, that the order was not given in writing, but verbally: “The company commander said that the eastern side should be open. When they want to leave, they’ll leave”. Levy’s testimony alluded to a secret plan, named Hafarperet (Mole), to forcibly expel Palestinians from the Little Triangle to Jordan, under the threat of violence and death. 

Levy made references to “creating enclosures” and “transporting people”, which can be understood as the internment of Palestinians in camps and their expulsion from the land. When asked what connection there was between Palestinians fleeing and the order to shoot those violating curfew, Levy would say “The connection is that as a result, part of the population would get scared and decide that it’s best to live on the other side. That’s how I interpret it.” 

The unsealed documents also contain testimony given by Shadmi, who, when similarly asked if a curfew would push people to flee, stated “It may encourage that thought…that the killing of a few people as an intimidation measure can encourage movement eastward, as long as we hint to [the Palestinians] about the movement eastward.”

Similar views were echoed by soldiers during the trial, with one stating that the immediate goal was to keep the Palestinians scared and in their houses and the second goal was to “not need to intimidate them in the future”. Two soldiers would use the term “innocent sheep” to describe Palestinians who did not flee and would be terrified into inaction. 

One soldier would also affirm that it was deemed “desirable” to leave people dead in villages– “I said it would be best to knock out a few people…so that in the future there would be quiet, and we would not need to have this much manpower overseeing these villages.”