‘Bad apple’ narrative still rotten 57 years after Kafr Qasim Massacre

Though individual soldiers were convicted in the 1956 Kafr Qasim Massacre, Israel’s courts never even questioned why civilians were under military rule and curfews. Today, individual soldiers are still convicted of crimes but the occupation itself is never questioned and wrongdoing is dismissed as the work of ‘bad apples.’

By Leehee Rothschild

'Bad apple' narrative still rotten 57 years after Kafr Qasim Massacre
Memorial for the Kafr Qasim Massacre, in Kafr Qasim. (Photo: Avishai Teicher)

Fifty-seven years ago, on the afternoon of October 29, 1956, an Israeli Border Police unit shot to death 49, men, women and children from Kafr Qasim as they returned home from a day of work in the fields.

Kafr Qasim, located in central Israel’s Triangle area, was under military rule like most Palestinian villages and towns at the time. From 1949 until 1966 Palestinian citizens of Israel were governed under martial law, which limited their movement, and subjected them to curfews, administrative detention and expulsions. The Israeli Border Police, a unit within the IDF at the time, was in charge of maintaining the military imposed law and order in Palestinian population centers.

The day of the massacre was the first day of the 1956 Suez War. Instructed to take all precautionary measures to keep the Jordanian border quiet, Border Police Central District commander Col. Issachar Shadmi decided to change the start time of the nightly curfew to 5 p.m. The order was issued only in the early afternoon, which resulted in Palestinian farmers working their fields not hearing about the change of the curfew time. Maj. Shmual Malinki, who was in charge of one of the battalions enforcing the curfew on the ground, asked Shadmi what should be done with those who broke the curfew. Shadmi said, “Allah Yerachmu” (an Arabic blessing for the dead). Malanki passed this message to his officers, instructing them “to shot to kill” every person who violates the curfew. Nevertheless, out of eight officers, only one, Gabriel Dahan, carried out his order. Dahan’s platoon was stationed at the entrance to Kafr Qasim.

As the villagers made their way back from the fields, in trucks and wagons, they were stopped by the soldiers, to whom they offered their identification papers. In response, the soldiers started shooting at them. In nine shooting incidents that day, the border policemen killed 19 men, six women, 17 boys, six girls and injured many more. The dead were buried in a mass grave, dug by Palestinians from the nearby village of Jaljulya who the army brought over for that purpose. The wounded were left unattended. They couldn’t be reached by their families, due to the 24-hour curfew; only after it was lifted were they transported to the hospital.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion placed the matter under a media black out, which was only lifted after two months of intense lobbying. Due to public pressure 11 border police officers were charged with murder. Eight were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms (Malenki was sentenced to 17 years and Dahan to 15). In its ruling, the court specifically stated that the soldiers had been obliged to disobey the order to shoot unarmed civilians because it was an illegal order, defining the term for the first time. Following various appeals, a presidential commutation and the decision of a Prison Service committee, however, all of the soldiers involved were freed after less than a year. Malanki and Dahan were promoted after their release to higher offices in the Israeli security forces. In a separate trial, Shadmi was found guilty of extending the curfew without authority, and fined one-tenth of one lira.

The Kafr Qasim massacre is almost completely absent from Israeli educational curriculum. It is mentioned neither in history classes nor in the abundance of memorial and commemoration ceremonies that take place in Israeli schools. It is only mentioned in the Israeli ‘citizenship studies’ book, but even there, is only taught as part of a discussion of refusing “illegal orders.” Its de-contextualization, detaching it from any discussion of the treatment of the state’s Palestinian citizens or of the military administration at the time, is aimed at showing that the Kafr Qasim massacre was a unique failure of a few soldiers, not a telling event. It is built deep into the ‘bad apple’ narrative, which blames war crimes on the individual soldiers who committed them – allowing the system to wash its hands of any culpability.

That the public Israeli consciousness coined the term “illegal order” in the context of the Kafr Qasim massacre in a sense strips it of much of its effectiveness. For an order to be deemed illegal, it needs to meet the level of horrendousness that results from a very direct, very visible massacre. Thus, regularly shooting at fishermen in Gaza, the disruption and detention of farmers in the West Bank, shooting at unarmed protestors and preventing of medical treatment are all seen as legal orders.

Furthermore, the Israeli court system never called into question the military’s very presence in Kafr Qasim, the necessity of the curfew or the legitimacy of the military regime in place at the time. Likewise, in any of its criticisms and rulings on various military actions since 1967, the Israeli Supreme Court has never condemned the occupation itself. By sanctioning certain actions but never doubting the greater plot line over the years, the Israeli court system has in fact given its seal of approval: first to military rule over the Palestinian citizens of the state, and later, similar military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

But despite its absence from the Jewish Israeli collective memory, in Kafr Qasim the massacre is still very much alive. Its troubled ghosts haunt the village to this day. Every resident of Kafr Qasim came out to the yearly memorial service on the anniversary of the massacre, MK Dov Khenin reported yesterday, from the youngest to the oldest.