Secrecy still shrouds events from six decades ago. What does the Israeli Government hide, and why?
This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post
In late October, the Israeli Knesset witnessed one of its ugliest moments.
The assembly hall was relatively empty; the only coalition member in attendance was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the government’s parliamentary liaison. Stepping to the podium, MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List), asked the delegates to observe a moment of silence for the anniversary of the Kafr Kasim massacre, triggering a wild row in the hall.
On October 29, 1956, 60 years earlier, border policemen, led by Lt. Gabriel Dahan and PFC Shalom Ofer, shot and killed 48 innocent Arab citizens near the entrance to the village of Kafr Kasim.
That was the day that the Sinai Campaign broke out between Israel and Egypt. Fearing that Jordan would join the fray, the IDF high command imposed a curfew on Israeli Arabs who lived near the Israeli- Jordanian border to keep them from collaborating with the enemy.
Brigade commander Col. Yissachar Shadmi was notified that many local Arabs who worked outside the villages did not know about the curfew, and yet, according to reports, he ordered border police members to shoot all returnees. His subordinate, the battalion commander Maj. Shmuel Malinki, compounded the severity of the order by instructing that women and children should be shot as well. The wounded, he hinted, should be “finished off.”
Most officers in the field found ways to circumvent the order or, in one notable case, to refuse it outright. But in Kafr Kasim, Dahan and Ofer implemented their orders to the full. The perpetrators were condemned by a special military court to severe prison sentences, but were pardoned a relatively short while later.
Their trial engendered the famous doctrine of “manifestly illegal commands,” criminal orders that a soldier has to disobey, though that did little to console the bereaved families.
Sixty years later, when MK Abu Arar asked members of the Knesset to stand in a moment of silence to honor the victims, Minister Yariv Levin erupted in shouts.
“This is not a mosque!” he yelled. MK Esawi Frej (Meretz), an inhabitant of Kafr Kasim who lost family members in the massacre, confronted Levin. Undaunted, the minister called the massacre “a controversial event” and “a lie.”
A day after that stormy debate, Frej and Levin confronted each other again on the radio. Frej said something additional that leads us toward an even more interesting angle of the affair: he called upon the government to expose all secret documents on the Kafr Kasim massacre, many of which are still kept under lock and key.
After all, what is there to hide 60 years later? Details of the massacre, embarrassing as they might be, can hardly compromise state security. Levin openly admitted his fear that the massacre and its memory will be used by the Arabs “to smear the Israeli government and army.”
In a sense, Levin’s fear is justified. There is something truly embarrassing at stake, and it may be related to an abortive military operation from that period, indirectly connected with the massacre. That operation, codenamed Mole, is still shrouded in mystery.
Until the 1990s, almost nothing was known about it, though some bits and pieces were inadvertently exposed during the perpetrators’ trial. One officer mentioned in an interview “a certain vermin” (sheretz mesuyam). The linguist and investigative journalist Ruvik Rosenthal, the one to uncover the story, received another hint from a dying witness who gestured him to “follow the mole.”
With the help of more witnesses and some of the confidential trial protocols, Rosenthal was able to establish that Mole was a plan to “secure” the Arab sectors of central Israel by occupying the villages and cutting them off from one another. One of these villages was Kafr Kasim, and the perpetrators of the massacre, at least some of them, were well aware of these plans.
But there were additional, darker possibilities stipulated by Operation Mole.
The author of the plan, Gen. Avraham (Abrasha) Tamir, claimed later that one such possibility was to evacuate the Arabs of Kafr Kasim and neighboring villages to “enclosures” in central Israel, a plan similar to the infamous internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Historians from the radical Left, such as Gazi Algazi, argued that Tamir lied, and the truth was even more terrible. Mole, Algazi claimed, was in fact a plan to ethnically cleanse the border villages and expel their inhabitants to Jordan. The government planned the massacre as a trigger, provoking the Arabs to revolt in order to justify their expulsion. It was not an aberration, but a war crime planned by the Israeli government itself.
Although there were indeed rumors in the Border Police, especially in lower echelons, that the real object of Mole was to expel the inhabitants of Kafr Kasim to Jordan, there is no real evidence that the government planned such a thing. Certainly, a massacre was neither planned nor wished by the higher echelons. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his ministers were shocked and disgusted by the massacre – a fact exposed by the minutes of the cabinet meeting after October 29.
It is true that Ben-Gurion later pardoned the criminals, but only after they were punished and disgraced. At the cabinet meeting after the massacre he even implied they should be executed. Even Maj. Malinki, the man whose orders led directly to the massacre, could not have believed that he was implementing a governmental plan by killing 48 innocent Arabs. In fact, when he heard in the military radio that the sporadic killings he ordered had turned into a large-scale bloodbath, he ordered the shooting to stop. The massacre could not have been the first stage of Operation Mole, also because this operation was canceled by the higher echelons on October 28, one day before the killings took place.
And yet, even a secret report of the Border Police recognized at the time that Operation Mole “had considerable influence on the Kafr Kasim [Affair].” Malinki, the battalion commander, told his subordinates that the operation was canceled, but it would still serve as an organizational blueprint for the imposition of the curfew.
The summary minutes of the meeting, taken by Malinki’s adjutant a few hours before the massacre, stated that the “division of the [operational] sectors [covered by the troops is] according to ‘Operation Mole’… the boundaries of the sectors will be established according to ‘Mole’… road blocks and patrols according to ‘Mole.’ All other existing tasks are no longer valid, unless ordered otherwise by the battalion.”
As some officers and soldiers believed, wrongly, that Mole was a plan of expulsion, they might have thought that by provoking the Arabs they were following the unstated will of their superiors.
This, however is only an educated guess, based on hints, partial illustrations and a handful of documents exposed by scholars. The full truth about Operation Mole, and its precise relationship with the Kafr Kasim Massacre, will become fully known only when the government releases the secret files. After 60 years, the time is ripe to open the dark closet and face the skeletons lurking inside.
As Israel is showered with rockets and its southern towns are threatened with assault tunnels, the war in Gaza escalates by the day. A premature ceasefire, however, may be only the prelude for a more devastating round in one year or so. How can we use the current crisis to produce a better reality for Israel and Palestine? Political Owl with a bold proposal to break the impass.
This Article was also published in Compress
On July 17, IDF troops opened the heavy gates of Gaza, clearing the way for armour and infantry forces. This land operation, the second of its kind since the Israeli disengagement from the Strip in 2006, has relatively limited ends: to block the assault tunnels and to destroy rocket depots in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the operation is causing vast suffering in Gaza, with heartbreaking pictures of dead and wounded men, women and children. Most Israeli citizens feel that the IDF must obliterate the rockets and the assault tunnels, each and every one of which is designed to perpetrate a mass massacre in Israeli towns and villages. A volatile “ceasefire” (such as in 2012) may provide a temporary relief for both sides, but in all probability it will ensure another round of death and destruction in two years or less. We and the Palestinians are both trapped in a bloody, vicious cycle, a Middle-Eastern version of “catch 22”. How do we get out of this cycle, for the benefit of both sides? This is the most important question we face at the moment.
In my opinion, In order to reach an enduring settlement in Gaza, Israel should take advantage of Hamas’ own demands: “Do you want to lift the siege, build a nautical port and an airport and have prisoners released? We are ready to comply, as long as you give us something in return.” The Israeli Prime Minister should declare that Israel is ready to lift the siege, release the prisoners arrested in Operation “Brother’s Keeper” (June 2014) and allow generous international assistance for Gaza’s reconstruction, in return for full demilitarization of the strip from rockets and assault tunnels, supervised by Cairo, Ramallah and Washington. The lifting of the siege must be gradual, simultaneously with the disarmament process, but, I believe that Israel must declare this initiative as clearly, simply and publicly as possible. Thus, even the Palestinians and their allies in the international community may understand there is a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. They must trust that Israel is ready to lift the siege completely as long as its security is ensured. It is important to emphasize, that the aforementioned plan does not include ideological demands from Hamas, that are unreasonable. The Gaza government will not be forced to recognize Israel, nor prior agreements or even the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. They will only be forced to disarm themselves from their rockets (an ineffective weapon, good for nothing but terrorizing civilians). Such a bold solution, which will probably require intense military pressure on Hamas, is already supported by leading experts in Israel and abroad, including Yuval Diskin, the moderate, creative and thoughtful former head of Shin Bet (General Security Service).
However, in order to leverage Operation Protective Edge to a durable political solution, Israel has to launch an equally dramatic initiative in the West Bank. The truly difficult question is “how”? How could we avoid another round of futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority? As it is well-known, the Palestinians are highly skeptical about negotiations with Netanyahu and his government, and rightly so. The last round failed not only due to differences in essence, but also because the Israeli side refused to submit maps and wasted time in lengthy squabbling on agendas, time tables and other minute technical details. The Palestinians, not without justice, came to believe that such negotiations were merely an Israeli maneuver to drag time and divert attention from further settlement buildup. Therefore, the new initiative proposed here is designed to break the impasse, surprise the other side and spare us a new round of futile talks.
The first steps have to be initiated by Israel, again – as simply, clearly and dramatically as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu has to declare his willingness to immediately recognize a Palestinian State with “temporary” or “controversial” borders. Only then can we negotiate the rest of the problems at hand. At the same time, Israel shall submit the Palestinian side a map with Israel’s vision for its future borders. Further buildup in the settlements would be put on hold as long as the talks are going on, in return for Palestinian refrain from hostile moves, such as approaching the International Court in Hague.
Mahmoud Abbas has to be invited, as the president of the State of Palestine, to speak in the Knesset as a formal guest. This visit’s choreography must be based on the historic visit of the late Egyptian President Anwar A-Sadat. That visit, as we all remember, was made prior to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but its importance in paving the way and creating the atmosphere for the talks is undeniable. Only the optimistic atmosphere created by the visit allowed both sides, Israel and Egypt, to make considerable concessions contrary to their own professed ideology. Emotions are a very important currency in the Middle East. Such an initiative, based on prompt recognition of Palestinian independence, may leverage the Gaza crisis to solve our long-term problems by creating future horizons for a two-state solution. In addition, it may convince the Palestinians that their time is not wasted, that they achieved something grand before negotiations have even begun.
Such an initiative, simultaneously with a disarmament settlement in Gaza, presumes an Israeli coalition of a different sort, certainly without Naftali Bennet and his hardline Jewish Home Party. It may require a bold political move, similar to the establishment of Kadima during the tenure of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or at least an ad-hoc coalition with the Labor Party. Netanyahu will not go for such an initiative willingly. Only strong pressure by the centrist parties in the coalition may create adequate conditions for its commencement. In any case, the initiative proposed above may serve as a purpose, goal and guiding vision for moderates in Israel. Only such a vision, a light at the end of the tunnel, may save us from the hell of reoccurring violence and leverage the Gaza disaster to a durable political solution.
Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, would like to reconstruct Muslim identity in a humane way, free of colonialist exploitation and domination. As a byproduct, however, he and his likes destroy the mere foundation scholarship stands on. Is racism tolerated in Academia? Well, that depends on who is the speaker, and who are the victims. Academic Owl on hate speech, juicy red herrings and the ability to laugh and cry.
This post was distributed in the Mid-East Politics mailing list
A new book by Prof. Hamid Dabashi, a famous scholar of Iranian studies and comparative literature at the University of Columbia, is always noteworthy news for people interested in Middle Eastern history and culture. Therefore, when Dabashi published the introduction for his new book, Being a Muslim in the World, at his usual Aljazeera English opinion column, I have read it with great interest. Given my own preferences, it was no wonder that I personally disagreed with the analysis, emphasis and conclusions of Dabashi. However, the deep disappointment that I felt after reading the column went much deeper, because I found Dabashi’s approach harmful to the very idea of scholarship as I understand it. His polemic is so full with ad hominem attacks, irrelevant arguments, red herrings, glaring factual errors and logical inconsistencies, as to make one wonder, well, about the direction that some “intellectuals” are taking nowadays. In addition, the blatant, almost racial anti-Semitism he displayed in other writings, may make one wonder about the tolerance practiced towards hate discourse, as long as it comes from the radical left.
This is a very sad story, because Being a Muslim in the World could have been a very promising intellectual project. And indeed, Dabashi’s discussion of the construction of Muslim identity in both past and present is both interesting and highly useful in our era of journalistic simplifications. To make a long story short, Dabashi argues that the mere formation of the inner political debate in Egypt, for example, as a binary of “liberalism” vs. “Islam” is not only misleading, but also a sinister product of Muslim encounter with Western Colonialism. Muslim identity, he reiterates, should be determined not by specific religious leaders, scriptures or clerics, let alone by organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood, themselves a product of colonial encounters. Religious identity should instead be determined by the Muslims themselves, in fluid enough a way to co-opt different kinds of identities and beliefs. The Muslim people have to overcome colonialism and shape their own fate also in the realm of identity formation.
Though some reservations could be raised about this thesis (for example – is it not misleading to ignore the centrality of the Quran and its hermeneutic orthodoxy in the formation of Muslim identity?), these are issues which I want to leave aside for the moment. Instead, the problematic part of Dabashi’s argument begins when he confronts his Western “other”, and especially in his treatment of other people with whom he disagrees.
Take, for example, his discussion of Niall Ferguson, certainly a controversial historian, and his thesis of the “rise of the West against the rest”. Ferguson, an avowed opponent of the intellectual left, had argued that the West had won the global race of domination owing to certain cultural and technological developments, for example a unique ideology of free trade and the rule of law. I have read Dabashi’s article time and again, and could not find even one solid scholarly answer to Ferguson’s thesis. Instead, there were mainly insults and ad hominem attacks. Look, for example, at the following passage:
The British historian Niall Ferguson has made a reputation for himself for being blunt to the point of vulgarity with the crudity of his mental makeup when it comes to theorising “the West” as the defining disposition of humanity at large. But like many other latter-day ideologues of the beleaguered empire, Niall Ferguson is more a panegyrist of “the West” than its prognosticator. He is a Johnny-come-lately who has come too late and wants to pack and leave too early. His tiresome boorishness is self-revelatory for the historian of dead certainties protests too much.
As the reader may see, I have underlined all ad hominem insults – already six, and we are not even in mid-paragraph. If someone can find here an argument or an answer, he or she is probably much sharper than I am. When Dabashi does attack Ferguson’s ideas with more detail at the later part of the paragraph, there is a little resemblance between his subject of attack and the arguments Ferguson really makes. Dabashi argues that Ferguson “missed the boat” because the “West” is already bankrupt, financially, diplomatically and morally and is on its way to the dustbin of history. But the bulk of Ferguson’s argument is historical: not what the Western countries are, but what they were – and how they reached a position of world domination. In other words, he is interested in the question, why Egypt did not colonize Britain, while Britain did colonize Egypt. Scholars may legitimately disagree with the answers he gives, but the question is certainly worthwhile.
Dabashi does not really answer it – because he is not really interested in doing so. He builds a straw-man of a scholar who is his political rival, and then knocks it down. Dabashi says that one cannot speak about the “West” because such construct is not autonomous and independent, but even that is beside the point. Families, societies, nations, religious identities – all are imagined constructs, but still have much viability in the real world. The “West” is imaginary – just like the new “Islamic identity” offered by Dabashi. But it is much easier to point fingers at your rival than to critically examine the products of your own imagination.
That is interrelated with the second problem in Dabashi’s writing – political one-sidedness for which both facts and logic are unnecessary companions. For example, in a previous Aljazeera piece, he quoted a person named Gershon Baskin, an alleged “Israeli official” responsible for negotiating with Hamas. Then, he builds his conclusion upon this quote having been said by an “Israeli government official”. But a short googling would have taught him that Baskin is a private person, and certainly not an official of the Israeli government.
Such negligence in checking even the most basic facts upon which his arguments are based, is unfortunately accompanied by a racist demonization of Israel, verging on an old style racial anti-Semitism. For Dabashi, the Jewish state is nothing but a “settler colony” which is interested only (!) in maiming and killing more Palestinians. In another interview, he argued that:
Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.”
The Israelis, in other words, are ugly monsters whose viciousness is even evident in their distorted faces. They do not have fears, emotions. They cannot laugh or cry. They only want to kill because they enjoy it, something like vampires from cheap horror movies. And such a person is being hailed as one of the leading Middle-Eastern scholars of the age. I wonder what will happen to a person who dares to use such terms when speaking on Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians or blacks. How long would it take until he is kicked out of office, probably with two or three lawsuits trailing him like a shadow? My guess – three hours to three days until he is chased out of campus, but the readers are invited to offer their own speculations.
Dabashi’s essay is unfortunately also full of red herrings, irrelevant arguments and glaring logical holes. He writes, for example, that:
Niall Ferguson and his ilk come at the tail end of this imperial conquest, at the tail end of that narrative fiction – now hitting a cul de sac. Financially bankrupt (look at Greece, the fictive birthplace of “the West”), politically corrupt (look at presidential elections in the US), economically stagnant (look at the US debt to China), diplomatically inept (look at the Iranian nuclear issue), all signs indicate that this thing Niall Ferguson still calls “the West” has long since internally imploded – with postmodernism and poststructuralism as its paramount philosophical eulogies. “
And the reader may ask himself: If Greece is only the “fictive” birthplace of the west (a highly dubious argument, to my mind), then why is it important that it is economically bankrupt? Since when postmodernism became a signal of imminent collapse? Are most Western countries economically bankrupt, and aren’t many non-Western countries bankrupt as well? Is the US corrupted more than, let’s say, China or Egypt? From reading Dabashi, it seems that while US economy is stagnant, everything is going well with China. No word about systemic corruption, real estate bubbles, mass immigration to overcrowded cities, and the like. In other words, in order to prove that the “West” is on its way out, he cherry picks several problems, which exists, in a much larger scale, also in non-Western countries.
These are only few examples out of many. It is indeed distressing that such a famous scholar as Hamid Dabashi choose to attack and ridicule away his intellectual opponents instead of seriously confronting their arguments, and even more distressing to see him writing about Israel in terms reminiscent of racist propaganda outlets . A productive scholarly debate between left and right could be enriching for us all. Instead, with the style of debate that Dabashi represents here, we, the readers, are the only losers.
I am proud to officially open the English version of the “Owl”. In this blog, I will try to open new windows to shadowy corners of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Middle Eastern politics. Today I would like to introduce you to the hidden logic of Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps.
In the history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, prisoner swap deals have always played a prominent role. Only recently, in October 2011, the Israeli government agreed to liberate and repatriate 1027 Palestinian prisoners, some of them arch-terrorists and murderers with blood on their hands, in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit. This deal gave a free rein to intense feelings in the Israeli public, ranging from hurrahs to cries of anguish. The supporters of the swap, most of them from the left, or center left, emphasized the solidarity of Israeli society, its humanness and its indebtedness to the soldiers fighting in its name. The people who opposed it from the right, however, lamented the government’s “lack of spine” in front of terrorists. Some of them expressed the rather justified fear, that this hugely unequal deal may encourage Hamas to kidnap yet more soldiers.
And yet, both supporters and skeptics were amazed by the unreasonable “rate of exchange” in the Gilad Shalit deal. One Israeli soldier for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners? How can it be? In Maariv, the conservative publicist Ben Dror Yemini raged because of the “high”, “intolerable” price, and even some observers on the radical left raised similar concerns. For example, Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian, a well-known anti-Israeli venue, that an exchange of one thousand Palestinians for one Israeli soldier is nothing but dehumanization of Palestinians, as the exchange rate “tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen [see footnote] are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours”.
As usual with Israeli-Palestinian affairs, all sides are splurging in a swamp of self-righteous, patriotic speech, and few dare to confront the simple, cynical and shocking truth behind the barter: prisoner swaps are a transaction, which follows basic rules of supply and demand just like any other. When an item is in short supply, and consequently high demand, its price tends to rise. If, however, the supply is high and the demand is low, the price will usually decrease.
If we accept this simple idea, it is not so difficult to understand why one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, and why his name is known all over the world, while their names are mostly unknown. It has nothing to do with the fact that Shalit is a “legitimate” soldier, and its Palestinian counterparts are “terrorists”. The economic principles behind such transactions are indifferent to moralistic considerations such as this. The crucial fact is, that it is very difficult for the Palestinians to kidnap an Israeli soldier, while the IDF can easily arrest terrorists or other Palestinian activists in their hundreds and thousands. Here is the key to understand the swap: Gilad Shalit is more “expensive”, only because it was more difficult and dangerous to kidnap him.
And what about the so-called “prominent” prisoners, the “colonels” and “generals” of Hamas, as well as political leaders such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, whom Israel refused to release? Because they are more dangerous for Israeli security, the demand for their release and consequently their price is much higher. And indeed, we have seen that Israel refused to release most of the “prominent” prisoners, and the few who were released were promptly expelled from the West Bank. Here, also, Hamas had finally approved the deal based on an understanding of its underlying economic principles. Its leaders preferred to release a large number of “cheap” prisoners, than to insist in vain on the repatriation of a small number of “expensive” ones.
Such an analysis may seem cold and heartless, but sometimes reality had to be faced as it is. From this point of view, it is interesting to ask: how can Israel improve its position next time it will be faced with a kidnapped soldier? First of all, the public campaign for Shalit’s release was a double-edged sword. From the one side, it is clear that without it, the government would not have been pressured to negotiate and pay a price for the deal in the first place. From the other side, though, this noisy, emotional and highly effective campaign raised the demand for Gilad Shalit in the Israeli side. His price, it is needless to say, soared with the demand. Given the absence of such a public campaign, it is reasonable that the swap would not have taken place at all (the demand is too low), or, if it would have taken place, the price in liberated Palestinian prisoners would have been significantly lower.
Moreover, a cold analysis may show that contrary to the speculations of right winged publicists, there is no way to dramatically change the exchange rate in such prisoner swaps. As long as it is more difficult to kidnap Israeli soldiers than to arrest Palestinian terrorists, the formers will be more expensive than the laters; significantly more expensive. However, even in these circumstances, the mistakes that Israel had done in the previous prisoner swap with Hezbollah had dire consequences. Just to remind you: Israel had agreed to pay a high price and to release the terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered a little girl, for three dead bodies of soldiers. An even higher price was paid for Col. (retired) Elhanan Tennenbaum, a dismal drug dealer who fell into Lebanese hands. The leaders of Hamas, who have seen that Israel is ready to pay such a high price even for three dead bodies and one criminal, naturally concluded that the price for a living soldier will be substantially higher. In the future, I believe, Israel must not negotiate as long as it is unclear that the prisoner is alive, and never, never again should they barter living prisoners for dead bodies. This deal was so stupid, and its consequences for future swaps so dramatic, that it is a mystery for me how and why the Israeli government approved it.
Meanwhile, there is no reason not to assume that the next “bloody transactions” will be different. Patriotic lamentations or self-righteous rage are futile, as they cannot change the solid economic logic behind such deals. If Israel does not want to pay a similarly high price next time, it should refuse to do business altogether. Namely, to ignore kidnapped soldiers just as the US army is doing. However, taking the Israeli public opinion into account, it is hard to believe that such a policy is possible.