Emotions ran high on Sunday when President Reuven Rivlin visited the city of Kafr Kasim in the Triangle in the central region, to attend the annual ceremony marking the killing there by Border Police of 47 Arab civilians there almost 60 years ago. He is the first sitting president to do so.
On October 29, 1956, the first day of the Sinai Campaign, a Border Police officer, fearing that Jordan would join Egypt in the war against Israel, imposed an early curfew on 12 Israeli Arab villages, included Kafr Kasim, on the Green Line, the de facto border with the Hashemite Kingdom, with orders to shoot violators. Many residents were away at work and did not know of the curfew. Border Police commanders in the other 11 villages countermanded the order to shoot.
At the ceremony, Mayor Adel Badir said that Kafr Kasim was the scene of a massacre in which 49 people – men, women and children plus an unborn baby, as well as a man who died upon hearing of his son’s heath – were killed by Border Police. Many more were wounded.
The residents of Kafr Kasim have borne the pain of the massacre for 58 years while waiting for the state to acknowledge that it was an act of terrorism and not a work accident, he said.
“People who were wounded are asking you to take responsibility as president of the State of Israel and to admit that this was an act of terrorism and not a work accident,” Badir told Rivlin in a voice that choked with sorrow and anger.
“We welcome your presence among us, and ask you to make history,” he said. “If you don’t, no one else will.”
Badir recalled that Rivlin’s father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, had striven to build cultural bridges between the Jewish and Arab communities before the establishment of the state and had chosen to fast on Ramadan when visiting Muslim friends. Badir surmised that Rivlin’s attitude toward equal rights for Arabs derived from what he had learned in his father’s house.
Rivlin, accompanied by his wife, Nechama, received a warm welcome.
“I come here today as a son of the Jewish people and as the president of the State of Israel to you the victims to share your pain of memory of the crime that was committed here,” he said.
Rivlin stopped short of a formal apology, but acknowledged that “a terrible crime over which hangs a dark cloud” had been perpetrated and that it required soul-searching on the part of Jewish Israelis.
The crime as such had been acknowledged and the guilty parties had been brought to trial, he said.
But it was not just a judicial matter, he said. It was also a moral one.
While he had come to identify with the victims, Rivlin said that he could not refrain from condemning the terrorism that was becoming pervasive in Israel, especially in Jerusalem.
There are those who seek to place everyone in the country in a maelstrom, he said. This is the tragedy that has engulfed Arabs and Jews.
Rivlin said that he and other Jews who were at the ceremony had come to extend their hands in friendship.
The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, he said, but it is also the home of the Arab population that was born in Israel. It was not merely a matter of sharing territory, but also the economic life, traveling together on the roads, and playing together on soccer fields, he said. “Even though we didn’t ask for it, we were fated to live side by side.”
Rivlin warned that hatred could never lead to any positive outcome.
“We must not allow incitement to navigate our lives,” he said. “We have a difficult past. We belong to two peoples whose aspirations are in contradiction with each other.
The dream of the Arabs was not realized, the president said, adding that he was aware that some Arabs have suffered from racism at the hands of Jews. “But I still believe that we can find a way to live together,” he declared. “We cannot ignore each other. The other side will not disappear because we don’t look at them.”
The people of Israel must say honestly that the Arab population has been discriminated against with regard to budgets, education and infrastructure, the president said.
“We must have equality if we are to overcome hatred and animosity,” he said. “Disdain for the language and culture of the other will never lead to understanding. We have to listen to each other, because we have no other option.”
Rivlin was confident that relations between Jews and Arabs will influence their joint future, and understanding between Israeli Jews and Arabs will create a bridge that will lead to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He called on both the Arab and Jewish leadership to speak out against terrorism in a clear voice.
“That voice is not heard loudly or clearly enough” he said.
“The condemnation of violence is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength” Rivlin asserted. “Let the children of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, learn to live together.”
Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, spoke out against violence and called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with two peoples living side by side in peace and harmony, with Jerusalem as the capital of each. Echoing US President Barack Obama, he concluded his address with “Yes, we can!” Response from the Almagor Terror Victims organization was quick, with the leadership declaring that it would have been better had Rivlin not gone to Kafr Kasim.
There was no comparison between what happened in Kafr Kasim 58 years and continuing terrorist attacks by Arabs against Jews, said Dr. Arieh Bachrach, who doubted that Rivlin’s remarks during the visit to Kafr Kasim will do Israel any good.