six day war soldiers 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The claim that soldiers from the Shaked Battalion killed unarmed Egyptian prisoners at the end of the Six Day War "is a lie," a former member of the unit, Yehuda Melamed, said Monday.
"We never killed POWs," Melamed told The Jerusalem Post, following allegations that surfaced when Channel 1 aired a documentary last week called Ruah Shaked (Spirit of Shaked) that tells the story of the battalion. The Egyptian media is claiming that the reconnaissance unit headed by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, now national infrastructures minister, killed 250 Egyptian prisoners of war.
The reaction in Egypt was so severe that Ben-Eliezer was forced to delay a scheduled trip to Cairo on Monday. Both Ben-Eliezer and the director of the documentary, Ran Edelist, have denied the allegations.
Edelist told the Post his documentary did not claim that soldiers in that unit killed prisoners. He said it described an attack by Palestinian fedayeen (Palestinian commandos) at the war's end, in which some soldiers felt disproportionate force was used.
Edelist said this was a unit that was very smart, very professional and was careful to target only those involved directly in military actions. But in some instances, he said, soldiers speculated that they might have used too much force, given the superior nature of their weapons.
"In Egypt, some opposition members took what they said, twisted it and added a simple lie to harm the peace process and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak," Edelist said.
It struck a nerve in Egypt, he said, because many of its missing soldiers have never been accounted for. Not all the soldiers went missing during wars with Israel, he added.
Edelist speculated that the Egyptian allegations that Israel killed POWs were attached to the film because of the comments made about the battle with the fedayeen. It was enough, he said, for the Egyptian media to involve the POW issue.
Edelist blamed the problem on the fact that despite the publicity it has received, few people have actually seen the 50-minute documentary.
Melamed didn't need to see the documentary. A physician at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, he knows the history of the unit from first-hand experience. He was a member from 1960 until after the Six Day War.
Melamed said the allegations that his unit killed Egyptian POWs were not true.
The incident in question involves a battle with Palestinians in Gaza that occurred right after the cease-fire. He and his comrades had been fighting for six days straight. "We hadn't slept," he said.
At the time, he believed he was fighting both for his life and for that of the state.
Many Palestinians were killed in that battle, Melamed said, although he could not recall how many.
Now, aged 64, he looks backs and thinks that they did in fact use too much force, given that they were much better armed.
But he cautioned it was hard to go back in time and judge the events by the standards of 2007.
"It's hard to say today that we should have done it more carefully," said Melamed.
Overall, he said, his unit had been trained to be make great efforts to avoid taking innocent lives as it guarded the southern border.
During most of his time with the unit, Melamed said, the Shaked Battalion was headed by Lt.-Col. Amos Yarkoni, a Beduin who received the IDF's Medal of Distinguished Service.
A fierce fighter, he taught his men to love the land and to respect the enemy's humanity. "He taught us that the enemy is a human being and that it was forbidden to harm the innocent," said Melamed.
They handed over their prisoners to the army, Melamed said.
Ben-Eliezer declined to comment on Monday. But he did issue a comment to the Egyptian press in which he too denied the charges.
"It's true that in that war the unit killed fedayeen who operated in the Gaza Strip against Israel and against the battalion I commanded.
"They were not murdered, they were killed in battle," he said.
A few days before the war, Ben-Eliezer said, his men gave bread and water to an Egyptian unit they met at a waterway. He speculated that the false allegations regarding his unit's treatment of Egyptian POWs steamed from that incident.
Michael Oren, historian and author of the book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and The Making of the Modern Middle East, also spoke in support of the unit's actions during the war.
To the best of his knowledge, he told the Post, "there was no evidence of systematic shooting of prisoners by that unit during the Six Day War." That included, he said, the battle with the Palestinian irregulars in question.
In war, sporadic shootings of prisoners do occur, he added.
All evidence, however, supports the claim that the Palestinians who were killed by the unit on that day died in combat.
Allegations that Israelis have killed Egyptian prisoners of war have surfaced from time to time, Oren said. In the past, he said, they have mostly been associated with events in the Sinai Campaign of 1956.