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(photo credit: AP [file])
Ran Edelist, the director of the documentary film about the Shaked Reconnaissance Unit which has provoked a diplomatic uproar between Israel and Egypt, admitted to The Jerusalem Post Thursday that he had erroneously described 250 Palestinian fedayeen killed by the unit at the end of the Six Day War as Egyptians. That error, it appears, is at the root of a wave of Egyptian allegations that Israelis killed Egyptian POWs in this and other wars.
However, Edelist insisted that he did not believe that this mistake, and another he acknowledged involving the incorrect usage of archival footage to illustrate the same incident, had detracted from the film's overall message, which he said was meant to show that the unit did not use excessive force in its missions.
Edelist said he had based the film, shown on Channel 1 last week, on eyewitness testimony given to him as he set about telling the tale of the unit, which patrolled the southern border from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.
About 18 minutes into the hour-long film, called Ruach Shaked, there is a description of how the Shaked soldiers pursued an "Egyptian commando" unit, 250 of whose fighters were killed in the ensuing battle.
After the film was completed, Edelist admitted on Thursday, he received documents which showed that the commando unit in question - while technically under the auspices of the Egyptian army - was actually made up of Palestinian fedayeen.
Edelist said that in making the film, he had relied on information from the soldiers who had described the unit as an Egyptian one. Former unit commander and current Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who had to postpone a visit to Egypt this week when branded a murderer in the Egyptian media, has already released a statement insisting that the incident in question involved Palestinian fedayeen, and that they were killed in battle and not after being taken prisoner.
Edelist admitted that, apart from getting the identity of the enemy combatants wrong in the voiceover, a second problem occurred when the wrong photographs were shown on the screen during the description of the engagement between the two forces.
According to the film, the commandos were in retreat when they were "eliminated" by the unit. Shaked veteran Yaariv Gershoni described in the film how the unit hunted down the commandos from a helicopter, which relayed information to forces on the ground as to the exact location of the fedayeen.
Gershoni said in the film that the enemy commandos in that engagement "were in a pitiful state and very frightened. A number of them hid in holes in the sand and covered themselves up so we wouldn't find them but we found them. Few of them fought back."
As he spoke, photos flashed across the screen depicting enemy combatants with their hands up in various stages of surrender; in two snaps, an Israeli soldier stood by them with a gun. Other pictures showed an Israeli soldier with a gun standing over dead bodies. These pictures were in marked contrast to Gershoni's audio description and, Edelist said on Thursday night, he now realized they were inappropriate.
The IBA's head of documentary films, Ittay Landsburg Nevo, told the Post that the photos in fact came from a separate incident in the Sinai.
In the film, Gershoni said that Ben-Eliezer kept track of the number of dead commandos by making marks on his pants. In retrospect, unit veterans said in the film, they believe excessive force was used in that clash. But on the day of the battle, Gershoni said in the film, the participants did not doubt their actions.
Defending the military action, Ben-Eliezer said in the film that the commandos killed that day had repeatedly attacked them. "There was no problem in telling them [the unit] that the commandos are armed and in retreat and to pursue them. They understood the holiness of their mission."
Edelist told the Post that he hadn't known the aforementioned pictures would be used with that section of the film, and that their inclusion "was [due to] a mistake by the archives."
But he said he didn't think the two mistakes were significant or that they detracted from the overall message of the film, which was designed to show how the Shaked unit effectively guarded the border against Arab infiltrators without the use of excessive force. It was intended to argue that an alternative existed to the famed Reconnaissance Unit 101 under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, which was heavily criticized for the civilian losses that it incurred.
Veteran Yehuda Melamed said in the film that Lt.-Col. Amos Yarkoni, who commanded the unit prior to Ben-Eliezer, taught them to respect the enemy's humanity.
"Amos taught us that the moment the enemy raised his hand, it was forbidden to touch him. You had to give a cup of coffee and a cigarette," Melamed said.
But in the early moments of the film, in describing the unit in the late 1950s, prior to Yarkoni's taking command, one veteran, Nadav Neuman, said that at that time when he caught an infiltrator he would "take him out of the game."
"What does that mean?" asked one of the filmmakers.
"You know what they did in Shaked," responded Neuman.
But the comment was never explained.
The film has sparked a diplomatic uproar between Israel and Egypt and inflame passions within the Egyptian public, which evidently falsely believed that the film clearly depicted the killing of 250 Egyptian prisoners of war.
Egypt has asked Israel to open an inquiry into the matter. The Egyptian parliament held a heated session earlier this week in which lawmakers called on Israel to be brought before an international court of justice.
The Foreign Ministry released a statement on Wednesday in which it refuted the claims that Israeli soldiers killed Egyptian prisoners of war, and sent a copy of the film to Egypt. It said the documentary clearly showed that what occurred was not the "murder of helpless POWs" but rather a battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian commandos. The Foreign Ministry added, "It must be remembered that this was a bloody war that cost many lives on both sides."
The Israel Broadcasting Authority also issued a sharp condemnation of the charges that the movie spoke of the killing of Egyptian prisoners of war. In describing the commandos that were killed, no one said they were prisoners, IBA said.
But the letter did not address the issue of innuendo based on the juxtaposition of the photographs of commandos with their arms raised just at the moment that a veteran described the manner in which Israeli soldiers killed frightened commandos in a battle.
Nevo, the head of the IBA's Documentary Department, told the Post he didn't see a problem with the film, which he said showed how the Shaked unit defended Israel at a time when it was highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and border infiltrations.
He defended the description of the Palestinian fedayeen unit as Egyptian commandos, given that technically they were under the auspices of the Egyptian army. Nor did he have a problem with the photographs, which he said show the captives alive and in any event were not taken from that event, but from another incident in the Sinai desert. He added that the commandos in the incident highlighted by the film were killed in battle.
The film has reignited Egyptian claims that Israel killed its prisoners of war, a feeling which had been mostly dormant for the last 11 years.
The issue made headlines in 1995 when before his death, veteran Arye Biro gave an interview to the media in which he said that he and another officer killed 49 prisoners during the Sinai Campaign in 1956. At that time, in 1995, allegations of killing Egyptian POWs were also leveled at the Shaked unit.
The diplomatic crisis with Egypt then was calmed only when Israel launched an investigation into the matter.
Neither the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry or the IDF could provide the Post with information about the results of that inquiry.