In late October, the 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.
Sunlight, as the Jewish-American judge Louis Brandeis once said, is the best of disinfectants.
The writer is a military historian, and a senior lecturer for general history and Asian Studies in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book, The Plots against Hitler, was recently published in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.