Kafr Kasim: Echoes of the massacre Ben-Gurion tried to hide

Sixty years after Border Police officers shot dead nearly 50 Arabs, a Jewish civilian recalls how he risked everything to expose the atrocity to his young nation.

Joint list MKS participate in a march marking the 60th anniversary of the massacre in Kafr Kasim (photo credit: JOINT LIST)
Joint list MKS participate in a march marking the 60th anniversary of the massacre in Kafr Kasim
(photo credit: JOINT LIST)
Latif Dori’s voice rises and his hands cut through the air as he gestures emphatically.
He’s excited and animated, as if he’s breaking the news of the Kafr Kasim massacre for the first time.
Only it’s now sixty years after the murder by border policemen of 48 Arab citizens on the eve of the Sinai campaign. It was Dori who, as a young man, brought the atrocity to the attention of the country, risking his life in the process.
“I can’t forget the 49,” he said. His fatality tally, like those of Kafr Kasim residents who marked the anniversary on Saturday, includes the unborn child of a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy, who was slain along with the others as they headed home from outside the village during a curfew they had no way of knowing about. The orders of the Border Police were to shoot anyone violating the curfew.
Dori, a vibrant 83, can look back on a colorful life of activism, mostly in the left-wing Mapam Party, in which he focused on Arab affairs and to bridge between Arabs and Jews. But he is still, in a sense, fixed on 1956, still reliving the cutting down of men, women and children in all its horror, even as he encouraged his interviewer from The Jerusalem Post to sip lemonade in his comfortable living room in Ramat Gan. This is in keeping with the hospitality he learned growing up in Baghdad, where he lived before making aliya, on his own, at age seventeen.
Six years later, he was the head of the Arab department in Mapam. When party leaders received word from Kibbutz Horshim, neighboring Kafr Kasim, that something grave had happened there, they assigned Dori to find out what it was.
“On October 30 I arrived, but I couldn’t get in to Kafr Kasim because there was a curfew with hundreds of soldiers in the area. But I decided that I had to get in. On October 31, I also couldn’t get in. But on November 1, I tried another way, I went through the kibbutz and infiltrated from there.” Dori could have been shot but he was not detected. “I went straight to the mukhtar [head man], Wadie Sarsur. He gave me a list of all those who had been slaughtered.
“He also told me there were 13 wounded in Beilinson Hospital. These were people who had seen what happened. I went to the hospital, but it had been turned into a military hospital treating our wounded from the Sinai campaign and I couldn’t get in. But I was stubborn, I went there every day until the 10th of November. It was Shabbat and they had opened it a bit, allowing relatives of the soldiers to visit. I entered as if I was visiting a relative, but I still had no idea where the wounded from Kafr Kasim were. I went door to door on three floors, but they were all from Sinai.”
By chance, Dori met an acquaintance in the hospital who told him that there were Arab wounded on the fifth and sixth floors. Because it was Shabbat, no one was on guard and he was able to reach the ward on the fifth floor.
“I entered and they were all startled. They thought that any Jew would murder them,” Dori said.
But he was well prepared. He had asked the mukhtar how he could gain their trust, and Sarsur had told him to tell them the password “the goat has returned.” As soon as he said the words, the whole atmosphere changed and the wounded Arabs welcomed him, Dori recalled.
“I took down the testimonies one by one, ending each testimony with the phrase ‘Latif Dori read this testimony to me and I signed it when I was in full awareness,’” Dori said. Then he went to the wounded women, who were even more startled. But he succeeded in calming them and took their testimonies too.
“I hurried to Tel Aviv and translated the testimonies on the spot. We printed thousands of copies and sent them all over the country to journalists, radio stations, members of the Knesset. The story began circulating all over the country,” he said.
Dori accuses Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of “trying to hide the massacre” because he clamped strict censorship on it.
Even references to it by MKs on the Knesset floor were struck from the protocol. An anomalous situation prevailed in which, thanks to Dori, it was widely known there had been a massacre at Kafr Kasim, yet there was no media mention of it.
However, those who received the testimonies Dori had compiled were jarred. It is easy to understand why. Dori read for the Post one of the testimonies, that of Shaker Abdullah Issa, whose eightyear- old son, Talal and 95-yearold father Abdullah were slain by border policemen. “We were bringing back the sheep on October 29, 1956 to a place opposite my house. I arrived around five in the evening, myself and my wife, 30-year-old Rasmiyah Abdullah Issa, and my daughter Nura Shaker Issa, 22 years old. There was also my son, Talal, eight years old, and my father, Abdullah Suleiman, 95 years old. We wanted to return home. We saw two soldiers, one holding a rifle and the other a Sten gun, and they started to fire at us.
I fell to the ground, but they shot my son Talal and father Abdullah, both of whom were killed, and they wounded my wife, who is now in Beilinson Hospital. They also wounded my daughter Nura, who is in the same hospital. After this, they took us in an army vehicle to the hospital. I am 47, I don’t know what happened to my father but he died that same day or on Tuesday.”
Dori said this testimony is actually the “lightest” or least disturbing one. In other killings on that day, border policemen stopped a truck bearing fourteen Kafr Kasim residents and ordered them to get out.
“They thought that they would be walking to the village, that everything was alright. They were lined up in a row and all were cut down,” he said.
On December 12, Ben-Gurion made an announcement in the Knesset that an incident had taken place in which Arab citizens were killed, without specifying how many and where. Finally, on December 20, the censorship was lifted due to public pressure. “There was outrage across the country from the Herut party [Menachem Begin’s right-wing party] to the communists. All demanded a trial because this was a human matter, not political,” Dori recalled.
Eleven alleged perpetrators were placed on trial, and eight were found guilty and given prison sentences ranging from five to seventeen years.
It was in this trial that Justice Binyamin Halevi famously defined a “manifestly illegal” order as being one which has a “black flag flying over it,” which warns that it is forbidden to carry it out.
But within three years, everyone had been pardoned and set free.
Maj. Shmuel Malinki, the commander in charge of the Border Police unit in Kafr Kasim, who had been sentenced to seventeen years, was appointed by Ben-Gurion to be the security officer for the Dimona nuclear reactor.
Dori said that revealing the massacre “was a turning point in my life.”
“I said to myself, this is a beginning and you have to keep moving forward. I continue so that it doesn’t happen again. I’m all the time dealing with Arab issues and the Palestinians. It’s my job to bring people closer,” he said.
He met Yasser Arafat for the first time in 1987 and later developed friendly ties with the PLO leader.
In 1996, Dori was made an honorary citizen of Kafr Kasim, which he still visits every year on the anniversary of the massacre. “I’m sure I did something positive for my country and my people” he said of his role.
But like the residents of Kafr Kasim, he has no closure on the episode, noting bitterly that the government has still not taken responsibility for the massacre, despite what had appeared to be a possible step in that direction by President Reuven Rivlin, who visited two years ago and said a “terrible crime” was committed that “needs to be repaired.”
“It’s not that there is no justice, it’s that they murdered justice,” Dori said of the state. “What justice? 49 were killed and you don’t recognize responsibility. What is this? They weren’t Israeli border policemen? Were they Turks? The demand of the Kafr Kasim residents is so just. Will the government fall if it is met? No, it will be to the government’s credit. You are not doing anyone a favor, you just need to say ‘this is what happened.’”