A pair of former UN peacekeepers who witnessed the 1967 Six Day War have cast doubt on claims that Israel executed Egyptian prisoners of war in the area where they were stationed, an issue that has sparked a diplomatic row between Israel and Egypt. Capt. Milovan Zorc and Miobor Stosic, a military liaison official, were members of the Yugoslav Reconnaissance Battalion that formed part of the 3,400-strong UN Emergency Force deployed as a buffer between Egypt and Israel.
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They said that if an Israeli unit had killed some 250 POWs near the Egyptian town of el-Arish they would likely have come to know about it.
Egyptians have long accused Israel of slaughtering POWs, and the suspicions flared anew after the release of a recent Israeli documentary that delves into Israeli tactics in gruesome detail. Egyptian newspapers misinterpreted allegations in the documentary as referring to POWs, when - according to director Ran Ederlist - it was referring to Palestinian fighters killed in battle.
Nonetheless, the damage was done: The newspaper reports were taken as fact and provoked an angry reaction in Parliament and among the Egyptian public. Some Egyptian lawmakers have called for cutting diplomatic ties with Israel.
"UNEF was created in 1956, and by 1967 it had been in El Arish for a decade," said Zorc, now a retired brigadier general living in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
"We knew local people well and had many employed at the base. That is why it's almost impossible to believe that a reconnaissance unit like ours, which was completely plugged into the local community, could have missed a massacre in the area where we were stationed," he said.
Zorc said neither he nor his commanders had any information about "illegal killings" of either civilians or prisoners of war.
At the start of the war on June 5, Zorc and Stosic were posted at the gate of the UN encampment, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Egyptian town of El Arish along the coastal road between Israel and the Suez Canal. Their orders were to warn off Israeli troops advancing westward from entering the UN base.
Guarding the gate, Zorc and Stosic were in the unique position of witnessing much of the confused action that took place along the trunk road, which formed the axis of an Israeli armored thrust during the Six-Day War.
Zorc said he had witnessed the surrender of several Egyptian soldiers who had been firing at passing Israeli columns. "The Israelis treated them correctly, there was nothing in their behavior that I as an officer could object to."
"It's true that there were bodies among the burnt out tanks and trucks on the road toward Gaza, but to us it just looked like the aftermath of a battle," Zorc said in a telephone interview.
Stosic said he witnessed a group of Egyptian soldiers emerge from a nearby army camp and surrender. Israeli troops ordered them to take off their uniforms and shoes, and marched them off in their underwear toward a POW camp in El Arish, accompanied by a halftrack. As they left, gunfire rang out from the Egyptians sheltering in the dunes and one of the prisoners in the column fell to the ground, while the others marched on.
Stosic said that later, when the coast was clear, he crept out to check the scene outside the gate. He found a dead Egyptian soldier in uniform was lying near the bundle of clothes left behind by the prisoners, but said he hadn't seen how the man was killed.
The following morning, after a fierce exchange of fire overnight, Stosic found a group of 7-10 dead Egyptians in uniform lying 100 meters (yards) from the gate across the road.
The UN contingent remained in El Arish throughout the fighting and was finally evacuated via the Israeli port of Ashdod about 10 days after the end of the war.
Cairo has demanded a probe into the contents of the Israeli documentary, and Egyptian media has run stories citing Egyptian war veterans who claim to have witnessed POWs being executed.
But Ederlist, the director said his film was about combat not treatment of POWs.
"You could say there was excessive use of force, (but) it was all in the context of war: Not prisoners, not prisoner-of-war camps, not people who put their hands up," he said.