On November 2, 1948, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol visited the campsite of a small Bedouin subtribe, Arab al Mawasa, just west of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. The area, along with the rest of upper central Galilee, had been conquered by the IDF three to four days before in an armored offensive code-named Operation Hiram.
The patrol, in search of arms, scoured the area. On nearby “Hill 213” the troops found the decapitated remains of two Israeli soldiers who had been missing since a skirmish one month before. According to the 103rd Battalion’s patrol report, “The men [then] torched the Arabs’ homes [tents?]. The men returned to base with 19 Arab males. At the base the males were sorted out and those who had taken part in enemy operations against our army were identified and then taken under Haim [Hayun]’s command to a designated place and there 14 of them were liquidated. The rest are being transferred to a prisoner of war camp.”1
Few such documents have surfaced in Israel’s archives during the past fifty years, partly because soldiers and officers who committed atrocities rarely left written descriptions behind, partly because those that do exist are mostly deposited in the IDF Archive, where internal censors make sure that documents explicitly pertaining to massacres or expulsions never see the light of day. But occasionally slips occur.
We now know, on the basis of United Nations, American, and British documents and a handful that surfaced in Israel’s civilian archives (the Israel State Archive, party political archives, private papers collections, etc.) during the 1980s and 1990s, of more than a dozen massacres of Arabs by Jewish troops in the course of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. These range in size from the shooting of a handful or several dozen civilians arbitrarily selected and lined up against a village wall after its conquest (as occurred, for example, in Majd al Kurum, Bi’na and Dir al Assad, Ilaboun, Jish, Saliha, Safsaf, and Sasa during Hiram) to the slaughter of some 250 civilians and detainees during a firefight in the town of Lydda, southeast of Tel Aviv, on the afternoon of July 12, 1948.
Over the years, the release of new documents and newspaper interviews with witnesses and participants has uncovered Israeli massacres of Arab civilians and prisoners of war in the subsequent wars of 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. The revelations came as a shock to much of the Israeli public, which was nurtured on a belief in its own moral superiority and on a doctrine of “purity of arms.”