“In the operation we had to cleanse the inhabitants. This uprooting of a villager, rooted in his village and turning him into a refugee, by simply expelling him, and not one, two or three of them but a real eviction. And when you see a whole village is led like lambs to the slaughter without any resistance you understand what is the Holocaust.” — An Israeli soldier’s testimony in the documentary Censored Voices, directed by Mor Loushi (2015)
In the wake of the June 1967 war, the Israeli author Amos Oz, then a reserve soldier in the Israeli army, together with a friend collated interviews with Israeli soldiers who participated in the war and asked them about the emotions the fighting triggered in them. The interviews were published as a book titled Conversations with Soldiers, more popularly referred at the time by my generation as the ”shooting and crying” book.
The military censor (a function that still exists today, held recently by the present minister of culture, Miri Regev) erased 70 percent of the evidence since he claimed it would have harmed Israel’s international image.
This month an industrious Israeli filmmaker, Mor Loushi, is showing her new documentary based on most of this erased material. The atrocities reported by the soldiers include forced expulsions, like the one quoted above, graphic descriptions of summary executions of prisoners of war and hints of massacres of innocent villagers.
This 48th commemoration of the 1967 war coincided with the 67th commemoration of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine before and after Israel’s founding in 1948. There is more than a symbolic connection here. The evil repertoire confessed by the soldiers in the new film reminds us of the atrocities perpetrated 67 years ago on a much larger, though similarly horrific, scale.
The 1948 atrocities were ignored by the international community and for a long time the entire Nakba was denied while the Holocaust memory seemed to provide carte blanche to Israel to continue the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
No wonder then, when in 1967 Israel’s territorial appetite was satisfied with the occupation of the whole of historic Palestine, as well as large territories from Egypt and Syria, it was achieved with the help of similar inhumane ethnic cleansing operations of expulsions and massacres.
There was one difference between the two chapters of atrocity committed in the two wars. In 1967, Israel was less secure about possible global, and even American, complacency in the face of its cruel methodologies on the ground and therefore attempted to hide them from prying eyes. The wall of secrecy Israel built, however, nearly cracked, when the US navy ship USS Liberty eavesdropped on the communications between the troops in the Gaza Strip on 8 June 1967, revealing probably both the summary execution of Egyptian prisoners of war and Palestinian civilians. The ship was destroyed on the same day from the air by the Israeli air force.
Later on, the atrocities were substantiated by eyewitnesses and came to the fore when mass graves were exposed in 1995 in the al-Arish area in Sinai, straining Egypt’s relations with Israel, as CNN reported at the time.
The network interviewed, for the first time, relatives and survivors of these war crimes who recalled the massacre of hundreds. The link between the unprovoked assault on the USS Liberty and the wish to hide the massacres and executions was thoroughly investigated by James Bamford in his 2001 book Body of Secrets.
Thus, the newly released tapes corroborate atrocities already known and told by those who were their victims (in this case, including 34 American navy personnel). This was very much in the same way as Israeli documents declassified in the 1980s corroborated the Palestinian oral history and testimonies of the Nakba.
Purifying the perpetrators
In both cases, it took a while for the victims’ version to be heard after years of being brushed aside by Western academia and the media as a figment of an oriental imagination.
The Israeli eyewitnesses in the new film do not mention names of places or dates — neither do we know who the Palestinian or Egyptian victims were. De-naming and dehumanization are two sides of the same coin and thus the new harrowing testimonies are cautiously presented as an act purifying the perpetrators rather than honoring the victims.
It is another case of “shooting and crying”: namely the problem is not that a girl lost her eye, a man’s house was demolished or an unarmed prisoner of war was executed. The aim is to cleanse the tormented soul of the victimizer and there is nothing like a good confession to make it all go away.
Names and dates, and even more so real human beings, require not only acknowledgement but also accountability. Saying sorry is not always enough, especially when the lesson is not learned. And, thus, year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.
This new film gives the impression that these crimes were the inevitable outcome of the June 1967 war. But in fact the crimes committed after the war were much worse in every aspect. The atrocities were not the outcome of the war, they were part of the means used by Israel to solve the predicament the new territorial achievement produced for the Jewish State: it incorporated in 1967 almost the same number of Palestinians it had expelled in 1948.
After the war, other means were added in the search for reconciling this predicament. The aim was still the same: to have as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible. The new strategy, after the war, was based on the logic that if you cannot uproot people you root them deeply in their areas of living without any outlet or easy access to the world around them.
The Palestinians all over Palestine were, since 1967, incarcerated in small enclaves surrounded by Jewish colonies, military bases and no-go areas that bisect their geography. In the occupied territories, Israel created a matrix of control many African National Congress leaders regard as far worse than the worst of apartheid South Africa. The Israelis marketed this method to the world as a temporary and necessary means for maintaining their rule in the “disputed” territories. The “temporary” means became a way of life and transformed into a permanent reality on the ground, for which Israel sought international legitimacy through the 1993 Oslo accords – and nearly got it.
This month as we commemorate the 48th anniversary of the 1967 war, we should remind ourselves once more that this was a chapter in a history of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and occasionally genocide of the Palestinians.
The “peace process” that began more than two decades ago was based on the assumption that the “conflict” began in 1967 and will end with Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The “conflict” had actually begun in 1948, if not before, and the worst part of it was not the 1967 military occupation of those parts of Palestine that Israel had failed to take over in 1948, but rather that the international immunity for these crimes still continues today.
One can only hope that those with the power to effect change in the world will understand, as did the soldier quoted in the opening of this piece, that there is more than one holocaust and that everyone, regardless of their religion or nationality, can be either its victim or its perpetrator.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.