The Poem That Exposed Israeli War Crimes in 1948
A poem published by Natan Alterman during Israel’s War of Independence criticizing human-rights abuses was lauded by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who even distributed 100,000 copies of it among soldiers; other such testimonies were made to disappear.
Mar 18, 2016
On November 19, 1948, Natan Alterman, whose influential “Seventh Column” – an op-ed in poetry form – appeared every Friday in the daily Davar, the mouthpiece of Israel’s ruling Mapai party (forerunner of Labor), published a poem titled “About This.” Excerpts:
Across the vanquished city in a jeep he did speed –
A lad bold and armed, a young lion of a lad!
And an old man and a woman on that very street
Cowered against a wall, in fear of him clad.
Said the lad smiling, milk teeth shining:
“I’ll try the machine gun”… and put it into play!
To hide his face in his hands the old man barely had time
When his blood on the wall was sprayed.
We shall sing, then, about “delicate incidents”
Whose name, don’t you know, is murder.
Sing of conversations with sympathetic listeners,
Of snickers of forgiveness that are slurred.
For those in combat gear, and we who impinge,
Whether by action or agreement subliminal,
Are thrust, muttering “necessity” and “revenge,”
Into the realm of the war criminal.
(translation by Ralph Mandel)
Extremely moved by the verses, David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Provisional State Council in the nascent Jewish state, wrote Alterman: “Congratulations on the moral validity and the powerful expressiveness of your latest column in Davar… You are a pure and faithful mouthpiece of the human conscience, which, if it does not act and beat in our hearts in times like these, will render us unworthy of the great wonders vouchsafed to us until now.
“I ask your permission to have 100,000 copies of the article – which no armored column in our army exceeds in combat strength – printed by the Defense Ministry for distribution to every army person in Israel.”
What were the war crimes referred to in the poem?
Natan Alterman.Moshe Milner / GPO
The massacres perpetrated by Israeli forces in Lydda (Lod) and in the village of Al-Dawayima, west of Hebron, were among the worst mass killings of the entire War of Independence. In an interview in Haaretz in 2004, historian Benny Morris (author of “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”) declared that the most egregious massacres “occurred at Saliha, in Upper Galilee (70-80 victims), Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem (100-110), Lod (50), Dawamiya (hundreds) and perhaps Abu Shusha (70).”
Lod was conquered in Operation Dani (July 9-19, 1948), which also targeted nearby Ramle. The political and military leadership viewed the capture of those two towns as crucial, because the concentration of Arab forces there threatened Tel Aviv and its surroundings. Specifically, the aim was for the fledgling Israel Defense Forces to clear the roads and allow access to the Jewish communities on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road – which remained under Arab control – and to take control of the hilly areas stretching from Latrun to the outskirts of Ramallah. This would mean a clash with units of Jordan’s Arab Legion, which were deployed – or supposedly deployed – in the area.
Another goal of Operation Dani, which was led by Yigal Allon with Yitzhak Rabin as his deputy, was to expand the territories of the young Jewish state beyond the boundaries delineated by the UN partition plan.
On July 10, Lod was bombed by the Israeli air force, the first such attack in the War of Independence. A large ground force had also been assembled, including three brigades and 30 artillery batteries, based on the army’s assessment that large Jordanian forces were in the area.
To their surprise, the IDF units encountered little or no resistance. Even so, there are Palestinian and other Arab sources that allege that 250 people were massacred after Lod was taken. Claims about the scale of the massacre gain credence from Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who maintains that the army killed 426 men, women and children in a local mosque and the surrounding streets. According to him, 176 bodies were found in the mosque, and the rest outside. Testimony of a Palestinian from Lod lends support to these estimates: “The [Israeli troops], violating all the conventions, shelled the mosque, killing everyone who was inside. I heard from friends who helped remove the dead from the mosque that they carried out 93 bodies; others said there were many more than a hundred.” Clearly, though, there are no agreed-upon, precise figures, and the estimates from both sides are tendentious.
Israeli troops went from house to house, expelling the remaining inhabitants to the West Bank. In some cases, soldiers looted abandoned houses and stole from the refugees.
Ben-Gurion’s intentions with respect to Lod remain a subject of debate. Years later, Rabin related how in a meeting with him and Allon, Ben-Gurion, when asked what to do with the residents of Ramle and Lod, gestured with his hand and said, “Expel them.” This version of events was to have been included in Rabin’s memoirs but was banned for publication in Israel, in 1979. His account did appear in The New York Times at the time, and caused a furor. Allon, who also took part in the meeting with Ben-Gurion, vehemently denied Rabin’s account.On July 12, an order was issued by the Yiftah Brigade “to remove the residents from Lod speedily … They are to be directed to Beit Naballah [near Ramle].” .
‘Only a few shots’
With regard to Dawayima, some facts are clear. On October 29, 1948, during Operation Yoav (aka Operation Ten Plagues) in the south, the 89th Battalion, a commando unit, conquered the village. By then, more than three months after the Lod massacre, it was obvious that Israel was winning the war. Now, the goal was to add more territory, to empty the country of Arabs wherever possible and to enter armistice talks under convenient conditions. Extensive areas in the north, and perhaps even more in the south, were seized almost without a battle. The IDF swept through one village after another.
A case in point was Dawayima, population about 4,000, situated on the western slopes of the South Hebron Hills in the Negev (today’s Moshav Amatzia). Many of the villagers, including old people, women and children, were murdered by the Israeli forces. The village offered no resistance – even those who have sought an explanation, or possible justification, for the crime acknowledge that the IDF encountered only light opposition and that the halftracks were subjected to “only a few shots, fired from four rifles,” according to Avraham Vered, one of the commanders of the operation.
Remains of the Palestinian village of Al-Dawayima.Zafrir Rinat
In his diary entry of November 10, Ben-Gurion quoted Maj. Gen. Elimelech Avner, commander of the military government in the area, as saying that “according to rumor, 70-80 people were ‘slaughtered’ [quotation marks in original] at Dawayima.” The perpetrators were “Yitzhak’s battalion,” referring to the 89th Battalion of the 8th Brigade, under the command of the legendary Yitzhak Sadeh, founder of the pre-state Palmach strike force. The news apparently shocked the top brass, including Sadeh himself and also Allon, who was in charge of the southern front. Several inquiries ensued. An investigation by Isser Be’eri, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, was never completed and effectively ended in the wake of the general amnesty granted in February 1949 to persons liable to be charged with committing crimes during the war.
Some officers testified that those executed were residents of Dawamiya who were found to be in possession of documents or objects looted during the massacre perpetrated against Jews in the Etzion bloc outside Jerusalem in May 1948. One IDF commander wrote, “We remembered 1929 [the massacre by Arabs of the Jewish community in Hebron] and the Etzion Bloc … the blood of the slaughtered cries out for revenge.”
Similarly, in an order issued on October 15, during Operation Yoav, Allon stated, “Tonight the brigade will take its revenge. Tonight all the nights of agony of the alliance of the besieged will be revenged.” What underlay the desire for revenge is not clear – probably the difficulty and cruelty of the battles against the Egyptian army in the early part of the war, which resulted in heavy losses on both sides.
Embarrassment apparently ensued from the fact that the Dawayima massacre took place under the command of Sadeh, who was known for his moral sensitivity and insistence on “purity of arms” – i.e., the use of weapons solely for the execution of a mission, without harming noncombatants. Some left-wing sources maintained that the perpetrators of the mass killing in the village were members of the former ultranationalist underground organization Lehi (led originally by Avraham Stern and afterward by Yitzhak Shamir), which had been coopted to the 89th Battalion, much to Yitzhak Sadeh’s pride. But it is patently untrue that the massacre was carried out by former Lehi personnel. The massacres at Ein Zeitun, as well, near Safed, in early May 1948, and at Lod – and others, too – were perpetrated by Palmach units, by the finest of the fledgling state’s young generation.
The Dawayima massacre was discussed in at least two cabinet meetings. For his part, on November 19, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion asked the attorney general, Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira, later appointed justice minister, to investigate the event. This was the day Alterman published “About This.” Shapira’s report remains classified to this day – by dint of a decision by a special ministerial committee, and subsequently affirmed by the High Court of Justice. The details of Be’eri’s investigation are also still classified.
It has generally been assumed that Alterman’s poem refers to the events at Lod, which had occurred more than four months before it was published. However, jurist Menachem Finkelstein, in his book “The Seventh Column and Purity of Arms” (2011; Hebrew), argues that the column was written about the Dawayima massacre, which took place three weeks before its publication. According to Finkelstein, Alterman heard about the mass killings from his good friend Sadeh and knew a great deal more than what he recounts in the poem, but did not want to embarrass Sadeh or run the risk of intervention by the military censors.
Still, not everyone interprets the column in Davar as an unequivocal condemnation of the massacre. Poet and essayist Yitzhak Laor, who considers Alterman a “court poet,” has speculated that the column may even have been commissioned, and that “it was written with a didactic purpose.” In the view of literary scholar Hannan Hever, Alterman’s poem reflects a Jewish, Zionist voice that condemns the brutal event but does not dare blame the political leadership or Ben-Gurion specifically, the poet’s friend, who spearheaded the policy of occupation and expulsion.
In a 1996 book, “The Southern Front, from Sinai to Hebron” (in Hebrew), the former commander Avraham Vered mocks Alterman, who had been a soldier in the 8th Brigade but, Vered suggests, was relieved of combat duty because the war adversely affected his muse.
“Maybe the stories that were floating around about the conquest of Dawayima reached Alterman in the brigade’s tents,” writes Vered, and, “shocked by the exaggerations overlaid on the stories, he found that the time was appropriate to publish a diatribe against the Palmach in connection with Operation Dani in Lod.”
Natan Alterman in the Haaretz editorial offices, 1930s. Haaretz archive
The poem was widely quoted and also drew high praise. Haaretz, reprinting it in full, wrote, “Alterman’s cry of alarm touches on the very essence of the war and its methods.” The philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman, a member of Brit Shalom, the Jewish-Palestinian Peace Alliance, termed the distribution of copies of the column to soldiers “an extremely important event.”
Mentioning also S. Yizhar’s short story “The Prisoner,” about the shooting, in cold blood, by Israeli troops of a Palestinian prisoner, published in November 1948, while the war still raged, Bergman noted, “The fact that such works can appear in our country in wartime is wonderful testimony to the freedom of spirit that prevails here.” (Yizhar’s short novel “Hirbet Hizeh” dealt with a similar theme.”)
The first meeting of the Provisional State Council (which had legislative and executive authorities until a formal government was established) after the Lod massacre was held on July 14, 1948. Sixty-eight years later, large swaths of its minutes are still classified. In the unclassified section, Ben-Gurion relates that in some places conquered by IDF forces, such as the airport at Lod (as distinct from the city), “almost unbelievable things were done, things that on Thursday [July 8] were still in the realm of thought. An incredible reality was created.” He basks in the successes: “I learned something else – that war is not only wasteful. We acquired something that Israel would not have built in the coming 10 years: the airport at Lod [today Ben-Gurion International Airport] … That airport is worth millions.”
One of the most powerful condemnations of the events at Lod and Dawamiya came from the agriculture minister, Aharon Zisling. The language used on November 17 by the kibbutz member and representative of the left-wing Mapam party, is among the most damning ever heard in an Israeli cabinet meeting. Zisling told those present that after he received information about the events, he had not been able to sleep all night.
“I felt that the things that were going on were wounding my soul, the soul of my family and all of us here,” he said. “I could not imagine where we came from and where we were going.” Noting that he had sometimes disagreed when British occupiers in Palestine were called “Nazis” – even though, he averred, the “British did commit Nazi crimes” – Zisling added: “But now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being has been shaken. We have to conceal these actions from the public, and I agree that we should not even reveal that we are investigating them, but they must be investigated.”
That text appears in Tom Segev’s book, “1949: The First Israelis” (English translation: Arlen N. Weinstein). Segev and Morris (in “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”) cite a precise source in the archives of the Kibbutz Hameuchad movement. However, I was unable to find the document there. Nor is it likely that the meeting in question ended with Zisling’s remarks. Other ministers certainly spoke, but their comments are classified.
There is no doubt in my mind that Zisling was referring to the Dawayima massacre. His information probably came from a letter sent by a soldier named S. Kaplan to Eliezer Peri, editor of Al Hamishmar, the Mapam newspaper, on November 8, about the Dawayima atrocity.
In fact, another soldier, who was an eyewitness to the event related his experiences to his friend Kaplan, a fellow Mapamnik, who passed it on to Peri, who was also a member of the party’s political committee. In many respects, this letter, apparently written in real time, is of immense importance and significance. It remains relevant and germane today, and is published here in full for the first time. It was found in the archive, typewritten, with several minor corrections and handwritten proofreading, and reads as follows:
Dear Comrade Eliezer Peri,
I read today’s editorial in Al Hamishmar about procedure in our army, which conquers everything except its base instincts.
Eyewitness testimony given to me by a soldier who was in Dawayima on the day after its capture. The soldier is one of ours, an intellectual, 100-percent reliable. He told me what was in his heart because of a psychological need to unburden his soul of the horrific awareness that our cultured and educated people are capable of achieving this level of barbarism. He told me what was in his heart, because not many hearts today are capable of listening.
There was no battle and no resistance (and no Egyptians). The first conquerors [to enter the village] killed from 80 to 100 [male] Arabs, women and children. They killed the children by smashing their skulls with sticks. There was not a home without its dead. The second wave of the army was a company to which the testifying soldier belonged.
Arab men and women who remained in the village were shut into houses without food or water. Then came sappers to blow up houses. One commander ordered a sapper to put two old Arab women into the particular house that was going to be blow up with them inside. The sapper refused, saying he took orders only from his commander. So the commander ordered his soldiers to shut the women in, and the horror was perpetrated.
One soldier boasted that he had raped an Arab woman and then shot her. Another Arab woman who was carrying a newborn baby was made to clean the courtyard, where the soldiers eat. She did that service for a day or two, and in the end she and her baby were shot. The soldier relates that their cultured, polite commanders, who are considered upstanding members of society, turned into base murderers, and not in the heat and passion of battle but in a system of expulsion and destruction. The fewer Arabs that will remain, the better. That principle is the political driving force of the expulsions and atrocities, to which no one objects, either in the operational command or in high command. I myself was at the front for two weeks and heard tales of boasting by soldiers and commanders of how they excelled at hunting and “screwing.” To screw an Arab, just like that and under all circumstances, is an honorable mission and there’s competition for winning at this.
We are in a bind. To issue an outcry in the press is to assist the Arab League, as our representative rejects their complaints out of hand. Not to react is [to show] solidarity with baseness of spirit. The soldier told me that Deir Yassin is not the peak of the wildness. Can we shout about Deir Yassin and remain silent about far worse?
We must raise a scandal in the internal channels, demand an internal investigation and punish the guilty. And first of all the army needs to establish a special unit to restrain the army. I myself accuse the government above all – it has no interest in combating these phenomena and is perhaps also indirectly encouraging them. Inaction is in itself encouragement. My commanding officer said that there is an unwritten order not to take prisoners, and each soldier and commander interprets “prisoners” for himself.
A prisoner can be an Arab man, an Arab woman or an Arab child. Only in display windows such as Majdal [Ashkelon] and Nazareth is it not done.
I am writing you this so that the newspaper and the party will know the truth and take effective action. At the very least do not get swept up by false diplomacy that covers blood and murder. The newspaper, too, as far as possible should not remain silent.
The original of this letter, which was stored in the Aharon Zisling’s personal archive, has disappeared. A copy was graciously provided to me by Benny Morris. Zisling’s archive is now part of the Yad Tabenkin Archive (formerly the Kibbutz Hameuchad Archive). From that “private archive,” as it is designated, not only minutes of cabinet meetings from decades ago were removed, but also personal letters.
Addendum: Since the original publication of this piece, last month, in Hebrew, I have learned definitively that “S. Kaplan” was the later Shabtai Kaplan, who went on to serve for many years as the correspondent of the Mapam newspaper Al-Hamishmar in the south.
Prof. Yair Auron is a scholar of genocide studies and genocide education. He is a member of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Shalom, Israel’s only Jewish-Arab village.