Israel Executed 49 Egyptian Soldiers
"They chase Nazi war criminals for the rest of their lives, 60 or 70 years
down the road," Egyptian political scientist Walid Kazziha observed in an interview. "But for Israeli crimes of mass murder, they're letting them go — even when they admit it."
The Martin Cohn article below reinforces the Prytulak Letter 12 of 30-Mar-1998 to Anne McLellan, Canada's Justice Minister, protesting the prosecution of Ukrainians for half-century old war misdemeanors when heinous war crimes have been committed in more recent times, and some of the guilty may today be living in Canada.
An Israeli general reopens old wounds
with revelations about the massacre of Egyptian PoWs
by Martin Cohn
The Toronto Star
[October 8, 1995]
JERUSALEM — Even in peace, Egypt and Israel are at war again, fighting over
the bitter legacy of their past battles.
Twenty-years after their last war, Cairo newspapers have printed artists'
illustrations of Israeli soldiers killing Egyptian soldiers of war in cold
blood. Screaming headlines attacked the "savage and inhuman behavior of
The press was merely taking its cue from a retired Israeli general, who
admitted executing 49 captured Egyptian soldiers during the 1956 Sinai
campaign — and said he would do it again.
The provocative newspaper images have whipped up a new round of anti-Israel
sentiment in Egypt, giving fresh ammunition to Islamic and nationalist
groups still opposed to peace between the two countries.
Egypt's influential doctors' union, dominated by the Muslim brotherhood,
called for an end to "all forms of normalization with the Zionist enemy."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak raised the issue with Israeli Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin during a White House summit last month, and demanded
redress: an enguiry, a formal apology, financial compensation, and trials
of the accused.
"We don't want to make it a case between two countries," Mubarak was quoted
as saying in Cairo late last month.
"But public opinion here is taking the problem very seriously and I cannot
stand against them. We told the Israelis this situation cannot be solved
unless you start an investigation."
Both leaders seem anxious to put a damper on the issue, recognizing its
potential to inflame tensions in an already rocky relationship. But the
controversy has already spiralled out of control in Cairo, fed by further
revelations of PoW killings by Israelis.
Many Israelis were shocked to hear the first confirmation of such
executions from the lips of retired Gen. Arieh Biro.
For Israelis who give pride of place to the army — which stresses its
"purity of arms" code — the news jarred their sense of Jewish morality and
punctured historical myths.
Biro said he did what he had to do. As commander of a paratroop battalion
dropped deep behind enemy lines during the 1956 Israeli invasion of Egypt,
he said his soldiers had their hands full with their military objectives.
They were being taunted by their captives.
"Egyptian troops were pouring into the area, and the prisoners were
shouting, 'Just you wait, the Egyptian army will slaughter you.'"
Biro said he was unable to hold them, and unwilling to risk releasing them
with knowledge of their location at the Mitla Pass, which leads to the Suez
Canal in the Sinai Peninsula.
So, he and a lieutenant lined them up and gunned them down.
"I didn't have the troops to guard them — we had to move on to Ras Sudar -
so I decided to liquidate them," Biro was quoted as saying.
"I have ached over what I did ... but, under the same circumstances, I think
I would do it again."
At one point, Biro said he emptied his canteen in front of Egyptian soldier
pleading for water.
"Whoever we managed to screw, we screwed."
Biro suggested his battalion commander, Rafael Eitan — who rose to become
the army's chief of staff and now heads the right-wing Tsomet party — was
aware of the executions. Likud politician Ariel Sharon was the brigade
commander at the time, and was later made Israel's defence minister until
he was disgraced in the Lebanon war.
Perhaps more chilling than Biro's graphic admissions were hints of more
dark secrets lurking in Israel's wartime past.
"If they try to throw me to the wolves, I'll speak out," Biro warned.
Indeed, the government has already signalled it will not prosecute Biro,
because a 20-year statute of limitations has lapsed. Israel has no war
crimes law except for acts of genocide or crimes committed by Nazis.
It is an irony that has not escaped Egyptian commentators. Israelis and
Jews abroad have relentlessly pursued Nazi war criminals for decades for
war crimes committed during Wold War II. But Biro remains beyond the reach
of Israeli law.
Alhough Rabin condemned his actions, the prime minister pointedly noted
that Biro was a Holocaust survivor.
"They chase Nazi war criminals for the rest of their lives, 60 or 70 years
down the road," Egyptian political scientist Walid Kazziha observed in an
interview. "But for Israeli crimes of mass murder, they're letting them go
- even when they admit it."
Kazziha said the matter won't be laid to rest until Israel offers financial
compensation to the families of the murdered PoWs. But he doubted it would
seriously damage the already frosty bilateral relationship, because the
Egyptian government hasn't made it a priority.
Biro's admissions and implications of more guilt to go around prompted
other Israeli historians and soldiers to speak out. Journalist Gabriel
Brun wrote that he saw five PoWs shot by Israeli soldiers during the 1967
war, after they were forced to dig their own graves.
"I saw five prisoners killed in this way. Earlier, I had heard 10 similar
shots. I interpreted those to mean that another five were executed."
The testimonials prompted Egypt's military, and the Al Ahram newspaper to
mount an expedition to the Sinai in search of the PoWs' remains. They found
two mass graves near a former runway near Al Arish, 330 kilometeres
northeast of Cairo, containing prisoners' uniforms and bones where roughly
90 people may have been buried.
Israel's ambassador to Egypt, David Sultan, says dwelling on the past is
"Things happened on both sides, and I ask what purpose this will serve," he
said in an interview from Cairo.
But Sultan himself has become part of the story, targetted by the Egyptian
opposition press as responsible for killing 100 PoWs as a paratrooper
during the Sinai campaign.
In fact, Sultan says, "I was still in school in 1956, I was never a
paratrooper, and I was never an officer."
Israeli press agents say Sultan has requested a transfer from Cairo because
his life is in danger. But the ambassador denied the suggestion, saying his
tour of duty is up after three years in Cairo.
While Sultan wants to set aside the issue, Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv,
Muhammad Bassiouni, keeps raising it in Israel. He insisted on Israel Radio
last week that while both sides may have committed atrocities, only an
Israeli general has publicly admitted his guilt — making him an obvious
mark for investigation and prosecution.
Many Israeli historians feel torn between their academic obligation to
publicize the almost inevitable atrocities of wartime, and the obvious
consequences for an already delicate peacetime relationship between the two
Bringing the information out into the open forces Israel to confront the
moral challenge of preventing recurrences, said Ephraim Kam, deputy
director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.
Something must also be done to rescue the bilateral relationship, he says.
"Mubarak needs a ladder to get off the tree, and if we provide it, he will
But any subsequent investigation aimed at placating him "should be done
without too much noise," he said.
Shlomo Gazit, an academic and former director of military intelligence,
argues the events are being taken out of context.
"This is really a storm in a teacup," he says, adding the problem is not
with the killings, but with the fact that they were publicized.
"I don't think that this is the kind of story, with all the delicacies,
that should come out," Gazit said in an interview. "I've been to five wars,
and I haven't seen a war that was a tennis game. A war is an ugly, dirty,
cruel act with many, many unplanned and unwanted circumstances."