Middle East

Arab-Israeli War of 1967 Re-examined

Israelis tour a military bunker, a relic from the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war on Bental hill next to the village of Merom Golan in the Golan Heights. (Photo: Gali Tibbon / AFP-Getty Images)

A routine visit by an Israeli minister to Egypt to negotiate a natural gas deal was called off in the beginning of March following the release of a documentary in Israel about the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The film, Ruah Shaked (The Spirit of Shaked), is about an Israeli elite army unit that was led by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the current minister of infrastructure in Israel. Recalling forty-year-old memories, some former Shaked soldiers regretted their role in the war, describing their use of force as "excessive" and their actions as motivated by "revenge." These reflections, not unusual for former soldiers who were engaged in active fighting, would have passed unnoticed if it was not for references of the killing of 250 Egyptian prisoners of war after the end of military operations.

It took no time for the news to spread and cause a wave of anger in Egypt. The following day, a phone call between Egypt's Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman and Ben-Eliezer caused the latter to indefinitely postpone his visit. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmad Aboul-Gheit, summoned the Israeli ambassador to Cairo and a few days later expressed his government's "extreme anger" to his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni during a meeting in Brussels. He further requested that Israel investigate the incident, stating that the legal pursuit of those proven guilty of violating international law remained an option, but made it clear that Egypt was not on the road to severing its relations with Israel because of the documentary.

Egypt's parliamentarians — members of the ruling National Democratic Party and those from other parties — found the official response "weak" and "compromising." Adopting a significantly more aggressive tone, a number of MPs called upon the government to sever relations with Israel, to nullify the 1979 bilateral peace treaty and bring Benyamin Ben-Eliezer before an international tribunal for war crime charges. In line with the MPs outrage were newspapers from across the political spectrum, which brought the debate to the forefront of the Egyptian public's attention. The common starting point of the discussion was that the documentary provided sufficient proof of what the semi-official al-Ahram called "the POW massacre" (March 4).

In the widely-read independent, al-Masry al-Youm (March 15), Human Rights advocate Muhammad Fayek regretted the fact that both Egypt and Israel have not signed the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty and called for exploring other legal means for punishing those responsible. In al-Ahram Weekly (March 17), Yale-educated legal expert Karim Youssef placed actions of the Shaked Unit in the context of other Israeli war crimes that went unpunished such as those "committed against U.S. military personnel of the U.S.S. Liberty on June 8, 1967," and recalled at least two mass graves that the Israeli army left behind in Sinai upon their withdrawal. Echoing Fayek's logic, he confirmed the unsuitability of the ICC for trying former Shaked soldiers. Instead, Youssef suggested "indictment in absentia" as a legal move that could mobilize public opinion in Egypt and abroad.

Some commentators were less interested in the legal aspects and were more focused on situating the timing of this diplomatic crisis and predicting forthcoming political developments. Abd-Allah al-Sinawi, the editor-in-chief of the Nasserist weekly al-Araby (March 11), which opposes the bilateral peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, saw the documentary as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the Israeli government, through its official television channel one, to belittle the Egyptian role in the region. Mustafa al-Fiqi, the head of the Foreign Relations committee of the Egyptian Parliament, suggested in al-Ahram (March 5) that the release of the documentary was meant to restore confidence in the Israeli military among Israelis after last summer's brutal but ultimately failed war against Lebanon.

Despite their understanding of the documentary itself as an intentional hostile gesture against Egypt, commentators agreed that officials in both Egypt and Israel were determined not to let the crisis escalate. Muhammad al-Sayyed Said of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies commented to Egypt's Daily Star (March 6) that even though "the image of Israel in Egypt has become worse than ever before," the Egyptian government had no intention of acting upon popular anger. On the Web site of the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially unrecognized but widely popular party, Ibrahim al-Houdaibi, an advisor to the group, similarly doubted that the government would pursue the suspects (March 6).

While these Egyptian commentators were expressing their outrage daily at their government and at Israel, the Israeli government was sending out mixed signals. Ben-Eliezer denied the charges of killing any POWs, insisting in an official statement (March 5) that those killed were in fact Palestinian commandos who fought alongside the Egyptians in 1967, and that they were killed in battle. He dismissed his former soldiers' testimonies of the prisoner killings as mixing up the in-combat targeting of armed Palestinians with another incident in which the Shaked unit allegedly provided water and bread to a retreating Egyptian battalion that was lost in the Sinai desert. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni seconded Ben-Eliezer's explanation, even though she had not watched the documentary herself.

On the other hand, protected by anonymity, one Israeli diplomatic source told the same daily that the issue was not serious since Egyptian parliamentarians, public opinion and press did not have a say in political decisions in Egypt.

Ron Edelist, the producer and director of Ruah Shaked, who played a major role in instigating the crisis, denied that the documentary proved the shooting of Egyptian POWs. He attributed the Egyptian outrage to the desire of "the opposition and Islamic extremists, who probably didn't see the documentary… to disrupt the peace with Israel." Edelist's assessment, however, proved incorrect. A few days after his initial comment, Edelist admitted that he erroneously identified the 250 killed in the incident as Egyptian POWs, in spite of his knowledge of their Palestinian identity. Furthermore, he admitted to the misleading use of archival footage in order to support his claim that they were Egyptians. In fact, his documentary was shown on both public and private television channels in Egypt on March 11. Therefore, while the outrage could have been initially based on hearsay, it was soon substantiated by the actual content of the documentary.

While editorials and commentaries continue to appear, especially in Arab and Egyptian newspapers and other media outlets, the crisis is gradually fading away. A more substantiated claim of Israeli killings of Egyptian POWs had surfaced in 1995 when two Israeli officers, Aryeh Biro and Mordechai Brown, openly told the Israeli daily Ma'ariv that they were responsible for the killing of over 500 Egyptian POWs during the Suez War of 1956. Egyptian-Israeli relations withstood the tide of these revelations.

Today, the Egyptian media and public were too busy with the buildup for and the aftermath of the March 26 vote on major constitutional amendments that will determine the future of political life in Egypt. Thus, it is quite evident that the officials of both Egypt and Israel are not seriously concerned over the matter.

However, the fact that the necessities of high politics have so far determined the fate of these cases does not make them unworthy of our attention. In fact, because the POW killing issue(s) is not as apparent as other atrocious realities in the Middle East (for instance, the massive Palestinian refugee problem), it is even more so the responsibility of conscientious individuals to bring it out to light.

In this respect, Ron Edelist was correct in calling his work a "self examination" but was wrong in implying that this made it an issue that only pertained to Israel's history.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Omar Cheta.