President Reuven Rivlin made history Sunday (Oct. 26) by being the first sitting Israeli president to participate in the annual memorial ceremony at Kafr Kassem that marksg the deaths of 48 residents of the village.
During his visit Rivlin met with the mayor and officials of the village, who said they had waited 58 years for such a senior Israeli leader to attend the ceremony and speak against the conduct of Israel’s security personnel during what was then called Operation Kadish.
Known as the Kafr Kassem Massacre, the October 29, 1956 event was one of the most complex and difficult in Jewish-Arab relations in the history of the State of Israel, and the source of the expression, ‘the black flag.’
Because the country was at that time on a wartime footing, an order went out on that day at 3:30 pm placing all Arab villages near the Jordanian border on curfew from 5 pm to 6 am. However, most of the Arabs from the villages who were working out of town were unavailable and could not be notified – there were no cell phones, or any phones in most Israeli homes – in those days.
The Israeli commanding officer received orders to take all precautions to ensure quiet on the Jordanian border, and he then reportedly ordered his commanders to “shoot on sight” any villager violating the curfew. No one was to be allowed to leave their home, or enter the village from any direction. The mayor of the village was advised of the curfew and he asked what would happen to those working outside. He was told they would be taken care of. Word was sent and most returned immediately. Some did not make it back in time.
Of the 48 people in the village, six were women (one was pregnant, leading Arab sources to make the count 49) and 23 were children ages eight to 17. More were wounded but their families were not allowed to come out to help them until the next morning after 6 am, when they were taken to hospitals in trucks.
Eleven border police officers and soldiers involved in the operation were charged with murder; eight were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Judge Benjamin Halevy wrote in his decision, which is still quoted today, that “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!'”
On November 20, 1957, a “sulha” (traditional Bedouin reconciliation ceremony) was held in memory of the victims of the Kafr Kassem massacre between Israeli government and community leaders, and members of the leadership of neighboring Arab villages. Reparations were made to the families of the victims.
In December 2007, then-President Shimon Peres formally apologized for the massacre, but until today, no president ever participated in the annual memorial ceremony commemorating the victims at the village.
“Distinguished guests, I came here today as a member of the Jewish people and as a President of the State of Israel to stand before you, the victims’ families and the injured, to remember the pain together with you,” Rivlin said.
“The existence of this terrible black flag that implemented the killing of innocent people was criminally ignored. The Supreme Court has spoken clearly and gave expression to legally verify the State of Israel’s moral consciousness,” he added. “It is our duty to teach future generations this difficult episode.
“Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, but it will also forever be the home of the Arab population. They are not a fringe group – it is a population which is part and parcel of this land, a population with a cohesive national identity and a shared culture that will always be a fundamental component of Israel.