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As Evidence Mounts, Toll of Israeli Prisoner of War Massacres Grows

By Katherine M. Metres February/March 1996, pgs. 17, 104-105

"If I were to be put on trial for what I did, then it would  be necessary to put on trial at least one-half the Israeli army which,  in similar circumstances, did what I did."�Israeli Brig. Gen. Aryeh Biro, who admitted to killing hundereds  of unresisting Egyptians.

In July 1995, the long­hidden story began to leak. Publication in  the Israeli press of a study undertaken for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)  briefly noted that 35 Egyptian "soldiers"�actually civilian  Public Works employees, it was later admitted�were murdered during the  1956 Suez War, ostensibly because there was insufficient manpower to guard  them (Davar, 7/21/95). After this little-noticed article was published,  the military censor could no longer prevent the publication of historian  Ronal Fisher's research on Israeli massacres of 273 Egyptians who, according  to international law, should have been prisoners of war (Ma'ariv,  8/8/95).*

Former soldiers' recollections of the massacres they committed gained  momentum, and soon a host of war crimes previously known only to the participants  came to light in the mainstream Israeli press. Israelis admitted that in  the 1967 Six-Day War, the IDF executed Palestinian POWs who were fighting  in the Egyptian army, a thousand unresisting Egyptians, and dozens of unarmed  Palestinian refugees.

The 1956 massacres occurred in the context of the lsraeli invasion of  the Egyptian Sinai, which was planned in collusion with Britain and France  in order to overthrow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and return  the Suez Canal to European control. The war began when Israeli Battalion  890 parachuted onto the eastern side of Sinai's Mitla Pass. The battalion  was commanded by Raphael (Raful) Eitan, who later helped carry out Israel's  1982 invasion of Lebanon and who played a role in the massacres of Palestinian  and Lebanese civilian residents of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps  in West Beirut.

The Israeli paratroopers rounded up 49 Egyptian and Sudanese civil engineers  who were camped near the invaders. Later, when Eitan received orders to  move on, the Israelis tied the workers' hands and executed them. Aryeh  Biro, the commander who ordered the deed and subsequently was promoted  to brigadier general, says his unit killed them because there was no manpower  for guarding prisoners and he feared they could inform the Egyptian troops  of the Israeli unit's whereabouts. Biro's action constitutes a clear violation  of the international prohibition on the execution of innocent civilians.

Fisher's eyewitnesses continue: On the fourth day of the 1956 invasion,  a truck approached Eitan's Israeli battalion at Ras Sudar in Sinai. One  of the men on the truck fired "a few aimless bullets," but the  truck stopped short when an IDF anti-tank grenade hit it, killing the driver.  According to Shaul Ziv, who fired that grenade, the exchange should have  ended then, since the men in the truck, Palestinian and Egyptian irregulars,  were stunned and unmoving. Yet Biro ordered his men to shoot until the  last of the 56 men in the truck was dead.

The Real Carnage Begins

And then the real carnage began. On the sixth day of the campaign, Eitan's  battalion set out for Sharm al-Sheikh. Before the Israeli soldiers reached  their destination, they killed at least another 168 Egyptians. (According  to Biro himself, that number is low. He says his men killed "most  of" a company of about 400. Prof. Israel Shahak, an Israeli writer  and translator of Hebrew-language reports, says at least 2,000 Egyptians  were killed.) The IDF says the "unit confronted an Egyptian division,  a small part of which began a battle with our troops and was eliminated  in the course of exchanges of fire. Most of the Egyptians were then taken  prisoner and held until transferred to Israeli territory."

Independent Israeli historians disagree with the army's sanitized version  of events. Uri Milstein, a right-winger, and Meir Pa'il, a former general  associated with the far left, agree on this point. Milstein says that the  Egyptians were surrounded by advancing Israeli units and "in the course  of their attempt to escape, the Egyptians lost all of their operational  capabilities and fell into groups, thirsty, hungry and exhausted, and then  into the hands of Raful and his soldiers. The men of Battalion 890 understood  that nothing would be done to them if they eliminated a few dozen or a  few hundred POWs, as long as they won the war and returned home as heroes...Therefore,  nearly every Egyptian who confronted him and his soldiers was eliminated  in the course of the advance to the south."

Pa'il concurs: "In actual fact, what happened was that Battalion  890 met a disintegrated and defeated unit of the Egyptian army in Sharm  al-Sheikh, a unit which could not fight and which was only seeking a way  to be taken prisoner. If, nevertheless, there were several Egyptian soldiers  who fired a bullet or two, no one really thought that they intended to  fight. Raful saw that he did not have enough men to put in charge of the  gathering of Egyptian soldiers who wanted to surrender and gave an order  to kill all of them...For him, a soldier who takes a transistor radio as  booty is a criminal. But a soldier who kills an Arab, hands up or hands  down, is blessed."

In spite of the facts of history�ranging from the 1948 massacre of  Palestinian civilians in Deir Yassin to the 1994 murders of Muslim men  and boys at prayer in Hebron�many Israelis continue to see themselves  as morally superior to their neighbors. The news of the massacres pierced  this persistent myth once again. Predictably, the Israeli public reacted  with shock. However, while some were shocked at the crimes ("How  could we?"), others were shocked only at the revelation of  the crimes ("Why did these former soldiers and historians reveal this  damaging information now?").

Ben Dror Yemini, a Labor party activist, is an example of the latter.  He asserted that the uproar over the massacres amounted to the "rewriting  of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." His reference to an infamous  "plan" by Jews to rule the world, thought to be a fabrication  of Czarist Russian secret police, was an attempt to paint those who have  made the massacres public as self-destructive accessories to anti-Semitism.  He concluded smugly, "Not everyone among our fighters is the best  person in the world, but compared to what happened in other places, we  the Jews are nevertheless almost angels" (Ma'ariv , 8/20/95).

In reality, Israeli forces' not infrequent failure to distinguish between  armed enemy soldiers who have not surrendered, soldiers who have laid down  their arms, and noncombatants has been far from angelic. For example, the  day before the murders at Mitla, Israeli border guards had killed 49 Palestinian  farmers, citizens of Israel. Their only crime was attempting to return  to their homes in the village of Kufr Qassem which, unknown to them, had  been placed under curfew while they were at work in their fields. Likewise,  in 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank, many families who had fled  across the Jordan River during the fighting were shot by the IDF while  they were trying to return to their West Bank homes (News From Within,  9/95).

Just as reports of the 1956 massacres implicate Rafael Eitan, a prominent  right-wing figure in contemporary Israeli politics, reports now coming  out of Israel regarding the 1967 war pose a serious threat to the current  Labor government, because they implicate "Fouad" Ben Eliezer,  the minister of housing. Aryeh Yitzhaki, a mainstream historian, states  that "in the Six Day War the IDF killed approximately 1,000 Egyptian  soldiers who had ceased functioning as a fighting force." Apparently,  Eliezer's Shaked unit was responsible for one-third of those murders, which  occurred during an operation called "Gazelle Hunt" because the  IDF slaughtered the soldiers as they retreated (Ha'aretz, 8/17/95).

Dr. Yitzhaki reports that Palestinian volunteers in the Egyptian army  were executed Nazi-style in E1-Arish, another area of the Sinai, in 1967.  Gabby Biron, a right-wing journalist who witnessed the murder of about  10 POWs before being forced to leave, confirmed Yitzhaki's report. Biron  says that Israeli intelligence officers put POWs one by one through a short  interrogation. If the IDF determined by the prisoner's accent that he was  Palestinian, he was taken behind the building, forced to dig his own grave,  and shot. According to Holocaust survivors, the incident bears a striking  similarity to Nazi tactics.

Were these crimes of passion or part of a planned campaign?

Were these crimes of passion or part of a planned campaign? Until a  comprehensive investigation is undertaken, we can only speculate. As regards  the "Gazelle Hunt" murders, Israeli leftist activist Eli Aminov  says, "It is clear to any military expert that the order given to  the Shaked patrol was part of a more extensive body of orders. This is  evident from the large number of Egyptian soldiers killed in battle during  June 1967 compared to the number of prisoners taken. The Egyptian army  was crushed and fell apart after a few battles and most of it retreated  in disorganization" (News From Within, 9/95).

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian public is outraged by these reports. (Palestinians  may be equally outraged, but for them the new reports merely elaborate  on known atrocities that, however, Western reporters had refused to credit  until Israelis confirmed the reports in print.) After Cairo's semi-official  newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Egyptian officials found two mass  graves near El-Arish in September said to contain the remains of POWs and  unarmed civilians executed by the IDF in 1967, opposition papers called  on the Mubarak regime to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest.  The Muslim Brotherhood has linked its denunciation of the massacres with  its opposition to the peace process.

From the center and left of the political spectrum, more than 200 prominent  citizens formed a committee to seek justice. Egyptian judges and international  law professors met at Cairo University to assert that Egypt has the right  to demand extradition and to try those allegedly responsible. Several private  lawyers have filed lawsuits against the Israeli government on behalf of  the victims' families. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights sent  evidence to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and called for  a full U.N. inquiry.

Prior Knowledge?

Some believe that the Egyptian government knew about the incidents before  the recent reports were published in the Hebrew press. Aminov says that  Nasser kept the information under wraps because he did not want the public  to know the extent of the Egyptian defeat. Likewise, later governments,  criticized at home and in Arab circles for making peace with the enemy,  preferred not to make an issue of past atrocities. A physician who witnessed  the massacres in 1956, Ahmed Shawki el-Fangari, wrote about them in his  1960 book Israel As I Knew It, but Egyptian authorities banned it  (Geneive Abdo, The Dallas Morning News, 9/16/95).

However, the coverup theory is not altogether compelling. First of all,  el-Fangari's book may have been censored for a variety of reasons. More  importantly, it would have been difficult, after the fact, for the Egyptian  government to determine the exact circumstances in which it lost soldiers.  Finally, between Nasser's death in 1970 and the late Egyptian President  Anwar Sadat's 1977 peace initiative, Egypt had every reason to reveal any  knowledge of Israeli wrongdoing in order to mobilize the international  community against Israel's occupation of the Sinai.

In any case, after a cautious initial reaction, the Egyptian government  pledged that there would be no business as usual until Israel investigates  the incidents and puts the guilty behind bars. The Ministry of Justice  is compiling evidence to be used if Egypt takes legal action against Israel.

The Israeli government, embarrassed by the fact that some of the allegations  came from the actual Israeli participants, belatedly apologized and offered  compensation to the victims. In December, it also announced that it would  undertake an investigation. However, according to the Israeli attorney  general, his country will not prosecute because of its 20-year statute  of limitations on crimes.

This excuse ignores the fact that war crimes are covered by international  law, which does not impose a time limit on prosecution. No one knows this  better than the Israelis, who continue to prosecute persons believed to  be Nazi war criminals.

The legal instrument that covers these acts is the (Third) Geneva Convention  Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, to which Israel is a party.  According to Stephen Marks, an international law professor at Columbia  University and former U.N. official, the key provision is Article 4's definition  of prisoners of war as "members of the armed forces of a Party to  the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming  part of such armed forces that have fallen into the power of the enemy."  Thus the acts described here appear to be grave breaches of international  humanitarian law.

Israel says, in a phrase that rang through the incremental peace process  engineered by the late Yitzhak Rabin, that the issue will be resolved not  according to international law but through inter-state negotiation. "We  don't think that putting history as the number one agenda item will benefit  the relationship," Gideon Mark, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate  in New York told the Washington Report in a Nov. 17 phone interview.

Making the issue its sole priority does not appear to be the intention  of the Egyptian government, not least because its own human rights record  contains serious violations incurred in its efforts to repress its violent  and nonviolent Islamist opposition. Rather, its efforts seem in large part  to have been prompted by public rage.

Furthermore, Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Nabil Elaraby  noted in a Nov. 18 interview that Egypt does not condemn the Israeli government  for the killings but merely wants the individual perpetrators to be punished.  Asked if he is concerned by allegations that Egyptians have committed war  crimes against Israelis, Elaraby says the Egyptian government is prepared  to investigate and prosecute any such criminal.

Meanwhile, Israelis like Yemini have argued that the revelations are  a right-wing conspiracy to sabotage the peace process, particularly the  sensitive relationship with Egypt. Yet the information has come from all  parts of the Israeli political spectrum. Indeed, many Israelis say that  they knew about the incidents all along.

In fact, the only real controversy is whether the incidents should have  been discussed so openly in the press. The late Prime Minister Rabin and  a Belz Hassidic journalist named A. Avramson both called the revelations  a form of "suicide." Others worried, "If Hezbollah knew  that we murder prisoners of war�why should they not murder our men who  fall into their hands?" (Michael Ben-Zohar, Ma'ariv, 8/17/95)

There is little doubt that the climate of impunity that accompanied  the 1956 massacres made the 1967 atrocities possible. To usher in an era  of Middle Eastern peace based on justice, the states of the region must  come clean, establish a climate of responsibility by prosecuting past crimes,  and thereby put the future on a more humane footing. Despite the wishful  thinking of ideologues, there are no angels among Middle Eastern states.  The only angels are the innocent dead.

*Except for the Davar article, all translations can be found  in Dr. Israel Shahak's "From the Hebrew Press," Woodbridge, VA:  Middle East Data Center, October 1995.

Katherine M. Metres  is a graduate student in international affairs at Columbia University,  where she is concentrating on human rights and the Middle East.

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