Sofia Mohamed Mahmoud Shamasna, Amina Isa Abdel-Halim Al-Faqih, Halima Hassan Ahmed Taha — three women from the village of Qatana in north western Jerusalem gunned down in an ambush while on their way to the village water well. Their names have never been published, and few people know, as perhaps no one knew at the time, that the person who gave the order to shoot them 50 years ago was Ariel Sharon.
In 1952-1953 Sharon was enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, about to become a student when he was recalled into the army to head a reserve regiment in the area of Jerusalem. Shortly after his appointment he assembled his officers and told them that the village women from Qatana were, without realising it, crossing into Israel when they went to fetch water from the well. The boundary between the Israeli settlement Ma’aliya Hahmishah and Qatana was not clearly demarcated, "Eric" told them, and in order to "correct that mistake" they would lay an ambush. "Eric" also instructed his officers to keep the plan secret so that it would not come to the attention of Central Area Command or General Staff.
The scenario was carried out precisely as Eric planned. Four marksmen were put into position at night and shot and killed two out of four women making their way to the village well. The Jordanian artillery opened fire on the Israeli villages in the vicinity and the Israeli artillery retaliated. The incident drew to a close with the intervention of UN observers in charge of monitoring the ceasefire. Later, when explaining the incident to his superiors, "Eric" expounded on the difference between shooting targets from a stationary position and taking aim at them while in motion during combat.
This account of events appears in Uzi Benziman’s He Does not Stop at Red (Adama Books, Tel Aviv 1994, pp. 35-36). When I contacted the author to confirm the story he told me his sources were soldiers who had served in the same unit as Sharon. I then went to Qatana where residents corrected my information: three women were shot that night, not two. I asked what the names of the victims were. I had been unable to find them in any Israeli sources. I felt it important to record their names in this article.
Contrary to the impression among inhabitants of the villages of north western Jerusalem this atrocious crime was carried out before the creation of Special Commando Unit 101 in August 1953. Led by Sharon from the outset the purpose of Unit 101 was to mount retaliatory raids against Palestinian villages along the border with Jordan, against civilian targets in Gaza and along the ceasefire lines with Syria. Sharon personally engineered the merger of his unit with the 890 Paratrooper Brigade in January 1954, which was then incorporated, by Moshe Dayan, into the paratroop corps over which Sharon was eventually appointed commander.
It was Unit 101 that bequeathed the most notorious moral "password" in Israeli military history. When some Israeli soldiers voiced qualms over the ethics of targeting civilians in retaliatory operations, Shlomo Baum, deputy commander of the unit, responded curtly: "Our guns must be clean, not pure." In other words it was the soldier’s job to make sure his artillery was in good working order and ready for combat, not to worry about moral criteria that had no place in the fighting creed of that unit. The soldiers of Unit 101 and then the paratroop corps became the model of the aggressive Israeli fighter. This unit formulated the moral creed of an entire army. Not that the model it set was emulated in all aspects, apart from its implication in lies and false reports, as we shall see.
The first attack carried out by Unit 101 was mounted against Al-Bureij refugee camp on the night of 28 August, 1953. Learning that its presence had been discovered, instead of withdrawing it stormed the camp and escaped from the other side, and thus found itself surrounded by unarmed civilians. The ensuing massacre claimed 43 Palestinian refugees, among whom were seven women, and wounded 22. Losses of Unit 101 totaled two wounded. Sharon had personally led the attack. In his report to his superiors he justified the enormous civilian death toll that resulted as follows: "The enemy opened fire on me from the northwest… I decided that it was better to pass through the camp and slip out the other side than to go back the way I came, because crops, gardens, barbed wire and guards made it difficult to move in that direction… I also decided that offensive action was better than giving the impression that we were attempting to escape… Therefore I invaded the camp with my group." (Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars: 1949-1956, Aam Ufid, Tel Aviv, 1996, p. 273)
As the last sentence of his military report illustrates, Sharon would rather attack and kill civilians than appear to be retreating. The equation is clear and the price clearer. International ceasefire observers described the Bureij operation as "an alarming instance of deliberate slaughter". Israel’s government at the time officially denied responsibility for the operation, giving Western diplomats to understand that it had been undertaken independently by Israeli vigilantes and members of the kibbutzim near the Jordanian border in retaliation against raids mounted by Palestinian infiltrators. The lie, by which Israeli officialdom took refuge behind Israeli civilians ostensibly acting on their own, was repeated on a grander scale in Qibya.
On 13 October 1953 Prime Minister David Ben Gurion met with Minister of Security Yitzhak Lavon and Moshe Dayan, head of operations in the office of the chief of staff, to discuss retaliation for the murder of a Jewish woman and her two children in a grenade attack on her home by a Palestinian infiltrator. Qibya was mooted as a suitable target and, apparently, there was a ready-for-use plan calling for the demolition of 50 out of the 280 homes in the village. However, what is of particular interest here is what happened to the order as it passed down the line of command.
The order issued by Dayan read, "Operation Shushna: Objective, carry out sharp-response reprisals against villages being used as bases for [Palestinian] infiltration operations. Task A: incursion into Naalein and Shiqba villages with the aim of destroying a number of houses and wounding their inhabitants. Task B: attack Qibya, occupy it temporarily, blow up homes and cause injury, forcing inhabitants to flee the village."
The order was transmitted by hand to Central Area Command, which reissued it as follows: "The aim of Chief of Staff is to mount sharp-response destroy-and- kill reprisal operations against Arab villages. The task: attack Qibya, occupy it temporarily, demolish homes and kill as many as possible in order to compel inhabitants to flee their homes… Invade Naalein and Shiqba, destroy a number of houses and kill inhabitants and soldiers."
Already the order had become more explicitly murderous than the original, as is obvious by the addition of "kill as many as possible". Working at the time in Central Area Command was David Alazar, operations officer (later to become chief of staff in the 1973 War). His counterpart in the office of the chief of staff was Rahboam Zaiffi , nicknamed Gandhi. The following is how Sharon, commander of the operation, interpreted the order to the forces that were to take part in it:
"The objective of Command is to mount sharp- response reprisal operations… The task: invade Qibya, occupy it, kill as many as possible and do as much damage as possible to property… Invade Naalein and Shaqba, kill inhabitants and blow up a number of houses."
In an article in Haaretz, on 8 June 1994, Ben Gurion’s semi-official historian, Shabtai Tibit, attempted to vindicate the former Israeli prime minister. The metamorphosis of the operation command order he attributes to the military culture of the Palmach, the underground paramilitary organisation that fathered most of Israel’s military elite. The formula, "kill as many as possible", (in Hebrew, "cause maximum loss of life") had been in use in Palmach since the Haganah, on 12 December 1947, adopted a policy of "effective defence" and "systematic retaliation". In practical terms, Shabtai suggests that no one can be held responsible for the bloodthirsty wording of the Qibya orders since such orders are deeply rooted in the Zionist military credo.
The operation was carried out after midnight on 15 October. Carrying 700 kilos of explosives the task force blew up 54 houses within three hours. Seventy villagers were killed, most of them women and children. Most of the victims died from bullet wounds. A significant portion perished beneath the rubble of their homes, having been given no warning to vacate.
The Qibya massacre triggered international outrage in the face of which Tel Aviv issued the following statement: "Over the past four years armies from the Trans-Jordan (read: Kingdom of Jordan) and from other Arab countries have been infiltrating Jewish settlements on the borders and in Jerusalem in order to commit murder and theft. Hundreds of citizens — men, women, children and the elderly — have been killed and wounded. Arab governments have sponsored these operations directly and indirectly for an obvious political purpose, which is to destroy Israel and make life in it impossible. Towards this end they have exploited Palestinian refugees, refusing to grant them citizenship and to help them order their affairs while the government of Israel has assisted Jewish refugees from Arab countries to settle in this country…" The statement continues in this sanctimonious tone until it finally states the government’s position on Qibya: "Every one of us regrets the shedding of blood wherever it takes place. No one feels deeper sorrow than the government of Israel if blood has been shed in the retaliatory operation in Qibya. However, full responsibility for this falls on the government of Trans-Jordan. The government of Israel vehemently rejects the evil fiction that would have it that 600 members of the Israeli Defence Force took part in the operation against Qibya. We have investigated thoroughly and learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that no military unit, however small, was absent from its camp on the night of the destruction in Qibya."
The statement, delivered by Ben Gurion personally over the radio, is a boldfaced lie, accompanied by a stern sermon to others and adamant denial of any culpability. How reminiscent it is of the statements issued in the wake of the murder of Palestinian civilians, in which Israeli army officials declare that scrupulous inquiries confirm that no Israeli soldier opened fire and that responsibility lies elsewhere. Even so, Ben Gurion’s statement raised some doubts in the West. Anglo-Saxon diplomats, in particular, found it difficult to believe that the head of a friendly democratic state could lie with such aplomb.
But then such are the dictates of the Israeli Machiavellian school: Israel must always show itself to be strong. Make the Arabs understand the high price they will have to pay for attacking Israel. Then justify these actions by lying through your teeth. This is the political and military school through which Sharon, who would later boast of the deterrent power of Qibya and similar operations, rose. In his introduction to the memoirs of Meir Hartison Sharon vaunted the achievements of Unit 101: "Its most outstanding achievements were in Qibya and Hebron. These operations altered the thinking of the army and restored its self-confidence. The operations had an immediate impact on the enemy. In the area of Lod, where there had been frequent enemy infiltrations causing much loss of life, calm prevailed for many years. The unit achieved a similar success in the area of Jerusalem." (Meir Haritson, Memoir Chapters, Levine-Epstein, Tel Aviv, 1969, p. 16)
Unit 101 carried out many other operations after it was integrated into the 890 parachute division. On 29 March, 1954 the unit invaded the village of Nahhalin, dragged four villagers from their homes in the middle of the night and murdered them. On 26 May it mounted a similar operation in Kherbat Janba, dragging people from their homes and shooting them with their hands tied behind their backs. Sharon’s co-star in these operations, of which there are too many to recount here, was Meir Harzion, the unit’s hero par excellence, its fiercest fighter and now a legend in Israeli military lore.
In his memoirs Harzion’s account of the "adventures" of this period read as though they were a form of self-fulfillment. Harzion’s sister and her boyfriend had been killed by a Bedouin when they were "taking a walk" that led them into Jordanian territory. Three weeks later, on 4 March 1955, Harzion took revenge. Along with three of his fellow paratroopers he crossed the border and made his way to the camp belonging to members of the Azazma and Jahalin clan, located eight kilometres east of the border. They shot and killed one Bedouin who tried to escape and captured five others. After several failed attempts to interrogate their prisoners — none of the soldiers knew Arabic — they killed four of them by stabbing them (or by slitting their throats according to another account). The fifth was released in order to tell the story.
Although Ben Gurion initially condemned the operation and ordered that the perpetrators be brought to trial no one was prosecuted. What concerns us here is that the Israeli army was involved in the operation and that Sharon had given tactical support to the perpetrators. He had furnished them with arms, food and ammunition, transported them in a military vehicle to the border and had some of his paratroopers pick them up again upon their return. Sharon had also instructed the four not to cooperate with the police. "We remain silent, under direct order from Eric," they told investigating officials.
On 22 June 2003, when discussing settlement construction in a cabinet meeting, Sharon told his ministers: "Build but stay silent. There’s no need to go out and dance every time the approval is given to build… We have strong bonds of trust and confidence with the US" (Yediot Ahranot, 23 June 2003). One cannot help but wonder whether Sharon has advised his sons to avail themselves of the "right to silence" in the investigations currently under way into allegations of financial fraud against Gilad Sharon.