As Palestinians marked the 48th anniversary of the massacre of Qibya a few weeks ago, they provided another reminder of the blood-soaked history of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s current prime minister. On October 14, inhabitants of the West bank village of Qibya, some 15 miles northwest of Jerusalem and a mile and a half from the green line, held a commemorative gathering in the playground of the village’s high school. A number of speakers, including Hassan Ahmad Ragheb, the head of the village’s municipal council, and representatives of various Palestinian organisations, delivered speeches focusing on Israeli terrorism as a strategy to drive the Palestinians away from their land. There was also a march, during which a number of masked demonstrators burnt an effigy of Sharon.
In an interview, Muhammad ‘Abdullah Salih al-Maslut, a native of Qibya who lost his 9-month-pregnant wife and two children Sha’aban, 5, and Muyassar, 7, in the massacre, said that he and 46 other Palestinian families have started making preparations to initiate legal proceedings against Sharon in Belgium. A Belgian law passed in 1993 and amended in 1999 clearly states that Belgian courts can try war criminals for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
That the macabre and painful memories of the Qibya massacre are still raw almost five decades later can only be understood by revisiting the details of this atavistic orgy of bloodletting. The slaughter was methodical, ruthless, and intended to terrorize and frighten Palestinians well beyond the village: a typical Sharon operation.
At about 9:30 pm on October 14, 1953, an Israeli army force estimated at some 700 soldiers belonging to the newly-established Commando Unit 101 led by Sharon, then a 25-year-old junior officer, moved toward the West Bank village of Qibya and indulged in an all-night orgy of killing. The attack began with an intense and indiscriminate artillery barrage, carefully aimed from Israel before dark and targeting the homes of the village. The barrage continued until the advancing force reached the outskirts of the village. Meanwhile, other troop contingents headed for nearby Arab villages such as Shuqba, Budrus and Nahhalin, in a diversionary move designed to prevent any succour from reaching the people of Qibya. Mines were also planted on roads leading to the village from neighbouring areas in order to ensure that it would be completely isolated, with escape routes cut off. As Israeli troops went on a house-to-house rampage, firing and tossing grenades into houses, units of the army corps of engineers took to placing explosives around some of the houses and blowing them up with their residents still inside.
The attack, which continued until approximately 4 am on October 15, left about 75 villagers, two thirds of them women and children, dead and fifteen others wounded. It resulted in the total destruction of 56 houses, along with the village’s mosque, school, water tank and pumping station, telephone office and police station. Many of the victims were blown up by the exploding charges. A man working with the Jordanian National Guard, who happened to be absent on frontier duty that night, lost his entire family of eleven. The attackers did not spare even the village’s livestock. They turned their fire on the village’s cattle, killing 22 cows. A number of shops and houses were also looted. Witnesses reported that soldiers sat in the moonlight on the stone walls surrounding the village to watch the charges explode, smoking cigarettes looted from the shops. At about 3 am Israeli gunners resumed their shelling of the nearby Palestinian villages from their positions inside the green line to cover the withdrawal of the troops from Qibya, taking with them their loot loaded on a few donkeys. A number of houses were also damaged in these targeted villages.
The massacre was carried out in “reprisal” for an earlier attack in which a grenade was tossed into a house in the Israeli settlement of Tirat Yehuda inside the green line, killing a woman and her two children. The Mixed Armistice Committee condemned the attack on Tirat Yehuda; even the Jordanian government, which had sovereignty over Qibya because it had annexed the West Bank after the debacle (an-Nakbah) of 1948, had voted in favour of the resolution. Moshe Sharrett, then acting prime minister of Israel, revealed in his diary that the Jordanian government had gone out of its way to co-operate with Israel in tracking down those who staged the Tirat Yehuda attack. He said: “the Commander of the Jordan Legion, Glubb Pasha, had asked for police blood-hounds to cross over from Israel to track down the Yahud [sic.] murderers” (Jerusalem Post, October 31, 1965).
In the light of this, the scope of the massacre underscored the main object of Israeli “reprisal” attacks: they were not merely to punish and chastise. Rather, these attacks have always been intended to overawe and terrorize the Palestinian population into submission. Sharon later indicated in his diary that he had orders to inflict heavy damage on the inhabitants of Qibya, which faces Tirat Yehuda across the green line. He wrote candidly: “The orders were utterly clear: Qibya was to be an example to everyone.”
Initially the Israeli government claimed that the massacre was an act of revenge carried out by so-called “civilian Jewish settlers.” But records show that high-ranking state officials had approved the operation, making it a classic case of Israeli state-sanctioned terrorism. The attack on Qibya was authorized by prime minister David Ben-Gurion (who was on vacation at the time) and by acting prime minister Moshe Sharrett, and was planned by defence minister Pin Has Lavon, the chief of general staff Mordechai Maklet, and chief of operations General Moshe Dayan.
Sharon later claimed that his men blew up the houses believing that all the inhabitants had run away, and that they did not know that anyone was hiding inside them. But evidence examined by a United Nations team who inspected the scene gave the lie to this claim. The team also found a number of unexploded charges and hand grenades, marked with Hebrew letters indicating recent Israeli manufacture, as well as three bags of TNT, in and near the village.
The UN team also found evidence that the doors and windows of many of the houses were riddled with bullets, with bodies sprawled across the entrances. In his testimony before the UN Security Council, chief of staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization Maj. General Vagn Bennike said that this “indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them.”
The international community roundly condemned the Qibya massacre. An emergency meeting of the Mixed Armistice Commission was held in the afternoon of October 15. It issued a resolution by majority vote (the Israeli delegation was the only delegation to vote against it) condemning the Israeli army for the attack on Qibya as a breach of Paragraph 2 Article III of the Israel-Jordan General Armistice Agreement. The resolution said that the attack was carried out “by a force approximately one half of a battalion from the Israeli Regular Army, fully equipped,” adding that the force attacked “the inhabitants by firing from automatic weapons and throwing grenades and using Bangalore torpedoes together with TNT explosives” (United Nations Security Council Official Records, 1953, October 26, 1953). The Commission also condemned Israel for the shelling of the village of Budrus by a support unit of the attacking forces as a breach of Articles II and III of the Armistice Agreement.
The US department of state issued a statement on October 18, 1953, expressing its “deepest sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives in and near Kibya [sic.] during the recent attack by Israeli forces.” It also called for those responsible to “be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.” Similarly, the British Foreign Office issued a statement describing the attack as the gravest violation of the Palestine Armistice Agreement and a serious threat to peace in the region. The statement disclosed that the British ambassador to Tel Aviv was “instructed to express to the Israeli Government the horror of her Majesty’s Government at the apparently calculated attack.” It added: “Her Majesty’s Government expects the Israeli Government to bring to justice those who are responsible and to take measures to compensate the victims.”
For its part, on November 25, 1953 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 101, which characterized the attack on Qibya as “a violation of the ceasefire provisions of the Security Council resolution of 15 July 1948” and as “inconsistent with the Parties’ obligations under the General Armistice Agreement and the [UN] Charter.” Resolution 101 also expressed “the strongest censure of that action,” but fell short of calling on Israel to hold those who carried out the massacre accountable and to bring them to justice (United Nations Security Council Official Records, Resolutions 1953, S/313/Rev. 2).
The Qibya massacre continues to live in the record of crimes against humanity. Like the mass-murders of civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee-camps in September 1982, it shows Sharon’s penchant for spilling Palestinians’ blood . But beyond that it was an act of “State terrorism” par example, a government-sanctioned act of mass-murder carried out by one of its official organs, the army. The Qibya massacre exposed Israel as a terrorist entity and its armed forces as nothing short of a cabal of bloodthirsty thugs, criminals and animals.