1948: The Eilabun Massacre

This account of a dozen-strong summary execution at the Upper Galilee village of Eilabun by the Israeli Defense Forces during the Arab-Israeli War hails from The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by Israel’s best-known “New Historian”, Benny Morris:

Christian villages, traditionally friendly or not unfriendly towards the Yishuv, were generally left in peace. An exception was ‘Eilabun, a mainly Maronite community, which fell to Golani‘s 12th Battalion on 30 October after a battle on its outskirts with the ALA [Arab Liberation Army], in which the Israelis suffered six injured and four armoured cars knocked out. The villagers hung out white flags and the Israelis were welcomed by four priests. The inhabitants huddled inside the churches while the priests surrendered the village. But the troops were angered by the battle just concluded and by reports of a procession in the village, a month before, in which a large number of inhabitants had participated, in which the heads of two IDF soldiers who had gone missing after the attack on 12 September on a nearby hilltop — ‘Outpost 213’ — were carried through the streets, or by the actual discovery in a house of one of the rotting heads. What happened next is described in a letter from the village elders to [Israeli Minister of Police Bechor-Shalom] Shitrit: The villagers were ordered to assemble in the square. While assembling, one villager was killed and another wounded by IDF fire.

Then the commander selected 12 young men and sent them to another place, then he ordered that the assembled inhabitants be led to [the neighbouring village of] Maghar and the priest asked him to leave the women and babies and to take only the men, but he refused, and led the assembled inhabitants — some 800 in number — to Maghar preceded by military vehicles … He himself stayed on with another two soldiers until they killed the 12 young men in the streets of the village and then they joined the army going to Maghar … He led them to Farradiya. When they reached Kafr‘Inan they were joined by an armoured car that fired upon them … killing one of the old men, Sam‘an ash Shoufani, 60 years old, and injuring three women … At Farradiya [the soldiers] robbed the inhabitants of 500 and the women of their jewelry, and took 42 youngsters and sent them to a detention camp, and the rest the next day were led to Meirun, and afterwards to the Lebanese border. During this whole time they were given food only once. Imagine then how the babies screamed and the cries of the pregnant and weaning mothers.

Subsequently, troops looted ‘Eilabun.

Not all the villagers were taken on the trek to Lebanon. The four priests were allowed to stay. Hundreds fled to nearby gullies, caves and villages, and during the following days and weeks infiltrated back. The affair exercised the various Israeli bureaucracies for months, partly because the ‘Eilabun case was taken up and pleaded persistently by Israeli and Lebanese Christian clergymen. The villagers asked to be allowed back and receive Israeli citizenship. They denied responsibility for severing the soldiers’ heads, blaming one Fawzi al Mansur of Jenin, a sergeant in Qawuqji‘s army [i.e., the ALA].

The affair sparked a guilty conscience and sympathy within the Israeli establishment. Shitrit ruled that former inhabitants still living within Israeli-held territory must be allowed back to the village. But Major Sulz, Military Governor of the Nazareth District, responded that the army would not allow them back. He asserted, ambiguously, that ‘Eilabun had been ‘evacuated either voluntarily or with a measure of compulsion’. A fortnight later, he elaborated, mendaciously: ‘The village was captured after a fierce fight and its inhabitants had fled.’ The Foreign Ministry opined that even if an ‘injustice’ had been committed, ‘injustices of war cannot be put right during the war itself’.

However, Shitrit, supported by Mapam’s leaders and egged on by the village notables and priests, persisted. Cisling suggested that the matter be discussed in Cabinet. Shitrit requested that the villagers be granted citizenship (relieving them of the fear of deportation as illegal infiltrees), that the ‘Eilabun detainees be released and that the villagers be supplied with provisions. Within weeks, Shitrit was supported by General Carmel, who wrote that ‘in light of the arguments [about their mistreatment]’ and of the fact that the area was not earmarked for Jewish settlement, the inhabitants should be left in place ‘and accepted as citizens’. Within weeks, the inhabitants received citizenship and provisions, and the detainees were released. At the same time, Shitrit, as Minister of Police, persuaded Yadin, to initiate an investigation of the massacre. During the summer of 1949, the ‘Eilabun exiles in Lebanon who wished to return were allowed to do so, as part of an agreement between Palmon, head of the Arab Section of the Political Department of the Foreign Ministry, and Archbishop Hakim, concerning the return of several thousand Galilee Christians in exchange for that cleric’s future goodwill towards the Jewish State. Hundreds returned to ‘Eilabun.

The abortive attack on ‘Outpost 213’, bizarrely enough, triggered a second atrocity four days after the first massacre. On 2 November,vtwo squads of the 103rd Battalion were sent on a search operation to Khirbet Wa‘ra as Sauda, a village inhabited by the ‘Arab al Mawasi beduins, three kilometres east of the outpost. While one squad kept guard over the villagers, the other — led by Lt. Haim Hayun, veteran of the September assault — climbed up to the outpost, where it discovered ‘the bones of the soldiers lost in the previous action’. The bodies were ‘headless’. The troops then torched the village (and presumably expelled the inhabitants), taking with them to their HQ in Maghar 19 adult males. There, the prisoners were sorted out and 14 were determined to have ‘taken part in enemy activity against our army’. They were taken away and ‘liquidated’ (huslu). The remaining five were transferred to a POW camp.

‘Eilabun and ‘Arab al Mawasi were only two of the atrocities committed by the IDF during Hiram, which saw the biggest concentration of atrocities of the 1948 war. Some served to precipitate and enhance flight; some, as in ‘Eilabun, were part and parcel of an expulsion operation; but in other places, the population remained in situ and expulsion did not follow atrocities.

Details about most the atrocities remain sketchy; most of the relevant IDF and Israel Justice Ministry documentation — including the reports of various committees of inquiry — remain classified. But there is some accessible, civilian documentation — and a few military documents have escaped the censorial sieve. It emerges that the main massacres occurred in Saliha, Safsaf, Jish and the (Lebanese) village of Hule, between 30 October and 2 November. In the first three villages, Seventh Brigade troops were responsible. At Saliha it appears that troops blew up a house, possibly the village mosque, killing 60–94 persons who had been crowded into it. In Safsaf, troops shot and then dumped into a well 50–70 villagers and POWs. In Jish, the troops apparently murdered about 10 Moroccan POWs (who had served with the Syrian Army) and a number of civilians, including, apparently, four Maronite Christians, and a woman and her baby. In Hule, just west of the Galilee Panhandle, a company commander and a sergeant of the Carmeli Brigade’s 22nd Battalion shot some three dozen captured Lebanese soldiers and peasants and then demolished a house on top of them, killing all. Civilians appear to have been murdered in Sa‘saas well.

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