On this date in 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats assailed the USS Liberty, an allied American communications (read: espionage) vessel — not an execution by any stretch, but perhaps occasioned by other executions?
On a sunlit afternoon in the Mediterranean the Liberty, about 13 miles off the coast of Gaza which Israel was then engaged in prying from Egypt’s hands, sunbathing American seamen found themselves suddenly being bombed by Israeli planes, and even found their lifeboats strafed by those same planes — clearly intent upon sinking the Liberty with no survivors. A torpedo hit amidships ripped open the ship at the waterline.
The Liberty was the only large ship anywhere in the vicinity and recordings of the Israeli fighter pilots’ communications with their control tower confirm that her prominent U.S. markings were observed by her assailants.
Only by dint of some heroic and lucky jury-rigging was the ship’s communications tower coaxed to send out a life-saving SOS to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, maneuvering hundreds of miles distant. In all, 34 Americans lost their lives in what Wikipedia delicately calls the USS Liberty Incident; another 170-plus were injured, while the Liberty herself limped back to Malta for repairs. She’d be decommissioned in 1968.
This shock bloodbath between two countries who have proven firm and ever firmer allies in the half-century since has long been shrouded in mystery and speculation.
Sure, maybe the U.S. prized its statecraft enough to wave the whole thing off as an accident. But what compelling motivation drove Israel to attack the Liberty — at the risk of jeopardizing its relationship its superpower partner?
Many far wiser than a humble headsman have had a go at this question. In his history of the National Security Agency, Body of Secrets, James Bamford suggests that the Liberty‘s offense in Israeli eyes resided in its proximity to a number of war crimes that she would be able to document — including mass executions of Egyptian POWs at the north Sinai town of El Arish in the aftermath of a nearby battle.
Although no one on the ship knew it at the time, the Liberty had suddenly trespassed into a private horror. At that very moment, near the minaret at El Arish, Israeli forces were engaged in a criminal slaughter.
By June 8, three days after Israel launched the war, Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai had become nuisances. There was no place to house them, not enough Israelis to watch them, and few vehicles to transport them to prison camps. But there was another way to deal with them.
As the Liberty sat within eyeshot of El Arish, eavesdropping on surrounding communications, Israeli soldiers turned the town into a slaughterhouse, systematically butchering their prisoners. In the shadow of the El Arish mosque, they lined up about sixty unarmed Egyptian prisoners, hands tied behind their backs, and then opened fire with machine guns until the pale desert sand turned red. Then they forced other prisoners to bury the victims in mass graves. “I saw a line of prisoners, civilians and military,” said Abdelsalam Moussa, one of those who dug the graves, “and they opened fire at them all at once. When they were dead, they told us to buiy them.” Nearby, another group of Israelis gunned down thirty more prisoners and then ordered some Bedouins to cover them with sand.
In still another incident at El Arish, the Israeli journalist Gabi Bron saw about 150 Egyptian POWs sitting on the ground, crowded together with their hands held at the backs of their necks. “The Egyptian prisoners of war were ordered to dig pits and then army police shot them to death,” Bron said. “I witnessed the executions with my own eyes on the morning of June eighth, in the airport area of El Arish.”
The Israeli military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki, who worked in the army’s history department after the war, said he and other officers collected testimony from dozens of soldiers who admitted killing POWs. According to Yitzhaki, Israeli troops killed, in cold blood, as many as 1,000 Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai, including some 400 in the sand dunes of El Arish.
Above interpretation suffices as a hook for this here executions blog but its explanatory force feels far less than sufficient.
The facts alleged here against Israel have been contested; one of the sources quoted above, Gabi Bron, has said that only five (not 150) prisoners were executed at El-Arish, and that the dead there were overwhelmingly legitimate battle casualties. But let an intentional massacre number not merely hundreds but thousands upon millions and still we would sit very far from dampening the ardor for any policy that has been decided in Washington or Langley. Surely it is unnecessary to dwell upon what these same statesmen were simultaneously doing in Southeast Asia.
Where that leaves the matter is a still-going debate. Was it a false flag attack meant to be laid to Israel’s Arab enemies? Did the spy ship need to be blinded to hide Israel’s forthcoming (June 9-10) incursion into the Golan Heights? Do war atrocities reveal more than this writer supposes? Or are we really to take seriously the thought-it-was-an-Egyptian-ship official line?
A few books about the U.S.S. Liberty
On this day..
- 1627: Catlyn Fiermoing, village witch - 2019
- 1639: The Duke of Valette, in effigy - 2018
- 1658: John Hewett and Henry Slingsby, royalists - 2017
- 1743: John Breads, Rye killer - 2016
- 1953: Istvan Sandor, underground Catholic - 2015
- 1989: Stefan Svitek, the last in Czechoslovakia - 2014
- 1866: Anton Probst, "I only wanted the money" - 2013
- 1693: Elizabeth Emerson - 2012
- 1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip's War - 2011
- 1896: Bill Gay, prospector - 2010
- 1405: Richard le Scrope and Thomas de Mowbray, without color of law - 2009
- 1934: Three inept murderers (with a fourth to come) - 2008