A spreading stain on the 'purity of arms'

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- When Arye Biro, a tough paratroop commander nicknamed "the Prussian," described to a newspaper in cold detail his killing of Egyptian prisoners of war in 1956, Israel winced.

For a nation that believes its soldiers follow the rules of war so scrupulously they term their restraint a "purity of arms," the retired brigadier general's unapologetic admission earlier this month to shooting more than 50 unarmed prisoners was chilling.


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said this week that he thinks Israel ought to hold war crime trials of its soldiers who shot prisoners. Egypt has formally asked for an explanation of the incidents.

But more disturbing to many here was the controversy it has raised within Israel. The revelation has prompted a handful of other accounts of alleged atrocities by Israeli soldiers during its wars.


Those stories threaten to sully the public image of the military, perhaps the country's most revered institution. The attorney general, Michael Ben-Yair, is mulling over the possibility of prosecuting former soldiers, and Justice Minister David Labai has said he will appoint a high-level committee to deal with the issue.

At the center of the storm is a debate over why such incidents were not revealed before, and whether they should be revealed now.

"I would have preferred that nobody would have known anything. I would have preferred it be secret and all done behind closed doors," said Michael Bar-Zohar, a top spokesman for the army in the 1967 war and a former member of the parliament.

"We came to this country to live in a different society. Now all the sacred cows, the national symbols, are being systematically destroyed," he said. "If you destroy the symbols, you take away from Israel the uniqueness. You say we are exactly like any others. People will lose their faith in the country."

Mr. Bar-Zohar has contributed his own account to the recent revelations. He described witnessing two Israeli army cooks approach and stab to death three Egyptian soldiers being held prisoner behind barbed wire in the 1967 war.

But he hastens to add another anecdote. In the 1973 war, he was commander of a paratrooper unit that found the bodies of several bound Israeli soldiers murdered by Egyptians. His unit later captured about 15 Egyptian soldiers and herded them into a courtyard, planning to kill them, he said.

"We wanted to shoot them. We wanted revenge. But when the moment came to pull the triggers, nobody could. Finally, five minutes later, we were giving them water and cigarettes," he said.

The latter image is the one Israelis are accustomed to seeing. They are brought up on photos of Israeli soldiers treating their enemies humanely, said historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Ha'aretz.


"In the war albums, which molded and reflected the self-image of many Israelis, you only see soldiers offering prisoners water canteens or dressing their wounds," he said. "The phrase 'purity of arms' is a phrase many people believe in. But actually it is a lie that has done more damage than good.

"The war crimes that Israeli soldiers perpetrated do not prove that we are worse than others," he said. "They show we are no better."

The accounts are hard for Israelis to read. The newspaper Ma'ariv on Aug. 4 printed a long account of the actions of Mr. Biro's Battalion 890, which parachuted into the Sinai Desert far behind enemy lines in the 1956 Suez War.

The former commander bluntly acknowledged in the interview that his unit quickly captured 49 "scared, broken, exhausted" civilian Egyptian quarry workers, tied their hands, and shot them all. His unit had no ability to handle prisoners, he said: "They were a thorn in the rear."

He confirmed other incidents. When his men captured three Egyptian soldiers, "my intelligence officer tried to get them to talk. But they repeated again and again, 'Water, water, water,' " recalled Mr. Biro, now 67.

"I got tired of all this nonsense. I took my water canteen, opened it, and poured the contents on the ground slowly, slowly in front of the Egyptian officer's face. . . . One broke down and talked. I closed the canteen, put it back in my belt, pulled my gun out and gave each of the three a bullet in the head."


In the three weeks since the interview, others have come forward with stories. A military historian, Arye Yitzhaki, said Israeli soldiers killed 1,000 Egyptian POWs in the 1967 war. Another historian, retired Col. Moshe Givati, disclosed five incidents of alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers in the 1948 war.

A former war correspondent, Gabi Brun, said he saw five Egyptians forced to dig their own graves before they were shot in 1967. Another journalist, Zvi Zipper, wrote of Israeli troops rampaging through an Arab village in 1948.

"I think this is typical of most armies at war. It gets so much play because Israel has always maintained this pure image, this 'purity of arms,' " said historian Benny Morris.

Mr. Morris is the most prominent of what are called "new historians" re-examining the way Israeli history has been told. His first book in 1988 created an uproar when he documented how Israeli forces often brutally drove Arabs out of their villages before and during the 1948 war of independence. Israeli history books had taught that the Palestinians fled voluntarily, exhorted by Arab radio broadcasts assuring them that the Israelis would be quickly finished off.

Mr. Morris said Israel's image of its military has been sanitized from its earliest days. The young nation clung to a noble image.

That image is sustained with stories of Arab atrocities against Israelis beginning with the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and against Jews in Palestine before that.


Yesterday, Mr. Yitzhaki said that since President Mubarak's call for war crimes trials, he has now written to the Egyptian leader documenting 10 incidents in which Egyptian soldiers killed 80 Israeli captives in 1973.

At the same time, a weekly magazine, Yerushalaim, yesterday published the account of David Abudaram, an Israeli veteran who said eight of his comrades were bayoneted to death by Egyptians as they tried to surrender in 1973.

But tales of Arab atrocities are not new or startling to Israelis. It is the notion that their own people could have behaved this way that arouses such heated debate.

"Zionists have always maintained, more than any other people, that they are better than their enemies. In a sense, it's one of the things that gave Zionism its strength," Mr. Morris said.

He said accounts of undue violence by Israeli troops were known by many soldiers, but rarely published. The Israeli military censor strictly prohibited publication of such details, but court rulings 11 have recently eased that censorship, he said. That and the gradual opening of historical archives are bringing the stories to light now, he said.

This process "is a state committing suicide," argues Yoav Gilber, a professor of history at Haifa University. He contends that "this isn't new. Inside the army the stories have been circulating" for years. Publication of them now is only damaging, "political propaganda," he said. "It may seriously hamper the future of Israeli POWs in future wars."


Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a commander in the wars of 1948 and 1956 and army chief of staff in the 1967 war, agrees that these stories are harmful.

"I am not saying there were no aberrations. There were aberrations on both sides," he said last week. "There is no purpose in raising events of the past, not on our side and not on theirs."

Indeed, current leaders -- Arab and Israeli -- seem anxious to leave this debate to the historians. Like Mr. Rabin, many Israeli leaders are former commanders in early wars who could bear ultimate responsibility for violations by their troops.

Even Mr. Mubarak, in suggesting that Israel hold war trials, quickly added that "we do not want a problem between the two countries." The only problem, groused Mohammed Bassiouny, the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, "is an Israeli officer going to the media and saying he killed 49. This is the problem."

Attorney General Ben-Yair will determine if a case can be brought if the crimes are defined as "genocide." But an aide to the attorney general acknowledged the old cases "appear to be not prosecutable."

"Israel has always been obsessed with the past," said Professor Moshe Lissak, a sociologist at Hebrew University and expert on military and civilian relations. "But I think the general reaction is that we have to turn the page."