MIDDLE EAST: The controversy involves some of Israel's top politicians, including the prime minister.
By Karin Laub
The Associated Press
JERUSALEM -- Israeli soldiers killed hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war during the 1967 Mideast war--deaths that commanders who are now prominent leaders have known about for years, historians said Wednesday.
One veteran described on national radio how two army cooks fatally stabbed three Egyptian prisoners.
The controversy involves some of Israel's top politicians, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and right-wing legislator Rafael Eitan, a former army chief.
The allegations dominated news shows Wednesday, shocking many Israelis who have long-prized the notion that their army maintained high ethical standards--known here as "purity of arms"--throughout decades of warfare with the Arab world and military rule over Palestinians.
The affair also strained relations with Egypt, which demanded an investigation after a retired Israeli general, Arye Biro, admitted earlier this month that he killed dozens of Egyptian prisoners in the 1956 Mideast war. Biro defended his actions Wednesday, saying he had no other option.
The army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, declined to comment.
Rabin, who was chief of staff when some of the 1967 killings allegedly were committed, walked away Wednesday when a reporter shouted a related question. Rabin's office later issued a statement denouncing the killings and calling them isolated incidents.
"The Israeli Defense Forces earned their glory as a humane army whose soldiers are blessed with special moral values," the statement said.
On Wednesday, a war veteran and author, Michael Bar-Zohar, said he witnessed how three Egyptian POWs were stabbed to death in the Sinai in 1967, but kept quiet about the killings because he feared Arab troops would retaliate.
"This incident has haunted me for a long time," Bar-Zohar said.
Bar-He later told Israel TV such killings occurred "in all of Israel's wars" and that the incidents "were treated forgivingly" by leaders.
Military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Israeli troops carried out several mass killings in 1967 in which about 1,000 Egyptian prisoners were killed in the Sinai.
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.
On June 9-10, 1967, about 400 Egyptian and Palestinian prisoners were killed in the sand dunes of El Arish, Yitzhaki said. He said it began when some of the prisoners opened fire after surrendering and fatally shot two Israeli soldiers.
He said Israeli soldiers "became angry and fired at every Egyptian and Palestinian ... for several hours," Yitzhaki said. "Commanders lost control over the force."
Yitzhaki said there were six or seven other incidents in which Israeli troops opened fired on POWs, usually after "provocations.
Yitzhaki said a report on the killings submitted to his superiors has been locked away in a safe at military headquarters.
"The whole army leadership, including (then) Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Rabin and the generals knew about these things. No one bothered to denounce them, Yitzhaki said.
Yitzhaki said some of the Soldiers involved in the killings were under the command of Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, now housing minister. Ben-Eliezer's spokeswoman, Ofra Preuss, said the minister "does not know anything" about such killings.
Another Israeli historian, Uri Milstein, said there were many incidents in the 1967 war in which Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli troops after they had raised hands in surrender.
"It was not an official policy, but there was an atmosphere that it was OK to do it," said Milstein, a member of the New York Academy of Sciences. "Some commanders decided to do it, others refused. But everyone knew about it."
Military historian Meir Pail, a former Knesset member, maintained that the army worked quietly to educate soldiers and discourage atrocities.
Pail said the army did punish those involved in killing POWs or civilians and said he knew of soldiers who went to prison for such offenses. The offenders were sentenced secretly by military courts and the military censor barred publication of such cases until recently, he said.
"The idea was that it is better to deal with this in the closed circle of the military," said Pail, a colonel in the army reserves and battalion commander in the 1956 war.
He cited as an example the 1956 killings carried out by Biro, who served in a battalion commanded by Eitan, today head of the opposition far-right Tzomet Party.
Pail said that after the 1956 war, then-Chief of Staff Dayan called together battalion commanders. "Dayan reprimanded Eitan, not Biro, for killing prisoners," said Pail, who attended the meeting.
Biro, 69, whose admissions earlier this month set off public debate on the POW killings, de fended his actions at a news conference Wednesday.