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Israel Shaken By Accounts Of Its Army’s Atrocities War Crimes Had Been Kept Secret For Years

A soldier kills a prisoner after forcing him to dig his own grave. Two army cooks stab to death three captives. A commander orders his men to shoot at close range two enemy soldiers whose hands are up.

Asked who might be capable of such war crimes, just about everyone in Israel would have pointed to a foreign army - until this month, when accounts surfaced of the killings of Arab prisoners and civilians by Israeli soldiers in at least three Middle East wars.

The dimensions of any atrocities remain unclear. But the disclosures so far have shaken this country of citizen-soldiers who are raised in the belief that they hold the high moral ground on the battlefield with the Arabs.

Painful questions have emerged: Why were the atrocities kept secret for so long? How much did Israel’s leaders know? Why were war criminals not punished? Should and could they be prosecuted now?

Some warn the soul-searching will undermine national morale; former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of an “act of national suicide.” Others say the peace process requires Israel to a more honest look at its past.

Egypt, the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, has demanded an accounting of Egyptian POWs killed while in Israeli hands. Israel’s army is preparing a report for Cairo to prevent a further strain in relations.

“We always had this fear that we weren’t really strong and that we mustn’t talk about our weaknesses. But now Israel is more sure of itself, more mature,” said historian Benny Morris.

The army itself - which has remained silent in the controversy - set in motion the disclosures when it opened its archives to researchers some two years ago, Morris said.

One outcome was a book about the 1956 Mideast war, including descriptions of prisoner killings. News of the book led retired Gen. Arye Biro to admit this month that he killed 49 Egyptian captives in the Sinai Desert.

Several veterans then said they witnessed killings of prisoners by Israeli soldiers in 1956 and 1967.

Another book by a former colonel and published by the Defense Ministry said soldiers executed dozens of Palestinian civilians in 1948. One historian said that in 1967 alone, some 1,000 Egyptians were shot dead after surrender.

More disclosures are likely. Biro has threatened to name accomplices if he is made a scapegoat, and others may level charges to settle political scores.

Morris said the stage was set for such killings in the 1948 war, in which no Israeli soldier was punished for war crimes because then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion felt it would weaken the army’s fighting spirit.

Michael Bar-Zohar, a former legislator who served as spokesman for then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan after the 1967 war, recalled that his boss only grudgingly addressed the issue.

Israel’s military censor also silenced any attempt to report the prisoner killings, said Israeli journalist Uri Avneri. He said his last unsuccessful attempt to do so was in 1990.

Military historian Meir Pail said the army preferred to deal with the matter internally and that he knew of three or four soldiers who went to prison for war crimes.

One reason for secrecy was the fear that reports of Israeli atrocities would provide a pretext for enemy troops to kill Israeli captives. But some Israelis said the mutual hatred was so great no pretext was needed.

The attorney general has said he would check whether he can prosecute. However, Israel has no war crimes law and murder charges can only be filed for up to 20 years after a killing.

Author Zeev Hefetz, a former government spokesman, said Israel might open itself up to criticism if it didn’t prosecute.

“We have a problem because we have been militantly and correctly demanding justice for Nazi war criminals. It’s a little bit late to argue now that it was 40 years ago, let’s forget it,” Hefetz said.