Though Israeli media has been abuzz with the story of the mass burial of dozens of Egyptian commandoes who had been on a joint combat mission with a detachment from the Jordanian Legion in the 1967 War, the issue was first revealed in the 2007 Israeli documentary The Spirit of Shaked which at the time stirred an outcry in Egypt over the murder of Egyptian POWs.
The final resting place of the Egyptians who went missing remains unknown. It is believed most were buried in Sinai, and the remains of some were discovered during the recent expansion of the Suez Canal. But finding and identifying the bodies of the remaining soldiers has proved difficult.
In 2007, when the Egyptian Foreign Ministry requested its Israeli counterpart launch an investigation, the request fell on deaf ears. But when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi raised the issue recently, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid pledged to conduct a transparent investigation, and in a telephone exchange with the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israeli security agencies would search for the site where around 80 Egyptian commandos are reported to have been buried.
Whatever the accuracy or otherwise of the information that has appeared in the Israeli press, one pertinent question is why the issue is being raised now.
Some observers of Israeli affairs in Cairo question the timing of the resurrection of the story and its potential political implications. Heightened tensions in Israel, which faces the prospect of yet another election, provide a perfect environment for sensationalist stories of this sort and it is no secret that some Israeli parties object to the current mode of Egyptian-Israeli security coordination, believing Egypt is not sufficiently on board with proposed regional security projects that seek to bring Israel together with some Arab states against Iran.
In contrast to the observers who believe that news of a mass grave has political motives are those who argue that we are witnessing a new chapter in the older story brought up briefly in The Spirit of Shaked, lent impetus by the release of previously classified information.
Former deputy director of the General Intelligence Service Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, an expert on Israeli affairs, is inclined to this view. He points out that in the 1990s the military censor banned a story in Yedioth Ahronoth based on an interview with Dan Meir, a member of the Kibbutz Nahshon, who wanted to reveal information on the grave. The ban no longer existed when a retired Israel commander from the same kibbutz, Ze’ev Bloch, a former commando, decided to publish his memoirs.
From what has been made available, it seems clear that Bloch speaks from an Israeli military perspective. He relates how the Egyptian commando force had planned to capture military targets, including an airbase at Lod, but had been provided with outdated maps. Some of the events described in Bloch’s memoirs were witnessed by Guy Khoury, a monk from the nearby Latrun monastery.
Much of the confusion and disorganisation Bloch describes can be traced to the fact the Egyptian army was still bogged down in the Yemeni civil war of 1960s. Whatever the case, Major General Mohamed Qashqoush, a professor of national security at the Nasser Military Academy and first military attaché to Yemen, believes that now that these narratives have been made public, Egypt finally has an opportunity to refute them. He notes that Major General Galal Haridi, the commander of one of the two commando groups involved, is still alive and might have information or an alternative narrative.
“The killing isn’t the problem. This was war and soldiers are killed in war,” said Qashqoush. “The problem comes from Israeli attempts to generalise. There are conventions, under the auspices of the Red Cross, that are followed in such cases. They apply to the handling of remains or to marking grave sites. For example, there’s a memorial plaque in Beersheba for a similar case.”
Jack Khouri of Ha’aretz believes that, while some ambiguity surrounds the matter, the Israelis motives might have a humanitarian dimension. He related details he learned from the Israeli historian Adam Raz who discovered six months ago that members of the Nahshon kibbutz were keen to bring to light information on the mass grave. Raz set about gathering an array of documents and information on the subject from Israeli military intelligence and produced the investigatory story for Ha’aretz. With the details now available, Khouri believes the Israeli military still wants the narrative to be tidy enough not to invite speculation and that the Egyptians want the same thing — a clear narrative.
Retired Major General Mokhtar Al-Far, a founder of the Egyptian commando regiment which took part in the operation, relates how Egyptian units, which had entered the battle from Jordan, managed to reach a number of towns between Jenin and occupied Jerusalem. He said that a contingent of around 90 fighters, under the command of Captain Midhat Al-Rayes, was tasked with seizing airports used as bases for aerial attacks against the Arab military bases in Jordan. However, the unit suddenly found itself up against an Israeli armoured division which was on its way to the West Bank. About a third of the Egyptian force was killed in the confrontation.
The commander ordered his unit to gather the wounded and withdraw to the nearby hills to regroup. Israeli force surrounded the unit, however, and opened fire against the wounded, and then drove over their bodies with tanks. There were also clashes between the two sides in which “we killed about as many Israelis as they killed on our side,” Al-Far adds. The Egyptian forces, led by Ahmed Helmi and Galal Haridi, remained in the occupied territory until around 21 June when they received instructions to withdraw.
When the story first broke in 2007, former Israeli defence minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, who was close to late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, tried to defend his position as the commander of the Shaked unit which carried out the operation. From his account it appears that the unit, which was founded by Ariel Sharon in the 1950s, was akin to a separate militia rather than an integrated part of the army. It functioned in a maverick way, and some Israeli officials felt its behaviour was damaging to Israel. It is important to bear this information in mind when considering the testimony that appeared in Ha’aretz.
One might conclude that the army to which the unit belonged is trying to avoid responsibility for what happened, or to make it appear as though a separate agency was responsible. This is not to deny that there are moral and humanitarian aspects to the participants’ revelations or that the Israelis do not appreciate the significance and value of the remains of dead soldiers. But the more important aspect is that the narratives are a reaction on the part of the members of the Nahshon Kibbutz against the censure they received from Israeli military authorities. We are watching a battle of Israeli narratives unfold. As for the investigation, whereas in the past it led nowhere, this time may be different.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.