Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2007
Issue No. 835
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Forever guilty

Claims of an Israeli "massacre" of Egyptian POWs might temporarily complicate Egyptian-Israeli relations, reports Dina Ezzat, but they will not seriously undermine them

Some 30 years after President Anwar El-Sadat famously visited Israel -- not only in pursuit of peace but to break down "the psychological wall" separating Egyptians and Israelis -- it seems that wall is still in place. Ten years before, Egyptians and other Arabs were humiliated by defeat in a six-day war that allowed the occupation of Arab territory including East Jerusalem; and accounts of Israeli brutalities against Egyptians (in 1967 as in other wars) have, since Sadat's visit, maintained the barrier even despite peace, which Israeli officials frequently describe as cold and primarily governmental.

The comments of Anwar Ali, a repairman at a downtown car mechanic's, are a case in point: "They wanted to have peace with Egypt because they realised no Arab country can go to war [to liberate the occupied territories] without Egypt; the reality is that they want everyone to give in to them -- that's not peace." Ali is adamant that "Egypt would be making a big mistake if it does not seek revenge" for the 1967 killings of Egyptian soldiers by an army unit under the command of the present National Infrastructure Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is said to have directly ordered the killings: "Those men died while defending our lives and we must avenge their death for our own sake."

Nor are such sentiments uncalled for: since Israeli TV aired a documentary alluding to the possible involvement of a unit named Spirit of Shaked in the killing of some 250 Egyptian POWs in the Gaza Strip in 1967, diplomatic ties have been tense. In the wake of a joint meeting of the Arab and foreign affairs and human rights committees at the behest of Assembly Speaker Fathi Surour, MPs demanded the severing of diplomatic relations, condemning the killings as a war crime.

Ben-Eliezer had to postpone a visit to Cairo to discuss oil and gas cooperation with Minister of Energy Sameh Fahmi; he issued a statement denying the killing of any POWs under his command. The unit, he said, had killed "a battalion of Palestinian fidayeen operating from the Gaza Strip", and told Al-Ahram he had legal proof of this account. Yet he was evasive in answer to whether he had targeted Egyptians: "I'm talking about this particular event, the 250. There were no Egyptians in this area."

Neither MPs nor press were convinced. Writing in the daily Al-Akhbar, columnist Galal Dwidar captured the spirit of Egyptians: "It is perfectly legitimate for Egypt's government to heed the request of parliament and pursue legal procedures against the criminals involved... Peace does not mean turning a blind eye to war crimes." And NGOs are joining in the fray. Yesterday the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) declared plans to bring up the issue with international humanitarian bodies. In a press statement ECFA said that it would bring the issue to the attention of the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council.

For its part, the Foreign Ministry summoned Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen on Sunday to express "deep dismay", and demanded "immediate clarification" on the part of Israelis. On Tuesday, on the fringe of a visit to the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit urged his Israeli counterpart to investigate the matter. Yet Cohen has proven defiant. "There will be no investigation. There is nothing to investigate," he said yesterday. Speaking to reporters after a meeting at the Foreign Ministry, he insisted, "Not a single captured [Egyptian] soldier was killed in Gaza." Relevant documents had been submitted to the ministry, he said, and more material was on its way: "I felt my words fell on good ears. I am confident that we are both committed to resuming our good relations."

On the last such occasion, when Israeli researchers unearthed indications that Ben-Eliezer claimed the lives of 300 Egyptians in 1967, and Sharon 900 in 1956, the Egyptian authorities accepted the Israeli explanations and the file was closed. Whether this will happen again now is an open question, and sources indicate that the decision can only be made by "much higher authorities" than the foreign minister. "This is a very serious decision with many political and military repercussions to be considered if Egypt decided that it had enough evidence for the involvement of Israeli officials and generals in war crimes and that it would pursue the arrest and trial of those involved," one commented on condition of anonymity. In the mid-1990s, he said, the decision was to "put the file on the backburner"; the same might happen again for the same reason: "the difficulty of compiling evidence, political and military consequences of prosecution."

Yet according to international law professor Salaheddin Amer, it should not be too difficult for the Egyptian authorities to compile the necessary evidence considering the testimonies of Israeli soldiers and Egyptian witnesses directly involved: "From a strictly legal point of view, it makes no difference to the criminality of the elimination of POWs whether they were Egyptians or Palestinians working under the Egyptian command." Amer envisages four prosecution scenarios: presenting the Israeli authorities with the evidence and demanding the arrest and trial of the accused in Israel; enabling the Egyptian authorities to arrest and try the accused; Israelis and Egyptians undertaking a trial together; or the Egyptian authorities obtaining a UN Security Council resolution to establish a war crimes tribunal for the purpose.

"Obviously," he added, "this is a political and not just legal decision. And while individuals may want to freely express their views the government might have to take other matters into consideration." In the meantime, concerned individuals and NGOs might sue the Egyptian government and demand compensation or legal action. Whatever the case may be, this is the last in a sequence of diplomatic tensions recently compounded by Israel's arbitrary and aggressive practices against Palestinians under occupation.

Yesterday the web site of the Israeli prime minister's office urged Israeli citizens in Egypt and Jordan to immediately evacuate both countries, where anti-Israeli sentiment could jeopardise their security. "I think one day, maybe when Arab-Israeli peace is closer, Israel will have to come clean."

Additional reporting by Gamal Essam El-Din in Cairo and Ashraf Abul-Houl in the occupied territories

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