Samih Al-Qasim: Kafr Qasim (From Arabic)

The poem translated here deals with a massacre that was a particularly sad and enraging episode in Israeli history. See my note after the original text for more.

Kafr Qasim
By Samih Al-Qasim
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in Arabic

No monument raised, no memorial, and no rose.
Not one line of verse to ease the slain
Not one curtain, not one blood-stained
Shred of our blameless brothers clothes.
Not one stone to engrave their names.
Not one thing. Only the shame.

Their circling ghosts have still not ceased

Digging up graves in Kafr Qasim's debris. 

The Original:

كَفرْ قاسم

لا نُصْبَ... لا زهرة... لا تذكار
لا بيت شعر يؤنّس القتلى ولا أستار
لا خِرقة مخضوبة بالدم من قميص
كان على اخوتنا الأبرار
لا حجرٌ خُطّت به أسماؤهم
لا شيء ... يا للعار!

اشباحهم ما بَرَحَت تدور
تَنْبُشُ في انقاض كفر قاسم القبور

On Kafr Qasim:

On October 29, 1956, on the same day the Israelis launched their attack on Egypt, the Israeli border patrol was given special orders. With the impending war in mind, authorities announced a 5:00 curfew (as opposed to the normal evening-curfew) in Arab villages on the border, bolstered with a shoot-to-kill order. Although it was already late afternoon when the order was given and the chief of the village of Kafr Qasim begged the authorities to rescind it, the Israeli military bureaucracy waffled and was ultimately unwilling to inconvenience itself. The villagers working in the fields were too far off to receive word of the curfew in time, and when they returned home, Lt. Gabriel Dahan carried out his orders and had his platoon open fire, murdering 48 civilians, including 13 children (one of them an 8 year old boy) and one pregnant woman. All were Israeli citizens.

It would seem the only reason the massacre was limited to Kafr Qasim, and didn't spread to the other villages where the death-curfew was in effect, is that the local commanders there couldn't bring themselves to obey such an order. (Though some accounts suggest that the shoot-to-kill order was limited to Kafr Qasim, even so, of those stationed in Kafr Qasim itself, Dahan's was the only platoon that did any shooting.)

News of the massacre was initially suppressed (Israel didn't get around to passing anything resembling a free speech law until decades later) for two months by order of Ben-Gurion, so that when the media blackout was lifted and the whole story spilled, it was seen as "old news" by the public in much of the (non-Arab) world, and even if not, it wasn't enough to occupy a whole news cycle. Though a trial was eventually held, and several officers convicted, most were pardoned- and those who weren't ultimately had their sentences reduced to 5 years or less. Indeed, several were promoted. Lt. Dahan was even placed in charge of Arab Affairs in Ramla, as a hilarious little joke from Ben Gurion. har har (sob). Colonel Issachar Shadmi, who was nominally in charge of the area to which the curfew applied, was later tried and found guilty on a technicality, a common tactic to prevent the true source of an order (in this case Shadmi's superiors) from being subject to legal scrutiny, or even verified. Shadmi served no jail time, and was ultimately punished with a fine of precisely one cent.

The trial also resulted in an absurd legal precedent: the judges presiding came to the conclusion that members of the military are not entitled to disobey orders for reasons of moral conviction or out of a subjective belief that a given order was illegal, nor did they have any duty to examine the legality of an order before obeying it, only that soldiers could, and had to, disobey those orders that are plainly illegal, leaving open the question of how one could determine which orders were plainly illegal without stopping to examine their legality, or how a soldier in the field could base that determination on anything other than subjective belief. (Meanwhile, somewhere in the cosmos, the ghost of Adolf Eichmann was chuckling.)

The massacre, being a fine manifestation of the extraordinarily high regard in which Israel held its Arab citizenry, quickly gained notoriety, and became a symbol for dissidence and resistance. The Israeli military realized that outright massacres of civilians were bad PR, and that it now had to resort to more civilized forms of dehumanization, such as humiliating hour-long personal searches at checkpoints, random arrests without charge, imprisonment of children to put pressure on their parents etc.

It would take another 10 years before the martial law under which Israeli Arabs lived was finally abolished, as Israel's policy toward its Arab citizens (at least officially, though hardly culturally) gradually changed to reflect the fact that Arabs were human. And it took until 2007 before president Shimon Peres finally gave an open full-throated presidential apology for the massacre which one of his predecessors had tried to cover up.

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