Kafr Qasim, 1956

Kafr Qasim, 1956
Israel’s Army Massacres Its Own Peaceful Citizens

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Kafr Qasim Memorial

Kafr Qasim 1956 massacre commemorative memorial.

Institute for Palestine Studies, Photograph Collection

The Kafr Qasim massacre differs from other massacres that Israel committed against the Palestinian people since 1948: the scene of the crime was a Palestinian village within the state’s territory, and the victims were peaceful civilians who were also Israeli citizens. The massacre occurred the day the Tripartite Aggression was launched against Egypt , but the site of the incident was quite far from the battlefront in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula . Border policemen massacred villagers on orders from Israeli military commanders, who imposed a sudden curfew on residents – including people returning home from work, who could not have known the ban had already gone into effect. This article highlights the most important facts of the massacre, as well as its political and legal ramifications on Palestinian citizens of Israel. It also describes the significance of this event in Palestinian memory and consciousness.   

Kafr Qasim lies in the southern portion of the land that Jordan surrendered to Israel in the wake of the armistice agreement signed in Rhodes in April 1949. Referred to as the “Little Triangle,” the area spreads from Kafr Qasim in the south all the way to Umm al-Fahm and its sister villages in the north. Israel’s Palestinian citizens (whose population numbered 160,000) were subjected to military rule and suffered a range of restrictions, including repeated pressures to leave their homeland. A number of Israeli leaders were waiting for an opportunity (for instance, a new round of war with Arab states) to trigger a mass exodus. The 1956 massacre — which was perpetrated during the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt — was deliberate, planned at the highest levels, and aimed at terrorizing the population of the southern triangle so that they would flee. However, this goal was not achieved; residents did not leave.

On Monday, 29 October 1956,the Israeli government and military decided to impose a curfew on the Arab villages near the border with Jordan. At 4:30 p.m. that day, a border police sergeant informed the mayor of the village of Kafr Qasim that a curfew would be imposed starting at 5 p.m. that evening. Hundreds of villagers who had left home in the morning to go to work had no way of knowing about the curfew until they returned home. The soldiers tasked with carrying out the order in Kafr Qasim were informed that they “should shoot to kill at any person seen outside their home after 17:00, making no distinction between men, women, children and those returning from outside the village.” When villagers returned to their homes after 5 p.m., border police stopped them on the western side of the village. Soldiers made them get out of their vehicles and cars, or off their bicycles, and began shooting at them at close range. They killed forty-nine residents of Kafr Qasim (including children) in cold blood in just one hour.

When the Israeli government and military command learned that such a huge number of villagers had been killed, including men, women, and children, they used a variety of tactics to attempt to cover up the horrific massacre. But slowly, news spread that a massacre had been carried out by soldiers in their military uniforms and under clear orders from the high military command to fire on citizens returning home. Journalists, activists, communist members of the Knesset , and others went to the village (despite the presence of military checkpoints) to investigate and inform the public. This forced the Israeli government to bring the perpetrators to court. However, instead of bringing the high command to trial, the soldiers in the field were put on trial and given light sentences only.

Nevertheless, both the trial and verdicts were milestones in the history of Palestinians’ political and legal status in Israel. During the eight years between the end of the and the Kafr Qasim massacre, Israeli security forces had killed dozens of Palestinian citizens every year, and none of the killers were brought to court or faced consequences for their criminal acts. The trial and imprisonment of the perpetrators of the Kafr Qasim massacre created a legal precedent. It sent a message that killers could pay a price for their actions; the argument that they were merely carrying out orders would not protect them from consequences.

But consequences for Israelis remained minimal. The massacre did not change the government hostile policy targeting the Palestinian minority in Israel, nor did it lead to an easing of Israel’s repressive policies. By 1960, all the soldiers had been released from prison after their sentences were reduced or they had received pardons. Members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, expressed solidarity with the killers, and “compensated them” for their time in prison by giving them official appointments, including to positions of responsibility over Arab citizens in the city of Lydda and elsewhere. The sentence given to Colonel Yishkhar Shadmi – the highest-ranking officer, and the one responsible for ordering a strict curfew punishable by shooting violators after 5 p.m. – is a mockery of justice, and a clear example of Israel’s disregard for the lives of Palestinian citizens. He was given a reprimand and paid a fine of a single pruta (a thousandth of the Israeli pound before 1960).

For Palestinians, the murder of dozens of innocent people in Kafr Qasim stirred memories of Deir Yasin and other massacres that were carried out during the ethnic cleansing in the year of the Nakba . In the eyes of some it was worse than the massacres perpetrated in 1948, because it was carried out by state actors (border police) against citizens, under military orders they received from their commanders, in an area in which no hostilities were taking place.

The Kafr Qasim massacre became an important element in rebuilding the collective identity of Palestinians in Israel. When the details of the crime were exposed, members of the Communist Party intensified their opposition to the government and its domestic and foreign policies. Al-Ittihad newspaper took an unequivocal stance in a front-page headline, in which it called for “the need to stop national oppression and aggression against peaceful Arab residents.” The consequences of the Kafr Qasim massacre were intertwined with the political fallout of the Tripartite Aggression, which was to Israel’s detriment. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ’s star was rising in the Arab world. He had significant support from Palestinians, particularly among those who remained in Israel. Communists and nationalists grew closer as a result of the massacre and began to work together, leading to the establishment of an Arab front to resist Israeli policies, and bustling demonstrations on 1 May 1958 in Nazareth , Umm al-Fahm, and elsewhere.

In Kafr Qasim itself, villagers were forced to accept an undignified “sulha” (a traditional reconciliation ceremony) imposed on them by the government and military in November 1957. They only succeeded in thwarting the authorities’ attempt to bring the accused murderers to the sulha ceremony. In the early days of military rule, people were afraid of establishing a popular, political commemoration of the massacre. In the years shortly afterward, remembrances were small in scope. In 1976, the Land Day massive mobilization changed the political climate; a memorial was erected in the village that year and repeated thereafter.

The anniversary of the Kafr Qasim massacre, and later the celebration of Land Day, became two of the most important markers of collective and national identity for Palestinians in Israel. The first became a symbol of perseverance and survival in the face of policies of intimidation in the 1950s, and Land Day has become an intifada against policies of land grabbing and constant repression of Palestinians who remain in the country. In recent decades, residents of Kafr Qasim established a museum to preserve the massacre in Palestinian memory. They have also worked to commemorate the event in partnership with activists and political leaders. In 2016, for example, there was a large demonstration in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre, including marches led by many Palestinian members of the Knesset and leaders of local government.

Selected Bibliography: 

Halaby, Samia. Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre. Amsterdam: Schilt, 2016.

Jiryis, Sabri. The Arabs in Israel. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1968; also New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

Manna‘, ‘Adel. “The Massacre of Kufr Qassem.” In Nadim Rouhana and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, eds., The Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics and Society. Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, 2011.

“Military Tribunal MD/57/3, the Military Advocate v. Major Shmuel Malinki and 10 Others.” In Decisions of the Central Court 17, 90 (Hebrew).

Robinson, Shira. “Local Struggle, National Struggle: Palestinian Responses to the Kafr Qasim Massacre and Its Aftermath, 195666.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no.3 (2003): 393416.