Last month, Israeli President Isaac Herzog – whose position is ceremonial but nevertheless carries great prestige – visited the Israeli-Arab city of Kafr Qasem, northeast of Tel Aviv, to offer an official apology on Israel’s behalf.

He was apologizing for the massacre by Israeli border police Oct. 29, 1956, of 48 Israeli-Arab residents of what was then a village rather than a city. The massacre remains a traumatic scar on the psyche of Israel’s Arab community and particularly among the residents of Kafr Qasem, which today has a population of more than 20,000.

A medical school classmate of my younger daughter who grew up in Kafr Qasem spoke to me about the massacre’s lasting impact and about Herzog’s apology, which was delivered not only in Hebrew, but in Arabic. She asked not to be identified by name, and I will refer to her only as N.

In 1956, Kafr Qasem was a small village, N. noted. That meant that the massacre of nearly 50 of its residents took the lives of loved ones from a large proportion of the village’s families – including N.’s.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has produced many competing narratives regarding controversial events, and when it comes to the Kafr Qasem killings, there is disagreement about some of the details, but no one today would suggest the killings had any justification whatsoever.

The massacre took place against the backdrop of the Sinai Campaign, the war that Israel fought against Egypt that year, with the support of the British and French. Kafr Qasem was a sensitive location – in Israeli territory but just over the border from the West Bank, which was controlled by Jordan. Israeli officials were concerned that Jordan would join the war to support the Egyptians.

A curfew was announced for Kafr Qasem and then moved up by four hours, but villagers who were working their fields were not aware of the change. There is some dispute regarding the orders that Israeli security forces were given in enforcing the curfew, but many apparently believed they were to shoot to kill curfew violators, and they did.

N. told me movingly about how her grandfather’s brother took refuge from the gunfire in a wheel well for a spare tire on a police or army vehicle. He was discovered by a soldier and begged for his life, hugging the soldier, who in fact spared his life. N.’s great-uncle died in 2011. Many other survivors are also no longer alive to tell their stories, making it particularly important to perpetuate knowledge of what happened, N. told me.

Although some of those responsible were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, their sentences were later commuted. Ironically though, the Israeli judicial system was greatly strengthened in the long term by the incident due to a precedent-setting ruling by Judge Benjamin Halevy. He ruled that even if the security forces were ordered to shoot the villagers, they had an obligation to disobey “a clearly illegal order.” That is a standard that Israeli soldiers are obligated to follow to this day.

Any country that has been the scene of conflict, as Israel has been, has dark chapters that some people would prefer to cover up. But I as a Jewish Israeli think it’s a measure of a mature, confident society to own up to past mistakes, past injustices and even past atrocities.

It is therefore a welcome sign that in 2007, then-President Shimon Peres apologized for what Israeli forces had committed in Kafr Qasem and that his two successors, Reuven Rivlin and now Herzog, have also done so.


Cliff Savren is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.

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