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
For Palestinians, the murder of dozens of innocent people in Kafr Qasim stirred memories of
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
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
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.
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, 1956–66.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no.3 (2003): 393–416.