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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 15th, 2007 - 00:29:14

POWs issue can threaten Egypt-Israel ties
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 15, 2007, 01:11

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A documentary produced by Israeli filmmaker Ron Edelist alleging that 250 Egyptian prisoners of war were massacred by Israeli commandos during the 1967 War has infuriated every level of Egyptian society.

Some Egyptian lawmakers are so incensed they are calling for an end to the Camp David Accords. Anwar Esmat Sadat, a nephew of the former Egyptian president. wants a freeze on exports to Israel and an end to the Israel-Egyptian �QIZ� (Qualifying Industrial Zones) agreement.

Other parliamentarians want Israel hauled before the International Criminal Court and Egyptians who do business with Israel put on a blacklist.

Many ordinary people are infuriated by comments made by Egypt�s Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gaith, during a BBC interview, to the effect his country has no intention of dismantling Camp David over the contretemps.

The Egyptian government cancelled its intelligence chief�s proposed meeting with the Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, alleged to have been involved in the massacre. It also summoned the Israeli ambassador to make an official request for a copy of the film and asked that Israel launch an investigation.

In fact, Israel is backpedaling as hard as it can. Ben Eliezer claims his commando unit had, indeed, killed members of a battalion that �had paralysed southern Israel� but these, he says, were Palestinians fighters and not unarmed Egyptian prisoners of war.

In recent days, Ron Edelist has changed his tune. He now says he has seen documents backing up Ben Eliezer�s contention that the targeted unit was made up of Palestinians fighting under the auspices of the Egyptian military.

One might wonder at Edelist�s careless approach to documentary filmmaking. It�s strange that he didn�t take the time to check the nationality of the victims before launching his film.

Or did he and has now been �persuaded� to change his mind? After all, Israel is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and has escaped serious international censure, so what difference does another 250 make?

But Edelist�s documentary isn�t the only one out there highlighting Israeli crimes. Floating in cyberspace is a short film by Daryl Bradford Smith called Prisoners� Massacre.

Bradford Smith alleges that on June 8, 1967, �Israeli troops butchered 1,000 plus Egyptian prisoners of war.

James Ennes, a former US officer aboard the American ship, USS Liberty, bombed by the Israeli Air Force, had this to say: �The Israelis had captured several hundred, perhaps as many as 1,000, Egyptian prisoners of war being held near the town of Al Arish. We passed 12 miles off the coast of Al Arish, I think around 10 o�clock that morning, and little did we know that they were lining up prisoners requiring them to dig their own graves in the desert sand. And then they would jump in and the Israelis would machine gun them . . .

�It�s funny that some Israelis claim that never happened. They say if it happened it would have been in all the newspapers. Well, it was in all the newspapers or, at least it was in Time magazine and US News & World Report, and that story has been verified by a number of senior Israeli military officers and reporters.�

Indeed, as reported in a 1995 Time magazine article, titled �Opening Grave Wounds,� Israeli war veterans admitted that �unarmed Egyptian civilians and POWs were murdered in the 1956 and 1967 wars.�

Mass graves

An expedition was organised by Al Ahram newspaper to search for bodies that eventually uncovered two mass graves. While acknowledging that crimes had been committed, Israel refused to prosecute the perpetrators citing a 20-year statute of limitations on such offences.

Today, there is no such acknowledgement. Instead, Israeli papers are busy trying to dig up evidence of Egypt�s mistreatment of Israeli prisoners of war.

Egyptian General Hassan Al Gridli has countered with claims that admittedly stretch the imagination. He says during the 1973 War, Israeli POWs were treated well and even enjoyed organised �tourist trips to Cairo� on the orders of the then Defence Minister Ahmad Esmail.

On the other hand, if Egypt breaks off diplomatic relations with Israel or initiates a case in The Hague, then it will lose out economically, as well as its clout in the international arena as it would no longer be in a position to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.

Such action would also risk fuelling the ambitions of some Israeli hawks who would like nothing more than to march back in to the oil and gas-rich Sinai.

Any hostile move by Egypt towards Israel would further jeopardise the latter�s consideration of the revived 2002 Arab peace plan, which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now says he takes seriously.

If Olmert means what he says, then the best way forward for both Israel and Egypt would be for Israel to acknowledge wrongdoing and offer a public apology.

Justice would, indeed, mean Israel having to answer to an international court for war crimes. But if it comes to a choice between justice for victims of 40-year-old crimes or peace, equating to a Palestinian state and an end to conflict, realistically there is only one way to go.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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