General Arieh Biro: Old Wounds

(by Eric Blair)

General Arieh Biro is an Israeli war criminal. That is what he more or less implied. He is also a Holocaust survivor. That is what the late Yitzhak Rabin reminded the Israeli press corps of last fall to soften the impact of Biro's sordid revelations ["An Israeli general reopens old wounds with revelations about the massacre of Egyptian PoWs," Martin Cohn, The Toronto Star, Oct. 8, 1995].

Biro's war crimes occurred in the '56 war during an IDF offensive against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula. As the commander of a paratroop battalion, Biro and his men captured 49 Egyptian soldiers in the Mitla Pass. Unwilling, for tactical reasons, to adopt them as prisoners of war, Biro instead ordered their immediate execution: "So, he and a lieutenant lined them up and gunned them down."

Prior to their summary execution, Biro admitted to cynically humiliating and tormenting his prisoners by emptying his canteen in front of them while they pleaded for water. As he inelegantly put it: "Whoever we managed to screw, we screwed."

There is little chance the general will be indicted for war crimes. Israel, you see, has no war crimes law; except, of course, to address those committed by the Nazis. Still, in the event that Israeli authorities even contemplate his prosecution, Biro has warned that he would spill the beans on still more ugly secrets hidden in Israel's wartime past. Biro: "If they try to throw me to the wolves, I'll speak out."

In Egypt, Biro's prosecution for war crimes is precisely what Egyptian elites have been demanding, along with Israeli reparations to the families of Biro's victims. Walid Kazziha, a political scientist, has noted the lush irony between Jewish obsession with Nazi war crimes and Jewish indifference to Israeli war crimes: "They chase Nazi war criminals for the rest of their lives, 60 to 70 years down the road...But for Israeli crimes of mass murder, they're letting them go--even when they admit it."

There have since been more revelations: Israeli journalist Gabriel Brun, for one, reported seeing similar atrocities committed against Arab prisoners during the '67 war, when several soldiers were shot dead after being forced to dig their own graves.

Not surprisingly, the Biro revelations have caused a furious diplomatic row between Israel and Egypt.

David Sultan, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, insisted that dwelling on the past was pointless. Indeed. Only to find that he was himself being accused of having murdered 100 Egyptian prisoners of war during the Sinai campaign. In fending off the charge made by the Egyptian opposition press, Sultan said: "I was still in school in 1956. I was never a paratrooper and I was never an officer." Shades of Frank Walus!

Meanwhile, Sultan's Egyptian counterpart, Muhammad Bassioumi, the Egyptian ambassador to Tel-Aviv, likewise made some undiplomatic noises by calling for an investigation into General Biro's revelations.

But it soon became obvious that damage control was the order of the day, not justice or truth. Israeli spin doctors got cracking, intent on salvaging their country's fragile "friendship" with its Arab neighbour to the west.

This is the spin that one Israeli commentator, Shlomo Gazit--an academic and onetime director of Israeli military intelligence--put on the Biro revelations: "This is really a storm in a teacup...I don't think that this is the kind of story, with all the delicacies, that should come out...I've been to five wars, and I haven't seen a war that was a tennis game. A war is an ugly, dirty, cruel act with many, many unplanned and unwanted circumstances."

What Shlomo Gazit was saying is this: As long as there are wars, there will be war crimes. We should just accept the fact and move on. It's the reasonable and realistic thing to do.

Am I missing something here?


May 1996