The Arab population in Israel is part and parcel of the Jewish state and will always be a fundamental component of Israeli society, President Reuven Rivlin said Sunday at a memorial ceremony to mark the 58th anniversary of the Kfar Kassem massacre, during which Israeli border police shot to death 49 Arab Israelis, among them several women and many children.

Rivlin was the first Israeli president to attend the annual memorial ceremony at the town.

“The Arab population in Israel is not a marginal group,” he said. “We are destined to live side by side and we share the same fate.”

The president went on to harshly condemn the massacre, calling it a “terrible crime” that weighed heavily on Israel’s collective conscience.

“The criminal killing that took place in your village is an irregular and dark chapter in the history of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living here,” Rivlin said during the ceremony. “A terrible crime was committed here, illegal orders topped by a black flag were given here. We must look directly at what happened. It is our duty to teach this difficult incident and to draw lessons.”

President Reuven Rivlin laying a wreath at Kafr Kassem Sunday, October 26 (photo credit: Courtesy/ President's spokesman)

President Reuven Rivlin laying a wreath at Kafr Kassem Sunday, October 26 (photo credit: Courtesy/ President’s spokesman)

The president demanded that Arab Israeli leaders unequivocally condemn a Wednesday terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which a three-month-old Israeli girl, Chaya Zissel Braun, was killed when a Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan drove his car into a crowd of people in a local light rail station.

“The murder of the baby is shocking and sickening to anyone with a human heart,” said Rivlin, a proponent of a single-state solution with the Palestinians who has made a marked effort to confront racism in Israeli society since taking office in July.

“This murderous attack is another stain in the history of the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through which Jews and Arabs have been living and struggling for the past 150 years,” he said. “I came here not in spite of what is happening in Jerusalem but rather in light of the terror and violence rampaging through [the city]. I’ve come to reach out to you in the belief that your hand will extended back to me and the Jewish community.”

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at Kafr Kassem Sunday, October 26 (photo credit: Courtesy/ President's spokesman)

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at Kafr Kassem Sunday, October 26 (photo credit: Courtesy/ President’s spokesman)

Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, addressed the crowd at the event as well, and stressed that he strongly condemned the killing of the Israeli baby. He went on to express hope that Jerusalem would one day become a city of peace and understanding between all religions.

While former president Shimon Peres in 2007 formally expressed regret over the massacre, local residents in Kfar Kassem were eager to see Rivlin apologize for the killings as well and admit that the police’s conduct amounted to an act of terror, the Israeli news site Ynet reported.

“At first there were disagreements over the president’s [scheduled] visit [to Kfar Kassem],” a local political activist was quoted as saying.

“The feeling was that if he does not recognize the massacre and apologize, it is better for him not to come. It is time that Israel apologize for killing people in cold blood,” added the politician, who requested anonymity.

Knesset member Issawi Freij (Meretz), whose grandfather was killed in the massacre, said before the event, “There are great expectations for [Rivlin’s] speech.” Despite attempts by members of the nationalist Arab Balad party to boycott the visit, Freij, himself a resident of Kfar Kassem, proclaimed: “We are doing everything to ensure that this will be a respectful event.”

The Kfar Kassem massacre took place on October 29, 1956, against the backdrop of Israel’s imposition of martial law over the country’s Arab residents in the years following the establishment of the Jewish state. The IDF had placed a curfew that day on several Arab Israeli villages in the country’s central region, including Kfar Kassem, citing security concerns. But while border policemen were instructed to inform local residents about the curfew, many civilians in the area had not been notified of the military order.

An undated photo of bodies of Arab-Israelis who were killed in the Kfar Kassem massacre in 1956 (photo credit: YouTube)

An undated photo of bodies of Arab-Israelis who were killed in the Kfar Kassem massacre in 1956 (photo credit: YouTube)

Later that evening, border police officers opened fire at dozens of Kfar Kassem residents who were returning to their village, unaware of the curfew, after a day of work. Forty-three people were killed in the shooting, and 13 injured. Six other Arab Israelis were killed in clashes that lasted throughout that evening. Among those killed were six women and 23 children between the ages of 8 and 17.

In a military court case following the massacre, the border police maintained that the slain residents of Kfar Kassem had broken the curfew and therefore posed a security risk. The court, however, ruled that the order to open fire at the civilians was “blatantly illegal,” and sentenced 8 officers to terms that ranged from seven to 17 years in prison. None of the policemen served a full sentence, and many of them were pardoned by then president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

The families of those killed in the massacre were offered financial compensation for their losses.

Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.