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'On behalf of myself and the state, I ask for forgiveness'

President attends Kafr Qasim memorial, apologizes for 1956 massacre

Speaking partially in Arabic, Herzog becomes second head of state to attend annual event marking police slaying of 48 Arabs, day after Knesset votes down bill taking responsibility

President Isaac Herzog addresses the memorial for the victims of the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim, October 29, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog addresses the memorial for the victims of the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim, October 29, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog apologized for a 1956 massacre of Arab citizens of Israel by border police officers, appearing at an annual memorial to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the state.

“I am standing here before you today with my head bowed and my heart pained, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of one of the saddest events in the history of our country,” Herzog said at the ceremony in Kafr Qasim, where the killings took place.

Herzog is the second Israeli president to address the event. His predecessor Reuven Rivlin attended in 2014 and condemned the massacre, in which the Border Police killed 48 Arab Israeli men, women and children for violating a wartime curfew near the central town of Kafr Qasim. The unborn child of a pregnant woman is considered a 49th victim.

In 2007, then-president Shimon Peres broke ground when he formally expressed regret over the massacre, but was not at the memorial.

Israel has not taken formal responsibility for the massacre and a bill proposing to have the state do so was overwhelmingly voted down Wednesday. Arab Israeli parliamentarians regularly propose the bill near the October 29 anniversary, but the Knesset has repeatedly rejected proposals to acknowledge state responsibility.

Nonetheless, the president said that the gravity of the incident has “never been in question.”

“For it is clear to all of us: the killing and injury of innocents are absolutely forbidden. They must remain beyond all political arguments!” he exclaimed.

“I bow my head before the memory of the forty-nine victims. I bow my head before you, their families and before the inhabitants of Kafr Qasim throughout the ages, and on behalf of myself and the State of Israel, I ask for forgiveness,” Herzog said in both Hebrew and Arabic.

“I extend a supportive and embracing hand to you, and I pray from the depths of my heart that the merciful and compassionate God will be by your side,” he added, in both languages.

A monument marking the 1956 massacre in the village of Kafr Qasim, in central Israel, where 49 villagers were killed by Border Police officers. (Avishai Teicher/Public Domain/Wikipedia)

The Kafr Qasim massacre was a pivotal event in the relationship between Israel’s Arab citizens and the young Israeli state. On October 29, 1956, the first day of the Suez Crisis, a curfew was placed on Arab villages near the Green Line, which served as the effective border with Jordan, due to fears of unrest. Border Police officers were directed to shoot to kill anyone violating the curfew.

Many locals had not heard of the curfew, and later that evening, Border Police deployed near Kafr Qasim, an Arab town northeast of Tel Aviv, shot and killed 48 men, women and children who were outside.

The Supreme Court later convicted and sentenced several members of the Border Police for the killings. While they had been following orders, the court ruled, it should have been clear to the officers that the orders were patently illegal. Ultimately, the officers’ sentences were reduced and none spent more than a few years in prison.

President Isaac Herzog addresses the memorial for the victims of the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim, October 29, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In Kafr Qasim, memories of those killed in the massacre remain very much alive. A monument in the city center commemorates the dead, and a yearly march of mourning has been a ritual for decades.

“This is our opportunity, as a society, to say no to prejudice. This is our opportunity, as a human society, to empower what we have in common as citizens and as neighbors,” Herzog said on Friday. “This is not a decree of fate, but a partnership of fate. This is our opportunity to uproot discrimination and hatred.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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