Egypt: Don't Talk About the (1967) War

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Egypt's leaders find themselves uncomfortably wedged between international and local politics whenever discussion turns to the country's humiliating military defeat by Israel in 1967. It's typically an opportunity for students, leftist intellectuals and Islamists to rage against the Camp David peace accords with Israel, which they say ties their hands in the face of the ongoing suffering inflicted on the Palestinians. So it was no surprise that a firestorm has been sparked by new claims that a unit commanded by Israel's current infrastructure minister, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, massacred 250 unarmed Egyptian prisoners.

The furor began when the semi-official daily Al Ahram reported that Israel's Channel One TV network had aired a documentary on incident showing that Ben Eliezer's Shaked Unit had ordered the execution of the prisoners after the fighting had ended. Since then, local media have been filled with calls for legal action, economic boycotts or even vengeance, and in a stormy session of parliament, legislators demanded that the Israeli ambassador be sent home, Egyptian diplomats in Tel Aviv be recalled and for Ben Eliezer to be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The outcry prompted Ben Eliezer to cancel a scheduled visit to Egypt, while Omar Suleiman, Egypt's powerful Intelligence Chief who is the principal mediator between Israel and the Palestinian factions, called off a scheduled meeting with a high-ranking Israeli official. Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit demanded an investigation when he met his Israeli counterpart in Brussels, and also asked for a complete copy and accurate translation of the documentary.

Israeli officials are hoping that such a translation will actually help calm the furor. "It is all based on non-fact," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, insisting that the issue is being stirred up by groups bearing an anti-Israel agenda. The producer of the documentary, Ran Ederlist, said in a radio interview that the Egyptian reports on the film's content were inaccurate. "What happened was that there were [Israeli] fighters waging battle against a retreating [Palestinian] commando battalion... During this battle, you could say there was excessive use of force, [but] it was all in the context of war: Not prisoners, not prisoner-of-war camps, not people who put their hands up." And Ben Eliezer's office released a statement denying that his unit had killed Egyptian prisoners, saying the reports were based on confusing two separate incidents.

In 1995, a similar crisis broke out when some Israeli veterans said that they had executed Egyptian soldiers in the 1956 and 1967 wars. These disclosures led to the discovery of mass graves near the city of Al-Arish in the Sinai containing the remains of Egyptian civilians and POWs. Thousands of soldiers are still listed as missing from the quick and crushing defeat of 1967, and many families are still wondering about the fate of their fathers and brothers.

In the poisonous atmosphere of today's Middle East, Egyptian analysts say Israeli disclosures of abuses committed against Egyptians in 1956 and 1967 embarrasses the current leadership, which prefers to focus collective memory on the war of 1973 — claimed by the Egyptian side as a victory because it led to the diplomatic process in which Egypt recovered the Sinai peninsula lost in 1967. And the discomfort is exacerbated by the fact that the latest revelations involve Ben Eliezer, an Israeli leader who visits Egypt and has strong ties to such powerful figures as Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak.

Cairo will be reluctant to press the issue because its political and diplomatic consequences could jeopardize Egypt's role as a peace mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and also antagonize Washington. "Egypt and the U.S. have struck a back [channel] deal by which Egypt plays a regional role designed by the U.S. in return for casting a blind eye to the regime's domestic politics and practices," says Emad Gad, analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and editor of the monthly Israeli Digest. So, Gad says, the challenge for the regime is to find a formula that will save face in the public eye. "The regime has given the green light to the government-controlled media to unleash all its wrath on Israel in sympathy with the angry sentiments of public opinion," says Gad. But it has no intention of pressing the matter. "Egypt is not in a position to have the diplomatic mediation role it is playing in the Israeli Palestinian negotiations minimized," says Gad. "At the same time, it cannot offend the angry public by receiving Israeli officials at the moment." For now, then, Egypt is telling Israel that it should momentarily bear the consequences of dragging them both into a mess that both sides hope will soon pass.

—With reporting by Phil Zabriskie/Jerusalem