Israel's policy towards the Palestinians was not only forged out of the experiences of European Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany, but it also replicates the brutality, writes Salman Abu Sitta*.

Sharon at Al-Aqsa Mosque

Zionist practice in Palestine has always been to grab the land and expel its inhabitants. It is a simple strategy that in today's world is denounced as a war crime, as ruthless ethnic cleansing.

After conquering 78 per cent of Palestine in 1948, the year of Al-Nakba, Israelis began consolidating their gains by seeking to make conquered Palestine Arabrein (Arab-free). A policy was instituted–it remains active today–of killing any Palestinian seeking to return home, the rationale being that he or she was seeking to "infiltrate" conquered territory. Eventually even the expression of an intention to return was enough for the Israelis who began a policy of assassinating resistance leaders in Arab and European cities and in the occupied Palestinian territories since the 1970s. It is a policy that has its roots in World War II, a time when many of the men who would become Israeli officers in 1948 were trained and during which those who would become Jewish immigrants-turned-soldiers in Palestine learned first hand the nature of systematised cruelty at the hands of Nazi soldiers, particularly in Poland.

The refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila

In the course of 1948, 675 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated and over 70 massacres and atrocities committed. That these massacres followed a set pattern, repeated in village after village, suggests that the perpetrators "understood" what they were being asked to do without the need for written orders, a replication of the events of World War II.

Following the cessation of hostilities in 1949 Israel began operation "Megrafa", its aim to hunt down returning Palestinians. It continued throughout the best part of 1949, targeting Palestinian villagers in Galilee. Then, when operation Megrafa ended, Israeli forces set about expelling the Al-Sani tribe from Beer Sheba to Hebron. And between 1950 and 1956 they mounted a concerted campaign–in which Ariel Sharon participated–to drive the Al-Azazma tribe from Al-Auja, in the demilitarised zone, to Sinai.

The Egyptian representative to the UN told members of the Security Council in November 1950 "that beginning on 20 August 1950 Israeli authorities had, by armed force, expelled into Egyptian territory all the Bedouin living in the demilitarised zone of Al-Auja in Palestine. United Nations observers had 'found' that 13 Arabs, including women and children, died during the exodus and the bodies of several more were found crushed by armoured vehicles. By 3 September the number of expelled Arabs had reached 4,071".

In the same year Israelis engineered the expulsion of the inhabitants of Al-Majdal who had stayed put during the hostilities of 1948. The 2,500 that remained out of an original population of 12,000 were driven towards Gaza.

To spearhead the ruthless expulsion of Palestinians and the execution of returnees the Israelis set up Unit 101, a killer squad that would be disclaimed by the Israeli army when its brutal acts against civilians became known. Members of Unit 101 were allowed to dress in civilian clothes and developed notoriety for their drunkenness when on patrol. No restrictions were placed on the quantity of ammunition they could use.

In an article in Haaretz of 29 January 1999, Gideon Spiro a former member of the 890th battalion, says the unit "was an early, more primitive prototype for the more sophisticated liquidation units of Duvdevan and Shimshon established during the Intifada". Its operations, wrote Spiro, were characterised by "lots of killing of civilians and little real combat".

Unit 101 was set up on 30 July 1953 and Ariel Sharon was chosen as its commander. In Israel's Border Wars, Israeli historian Benny Morris describes the killer squad: "The new recruits began a harsh regimen of day and night training, their orientation and navigation exercises often taking them across the border; encounters with enemy patrols or village watchmen were regarded as the best preparation for the missions that lay ahead. Some commanders, such as Baum and Sharon, deliberately sought firefights. Unit 101 recruits went on forced marches and did calisthenics, judo, and weapons and sabotage training, at their base camp at Sataf, an abandoned Arab village just west of Jerusalem".

One of its first major operations was to attack the Bureij refugee camp on 28 and 29 of August 1953. E H Hutchison, a UN truce observer, describes the Bureij massacre in his book The Violent Truce.

"One of the latest and gravest incidents in the Gaza Strip has been the attack upon several houses and huts in the Arab refugee camp of Bureij on the night of 28 August. Bombs were thrown through the windows of huts in which refugees were sleeping and, as they fled, they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons. The casualties were 20 killed, 27 seriously wounded, 35 less seriously wounded".

Morris also records the attack on the civilian population: "Foreign observers called the Bureij raid 'an appalling case of deliberate mass murder'... '[The] incident has caused intense alarm and unrest in the whole Strip', reported the acting director of UNRWA, Leslie Carver. He urged that the United Nations protest strongly to Israel against the 'unprovoked attack upon harmless and defenceless refugees. Israel denied responsibility, leading diplomats and officials to the conclusion that 'Israeli settlers' or 'a local kibbutz' had carried out the raid on their own initiative".

In the following month the Azazma were again attacked. According to Hutchison "Israeli aeroplanes attacked Arabs and their herds of camels and goats. At the same time, incidents of increasing gravity occurred in the demilitarised zone itself. Israeli armed groups patrolled the zone; they shot at Bedouins at the two main wells; Arabs and their herds were killed by air and ground attacks; armed Israeli forces, up to approximately 30 men, shot the herds and burned the tents of Bedouins".

One of Unit 101's massacres took place in Qibya on the night of 14 October, 1953. Village houses were blown up while the inhabitants were asleep. Sixty-nine women and children were killed. According to a UN report "bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside while their homes were blown up". The Qibya massacres provoked international condemnation. Ben Gurion denied any knowledge of the massacre, or of Israeli army involvement.

In the early 1950s Unit 101 was responsible for similar atrocities in Idna, Surif, Wadi Fukin, Falameh, Rantis, Jerusalem, Budrus, Dawayima, Beit Liqya, Khan Yunis and Gaza. The killer squad was on a rampage, establishing a modus operandi that continues until today, though rather than being practised by a small and officially disclaimed group the tactics of Unit 101 are now those of the Israeli army.

They are tactics that have their roots in the terrible experience of the Jews at the hands of their Nazi tormentors, witnessed first hand by many of the senior officers in the 1948 war of conquest who had served in the British army, the Red Army and other European forces. They internalised what they witnessed and within three years were using the same brutal methods against Palestinians.

The Nazis set up special troops for the purpose of hunting Jews, killing them and then looting and destroying their property. Like Unit 101 they faced no restraining orders and no limits were set on their use of ammunition or arms. They consumed a great deal of alcohol. Their discipline was generally loose. One of these forces–surely not coincidentally–was called Police Battalion 101.

Battalion 101 was responsible for "the deportation and gruesome slaughter in Poland of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children" writes Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen exposes in terrifying and tragically familiar detail Battalion 101's atrocities against Jews, with ample documents and photographs as evidence.

Battalion 101 was divided into three companies which in turn were divided into three platoons each of which was further divided into groups of about 10 men. Sharon's Unit 101 was similarly organised.

In The Palestine Disaster Mohamed Nimr Al-Khatib, quotes a Haifa notable and survivor of Tantura massacre of 22-23 May 1948 writes: "On the night of 22-23 May the Jews attacked from three sides and landed in boats from the sea. We resisted in the streets and houses and in the morning corpses were everywhere. I shall never forget this day. The Jews gathered women and children in the place where they dumped the bodies so that they could be beside their dead husbands, fathers and brothers... They gathered men in a second place, and taking them in groups they shot them dead. One officer selected 40 men and took them to the village square. They were taken aside in groups of four. They shot one and ordered the other three to dump the body in a big pit. Then they shot a second, and the other two carried his body to the pit, and so on".

Maariv of 4 February 2001 carried a report that quoted Eli Shimoni, an Israeli officer in the Alexandroni brigade, the force responsible for the Tantura massacre. According to Shimoni "the prisoners were led away in groups to a distance of 200 metres, and it was there that they were shot... Soldiers would come to the commander-in-chief and say 'my cousin was killed in the war'. On hearing that the commander ordered the troops to take a group of five to seven people aside and execute them. Then a soldier came and said his brother died in one of the battles. On hearing that it was a brother the retribution was higher. The commander ordered the troops to take a larger group, and they were shot, and so on".

It is interesting to compare this with Goldhagen's account of a Nazi massacre of Jews, in which he quotes a German soldier: "These Jews were brought into the woods on the instruction of Sgt Steinmatz. He directed that the Jews had to lay themselves next to each other in a row on the ground before shooting them. From the field a detail of First Platoon led a group of about 50 to 60 Jews with spades and shovels to a wooded area more than 1,000 yards away where the execution would take place".

"The Germans", Goldhagen continues, "compelled the Jews to excavate a large pit for the execution... despite the intense heat of the day the Jews were allowed no food or water".

When the column neared the execution site the Germans separated the men and the women, depositing them at different locations, around 50 yards from the killing pit... The Germans divested their victims of whatever valuables they possessed... [One witness recalled] vividly the picture of these Jews, most of whom were undressed to the waist, lying for hours in the sun and getting severely sunburnt. For, after undressing, the Jews had to lie prostrate in a confined area and were not permitted to move. When the killing was finally ready to commence the men of Second Platoon formed a gauntlet running between the staging ground for the killing and the killing site itself. Successive groups of 15 to 20 Jews were forced to run to the killing site's pit, to run the German gauntlet, with the Germans shouting at them and beating them with rifle butts as they passed by".

The Germans knew what was expected of them. According to one, he remembered "with particular horror that during the execution a great number of Jews who were shot had not been fatally hit yet nonetheless, without being put out of their misery, they were covered by the victims that followed".

In 1948 Israelis too knew what was expected of them. They terrorised local farmers by driving jeeps into their fields and shooting at them. Typically, several jeeps, with machine guns mounted front and rear, would surprise the unsuspecting inhabitants and shoot them on the spot.

Uri Avnery, now a peace activist, was once a member of the Irgun terrorist organisation, enlisted in the Giv'ati battalion commando unit known as Samson Foxes. The battalion conducted jeep raids and inflicted heavy civilian casualties. In Apartheid Israel Uri Davis writes: "The political commissar of the battalion, Abba Kobner, turned to Nazi rhetoric in battle sheets such as that dated 12 July 1948 and entitled Aju al-Yahud (the Jews have come) in which he says, We broke the spirit of the enemy and rent their bodies open... We are confident that the dung of the corpses bring our fields into blossom".

The very name of the unit, Samson Foxes, was in honour of the commander of Germany's Africa Korps, Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the Desert Fox, further underlining the similarities between Israeli and Nazi practices, even at this early stage in the war.

Both Nazi and Israeli forces hunted civilians, rounded them up, shot any who showed signs of resistance, gathered people in woods or open spaces, selected small groups to be shot and ordered them to dig their own graves. Both dumped bodies in pits and took pleasure in humiliating their victims.

Israelis repeat endlessly that they are fighting for "their very existence". Similarly, Goldhagen quotes a German officer from a killer squad writing to his wife in September 1942, "we are fighting this Jewish war today for the very existence of our Volk".

The same officer writes that "they [German soldiers] are doing what the enemy would do [to us]". It is a glib justification of atrocities that must surely ring a bell in Israel where the tacit acceptance among officers of civilian killing, expulsion, destruction of villages and property without written orders is widespread. Goldhagen repeatedly mentions that the Germans "understood" what to do. They did not need incriminating written orders.

Israeli historians, including Pappe, Morris and Benvenisti, all record that Ben Gurion never issued such orders in writing. What was required was understood by officers and soldiers alike and they carried out their unwritten orders efficiently. None was punished when their crimes became public. Indeed many were promoted. It took a small wave of Ben Gurion's hand for Izhak Rabin to "understand" that the inhabitants of Lydda were to be expelled.

Sixty to 70 thousand men, women and children walked Eastward from Lydda in the July heat. During the forced march, this terrified mass of humanity was repeatedly shot at by Israeli soldiers. As the march continued old people and children fell by the wayside.

The death march was yet another practice Israel adopted from the Nazis. It also followed the Reich in forcing its victims to work in camps. ICRC (Red Cross) records for Palestine, now accessible after 50 years, describe several camps set up by Israel in 1948 in which able-bodied non-combatant Palestinian villagers were forced to work to help the Israeli war effort and the struggling Israeli economy. The Red Cross regularly visited the camps.

Some argue that brutality is the same the world over and that war crimes occur in every war, which is precisely why the Rome Statute of 1998, and the International Criminal Court resulting from it, have been endorsed by so many states though not, tellingly, by the US and Israel.

It is tragic that the Zionist call of Never Again, or en brera (no alternative), came ultimately to be used not against the guilty but to justify the murder of Palestinians, an unsuspecting civilian population in a faraway land.

"It was supreme tragedy", writes Arnold Toynbee, "that the lesson learnt by them [the Jews] from their encounter with the Nazi German Gentiles should have been, not to eschew but to imitate some of the evil deeds that the Nazis had committed against the Jews".

*The writer is president of the Palestine Land Society, London.