Jews, Camps, and the Red Cross

A mini-controversy has broken out over a new research paper that analyzes four detention camps Israel ran during and after the 1948 war. There the Israelis held some 5000 Palestinians, who were subject to forced labor, beatings, torture, and ritual humiliations. Writing in Haaretz, Amira Hass cites the testimony of one former inmate, who claims that prisoners were

lined up and ordered to strip naked as a punishment for the escape of two prisoners at night. [Jewish] adults and children came from the nearby kibbutz to watch us line up naked and laugh. To us this was most degrading.

All told, Israel may have run as many as twenty of these camps from 1948 to 1955, and may have held several thousand additional prisoners, but only four camps are officially acknowledged and were subject to international inspection.

One of the more disturbing elements in this relatively unknown chapter from early years of Israel’s existence is the connections between the forced labor in the camps and Israel’s economy. As Yazan al-Saadi reports in Al Akhbar:

The policy of targeting civilians, particular “able-bodied” men, was not accidental according to the study. It states, “with tens of thousands of Jewish men and women called up for military service, Palestinian civilian internees constituted an important supplement to the Jewish civilian labor employed under emergency legislation in maintaining the Israeli economy,” which even the ICRC delegation had noted in their reports.

The prisoners were forced to do public and military work, such as drying wetlands, working as servants, collecting and transporting looted refugee property, moving stones from demolished Palestinian homes, paving roads, digging military trenches, burying the dead, and much more.

As one former Palestinian detainee named Habib Mohammed Ali Jarada described in the study, “At gunpoint, I was made to work all day. At night, we slept in tents. In winter, water was seeping below our bedding, which was dry leaves, cartons and wooden pieces.”

Another prisoner in Umm Khalid, Marwan Iqab al-Yehiya said in an interview with the authors, “We had to cut and carry stones all day [in a quarry]. Our daily food was only one potato in the morning and half dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders.”

Because of the forced labor, the torture, threats, beatings, and humiliations, the specter of concentration camps has inevitably risen. As Hass writes:

In an article about the Palestinian study published on the Lebanese website Al Akhbar, Abu Sitta [one of the article’s authors] said that German Jews were among the guards at the detention camps (a detail that does not appear in his article in the Journal of Palestine Studies). Whether they were German Jews or not, forcing prisoners to line up naked and using boots on those who fall are part of the family histories of many of us, but from the other side.

Israeli historians vigorously dispute these claims:

Aaron J. Klein, an Israeli historian and author, said he was shocked to read the new study. Klein had researched the very same issue in the late 1990s for his master’s thesis at the Hebrew University. A version of it was later published in a collection of works on the War of Independence, edited by Kadish. Klein said the new study adds nothing to the facts already revealed and published in his thesis. He described himself as “disgusted” by the attempt to describe Israeli POW camps as concentration camps. “This is an attempt to enlist another piece of history to the Palestinian narrative, but it isn’t serious,” Klein said.

His reading of the documents from the time paints a picture of an Israeli leadership eager to win international legitimacy by adhering to the Geneva Convention and working with the Red Cross. The civilians arrested by Israel were legally recognized as POWs; their internment conditions were no better or worse than those of all Israeli soldiers at the time, and working outside the camps was seen as beneficial to the inmates. “Whoever reads the reports sees that the Red Cross understood the circumstances and gave Israel, all in all, good grades.”

The Israeli researchers argued that it would be a mistake to give oral testimonies recorded 60 years after the events took place the same credibility as Red Cross reports that were documented and prepared in real time.

I haven’t yet read the research article, which appeared in the Journal of Palestine Studies. But from the reports in the media, it seems as if the Red Cross records actually provide a great deal of the evidence for the authors’ claims.

Regardless, it’s a bit unnerving to hear Jewish Israeli historians cite Red Cross good housekeeping seals of approval as evidence of a camp’s benignity. The Red Cross of the 1940s doesn’t exactly have the best record on that score. As Jews of all people should know.


  1. dcrawford November 2, 2014 at 5:47 am | #

    There’s nothing particularly improbable about incidents of this kind. See Keith Lowe’s book “Savage Continent”‘ for a wide-ranging (if rather undigested) account of the atrocities committed in Europe in the years after the Second World War, mostly by groups who had been victims during the War itself. Some of these atrocities (including the widespread use of concentration camps in the original sense of the term), were committed against members of groups identified with previous persecutions, others against any weak and powerless groups that happened to be around.

  2. Dene Karaus November 2, 2014 at 8:23 am | #

    Another confirmation of the famous experiment done where people were instructed to administer shocks to “test subjects” and continued to follow that order in spite of hearing sounds of pain and moaning from the next room. Very sad.

  3. Roquentin November 2, 2014 at 12:37 pm | #

    I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s pretty common for a victorious army to demand these kinds of obscene, sadistic pleasures as a sort of payment for what was endured during a conflict. That isn’t to justify any of this or diminish it. I think the notion that is most deserving of destruction is that there is any such thing as a “good” war. I don’t know my Israeli history too well, but again and again I get the impression from what I read that they imagined themselves to be somehow different, that the issues that plague pretty much every other republic in existence somehow wouldn’t happen with them. They were wrong. Power doesn’t change, war doesn’t change, the repressive apparatus of the state doesn’t change, occupying armies brutalizing civilians doesn’t change, et cetera.

    It’s the same kind of logic that lets people in the US pretend that our current social constellation, the economic system and everything else isn’t backed up every day with up to and including lethal violence. The worlds larges military and prison population should make that a forgone conclusion, but it doesn’t. How do people think this kind of thing works?

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant November 3, 2014 at 10:35 am | #

      I would answer that a confusion of moral thinking about oneself and others is actually not the place to look for an answer to that question. Instead the answer is, quite simply, this: because to the extent that no one has the power to stop these anti-human crimes, “this kind of thing works.”

      A victor that gets right with human rights does not do so because its population and/or leadership become enlightened. This only happens because, somewhere along in its history, a victor ceases to be a victor, even if it remains quite powerful in the world. If you can kick ass, all you do is right. Since God does not call you account, and the weak cannot defend themselves, who is any position to tell you that you are wrong?

      When someone finally kicks your ass, you become more open to notions that what you have done to others is something those others should not have had to endure, and the ideas you deployed to support those acts were factually and morally suspect at best, morally criminal and self-serving at worst.

      I think it really is that simple. Any moral philosophy that does not account for concrete inequalities in the distribution of power in the world is not worth thinking about if one is to link how and what we think to what we actually do and the excuses we give for doing them.

  4. BillR November 2, 2014 at 7:21 pm | #

    Max Blumenthal has some disturbing thoughts on how he “see[s] Israel as the most severe version of the West and what it can be”. Somewhat like a “Be all that you can be” only in the negative direction.

    Israel is not like some other atrocity-generating regime in Africa or highlands of Southeast Asia that is almost universally reviled if it’s known at all. It is ritually showered with effusive praise by every American President since Truman and held up as a model (Herrenvolk) “democracy” unlike, say, Apartheid South Africa that even a generation ago was treated as the very opposite of role model for anything like a liberal-democratic setup and was publicly ridiculed at all levels of Western society for its treatment of “children of a lesser god”:

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