'I saw fit to remove her from the world'
By Aviv Lavie and Moshe Gorali
There was a particularly festive atmosphere at the Nirim outpost on August
12, 1949, the eve of Shabbat. A week of dusty patrols and pursuits of
infiltrators in the sands of the western Negev desert was at an end, and the
commander of the hilltop site, Second Lieutenant Moshe, gave the order to
make the preparations for a party. The tables in the large tent that was
used as a mess hall were arranged in rows, sweets of various kinds were laid
out on them and even a bit of wine was poured, though not enough to get
drunk on. At exactly 8 P.M. the soldiers took their places and platoon
commander Moshe recited the blessing over the wine. He then gave a Zionist
pep talk, reiterating the importance of the unit's mission and the troops'
contribution to the infant state. At the order of his deputy, Sergeant
Michael, Private Yehuda read from the Bible. When he finished the soldiers
burst into song, told jokes, ate and drank. A merry time was had by all.
Shortly before the end of the party, at about 9:30, the platoon commander
asked for quiet. He got up and, with a smile on his face, reminded the
soldiers about the Bedouin girl they had caught earlier that day during a
patrol in their sector. They had brought her to the outpost and she was now
locked up in one of the huts. Platoon commander Moshe said he was putting
forward two options for a vote. The first was that the Bedouin girl would
become the outpost's kitchen worker; the second was for the soldiers to have
their way with her. The proposals got an enthusiastic reception. A melee
ensued. The soldiers raised their hands and the second option was accepted
by majority vote. "We want to fuck," the soldiers chanted. The
commander decided on the order: Squad A on day one, Squad B on day two and
Squad C on day three. The driver, Corporal Shaul, asked jokingly, "And
what about the drivers? Are they orphans?" The platoon commander
replied that they were part of the staff squad, together with the sergeant,
the squad commanders, the cooks, the medic and he himself, of course. He
added a threat - if any of the soldiers touch the girl "the tommy [tommy
gun] will talk." The soldiers took this as a warning not to violate the
order the commander had decreed.
The party ended, the soldiers went off to their tents. The officer ordered
the platoon sergeant to bring a folding bed to the tent they shared and to
place the Bedouin girl on it. Sergeant Michael did as he was told, entered
the tent, closed the flap and shut off the lantern.
Thus began one of the ugliest and most appalling episodes in the history of
the Israel Defense Forces. Even at a remove of 54 years, it is difficult to
understand how an event of this kind could have happened with the
participation, active or less active, of dozens of soldiers in uniform.
Low professional and moral level
The IDF of 1949, still in its infancy and called upon to defend the borders
of the newborn state, found itself having to cope - not always successfully
- with the rapid absorption of a very large number of untrained soldiers,
especially those who were sent to the front immediately after disembarking
from the ship in which they had arrived in Israel. "A rabble of new
immigrants with a low professional and moral level," was the blunt
description offered by the special military court in its verdict on the
episode of the Nirim outpost.
Yehuda (his full name, as well as the names of others who were interviewed
for this article, are in the possession of Haaretz) was one of the soldiers
serving in the outpost in August 1949. He is now a 74-year-old pensioner who
lives in the north. He accepts the description of the group as a
"rabble": "I was then 20 years old," he says. "I
ran away from the Turkish Army to Palestine and immediately enlisted. I
remember that all the members of our battalion were new immigrants. Everyone
was from a different country: Algeria, Hungary, Romania, Tunisia, Turkey,
Morocco. We didn't know Hebrew, we communicated between us by sign language.
We did our basic training at the Dead Sea. We were taught how to hold a
rifle in a mess hall at Sodom. Then we were sent to the outpost, where we
did patrols or trained in the trenches and practiced rushing to our
Yehuda remembers the night of the party, but claims that he was then on
guard duty and that he heard the story about the vote and what happened
afterward only as a rumor. Together with 17 members of the platoon he was
court-martialed for "negligence in preventing a crime." He was
sentenced to four years in prison; his term was cut in half by the appeals
Yitzhak, who is the same age as Yehuda and now lives in the center, received
the same punishment. He, too, had arrived in Israel a few months before the
summer of 1949, and he did not know Hebrew. Today he is retired and has
health problems. "I remember being in the Negev but I can't even
remember the name of the unit. I had just arrived in the country, I looked
like a boy, I did a lot of guard duty. I had forgotten about that whole
affair, I don't remember a thing, I haven't thought about it for maybe 50
years. The only reason I was tried was that I was in the outpost when it
happened. Beyond that I don't remember a thing and I have nothing to say.
Was I angry at those who did it? What would it help me to be angry?"
The developments in the IDF after the War of Independence may furnish a
partial explanation for the chain of events that is described in this
article; but no more than a partial explanation. After all, the platoon
commander, Moshe, who spearheaded the affair, was not part of the "new
IDF." "The officer and the sergeant were veteran Israelis and
spoke fluent Hebrew," Yehuda recalls. As far as is known, Moshe served
in the British Army and afterward in the 8th Brigade under the command of
the legendary Yitzhak Sadeh in what was the only IDF armored brigade in the
War of Independence. The brigade was disbanded after the war and its
officers and soldiers were reassigned to various units. Officer Moshe was
sent to the Negev.
The Negev Region Command was established after the War of Independence. It
was a regional command and its assignment was to secure the lengthy new
border line between Israel and Egypt. The staff headquarters were located in
Be'er Sheva, and the units were deployed in outposts along the border with
the aim of preventing the infiltration of Bedouin from the Egyptian desert.
The military historian Meir Pa'il, a retired colonel, was appointed
operations officer of the Negev Region in December 1949, four months after
the events with which this article deals. Pa'il: "The Negev was
sparsely populated. We were barely able to cobble together one reserve
battalion from all those who lived in the settlements in the region. In
order to man the border line, units were sent on a rotating basis from other
regions, such as the Golani Brigade, the 7th Brigade and so forth. In
addition to preventing infiltrations, there was also an effort to remove as
many Bedouin as possible from the country - from the Halutza Dunes area, for
example. It was a kind of cleansing across the Egyptian border. The tribes
who had cooperated during the war were left where they were; those who were
hostile were expelled."
One of the battalions of the Negev Region was known as the Sodom District
Battalion. The battalion was originally in charge of the Dead Sea and Arava
area, but at the beginning of August 1949 it was moved to the Bilu Junction,
near Rehovot, where it waited a few days for new orders. The battalion
commander was Major Yehuda Drexler, who was nicknamed "Idel." Over
the years, Drexler, afterward a leading architect, worked for the Jewish
Agency, was one of the planners of Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev (Ben-Gurion's
kibbutz) and reached the rank of department head in the Israel Lands
Administration. One of the company commanders in the battalion was Captain
On August 8, his company was ordered to move south to man the outposts in
the western Negev. The platoons were stationed at three kibbutzim: Be'eri,
where the company headquarters and Captain Uri himself were stationed, Yad
Mordechai and Nirim. Platoon 3, headed by the new commander, Second
Lieutenant Moshe, who had been given command of the unit only a few days
earlier, was sent to the Nirim outpost, which was responsible for the most
remote and most dangerous sector - adjacent to the border with Egypt.
Sergeant Michael was the deputy commander of the platoon.
On the eve of the move south, the company commander, Captain Uri, briefed
the soldiers. Intelligence reports received from aerial patrols over the
western Negev mentioned two Bedouin tribes that had been spotted in the
sector. "You are to shoot to kill at any Arab in the territory of your
sector," the company commander said. Moshe asked for the operational
order in writing, as customary. The company commander promised to bring the
written ocument to the outpost at a later date.
Platoon 3 reached Nirim on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 9. The
infrastructure of the camp was quickly put in place: three large tents as
the soldiers' quarters, a small tent for the officer and the sergeant, and a
big tent as the mess hall. In addition, there was a small hut that served as
the office of the platoon's headquarters and another hut, unused, which
would play a central role in the episode.
In the summer of 1949, there was no longer any connection between Kibbutz
Nirim and the outpost of the same name. The outpost bore the name Nirim
because it was situated at the place where Kibbutz Nirim was originally
established, in June 1946. The young kibbutz, which was located on the edge
of the desert, fought for its survival in the harsh climatic conditions of
the area and became the first settlement to be attacked on the first day of
the War of Independence, on May 15, 1948. The Egyptians, with a force that
included an artillery battalion, an infantry battalion and dozens of armored
vehicles, launched a heavy barrage that caused immense damage: all the
buildings of the kibbutz were burned to the ground, the animals died, and
eight kibbutz members were killed and four wounded (of a total of 39
members). The barrage was followed by an assault mounted by hundreds of
infantry soldiers, who reached the fence of the kibbutz. The kibbutzniks,
firing from their trenches, inflicted heavy losses on the Egyptian force and
miraculously the attack ended. The Egyptians changed their mind and decided
to forgo the pleasure of infiltrating and capturing the kibbutz. Instead,
they simply went around it on their way north.
The Nirim group spent the war in shelters and caves that they dug. When the
hostilities ended and they were finally able to come to the surface in
safety, they entered into talks with the army and the state authorities.
There was a confluence of interests: the army coveted the site because of
its strategic location; the kibbutzniks wanted to move north, to the line of
200 millimeters of rain a year.
In March 1994 the kibbutz moved about 15 kilometers north, to its present
location. The IDF took over the terrain-dominating outpost, which was
henceforth known as "Old Nirim," or "Dangour," as it was
originally called - the name still appears on some maps - apparently after
an Egyptian Jew who purchased land in the area. There is now a monument of
rough concrete at the site that commemorates the kibbutz members who were
killed in the Egyptian assault on the first day of the 1948 war. The
monument bears an inscription: "It is not the tank that will triumph,
but man." If you climb the monument and look west, you can see the
rooftops of Khan Yunis.
The commander orders an execution
On Tuesday, August 9, the platoon organized itself at the outpost. The
soldiers soon got used to the ways of the new commander. Second Lieutenant
Moshe turned out to be a strict disciplinarian who demanded order and
obedience. The soldiers had to dress properly and shave every day. Anyone
who violated the orders was hauled before Moshe. The soldiers were
apparently somewhat in awe of him. The next day the company commander,
Captain Uri, visited the platoon. The first couple of days passed
uneventfully. Until the morning of Friday, August 12.
At about 9 A.M. that day, Second Lieutenant Moshe set out on a patrol in the
southwestern section of the sector, in a vehicle known as a "command
car." With him were two squad Yehuda and Aziz. The driver was Corporal
Shaul. All the men were armed.
On the way they came across an Arab who was holding an English rifle. When
the Arab spotted them he threw down the rifle and started to run up the
dune. One of the soldiers opened fire at him with a submachine gun. The Arab
was hit and died on the spot. His rifle was taken as booty.
A short time later, the patrol encountered three Arabs - two men and a girl.
There are different versions regarding the girl's age. According to some
accounts she was a young girl aged between 10 and 15; others say she was
between 15 and 20. Platoon commander Moshe ordered the soldiers to seize the
Arabs and search them. The soldiers found nothing. Officer Moshe then
ordered the soldiers to bring the girl into the vehicle. Her shouts and
screams were to no avail. Once she was inside the vehicle the soldiers
scared off the two Arabs by shooting in the air. On the way back to the
outpost they came across a herd of camels grazing. Officer Moshe ordered the
soldiers to shoot the animals. Six camels were shot dead; their carcasses
were left to rot in the field.
After the girl calmed down a bit, the soldiers exchanged a few words with
her - especially Corporal David. They also talked among themselves, and the
word "fuckable" came up in the conversation. The patrol returned
to the outpost in the afternoon. At about the same time, another vehicle
also arrived at the outpost: the battalion commander, Yehuda Drexler, was
paying a visit, He was accompanied by Captain Mordechai (Motke) Ben Porat,
operations officer of the Negev Region. Ben Porat eventually reached the
rank of brigadier general in the Armored Corps and after his retirement from
the army served as chairman of the National Parks Authority.
At the outpost, the soldiers removed the girl from the vehicle. Officer
Moshe ordered that she be taken to the unused hut and a guard placed at the
door. Private Avraham was designated the guard. Drexler, who noticed a
certain commotion around the girl, asked what she was doing there. Officer
Moshe replied that on the patrol he had encountered her and her husband, who
was armed with a rifle. He told Drexler that they had killed the husband and
taken the girl prisoner in order to interrogate her about the location of
her tribe. Drexler authorized her interrogation but ordered that afterward
she be taken back to the place where she had been seized, and released. He
also asked platoon commander Moshe to ensure that the soldiers did not abuse
her. Drexler and Ben Porat spent about two hours at the outpost, had lunch
Shortly after their departure, Officer Moshe went out on another patrol,
this time in the northern sector, in the direction of the new location of
the kibbutz. After he had left, the platoon sergeant, Michael, removed the
girl from the hut and pulled off the traditional garment she was wearing. He
then made her stand, completely naked, under the water pipe that the
soldiers used as a shower, then soaped her and rinsed her off. The pipe was
outside and everyone at the outpost was able to witness the spectacle.
After the shower was over, Sergeant Michael burned the girl's dress and
dressed her in a purple jersey and a pair of khaki shorts. Now looking like
a regular Palmach commando, she was taken back to the hut and placed under
the guard of Private Avraham. In short order a group of soldiers gathered
around the hut. They milled around the guard and demanded that he let them
go inside. At first he refused, but finally relented. In fact, he was the
first to go in. He spent about five minutes in the hut and emerged buttoning
up his trousers. He was followed by Private Albert, who was also in the hut
for about five minutes, and then Private Liba.
Liba was still in the hut when platoon commander Moshe returned from the
patrol. A few soldiers shouted a warning to Liba, who ran out of the hut and
disappeared. Officer Moshe apparently understood what had happened,
conducted a quick debriefing, and afterward, in the dining room, was heard
to say that "three soldiers raped the Arab girl." He ordered her
to be brought to the staff hut. The squad commanders, Corporal David and
Corporal Gideon, were present in the hut. Officer Moshe took note of the
girl's new apparel but said nothing. She told him, in Arabic, that the
soldiers "played with her." It was obvious to Moshe what she
meant. Corporal Gideon, who would be one of the main prosecution witnesses
in the trial, testified that after the girl told Officer Moshe what she told
him, he said to the others that she must be washed so she would be clean for
fucking. Gideon, who lives in Givatayim and works as a tour guide, declined
to be interviewed for this article.
At about 5 P.M., the platoon commander ordered Private Moshe, who was a
barber by profession, to give the girl a haircut. That was done in the
presence of the commander and the sergeant. Her hair, which had spilled down
to her shoulders, was cut short and washed with kerosene. Again she was
placed under the pipe, naked, before the scrutinizing eyes of the officer
and the sergeant. Afterward she was dressed in the same jersey and shorts
and sent back to the hut.
Then came the party, after which Officer Moshe and Sergeant Michael closeted
themselves with the girl in their tent. After about half an hour, Officer
Moshe ordered her taken out of the tent, because "there is a stink
coming off her." Sergeant Michael called Private David and the two of
them removed the bed from the tent, with the girl lying on it in a state of
unconsciousness. They carried the bed to the entrance of the hut. Michael
placed the girl on the floor, went to get water and poured the water on her.
He then carried her in his arms into the hut. Corporal David accompanied
At about 6 A.M. the next day, Private Eliahu was on guard duty and saw the
girl leaving the hut. He asked her where she was going and she told him,
weeping, that she wanted to see the officer. Private Eliahu showed her the
way to Officer Moshe's tent. She complained to him that the soldiers had
"played with her." He threatened to kill her and sent her back to
the hut. A short time later, while shaving at the water pipe, Sergeant
Michael asked the platoon commander what to do with her. Officer Moshe
ordered him to execute the girl.
Michael ordered Corporal David to have two soldiers get shovels and
accompany him. Michael and David removed the girl from the hut and had her
get into the patrol vehicle. Just before the vehicle left the outpost, one
of the soldiers shouted that he wanted back the short pants the girl was
wearing. Officer Moshe ordered her to be stripped and the pants returned to
the soldier. She now wore only the jersey, her lower body exposed.
Eliahu and Shimon dig a grave
The vehicle set out, driven by Corporal Shaul. Also in the vehicle were
Sergeant Michael, Corporal David, the medic, and the two soldiers who were
to be the gravediggers, Privates Eliahu and Shimon, with their shovels. They
drove about 500 meters from the outpost. The driver, Shaul, stayed in the
vehicle, while the others, with the girl, moved off a little way into the
dunes. Privates Eliahu and Shimon set about digging a grave. When the girl
saw what they were doing, she screamed and started to run. She ran about six
meters before Sergeant Michael aimed his tommy gun at her and fired one
bullet. The bullet struck the right side of her head and blood began to pour
out. She fell on the spot and did not move again. The two soldiers went on
Sergeant Michael went back to the vehicle. Pale and trembling, he laid down
his weapon and said to Shaul, "I didn't believe I could do something
like that." Shaul said that maybe the bullet didn't kill her and that
she was liable to lie in torment for a few hours, buried alive. He asked
Michael to do him a personal mercy by going back to the girl and shooting
her a few more times, to ascertain that she was dead. The sergeant did not
manage to carry out that mission. Corporal David came over, took the tommy
gun and fired a few bullets into the girl's body. The pit the privates dug
wasn't very deep, only about 30 centimeters. They placed the body in the
pit, covered it over with sand and returned to the outpost.
That afternoon the company commander, Captain Uri, visited the outpost. Not
finding Second Lieutenant Moshe at the site, he left the written operation
order that Moshe had requested with the platoon sergeant. Officer Moshe was
then on his way to Be'er Sheva. It was Saturday night and he was on his way
to see a movie. At the movie theater he met the battalion commander, Drexler.
Drexler asked whether the Bedouin girl had been taken back to the place
where she was found. Officer Moshe said she hadn't: "They killed
her," he said, "it was a shame to waste the gas." Drexler
said nothing but the next day ordered the company commander to go to the
outpost and find out exactly what happened there.
Even before he received the order, Captain Uri, who had heard rumors about
the events at the outpost, asked Officer Moshe for a report about what had
happened with the Arab girl. Moshe ordered Sergeant Michael to draw up the
report in his handwriting. When the report was completed, Officer Moshe
signed it and sent it to the company commander. The following is the report,
dated August 15, 1949:
"Nirim Outpost. To: Company Commander. From: Commander, Nirim
Re: Report on the captive
In my patrol on 12.8.49 I encountered Arabs in the territory under my
command, one of them armed. I killed the armed Arab on the spot and took his
weapon. I took the Arab female captive. On the first night the soldiers
abused her and the next day I saw fit to remove her from the world.
Signed: Moshe, second lieutenant."