Monday, February 20, 2023

Did Israel put Arab civilians in concentration camps in 1948?

The Institute of Palestine Studies published a paper in 2014, "The ICRC and the Detention of Palestinian Civilians in Israel's 1948 POW/Labor Camps," by Salman Abu Sitta and Terry Rempel. It has been publicized in recent days anew. 

Its abstract says:

The internment of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Israeli-run prisoner of war camps is a relatively little known episode in the 1948 war. This article begins to piece together the story from the dual perspective of the former civilian internees and of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Aside from the day-to-day treatment of the internees, ICRC reports focused on the legal and humanitarian implications of civilian internment and on Israel's resort to forced labor to support its war effort. Most of the 5,000 or so Palestinian civilians held in four official camps were reduced to conditions described by one ICRC official as “slavery” and then expelled from the country at the end of the war. Notwithstanding their shortcoming, the ICRC records constitute an important contribution to the story of these prisoners and also expose the organization's ineffectiveness—absent a legal framework as well as enforcement mechanisms beyond moral persuasion, the ICRC could do little to intervene on behalf of the internees.
Is this true? Did Israel use Arab civilians as slave labor in 1948?

The paper relies heavily on ICRC reports from the time. I do not have access to those. But a couple of other reports from the time, and a close reading of the paper itself, shows that there are some other facts that are very relevant that the authors do not want you to know.

It does appear that many civilians were captured and treated as prisoners of war during the 1948 war. However, the ICRC was okay with that - because the 1948 Fourth Geneva Convention on how to treat civilians during wartime had not yet been finished, while the 1929 Geneva Convention that covered the international law of how to treat prisoners of war was fairly mature. 

A history of the ICRC "From Yalta to Dien Bien Phu: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross 1945 to 1955" describes what happened:

As for the Arab prisoners of war in Israel, they were in fact – some 5,000 of them – mostly civilians  They were Arabs from Palestine, generally of weapon-bearing age, who had been rounded up when the Israeli armed forces occupied their towns or villages  Sent to camps, where they were enlisted in work teams and paid a wage, they were nonetheless considered as prisoners of war by the Israeli authorities, which treated them accordingly  While the delegation protested against the internment of civilians, who should be set free unless they have committed hostile acts, it accepted the status of prisoner of war conferred on them, as it granted them numerous advantages, which they would not have had as simple civilian internees  This was precisely what the ICRC was seeking to obtain for civilian internees in the preparatory work for the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
These civilians were not "slave labor" - they were paid and treated better than they would have been as civilians in a war zone! 

The paper notes in passing that it was legal to give POWs work under the 1929 conventions, although not related to military work.

The Sitta/Rempel paper briefly quotes a New York Times article datelines October 12, 1948, about the civilians and POWs. But it ignores the bulk of the article, where the reporter goes on at length about how well the prisoners are treated, as well as their civilian status:

JALIL, Israel, Oct. 12-About half of the 5,000 Arab prisoners captured by the Israeli Army since May are held in a tent camp hastily thrown up on the sand and scrub of a little valley beside this former Arab village. With the exception of a few officers they are as unlikely looking a group of soldiers as any war might produce. In fact, not even the camp authorities are certain how many of them actually were soldiers in the Arab armies. The process of sorting them out is now taking place. 

About 250 prisoners are Egyptian. Trans-Jordan. Syrian or Lebanese regulars whose status as prisoners of war .has been marked by painting a large blue diamond on their uniforms. There are seven young former British Army men who dispute the authorities' assertion that they fought on the Arab side. The rest are Palestinian Arabs, most of whom were picked up after the fighting for Arab villages within the new state had ended. These will probably be released when the sorting out process has been completed.

 Israel Ginsburg, a former British intelligence officer and now second in command of the camp, showed a group of Israel Red Shield (Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) representatives and this correspondent about the camp recently.

...Mr. Ginsburg readily conceded that camp conditions were not perfect but explained that "we have had no experience in this sort of thing and we have had to learn and improvise as we went along." Except for two Egyptian fliers-the "elite of the camp" as one guard described them-there were no serious complaints from the prisoners. Like prisoners of war everywhere, most of those in camp complained about the boredom of detention and the monotony of the diet.

There are separate compounds for each group of nationals and for their officers. One Oxford-educated Sudanese major named Zhir had a huge tent to himself. No one was quite sure, but either he had refused to mix with the Egyptians or the Egyptians had refused to live with him. The :seven Britons had at first been placed with the Arabs but the Arabs asked for separate quarters. The Egyptian fliers, both about 25 years of age, looked spruce and fit in their blue-gray uniforms with the bars of flight lieutenants.

 The Egyptians' argument with Mr. Ginsburg and other Israeli officers about the relative merits of Israeli and Egyptian treatment of prisoners was conducted in the best possible humor. The same cordiality between prisoners and guards, particularly Palestinian Arabs, who personally knew many of the soldiers before the war, was evident throughout the camp. The relationship was far more friendly than in any prisoners' camp that this correspondent had visited on the Western Front during World War II

The prisoners are not compelled to work and the majority don't, although work volunteers receive extra pay. 

Most of the Palestinian Arabs had heard that soldiers were tortured on being .captured, Mr. Ginsburg said, as they always asserted their civilian status when brought to camp. "When they saw that we observed the Geneva Convention and that the International Red Cross inspected the camp periodically and that the soldiers actually were slightly better treated, about 400 of them owned up to having been in the fighting forces," Mr. Ginsburg said. 
These two independent reports are completely at odds with the assertions of the authors. And other contemporaneous reports support the idea that these prisoners were well treated. 

I cannot speak to how accurately the authors quoted the ICRC documents, or whether they took quotes out of context. They liberally and uncritically quote former POWs who say lurid stories of torture and how the Israelis would shoot them for no reason. 

However, given that they did not mention the NYT article's description of the camp being at odds with their thesis, and they did not mention any of the other reports from the time that contradict their assertions, one must conclude that they were more interested in publishing an anti-Israel academic paper than in describing the facts behind a little-known aspect of the 1948 war.

(h/t GnasherJew)

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