I was recently asked to look into one such massacre claim, on behalf of someone whose family came from Palestine. He was told that his Uncle survived a massacre of Saliha which killed almost everyone else.
Saliha was a small Arab Muslim village in the Upper Galilee Mountains next to the Lebanese border, near present-day Moshav Avivim. The village was known for its Taggart fort, built in 1938 by the British as a garisson fort. The Taggart forts were part of a larger plan to build a "northern fence" to separate Palestine from Lebanon at the height of the Arab rebellion (1936-1939).
After months of conflict, the War of Independence began in earnest when statehood was declared: May 14, 1948. Israelis forces had fought back the Arab Liberation Army in the north, July 8-18, 1948, during Operation Dekel. The final battle for the Galilee began in late October 1948. Thousands of Arab fighters led by Fawzi Kaukji returned from Lebanon and occupied positions inside Arab villages two kilometeres beyond the truce lines established by the UN. After a warning by the UN Security Council, Kaukzi claimed on October 24 that his troops were withdrawing, but they returned a few days later and continued to occupy several strategic positions, including a hill a few yards from the Metullah-Tiberias crossroads. Despite repeated attempts by the UN to prevent a conflagration, both sides remained poised for battle: Jewish forces refused to accept a cease-fire until Kaukzi returned to the previous ceasefire position; Kaukzi refused to budge until the Jewish fighters accepted the ceasefire.
With Arab forces firmly entrenched in defensive positions in western Galilee, Canadian-born Ben Dunkelman, commander of the 7th Brigade, presented plans for conquering the Galilee to Moshe Carmel (1911-2003), Israel's northern front commander. Despite some reservations Dunkelman was given a "green light" to dislodge the Arab Liberation Army and drive it back into Lebanon. On the evening of October 27, 7th Brigade engineers began clearing the Safed-Meron road as the rest of the brigade moved from its base in western Galilee to the hills around Safed. Operation Hiram began at dawn, October 28.
According to many sources, most of the residents of the Galilee had actually begun to flee in May 1948, after the capture of the Arab part of the city of Safed by Palmach forces. By August the UN reported at least 50,000 Galilean Arab refugees had crossed the border and fled to the nearby Metawali villages in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, it's clear thousands of civilians remained.
Benny Morris, who cites Saliha in several books, doesn`t provide an exact an date for the massacre but Palestinian sources say it took place on October 30. The actual events surrounding the destruction of Saliha are not at all clear. Some sources claim the residents were forced into a mosque and shot; others say they were shot in the village square; others quote Benny Morris' who wrote that "94 ... were blown up with a house."
Unfortunately, even Morris can't quite get his story straight. In one book (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge Middle East Library, pg. 230) he claims this information came from a briefing given by Israel Galili, head of the Haganah National Command; in a later book he says the briefing was made by Moshe Erem, to the Political Committee of Mapam ("Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948," Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 59)
The UN record suggests civilian casualites were much lighter than anecdotal evidence would have some believe. Given that there were several hundred observers watching both Israeli and Arab forces - there were approximately 300 UN Observers in the Middle East at this time. Around 245 were in Israel according to US Ambassador to Israel James G. Macdonald - one would expect that mass killings would be difficult to conceal; in fact, only one was reported to the security council during this period. On November 3, 1948, A. R. Azzam, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, filed a complaint that "Zionist forces, in a raid on the Arab locality known as Dawayma, ruthlessly massacred Arab women, children and old people, thus perpetuating barbarities rivaling in horror those committed by the Nazis."
Despite official assurances to the contrary (and the fact that Dawayam was north of Hebron, nowhere near the Galilee), rumours of a massacre in Dawayma were taken seriously and both the UN and the Israeli army investigated. Two UN observers visited Dawayma on November 7 and found no evidence of a massacre but it's likely the village had already been cleaned up before their arrival. Veterans of the accused 89th Battallion have claimed that some soldiers sought revenge for the massacre of 200 Jews in Kfar Etzion several months earlier. Dawayma, they claimed, was "filled with the loot of Etzion Bloc." UN Chief negotiator Ralph Bunche's reports reveal only "that United Nations Observers had reported extensive looting of villages in Galilee by Israeli forces, who carried away goats, sheep and mules."
The Dawayma incident is interesting in several respects. Although the alleged massacre occured in another part of the country, it confirms that the nascent Israeli government was aware of attacks against civilians. Significantly, it's obvious that it was difficult in such a tiny country to prevent rumours of atrocities from quickly spreading - regardless of whether or not the allegations were true. The attack on Deir Yassein, after all, was front-page news in the country. Other incidents may not have made the news but they were known to the government and UN observers. Moshe Carmel, for his part, even issued a reprimand to his troops as word of unacceptable behaviour came to light.
"Our brilliant victory...in the Galilee was marred as some soldiers allowed themselves a shameful outburst by looting and condemnable crimes against the Arab population after its surrender...ill-treatment of the inhabitants, murder and robbery, are not a military activity or acts of courage. They are a disgrace to our army...These acts must cease immediately and with all severity." (IDFA 437/49/84 25 November 1948)
Of course, many of the reports were made after the fact, and long after any evidence of wrong-doing was erased. Morris, whose books are most often cited concerning Galilee massacres, conceded that "knowledge of the details of these massacres is limited mainly to Arab oral and written testimony and some United Nations and Israeli civilian documentation."
After the war, the stories spread and took on lives of their own. Respected journalist Martha Gellhorn interviewed Palestinian refugees in Israel. In one village, she spoke with the schoolteacher...
"...an attractive lean young man, with prematurely gray hair, working in his garden in the cool of the evening...After hours of listening to him, I had grasped the lacking clue, and felt hopeless."
"Great Britain helped the Jews," he said. "The English gave weapons to the Arab countries, and they gave weapons to us. In this village we were all armed; we all fired at the Jews, every one of us. But our bullets were no good; the English gave bad bullets to the Arabs. Four out of five of the bullets were no good. When we saw this, we ran away to Lebanon for two weeks and then we came back."
"Were any of you killed in these battles?"
"No, no one."
"The Christian schoolteacher sent me on to a friend of his, a Muslim schoolteacher, in a village called Masra on the plain near Acre...Before 1948, the population of Masra was 350; now it is 200. They owned little land, they had worked on neighboring kibbutzim and in Acre factories. They always had good relations with the Jews. "No one here shot at Jews; and no Jews shot at us." (Note the order of the sentence.) But now Masra had grown and swollen; 900 refugees lived here.
"Yes, people from those villages."
He gestured out the door, across the fields.
"What? From villages nearby?"
"Yes, yes. Those villages. They are maybe seven kilometers away."
"And you consider them refugees?"
"Of course. There was no fighting near here, but the people are frightened, so they fled to the Druse villages, where they know they will be safe, because the Druses were always friendly with the Jews, and after, they came here. The Israeli government will not let them go back to their villages. The government offered them other land, but they will not take it."
Gellhorn also spoke with Palestinians who had fled northward to Lebanon.
"Their headman, or village leader - the Muktar talked. Seventeen people of his village were massacred, which was why they fled, but an old blind woman of 104 was left behind and the Jews poured kerosene over her and burned her alive. How did they know, if they had all fled? Well, then the Jews went away and some villagers crept back and found her, and besides, the United Nations Truce Commission also found her...My guide looked embarrassed."
Which brings us back to Saliha. Despite compelling anecdotal evidence, there's little else to substantiate many of the massacre allegations in the area, Saliha included. Mass graves have never been found - or reported - and government reports, those that have been seen, are sketchy, contradictory, evasive or all of the above. None of which means civilians weren't killed in Saliha and other Galilean villages. But, sixty years later, having missed the opportunity to conduct comprehensive investigations with the cooperation of UN observers, Israel has unwittingly left the door open for the plethora of claims which now overwhelm and drive the 'ethnic cleansing' debate.
And sixty years later, one cannot help but see similar trends in recent events: while Israel's cynicism toward the UN Human Right's Council and its tainted investigation in Gaza is understandable, perhaps a better strategy would have been for the Israeli government to call an immediate internal investigation of violations of the IDF Moral Code with international representation on the investigating committee. Could the UN dismiss an Israeli report which included input from someone like Mary Robinson? or Jimmy Carter? We'll have to add this one to the long list of missed opportunities by both sides.
As for Saliha, we'll never really know. But, one thing is certain: perception of events can carry more weight than reality even reaching mythological levels. And it's very hard to refute a myth.