29th Anniversary of Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty: Did Israel's Armed Forces Commit One War Crime to Hide Another?

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29th Anniversary of Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty: Did Israel's Armed Forces Commit One War Crime to Hide Another?

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

Washington Report readers know the story well. In 1967 on the fourth day of the Six-Day War, the armed forces of Israel attacked the American intelligence ship USS Liberty for 90 minutes in international waters in broad daylight following several hours of close, low-level reconnaissance. Thirty-four men died, 171 were hurt, and the ship was so badly damaged that it had to be scrapped.

The government of Israel has lied about the circumstances ever since, telling a story markedly different from that told by American survivors. Congress has refused to question Israel's demonstrably false account, even though the State Department's own analysis finds the Israeli story to be untrue.

Yet the most pressing question remaining from that infamy is not whether the attack was deliberate. That was settled long ago for most reasonable people. The question is why Israel risked its cozy relationship with America by killing American seaman on the high seas.

Indeed, spokesmen for Israel use that question in Israel's defense. Why, they ask, would Israel risk alienating its American friends?

So why did Israel attack? Intelligence analysts and others have long supposed that Israel attacked to prevent the ship from reporting the impending invasion of the Golan Heights, then imminent despite cease-fire pleas by the United States. Israel's defenders reject that explanation.

Recent reports in the Israeli and Egyptian press suggest another powerful possibility.

According to eyewitness accounts by Israeli officers and journalists, the Israeli army--the army that claims to hold itself to a higher moral standard than other armies--executed as many as 1,000 Arab prisoners during the 1967 war.

Historian Gabby Bron wrote in the Yediot Ahronot in Israel that he witnessed Israeli troops executing Egyptian prisoners on the morning of June 8, 1967, in the Sinai town of El Arish.

Bron reported that he saw about 150 Egyptian POWs being held at the El Arish airport where they were sitting on the ground, densely crowded together with their hands held on the back of their necks. Every few minutes, Bron writes, Israeli soldiers would escort an Egyptian POW from the group to a hearing conducted by two men in Israeli army uniforms. Then the man would be taken away, given a spade, and forced to dig his own grave.

The USS Liberty was less than 13 miles from El Arish.

"I watched as [one] man dug a hole for about 15 minutes," Bron wrote. "Afterwards, the [Israeli military] policeman told him to throw the shovel away, and then one of them leveled an Uzi at him and shot two short bursts, each of three or four bullets."

Bron says he witnessed about ten such executions, until the grave was filled. Then an Israeli colonel threatened him with a revolver, forcing him to leave the area.

America's most sophisticated intelligence platform, the USS Liberty, was less than 13 miles from El Arish. We were close enough to see the town mosque with the naked eye. With binoculars we could make out individual buildings and might have seen the executions if we had looked in the right place.

Could our operators have heard voice radio messages revealing these killings? Did senior Israeli officers sanction the murders, or did they learn of them? How would they have reacted to the knowledge that USS Liberty was nearby and might have heard incriminating radio traffic? Would they have been desperate enough to attack an American ship?

The Liberty Attack Was a War Crime

The attack on the USS Liberty was itself a war crime. U.S. Navy Commander Walter Jacobsen, a navy legal officer then doing graduate work at George Washington University, conducted an extensive legal analysis of the attack.

His conclusion, reported in the Winter 1986 Naval Law Review, was that several aspects of the attack violated provisions of the Geneva Conventions--war crimes. …

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