The ghosts of the Nakba come back to Haunt Israel
Amnon Neumann was a member of the elite Palmach shock troops. Consisting primarily of member of the ‘left-wing’ Kibbutzim, it was responsible primarily for the Nakba and expulsions and massacres. Although Neumann refused to talk about the massacres he gives more than enough detail to demolish the myth that the Arabs ran away in order to let the Arab armies in.
As Neuman says, he described what happened in his ‘Purity of Arms’ a fascist idea current in then left-Zionist circles. Effectively a worship of militarism.
As the older butchers die out, so many of them have decided to relieve their consciences like Neumann and thus the truth is seeping out from its perpetrators.
Testimony of a Palmach fighter who expelled Palestinians During the Nakba
December 30, 2011
The Israeli group Zochrot has posted a video testimony from Amnon Neumann, a man who fought with the Palmach during the Nakba of 1948. According to their web site, “Zochrot (‘Remembering’) seeks to raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, especially among Jews in Israel, who bear a special responsibility to remember and amend the legacy of 1948.”
Public hearing at Zochrot, Tel-Aviv, June 17, 2010. The audience consisted of about twenty people. Initiated and organized by Amir Hallel. The testimony was video-recorded by Lia Tarachansky. Miri Barak prepared the transcription. Eitan Bronstein edited, summarized, and added footnotes. Translated to English by Asaf Kedar. Video editing by Zohar Kfir
Omar Barghouti adds:
Despite some moments of remorse, the former member of this terror group tells the interviewer that he refuses to talk about the massacres, in particular, because he participated in them. He also tries to portray Palestinian villages as all made of straw and mud houses! Perhaps the selective amnesia that has afflicted almost all Jewish Israelis has not spared Neumann.
Warning to Palestinian refugees watching this: it can be really difficult to listen to parts of this testimony. I had to stop the video twice – the nonchalance with which Neumann describes (in clearly sanitized language) the forced expulsion, the killings of farmers tending their grapevines – is overwhelming.
Amnon Neumann: I was in the Second, Eighth, and Ninth Battalions of the Palmach from February 1948 until my discharge in October 1949. I was there for this whole period, except for a few months after I had been wounded and after my father had passed away.
The most significant period for me in terms of the Nakba was April-May 1948, when the battles or clashes with the locals took place, until the Egyptian Army arrived. At first we escorted convoys traveling on the road from 'Iraq Suwaydan , from Rehovot, [through] 'Iraq Suwaydan, Kawkaba and Burayr, to Nir-'Am where our company headquarters were located. Then an armed group of Arabs situated itself in Burayr and didn’t let us through, so we took a different route, from near Ashdod where Isdud was located, through Majdal, Barbara, Bayt Jirja, to Yad Mordechai. From there we drove to Nir-'Am. Those were the two routes [we used] until the Egyptian army arrived. When the Egyptian army arrived, it was a completely different situation.
The Egyptian army arrived when we had wiped out all Arab resistance, which wasn’t that strong. It would be an exaggeration to say we fought against the Palestinians… in fact there were no battles, almost no battles. In Burayr there was a battle, there were battles here and there, further up north. But there were no big battles; why? Because they had no military capabilities, there weren’t organized. The big battles started with the entry of the Egyptian army, and those were very difficult problems, especially from May 15th, when we were still an organized army—the Palmach—semi-military. But their soldiers were organized by British methods, they fought like the British. But they had no leadership and they had no motivation. So when they attacked, it was very lousy, they hardly knew how to attack, but they did know how to defend themselves. They knew they were fighting for their lives. But as far as all the rest, it was a fifth-rate army. They had terrible cannons that killed us like hell. They had all kinds of tanks of different types, and they were a problem for us. We didn’t have anything, we had armored vehicles, those fluttering ones that were impossible to fight with, not against tanks and not even against a halftrack, right? But we more or less managed with them.
The villagers’ flight, and I understand this is the main issue here, happened gradually. I only know about what happened from the 'Iraq Suwaydan road, [through] Majdal, to 'Iraq al-Manshiyya . We were to the south of this area, and to its north there was the Givati Brigade. The day the Egyptians entered the war, the Negev was cut off and that was mostly our fault, my platoon’s fault… I’ll say more about it later. But that wasn’t significant. The Egyptians’ attacks were significant. They beat the hell out of us and killed us mercilessly.
The villagers’ flight started when we began cleaning these convoy escort routes. It was then that we started to expel the villagers… and in the end they fled by themselves. There were no special events worth mentioning. No atrocities and no nothing. No civilians can live while there’s a war going on. They didn’t think they were running away for a long period of time, they didn’t think they wouldn’t return. Nor did anyone imagine that a whole people won’t return.
First we expelled those … and then we started expanding sideways. To Najd , to Simsim , and that was a later stage. There were no battles, except for one battle in Burayr. In the north there were battles, with Givati, but we didn’t have any battles. We did ok with them … (silence). One village was left, between Dorot and Nir-'Am, that’s Kufr Huj, they didn’t run away and we didn’t expel them. There was probably an agreement at a higher level that Huj is not to be touched.
The first time I entered Kawkaba and Burayr I was amazed by their poverty. There was nothing there. No furniture and no nothing, there were shelves made of straw and mud, the houses were made of mud and straw. They lived there for thousands of years without any changes, and the only thing that happened to them was the disaster of the Nakba in “Tashah” . Because we didn’t come to collect taxes, we came to inherit the land from foreigners. That was the foundation of our thinking. We drove them out because of the Zionist ideology. Pure and simple. We came to inherit the land. Who do you inherit it from? If the land is empty, you don’t inherit it from anyone. The land wasn’t empty so we inherited it, and whoever inherits the land disinherits others. And that’s why we didn’t bring them back. It was everywhere, in the north and the south, everywhere. That’s the most important point. The land wasn’t empty as I was told when I was a child. I know it, because I lived with Arabs. I remember I was wounded and I went home, after April 1948, after they had expelled the Arabs in Haifa, they had run away. Our villages, Yajur and Balad al-Shaykh , didn’t exist anymore either. They were empty. And I came home and my father told me, Come sit, son. Sit. He told me, You know what happened? And I told him, Yes, I passed through Balad Al-Sheikh and there was no one there. And he said, Yes, there was a disaster. That’s not what was intended. That’s not what I intended. He came with the second Aliyah. And he said: that’s not what I intended. So nobody thought in these categories, maybe the Yishuv leaders did. My father was a simple man, a worker his entire life. And then I went back to the Negev and we did the same thing. At that time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I was educated to it just like everybody else. And I followed through with it faithfully, and if I was told things I don’t want to mention—I did them without the least of a doubt. Without thinking twice. For fifty or sixty years I’ve been torturing myself about this. But what’s done is done. It was done by order. And I won’t go into that, these are not things that … (long silence).
In the north they fought. In the south they didn’t, they didn’t have anything. They were miserable, they didn’t have anywhere to go, or anyone to ask.
Eitan Bronstein: What happened in the village Burayr?
Amnon Neumann: There was a battle, and there was a slaughter…
Eitan Bronstein: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Amnon Neumann: I don’t want to go into these things, leave me alone! It’s … it’s not things we go into. Why? Because I did it. Is that a good reason? (Long silence)
I can tell you about one thing. We received an order to occupy the intersection near 'Iraq Suwaydan. There was a huge police station there which dominated the whole area. We went out with five jeeps and five armored vehicles. We stood at the intersection, and suddenly we heard the sound of tanks from the direction of Majdal. With our rifles and machine guns we couldn’t stand up to tanks. The moment we saw them we fled to Kawkaba, half a kilometer away, and hid in the village. Then the tanks came, stood there and started rotating their cannons, didn’t shoot or anything.
Dan Yahav: Whose tanks?
Amnon Neumann: The Egyptians’. Only they had tanks (laughing), we didn’t have any tanks back then. A few minutes later they started shooting at us from all directions. We sat in the armored vehicles, the fire wasn’t so… but they were shooting from all directions. Until we decided to find out who was there. We went out, looked around, ran a little. It was the villagers who had run away from Kawkaba that were shooting at us. Then our company commander, a nice guy, suddenly appeared with his pickup truck, took out a pistol and said, You abandoned the intersection, do you realize what that means?! It won’t be possible to pass through to the Negev anymore. So we told him, Moishe, go ahead and drive to the intersection, look closely, can you make it to the intersection? So he relaxed a little and then the Egyptian Spitfires came, bombed us and destroyed his pickup truck. He jumped into the sabra bushes and came out alive.
Eitan Bronstein: So who did the shooting, I didn’t understand who did the shooting.
Amnon Neumann: The Arabs who had lived in Kawkaba, the saw that we were running away, so they revealed themselves.
Eitan Bronstein: And then they shot at you, the Arabs from Kawkaba?
Amnon Neumann: Yes, that’s right they shot at us from the hills, from the wadis.
Lia Tarachansky: In Kawkaba there were no more people left anymore?
Amnon Neumann: There was nothing there. The only thing I remember are the terrible fleas there, they devoured us.
Eitan Bronstein: How many people were you?
Amnon Neumann: We were a platoon, thirty people. I was in the scouting platoon. There were other platoons, in Nir-Am, in Dorot, in those places.
Amir Hallel: Did you get to see the Arab residents?
Amnon Neumann: Yes, I got to see them in one place, in two places, when we expelled them by night.
Dan Yahav: What kind of weapons did you have?
Amnon Neumann: From the 15th or 17th of May, we received the Czech guns. Both that and Bazot . But until then, I had a 1904 English rifle, with a broken butt that I tied with a steel wire.
Eitan Bronstein: When did you join the Palmach?
Amnon Neumann: I joined the Palmach in 1946, at the age of sixteen and a half.
Eitan Bronstein: And since then did you train regularly?
Amnon Neumann: Yes … Should I start telling the details?
Lia Tarachansky and Eitan Bronstein: It’s important.
Amnon Neumann: We were in training in Yagur. After four months in the Palmach, all our commanders were killed in a convoy on Haziv Bridge. We became orphans.
Amnon Neumann: A week later, the British army surrounded us and took us into custody at 'Atlit. After being two weeks or a month in 'Atlit, we were released and transferred to Gvat. And from there we were transferred after a while to Heftziba. We were there for about a year, and then one day they called us for roll call and said, Tomorrow you will be discharged from the Palmach (we had been in the Palmach for a year and nine months) and driven to a kibbutz near Rehovot. The next day, trucks came and took us, we got there in the evening, they put us in the dining hall and said, Now we’ll tell you what’s going on. The Haganah’s largest munitions factory is here. You will start working there, you’re no longer Palmachniks or anything, that was the arrangement then. We worked there until the war broke out four months later.
Eitan Bronstein: What did you work at?
Amnon Neumann: I made caps [for guns], nothing could be more boring. It was a huge factory, it’s still there, for example, at Kiryat HaMada in Rehovot, in Givat HaKibbutzim. It was underground. Yes, yes, I was a member of [Kibbutz] Maagan Michael, I had no choice. Nobody asked me. The factory is really impressive, we were also impressed by it at the time. It was in Rehovot next to the train station, very close to the train station, and we worked there until the war broke out. When the war broke out we continued to work there. And then a friend of mine comes to me and says, Look, we are trained soldiers, we’ve been taught and we are knowledgeable soldiers. What are we doing here making caps? So I told him, You know what? Go over to Palmach headquarters and find out, and so it was. He went and then he says, Tomorrow I’m leaving the kibbutz. I said, I can’t leave, and they won’t let you leave here so quickly. And he said, I’m leaving. He left, and a week later I told the Kibbutz I’m leaving too. We thought of going to Jerusalem. They sent us to the Negev. When I got to the train station in Rehovot I heard a terrible explosion, I looked back and saw a train rolling down the slope. I understood what happened. The Etzel (Irgun) or the Lechi (Shtern Gang) did it.
Dan Yahav: The Lechi.
Amnon Neumann: They blew up the trains carrying the English army to Egypt. I ran breathless to Rehovot and then I went to the Negev.
Dan Yahav: You didn’t manufacture only caps, but also 9mm bullets, didn’t you.
Amnon Neumann: Sure, but I made caps.
Eitan Bronstein: What else did they manufacture there?
Amnon Neumann: Sten bullets, and they inspected Sten parts. They would inspect them there, there was a special place for shooting. It was a big factory, something like fifty people worked there. Going down there, seven meters, it was … you can go visit the place to this day.
Amnon Neumann: I did a scouting course so they put me in a scouting platoon and there was another platoon there. When we got there my friend told me, Don’t you have a pit? There are cannons here. I told him, So what if there are cannons? I’d never heard [of] a cannon. So he says, It’s a terrible thing. Go dig yourself a pit and cover it, until midnight. We did it, we covered it. The next morning I see he’s dying of fear. A brave guy, a great guy, but dying of fear. It told him, Ptachia, what’s the matter? He answered, There are cannons! We wanted to go eat at eight o’clock, so he told me, No, we’re not going to eat at eight, we’ll go later. At eight fifteen the terrible cannons of Beit Hanoun, there were something like ten there, opened concentrated fire. Now I understand that what they had done earlier was ranging. But nobody knew what a cannon was, and nobody knew what ranging was. So they ranged them a day earlier, before I even got there, and they saw—they had great observation posts—that everybody is getting into the dining hall, it wasn’t in Nir-Am but in Mekorot, before Nir-Am, and then they opened very heavy fire. We sat there for three hours, until they finished destroying the whole place and it became quiet. We got out, the platoon commander approached me and told me, A friend of mine from Kfar Yehezkel came to visit me, he’s lying in the trench, look, and then I saw all the dead. The whole trench was full of dead people. The whole dining hall was full of dead people. Whoever didn’t have a head cover was either killed or escaped, managed to escape. There were some who managed to escape. That was the Egyptian army’s welcome reception. After that they advanced and got to … The two-week long battle over Be’erot started … near Yad-Mordechai. We tried then to bypass the Egyptians but it didn’t work out. Only in the last night when it was decided that we’re leaving them, that we’re leaving the place, were we able to get the people out.
Question: What years are we talking about?
Amnon Neumann: July 48, until the first break in the fighting. By the time of the first break there were no more Arabs in the area.
Question: I don’t know if you will get back later to the topic I want to ask about. You said “we expelled” the villagers, can you describe an expulsion action for us, how it was done?
Amnon Neumann: Yes, until then some of them fled and some were expelled. We shot and they fled to Gaza. But we expelled systematically in the last day of the break in the fighting. During the break there were also a few battles. They tried to penetrate through the Gaza-Beersheba road and we stopped them. The Egyptians! There was no one else to stop.
Eitan Bronstein: Can you say in this context, do you remember what was the order you received regarding the Arab villages?
Amnon Neumann: I’ll tell you. I don’t like it, but I’ll tell you. In the last day of the break we were told that the Egyptians smuggled 20mm cannons to the villages Kawfakha and al-Muharraqa and tomorrow they would act with them and we need to destroy these villages. We drove there … and the men had fled, that was the usual practice. The men would run away first, leaving the women and the children, and then … (silence) we would expel them, right? And so it was in Kawfakha. I was in Kawfakha, others were in al-Muharraqa. It’s about 15km from Gaza. We surrounded the village, started shooting in the air, and everybody started to scream, yes, and … and we drove them out. The women and the children went to Gaza.
Lia Tarachansky: Were there people who didn’t agree to go?
Amnon Neumann: Nobody dared. I’ll tell you why: their mentality was that whoever dares will be killed anyway. They would do it too, if it were the other way around. These are no saints. It’s in the people’s culture, that this is how it’s always been. Whoever resisted would be killed with a sword or by shooting. It’s not an uncommon thing. By morning no one was there. We burned the houses that had straw roofs.
Eitan Bronstein: Just a second, I don’t understand, what exactly was the order in this context, was there an order in some villages to destroy the whole village and not in others? What exactly was the procedure?
Amnon Neumann: No, no, no. These villages were in our rear, and from a military standpoint it made sense. Nobody knew … we didn’t find any cannon there – that’s clear. But now it became an even surface, an open area that you could maneuver in.
Amir Hallel: Before then, if you had approached that area would it have been dangerous, would it have been disruptive?
Amnon Neumann: Nobody would have dared go into an inhabited village. We never entered villages to stay there but only to expel them. Someone asked earlier how they were expelled. This is how it was. Then the same thing happened with the Tarabin and with the Bedouin tribes. That was half a year later.
Amir Hallel: You said that in the whole area of the villages further to the north—when the Egyptians shot at you from Beit Hanoun in June in the whole area except for Huj—you said there were no Arabs. So what happened to those villagers?
Amnon Neumann: There were no Arabs, either they fled or we expelled them. We had already conquered Burayr in battle. The others, they saw that there’s nothing in Hulayqat so they ran away. The big battle of Hulayqat was between our army and the Egyptians. There were no civilians.
Amir Hallel: And in Burayr, which battalion was that?
Amnon Neumann: That was the Second Battalion of the Palmach.
Amir Hallel: They attacked Burayr?
Amnon Neumann: Yes.
Eitan Bronstein: But who was resisting there, who was the battle against?
Amnon Neumann: The villagers couldn’t do anything against armed units entering the village, we called them gangs. But what does “gangs” mean? Those were groups of local soldiers that weren’t trained at all. The battle in Burayr wasn’t a big battle either, they ran away.
Amir Hallel: The inhabitants of the village?
Amnon Neumann: No, the armed people were foreigners there, they came to defend the village. Qawuqji told them, Fight, fight the Jews—we’ll come help you from Acre. No help and no nothing. At Sumayriyya near Regba it was the same thing. It characterized them in the south too, where I was, and also in the north. With the locals there was almost … in the north there were more battles, even difficult battles.
Eitan Bronstein: You’re saying it was a battle with armed people who were not the inhabitants of the village, in Burayr. But at the same time there were still residents of Burayr in the village?
Amnon Neumann: Yes!
Eitan Bronstein: So, there was a battle?
Amnon Neumann: There was a battle, and there was also a small murder and similar things and then the inhabitants ran away completely.
Eitan Bronstein: Yes, there are testimonies about a massacre having taken place in Burayr.
Amnon Neumann: You’ve heard about it?
Eitan Bronstein: Yes.
Dan Yahav: I wrote about it, it appears in my “Purity of Arms”.
Amnon Neumann: It does?
Dan Yahav: Yes.
Amnon Neumann: I don’t want to deal with it.
Dan Yahav: And in other villages as well.
Amnon Neumann: I know, I don’t want to deal with it!
Dan Yahav: Allow me a minute, I see the topic of the expulsion is a very sensitive topic. You were a soldier, I was also a soldier, and when I fought I wouldn’t know exactly what was happening in the area. But there are wonderful descriptions in the Negba archive. There is a wonderful description of a kibbutz member! He sees the expulsion, he sees the convoy with the children and everything and it reminds him of terrible things the Jewish people has been through. The same thing is available at Shmaria Gutman’s in Na’an, regarding Lud, Lud and Ramle, about the expulsion.
Amnon Neumann: Oh, right, right.
Eitan Bronstein: Today it is sensitive for you to recall it?
Amnon Neumann: (quietly) Yes, it is.
Amir Hallel: You said there was a time when you would pass through Bureir and at some point you stopped.
Amnon Neumann: Yes, we couldn’t pass through them because the shooting was too strong, and our miserable armored vehicles couldn’t handle it. So we drove through Ashkelon, Isdud, Ashkelon, Barbara, Bayt Jirja, down to Nir-'Am. Part of the route was even a dirt road. I want to note that the people I was with over there, in our platoon everyone were born in this country. In the other platoon there were others, including immigrants and people who hadn’t grown up with the country’s air of decency, an air of people who knew what they were going to do, who gave their lives without thinking twice.
Eitan Bronstein: What was the atmosphere among the people in terms of the feelings they had about what happened then, during that time?
Amnon Neumann: It was a horrible period: we were sure that the Egyptians would wipe us out, especially after they had cut off the Negev. We didn’t know that the Ninth Battalion was getting organized in the north and would come and break the siege, we didn’t know that. That was later on, in Operation “Yoav”.
Eitan Bronstein: So in terms of the feeling, there was a feeling that it was like the end?
Amnon Neumann: That’s what I observed, unpleasantly. There was also a second platoon with us in Burayr. One guy, an Egyptian Jew, came here and said—excuse me—“I fucked her and shot her”.
Eitan Bronstein: Did you hear him say it?
Amnon Neumann: No, I was told about this later, I didn’t see him. And then they ran, the people who were there and saw her, a 17-year-old girl, he had put a bullet through her head. I approached the platoon commander, who was from Tel Yosef, and I told him, I told him, I think he should be killed. So he said, Stop it you! We’re all going to die in a week or two, what are you messing around with here … that was the mood back then. Later on the situation got better. We saw the Egyptians weren’t worth much, and they can be wiped out, and we really did attack the cannons and destroyed them and killed lots of Egyptians there. And after that the situation stabilized.
Amir Hallel: What happened to that guy?
Amnon Neumann: Nothing. What happened to him? Don’t ask! Don’t ask what happened.
Amir Hallel: You told me…
Amnon Neumann: I told you? So why do you need me to say it here? It’s not important. Just as I wasn’t important. He was killed later, but killed in a terrible way. But why is that important? A lot of my friends were killed not in a terrible way.
Eitan Bronstein: Can we get back to that harsh expression you mentioned. From that word you understood that there had been a rape there followed by murder?
Amnon Neumann: I didn’t see it, but people ran and saw it. They saw that girl lying there with a bullet in her head.
Dan Yahav: But they had washed her there, she was clean.
Amnon Neumann: I didn’t see and didn’t ask, how do you know?
Dan Yahav: I’m telling you, I know.
Amnon Neumann: This particular case?
Dan Yahav: Yes.
Amnon Neumann: With this Egyptian?
Dan Yahav: Yes, yes.
Amnon Neumann: I see you’ve done some research.
Dan Yahav: They washed her, prepared her and then did what they did. (Silence)
Amnon Neumann: I didn’t know these details and I never wanted to go into the thick of things.
Dan Yahav: By the way, the IDF archive is unwilling to this day to open documents related to cases of rape. It’s still [a matter of] “Israel’s security”. (Long silence)
Amnon Neumann: After that I was in Beersheba. There was a short battle there. It wasn’t a big battle, four or five hours and that’s it. There was a chain of Egyptian military posts there, 10km after Beersheba, and we attacked them, and it was the first time I encountered, in Beersheba, what we called the “French commando”. It was a unit made up of immigrants from Morocco. They were trained in Beersheba, in the alleys of Beersheba, and they attacked there. It was ok, we drove out the Egyptians, the Egyptians didn’t hold out anywhere for very long. It was the first time I saw soldiers walking around among the dead Egyptians. It turned out they had been looking for gold teeth in the officers’ mouths. I went crazy. My conceptual world was different.
Lia Tarachansky: Were there cases of disobedience to orders? Did anyone get up and leave rather than go all the way through with it?
Amnon Neumann: Where? With us? No. Never. Everyone went all the way through with it and to the bitter end.
Eitan Bronstein: You know, Amnon, we once met a soldier who had fought in Beersheba and he told us they shot people who had fled from Beersheba, people ran away and soldiers shot them, shot civilians.
Amnon Neumann: Yes, yes, yes. They ran away to the east and the south and they were shot. That’s because it was, I saw it… ok, I did that too. Are we done? Why should I go into details?
Eitan Bronstein: But you can describe exactly this thing, how you as a soldier, you’re shooting people who you see aren’t shooting at you, how… how did you understand it back then? Over there? That you had the full right to do it?
Amnon Neumann: I didn’t understand, I was 19.
Eitan Bronstein: So you just did it?
Amnon Neumann: I was a fool and I didn’t know. Yes. That’s why I’m in such despair, because soldiers are always 19-20 years old, and they never sober up until they’ve been through four battles. That’s the main point. And there will always be new 19-year-olds.
Amir Hallel: Was there an order to do it?
Amnon Neumann: Where I was, there was an order in one case. As I said, the horrors of war are more difficult than the battles of war, which are not easy either.
Eitan Bronstein: I heard recently about a testimony given by a Palmachnik, [who had been] I think in Simsim, were you in Simsim?
Amnon Neumann: I was there after the village had been destroyed.
Eitan Bronstein: So maybe you’ve heard soldiers’ testimonies saying they saved the Palestinian women from Palestinian men shooting their wives?
Amnon Neumann: They didn’t save, our soldiers didn’t save anyone. Look, in the heat of battle you don’t save anyone. And save just one person, yourself. Right? You don’t save anyone. After that there was the big battle over Be’erot Yitzhak. Really, a big and terrible battle. Half of the men of Be’erot Yitzhak were killed there. How many were there? There were 100, 40 were killed there, something like that. And we came from the direction of Sa'ad to save them and the platoons of the “Negev Animals” came from the other direction and then there was a battle. We shot and they shot. In the end, they fixed their machine gun and mowed down the Sudanese. It was a lucerne field there. Straight, even. And then I saw from a distance, for the first and only time, how the Egyptian officers walk with pistols with the soldiers ahead of them, shooting, lying down, getting up, shooting. That was one of the elite units of the Sudanese army, which afterwards stayed in 'Iraq Suwaydan as well, until they conquered 'Iraq Suwaydan.
Amir Hallel: What do you mean when you say that those officers walked with pistols?
Amnon Neumann: What reason did a poor Sudanese have for going and getting killed? For what? Did he even know? Those were the British methods, that there should be order. But the British didn’t have… it was also that way in World War I, rest assured. No one wants to die just like that. What did the Sudanese have here? They were tall, giant, muscular negroes. After the battle our platoon went to collect the booty and the documents. That was our part.
Eitan Bronstein: What do you mean the documents?
Amnon Neumann: Of the dead! What unit was it, what they did, right? We walked there among… we turned everyone over, and… all that. Back then I didn’t feel anything for these dead people. They were enemies and it’s good that they died, right? I didn’t feel anything special.
Amnon Neumann: In March 1949 the race to conquer Eilat began. We went down as far as Wadi Abiad, where 'Ovda is. And we would kill poor Egyptians over there too, those who had got cut off from their units and we shot them from the hillside. Right? No one… they were abandoned, no one paid attention to them. After a week we were told, Operation 'Ovda—going to conquer Eilat. Our platoon split into two, there was a group that led the whole Negev Brigade. And we drove, I was the scout commander, we drove an hour after them. In one of the wadis I suddenly heard a sound that was already familiar to me, a land mine exploded, I looked back and saw the jeep behind us rising into the air and collapsing. And immediately they opened fire on us. Me and my driver… (laughing) we jumped under the jeep. I left the MG machine gun hanging there (laughing). And he told me, his name was Basri, he was from Iraq, he told me, Amnon this is the end. We had been a year together. This is the end. We saw the heads, the kafiyas of the Legion soldiers above us, about twenty meters. So I told him, there’s nothing else to do; here, each one of us has a rifle, let’s shoot five bullets, the whole magazine, and run, whatever happens happens. And so we did. We shot, ran and hid. A few days later our commander said we conquered Eilat and we’re driving down there. We drove until we got to Wadi Paran. They I told him, Listen, let go 10km in here and see what happened to the jeep. He said ok, and then we were all tensed up, maybe there’s an ambush or something. And I followed with the map and said, Here there’s 300m left until we get to the jeep, and so it was. 200m before the jeep I saw a Jordanian lying dead, with his kafiyah. We went down to him, he had gotten a bullet here (point to his head), from the ten bullets we had shot. And then we saw the mines. Our jeep which first went through squeezed it with the wheel and it didn’t go off. The second jeep drove over it. We got to Eilat and the war was over.
Amir Hallel: Just a second Amnon, what about the Bedouins? You started saying something about them.
Amnon Neumann: Right, I forgot. The Azazme, and the Tarabin. We were there for two months, we marked the roads that would later be constructed on the Negev Plateau. We got to every remote corner there, really, to every corner. That was when I saw the Azazme and the Tarabin. They would be hiding in all kinds of places, in narrow wadis. I don’t know what they lived off from. I don’t know where they drank water. It was in the Negev Plateau, there was one well there where we would go once every two weeks to wash. Bir Malihi. The good well. Malihi in Arabic means good. It was then that I saw how they lived there. And they were terribly afraid. When we would appear with the jeeps, the men would mount their horses and run away, leaving the women and the children. We never touched them, right? These are not the people we wanted to hurt.
Question: There were no orders to expel them, to transfer them?
Amnon Neumann: No, no. You are reminding me of the Jahalin. The same week we conquered Eilat, our platoon had only three or four people who were taken to the conquering of 'Ein-Gedi. When they came back, after two weeks, we all came back so I asked them, What did you do? So they said, Nothing. There were Jahalin there, we shot in the air and they ran away. We didn’t kill anyone, do anything, and Ein-Gedi is occupied. Later I heard about the Jahalin from a number of places. It was a large tribe in the east of the country and part of it was also in Jordan. A year ago, I visited… how do you call this place… where Sima went.
Dan Yahav: Ma’ale Adumim, they are still there.
Amnon Neumann: Yes, yes, Ma’ale Adumim. I visited there and saw the Bedouins. I said, Hannah, I have to approach them. And then I approached them. The youngsters received us, Hannah stayed in the car because it was a very warm day. The youngsters received us with such hatred: Get lost, why should we talk to you, are you a journalist? I told him, No, I’m not a journalist. So he told me again, Are you a journalist? I told him, No. and then I saw an old man standing there, on the side. I approached him and told him, Who are you? So he says, We are from the Jahalin. I told him, Where are you from the Jahalin? So he says, From Arad. I told him, No my friend, you are not from Arad, from the Arad area. So he says to me, How do you know? I said, I know. You were in the Dead Sea. I told him in Arabic. So he says, How do you know? So I said, They expelled you 60 years ago, didn’t they. He said, that’s right, after that we were in Arad. But before that we were in the valley below. There weren’t many to expel there.
Question: You also said they burned houses.
Amnon Neumann: That was in the south.
Eitan Bronstein: So in the south the houses were demolished immediately following the occupation, when the people left them.
Amnon Neumann: It wasn’t a problem to demolish them. These were mud and clay houses, nothing.
Questions from the audience: How did they do it? How did they demolish the houses?
Amnon Neumann: It was enough for an armored vehicle to drive by and give it a blow and the whole building would collapse.
Amir Hallel: What would you do if people tried to return to their village, what did you do?
Amnon Neumann: Oh, yes. People who were in Gaza wanted to return to their villages. They would come back at night and do two things: first, there was special agriculture, in the sand dunes, further up north. The vines would bloom and they would need to be pruned, so they would come there at night. The didn’t know they would never ever come back. And we waited for them, it was impossible to let them walk around there, so we waited for them.
Eitan Bronstein: Wait a minute, what would they come for, you didn’t say.
Amnon Neumann: To take care of the vine, to take all kinds of things from the village, I never looked into their sacks. And we would snipe and kill them. That was part of the horrible things.
A woman from the audience: One of the women-soldiers, the women who served in the Palmach, told about how during the war as well as afterwards throughout her life, the moral paralysis was so strong that it had to be accompanied by aggressiveness, and what she says is that after several decades of repressing so strongly what she had done and the demolition of the villages and the expulsion, that it took decades until she was walking in a certain forest and suddenly she remembered that she was standing in a place where a village had once stood. Have you also had experiences of this kind?
Amnon Neumann: Oh, experiences of this kind? Yes. I did but I wasn’t shocked anymore. I used to be shocked by what I’d been through.
Question: Can you maybe tell us?
Lia Tarachansky: You don’t want to talk?
Amnon Neumann: Come on! Do you want me to tell you that I shot at a pickup truck full of people? (coughing) Nonsense. It didn’t change the essence of the whole Nakba.
From the audience: But if we can understand how you repressed it, maybe we’ll be able to understand how the whole people of Israel still doesn’t know about the Nakba?
Woman in the audience: How come you, members of the battalion, never tried to sit together, to talk, to bring back memories?
Amnon Neumann: No. Uh, no, we had reunions years later.
Woman continuing: To try, after you sobered up didn’t you try…
Amnon Neumann: No, there was no one to do it with. We had company, battalion, brigade, Palmach reunions, right? In the end I stopped going and my wife got very angry. I said, I don’t want to hear them. They are always just telling about themselves. How it was here and how it was there. No one was thinking critically. How did you put it? Morally speaking, moral paralysis. It was moral paralysis.
Eitan Bronstein: But now you said something important. You keep saying all the time that it’s a war and that in a war terrible things happen.
Amnon Neumann: That’s right.
Eitan Bronstein: On the other hand, from your descriptions and from what you are saying and hinting here and there about having participated in horrible things as well, that’s not exactly the description of a war. Is this what you mean by “war”?
Amnon Neumann: As I told you, the horrors of war are as hard as the battles. I said it. These horrors, the horrible things that in a war are often worse than the war. Worse things, that is, when women are killed, when you kill children, all the horrors surrounding war, not surrounding the battle, they are worse than the battles. It’s called “moraot” [horrors] in Hebrew. Not “me’oraot” [events], but “moraot” of the war. The horrible things of war.
Eitan Bronstein: You mean, cases where civilians get killed. Are you referring to these kinds of things?
Amnon Neumann: Exactly.
Question: Amnon, can you perhaps tell us after all, if not about a specific event, at least a little bit in principle about the method? Really the method?
Amnon Neumann: There was no method.
Question continuing: The method of the expulsion, how it was done.
Amnon Neumann: Oh, the method of the expulsion! They would come to a village, shoot in the air, and the villagers had no weapons, they had nothing, they packed their things and fled. Then sometimes they would shoot after them and sometimes they didn’t, and that was all.
Question continuing: And what would you do after that, leave the village? Burn it down?
Amnon Neumann: There was so little in the village, as I said, in certain known cases we burned the village down and in other cases we would leave it. No one… there was nothing to steal. Look, there was nothing to loot there. They were as poor as church mice. There was nothing to steal. Me, the only looting I took, I found this kind of prayer rug, I put it in my pit, where I slept for three months.
Amir Hallel: In the south, in the area where you were in the south, in the Negev, were prisoners taken from among the villagers, or were people allowed to run away?
Amnon Neumann: Yes, yes. They were usually allowed to run away. If there were cases…
From the audience: There weren’t any prisoners or things like that?
Amnon Neumann: Egyptian prisoners?
From the audience: No, villagers.
Amnon Neumann: No. If there were prisoners they would be killed immediately.
From the audience: Can you tell about the occupation of Beersheba?
Amnon Neumann: There wasn’t much of an Egyptian force there, and wherever the Egyptians were attacked they didn’t hold out. I saw it in the cannons, when we conquered the cannons. We killed about 80 Egyptians there. So what? In two hours the cannons were in our hands, we had nothing to do with them. No one among us, even the company commander and battalion commander didn’t know, they had never in their life seen a cannon.
Amir Hallel: From the cannons did you continue into the town?
Amnon Neumann: No, it was enough. From the second company so many were killed, from the “Negev Animals”. You don’t move forward just like that. From Beit Hanoun. It wasn’t Beit Hanoun then.
Woman from the audience: I heard about an expulsion method in which three sides of a village would be closed off and one side left open where they wanted the expulsion to go. Was that a method you also used?
Amnon Neumann: That’s right. They would position one squad here, one squad here, one there, shoot in the air, not even straight at them, and they would run away by themselves, they had nothing to defend themselves with.
Woman in the audience: But they understood that it’s the only direction.
Amnon Neumann: They knew they had to get to Gaza, and they knew the directions better than us.
Eitan Bronstein: Amnon, I want to ask you something after all about those horrors that you find it difficult to talk about, and I understand that, but can you say something about afterward, let’s say, would it come up in conversations among the soldiers, for example? After all, you did do things, and you were adults, you did difficult things. Would you later share your experiences?
Amnon Neumann: It wasn’t difficult. Who was it difficult for? For the squad commander who gave the order, for the soldier who pulled the trigger? It wasn’t difficult. It was completely natural—we had to do it. If not, they would slaughter us. Don’t think that if it were the other way around it would have been better. It would have been much worse. There is no doubt about it.
Public hearing at Zochrot, 61 Ibn Gvirol St., Tel-Aviv, June 17, 2010. The audience consisted of about twenty people. Initiated and organized by Amir Hallel. The testimony was video-recorded by Lia Tarachansky. Miri Barak prepared the transcription. Eitan Bronstein edited, summarized, and added footnotes. Translated to English by Asaf Kedar.