Rafah massacre

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Rafah massacre
Part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Aftermath of the Suez Crisis
Rafah in Palestine.svg
Location of the Rafah Governorate within the Palestinian territories.
Location Rafah, Gaza Strip
Date 12 November 1956
Target Male Arab villagers
Suspected members of the Palestinian fedayeen
Egyptian Military
Attack type
Massacre (disputed)[1]
Deaths ~111
Perpetrators Israel Defense Forces

The Rafah massacre occurred on November 12, 1956, during the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip following the Suez Crisis. The town of Rafah, lying on Gaza's border with Egypt, had been one of two invasion points during the initial incursion by the Israel Defense Forces into the Strip on November 1. As with the earlier Khan Yunis massacre, circumstances surrounding the events which led to the deaths of approximately 111 residents of Rafah and the nearby refugee camp are highly disputed, with Israel neither denying nor acknowledging any wrongdoing.[2] According to survivor testimonies, IDF soldiers rounded up male individuals over fifteen years of age in an effort to root out members of the Palestinian fedayeen and Egyptian Army.[2]


Abandoned Egyptian position on the outskirts of Rafah following its capitulation

The invasion of Rafah and the nearby Egyptian city of Arish began in the early hours of November 1, 1956. In his memoir The Sinai Campaign, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Moshe Dayan wrote of the strategic importance of capturing Rafah, saying "If El Arish and Rafah were to fall to us, the Gaza Strip will be isolated and unable, alone, to hold out."[3] Rafah's defenses collapsed within hours of Israeli arrival in the Strip, and by late morning Israeli soldiers were walking the streets of the town. Egyptian military officers in the area removed their uniforms and fled into the interior of Rafah, attempting to blend in with the local populace. Fighting between Israeli forces and those of the Egyptians and local militants ceased on November 7.[4]


Initial fedayeen capture[edit]

Israeli efforts to root out militant elements of Rafah's population on November 1 proved fruitless, save for one soldier, Ahmed Joudah. Joudah was taken from his home soon after the Israelis came to Rafah, driven out to the desert by a small group of soldiers, and killed. Rumors that he was tied to and pulled apart by two Jeeps exist, but are apocryphal.[5]

Rounding up of men[edit]

Between 6 and 6:30 AM on the morning of November 12, an announcement was made via loudspeaker for all men between the ages of 15 and 60 (witness reports of the age asked for vary) to gather at the local schoolhouse.[6] Israeli troops encouraged the Arab men to quickly reach the school; they encouraged this by firing their rifles into the air and sporadically beating them with sticks. A handful of Palestinians were fired upon without warning on the way to the school.[7] As a steady flow of military-age males gathered near the school, Israeli soldiers searched homes in the area for any remaining men who had chosen not to comply with the announcement, killing any that they found. As the stream of rounded up Arabs approached the school, Israeli soldiers are alleged to have taunted them, chanting "This one is a fedayee!" whilst aiming at them with their firearms. Throughout the long run to the school yard, sporadic shooting occurred, with several deaths occurring on the walk.[8]

The procession eventually reached the wall which separated the school and street, the civilian men being made to line up against it. The group was then ordered to walk, hands against the wall, whilst continuously shot at from fixed machine gun positions.[8] The survivors of the latter shooting were made to walk through the school gate. As they entered the school, the male residents of Rafah were swung at by soldiers wielding heavy sticks and made to jump over a segment of barbed wire. Following this procedure, the group sat in the school yard.[9]

Men continuously arrived in the school yard up until 11 AM. Eyewitnesses report being intimidated and humiliated by the soldiers. Those sitting in the courtyard were made to bow their heads to the ground whilst rifle fire flew one or two meters above them. Being kept put for an extended period of time, many were forced to relieve themselves in front of the whole group.[10]

Outside the schoolyard, Israeli forces were actively searching the homes of the town, marking the walls of the searched homes with paint to indicate they had been searched. A separate group of Palestinian men, mainly older individuals, was being held on the outskirts of the town. Many of these men were released after questioning.[11]

Screening operation[edit]

Upon the arrival of one or two high-ranking British or Israeli officers, the soldiers were ordered to cease firing above the heads of the captive Arabs, who were allowed to raise their heads by the newly arrived official(s). Following this, the Israelis questioned suspected Palestinian militants inside the school, referencing a list of names for the task. They also asked those not listed to surrender themselves or face death. Palestinian soldiers slowly stood in the crowd, and were encouraged by the occupying forces to point out those among their ranks who had not stood. Eventually, every single member of the male populace, combatant or otherwise, was questioned by the Israelis.[12] Confessed and suspected soldiers were rounded up on buses and transported to the Atlit detainee camp in northern Israel.[13]


The bodies of those killed were dumped in the Tal Zorob neighborhood on the western side of Rafah; these were later found by their loved ones, who buried them themselves. Those incarcerated at Atlit were eventually repatriated.[14] Israel, following threats of UN-imposed economic sanctions by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, withdrew from the Gaza Strip on March 16, 1957.[15]

United Nations report[edit]

On December 15, 1956, the Special Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Covering the Period 1 November 1956 to mid-December 1956 was presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The report, acknowledging the circumstances surrounding the slayings were questionable, reports a total of 111 casualties of the November 12 screening. This included 103 refugees, seven local residents, and one Egyptian.[16] Israeli officers told UNRWA that the attitude towards the screening was "hostile," and a resistance to the operation by refugees was responsible for the casualties among their ranks.[16] The Director's notes also discuss the Khan Yunis massacre, a similar screening operation in the village of Khan Yunis which had allegedly resulted in the deaths of at least 275 Palestinians eight days prior to the incident at Rafah.[16]

Press coverage[edit]

In 2009, the incident at Rafah gained minor public interest when it was covered in the graphic novel Footnotes in Gaza, an eyewitness reliant account of the Khan Yunis killings and Rafah killings by Maltese American comics journalist Joe Sacco.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Graphic novel of IDF 'massacres' in Gaza set to hit bookstores". 21 December 2009. Haaretz. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "A thin black line". 11 February 2010. Haaretz. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Dayan, Moshe (1966). Diary of the Sinai Campaign. Harper & Row. 
  4. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  5. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 174. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  6. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  7. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  8. ^ a b Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  9. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  10. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  11. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 276. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  12. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. pp. 304–311. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  13. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 316. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  14. ^ Sacco, Joe (2009). Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan Books. p. 347. ISBN 978-0-8050-9277-6. 
  15. ^ Fry, Michael. The Forgotten Middle Eastern Crisis of 1957: Gaza and Sharm-el-Sheikh. p. xv. 
  16. ^ a b c "Director's report". 15 December 1956. UNRWA. Retrieved 25 August 2013.