CAIRO — As Egyptians were preparing to celebrate Eid al-Adha, Israeli newspapers revealed July 8 the discovery of a mass grave of Egyptian soldiers who allegedly were burned alive and then buried in an unmarked burial site near Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
The media reports raised the ire of the Egyptian public, with many Egyptians questioning the future of the strong political relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.
Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “This incident will greatly affect ties between Cairo and Tel Aviv.”
The Egyptian official response did not take long.
On July 10, the Egyptian government announced that it was delegating its embassy in Tel Aviv to communicate with the Israeli authorities to look into the published reports on the discovery of the mass grave and be urgently supplied with all the details of the discovery.
Yossi Melman, investigative journalist at Haaretz, spent years investigating the story that was published July 8.
In a Twitter thread on the same day, Melman wrote, “After 55 years of heavy censorship, I can reveal that at least 20 Egyptian soldiers were burnt alive and buried by IDF in a mass grave, which wasn’t marked and without being identified contrary to war laws, in Latrun. It happened during the Six Day's War."
He noted, “Days before the war Egypt's [Gamal Abdel] Nasser signed a defense pact with Jordan's [King] Hussein. Egypt deployed 2 commando battalions in the West Bank near Latrun, which was no man's land. Their mission was to raid inside Israel and take over Lod and nearby military airfields."
Melman said, “Fire Exchanges took place with IDF troops and members of Kibbutz Nahshon. Some Egyptian troops fled, some taken prisoners, and some bravely fought. At a certain point IDF fired mortar shells and thousands of uncultivated dunams of wild bush in the dry summer were set on fire.”
He continued, “At least 20 Egyptian soldiers died in the bush fire ‘the fire spread quickly in the hot and dry bush, and they had no chance to escape’ I was told by Zeen Bloch (now 90 years) who was the military commander of Nachshon, a left-wing Kibbutz. The next day IDF soldiers equipped with a bulldozer came to the scene, dug a pit, pushed the Egyptian corpses and covered them with soil. Bloch and some Nahshon members watched with horror as soldiers looted personal belongings and left the mass grave unmarked.”
Latrun is located on the road linking occupied East Jerusalem and Jaffa. In the wake of the 1948 war, it was agreed between Israel and Jordan to turn Latrun into a restricted area.
On June 15, 1967, Israel occupied Latrun and annexed it along with the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Old Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt was leading the Arabs during the Six-Day War, but was defeated. The fighting was renewed in 1973 and Egypt emerged victorious, restoring Sinai in the wake of the 1979 Camp David Accords.
“Publishing the story about the mass grave where the IDF buried Egyptian commando soldiers near Latrun is an important contribution on the road to historical justice,” Melman told Al-Monitor.
He said that according to an unofficial estimate about 80 Egyptian soldiers were killed in total during the commando operation. “It is not known what caused the deaths of each and every one of them, but it is clear that some of them — an estimated 20 of them — died in the fire,” he added.
Melman explained, “Contrary to the Geneva Convention, they were not buried with dignity. There was no attempt to identify them, and even claims were made at the time — which were not verified — that personal property, such as watches, had been looted from some of the fallen.”
“Until the [Haaretz] publication over the weekend, the [Israeli] defense establishment, through censorship, imposed a sweeping cover on the affair,” he said, as Israeli authorities claimed that the story would harm Israel's security and its foreign relations, i.e., its ties with Egypt.
But Melman praised the fact that the military censorship finally ignored those pretexts and eventually published the story, even if it was 55 years late.
“It can be assumed that allowing the publication indicates that the ties between Israel and Egypt are strong enough,” Melman noted.
Although relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have been normalized since 1979, they are considered as “cold peace” between the two countries.
Ties between the two sides, however, have grown in an unprecedented manner during the era of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, especially at the political and economic levels.
That is why Israel was quick to contain the Egyptian discontent, as Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made a phone call July 10 to Sisi to fill him in on the discovery of the mass grave of Egyptian soldiers buried in Jerusalem.
According to the Egyptian presidency, Lapid stressed that the “Israeli side will deal with this matter in a positive and transparent manner, and communication and coordination will be made with the Egyptian authorities in order to reach the truth.”
Meanwhile, Israeli government spokesman Ofir Gendelman said that Lapid instructed his military secretary to thoroughly examine this issue and to inform the Egyptian authorities of developments related to it.
On July 10, Gendelman stressed on Twitter “the inherent importance of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The two expressed their commitment to continue developing relations … and agreed to arrange a meeting between them soon.”
On the same day, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke with the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel.
In a tweet July 12, Gantz said after speaking with Kamel, “I also addressed reports regarding the graves of Egyptian soldiers who fought in the Six-Day War. I assured Director Kamel that the defense establishment will examine the issue with great respect.”
Mustafa Bakri, a prominent member of Egypt’s parliament, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s statement and the call between Sisi and Lapid “were [the result] of extensive efforts by the Egyptian administration.”
He said, “Egypt is waiting for the Israeli investigation and will not neglect it, especially amid the state of public anger among Egyptians since the story was revealed."
He expected that Egypt would also open an independent investigation, noting, “The Egyptian armed forces will certainly return to the record of its soldiers who had gone missing in the war, and will listen to the Egyptian accounts of men who lived through the war to get to the bottom of this.”
Bakri added, “This discovery revealed a scandal and an Israeli war crime. Therefore, Egypt should file a complaint with the International Criminal Court to try the perpetrators — some of whom are still alive. But first, it is necessary to recover the remains of these soldiers and to hold an official funeral, because they are the martyrs of our homeland. After that, the political leadership will discuss the means of response.”
Melman said, “Their exact burial place is unknown. The only possible identification of the presumed place is an aerial photograph from June 18, 1967, located in the Israel mapping center [Mapi — formerly the Surveying Department]. A parking lot of the 'Mini Israel' site was probably built near the mass grave.”
He noted, “Israel can work together with Egypt to try to locate the exact burial site. There is equipment such as underground sensors and metal detectors. I am sure that some soldiers were buried with their equipment and weapons."
Melman added, “And if this is not possible, at least a monument should be erected there in their memory and commemoration. Building a monument would only strengthen the peace between the two countries.”
Nafaa said that the incident shocked Egyptians, which caused embarrassment to the Egyptian regime.
“The Egyptian reaction was not strong enough. Egypt was supposed to insist on halting relations with Israel until this matter is investigated and resolved, but this did not happen,” he said. “At the same time, Israel sought to contain Egyptian public opinion with its pledge to investigate, fearing that its relations with Egypt would be affected, as Tel Aviv seeks to take advantage of US President Joe Biden’s tour in the Middle East to further integrate into the region and enhance its security."
Nafaa added, “I believe that the Egyptian regime has no other choice but to maintain relations with Israel. In return, Israel may apologize for the incident and return the remains of the soldiers.”
Meanwhile, Nimrod Goren, president and founder of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, Mitvim, told Al-Monitor, “Israel is likely to do what it can to prevent the issue from causing friction between two states.”
He said, “Israel-Egypt relations are expanding and broadening and enjoy a positive momentum. Hopefully, this development will not become a major obstacle on the way forward. The contrary may even happen; when such events are dealt with in a spirit of friendship and partnership, they can help increase trust and cooperation, while not erasing hardships of the past."