Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1996 pgs. 28, 53
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 on Middle East Affairs, 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 Conventionswar crimes. Specifically, Commander Jacobsen found that the attack was not legally justified, that it constituted an act of aggression under the United Nations Charter, that the use of unmarked aircraft, the wanton destruction of life rafts in the water, the jamming of international radio distress frequencies, and the failure of the torpedo boat commanders to render immediate assistance to a disabled and helpless enemy were all violations of international law.
U.S. Refusal to Investigate Violates Geneva Conventions
For years, USS Liberty survivors have asked members of Congress to investigate the circumstances of the attack, particularly since the Israeli government repeatedly has put out a spurious version of those circumstances. For example, we did fly a flag. We did identify ourselves. We were in international waters. They did not stop firing after seeing our flag as they claim, but continued to fire for another 40 minutes. The attack was not brief or accidental as Israel claims. We did not “attempt to hide” or escape when detected, as Israel has charged. These things are easy to prove.
More important are the war crimes discussed by Commander Jacobsen. These things should have been investigated in 1967. Yet U.S. officials have ignored the offenses for 29 years, refusing to investigate or even to acknowledge them.
That refusal is itself a crime. The United States, as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, is “under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed” violations of the conventions, and to see that violators are brought to trial.
There are no exceptions. War crimes reported to government officials must be investigated and perpetrators tried. Yet even this is ignored by U.S. officials. USS Liberty survivors for many years have reported the crimes committed against us and have requested an appropriate investigation. Despite the law, our complaints are ignored. No investigation of these charges has ever been held.
Recently, USS Liberty’s Joe Meadors, a former president and chairman of the Liberty Veterans Association, has filed formal complaints with the House and Senate Ethics Committees against members who have ignored our complaints.
To no surprise, these complaints, too, are being ignored.
Navy Refusal to Investigate Violates Navy Regulations
When the Liberty was attacked, Captain Joseph Tully in the aircraft carrier USS Saratogareceived the ship’s call for help and immediately sent jet aircraft to her assistance. Tully’s jets were recalled almost immediately by orders from Washington. As a result, American jet fighter support was withheld for more than 90 minutes. By then the damage was done and 34 men were dead or dying.
Had those aircraft been sent, they would probably have arrived before the torpedo boats started their part of the attack. At least 25 lives could have been saved.
We survivors have tried for 29 years to learn why we were denied the immediate air support that we were promised in case of trouble. There are no answers.
The Navy still will not even admit that help was not sent, even though one of the aircraft carrier commanders has offered to testify that he was forbidden to help us.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the body of law that governs every military person, provides that “Any person subject to this chapter who before or in the presence of the enemy...does not afford all practicable relief and assistance to...troops, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces...when engaged in battle...shall be punished by death or such punishment as a court martial may direct.”
That provision was clearly violated when Liberty’s air support was withheld. Yet the Navy will not even admit that we were not defended George Orwell suggested in 1945 that some animals are more equal than other animals. Some countries, too, it would seem.
James Ennes, a survivor of Israel's 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, is the author of Assault on the Liberty (available from AET's Middle East Books and More).