Gabriel Brun, a Jerusalem journalist who served as a signals sergeant- major in the 1967 Six-Day War, described yesterday how he saw fellow Israeli soldiers shoot dead five prisoners of war in Egyptian uniforms.
His story added fuel to an escalating scandal sparked by a retired brigadier-general, who confessed to executing 49 Egyptian prisoners during the 1956 Suez war. Egypt, with whom Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, has demanded a full account. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was chief of staff during the 1967 war, has ordered an investigation.
"What I saw happened on the morning of 7 June, the third day of the war," Mr Brun, who was then 24, told the Independent. "I was at El Arish airfield in the Sinai desert, attached to the headquarters of an armoured division. I saw 120 to 150 Egyptian soldiers sitting with their hands tied behind their backs in a makeshift hangar made of sandbags. About 20 yards away I saw a trestle table with two men sitting behind it, their faces masked with khaki handkerchiefs. Individual prisoners were pushed out of the group, brought before this table and apparently interrogated. Some were sent back.
"I was about 30 or 40 yards away, so I couldn't hear what was said. I saw one man questioned, then marched about 200 yards into the desert by two military policemen.
"He was given a shovel and started to dig. After about 15 minutes, I saw the shovel thrown out. Then each of the two soldiers fired a round into the hole. Another guy was brought and shot, falling into the same hole. A third prisoner was brought to cover up the grave, then was marched back.
"I saw five prisoners killed in this way. Earlier I had heard 10 similar shots. I interpreted those to mean that another five were executed."
Mr Brun said an officer explained to him afterwards that the victims were Palestinian "terrorists", who were wanted for murdering Israelis and had tried to get away by merging with the fleeing Egyptians. The interrogators were officers in army intelligence.
Arye Biro, 69, the retired brigadier who admitted killing 49 Egyptian PoWs in the 1956 war, said on Wednesday he was not proud of what he had done, but did not feel like a war criminal. "I have ached over what I did," he said, "but under the same circumstances I think I would do it again."
Mr Biro commanded a paratroop company which dropped in the Mitla Pass, one of the two main routes from central Sinai to the Suez Canal.
"We were hundreds of kilometres behind enemy lines," he said. "Egyptian planes were flying over us unhindered. Egyptian troops were pouring into the area, and the prisoners were shouting, 'Just you wait, the Egyptian army will slaughter you'."
The paratroops were ordered to head south. According to Mr Biro, they had no transport for the prisoners and feared they would reveal the Israelis' position. So he and a lieutenant ordered the prisoners to lie face down, then shot them.
"They didn't cry out," he said dispassionately. "It was all over in a couple of minutes."
The paratroops' brigade commander was General Ariel Sharon, now an opposition Likud MP. He was not in the Mitla Pass at the time of the executions. But the battalion commander, Rafael Eitan, was. Mr Eitan, who rose to chief of staff, is now a hard-right candidate for prime minister. Asked if Mr Eitan ordered the killings, Mr Biro replied: "Ask him."
According to Meir Pa'il, a military historian and retired colonel, Moshe Dayan, who was chief of staff in 1956 and defence minister in 1967, reprimanded Mr Eitan for the killings during a meeting with battalion commanders.
Michael Bar-Zohar, an author and former Labour MP who handled Dayan's public relations after the 1967 war, said: "In every one of our wars, Israeli soldiers have killed PoWs. The high command did not want it, but it was tolerated up to a point. I know of only one case - in the 1982 Lebanon War - where an officer was court-martialled for killing a prisoner."