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Oct 26, 1:27 PM EDT

Israeli president visits Arab town, massacre site

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AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
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Conflict in the Middle East

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's new ceremonial president visited the site of a 1956 massacre Sunday, the first Israeli head of state to do so, as part of his outreach campaign to the country's Arab minority.

Reuven Rivlin became president in July, replacing Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, and has since made improving relations between Jews and Arabs a top focus of his administration. By visiting Kfar Kassem, Rivlin became the first president to attend a memorial ceremony for the 47 Arab civilians shot by Israeli border policemen on the first day of the Israel-Egypt war in 1956.

Rivlin said the massacre was a "sorrowful chapter" in Israeli history, calling it a crime for which Israel has rightfully apologized.

"The State of Israel has recognized the crime committed here," he said at the memorial site. "I too, am here today to say a terrible crime was done here. An illegal command, over which hangs a dark cloud, was given here. The same terrible dark cloud which was ignored by those who carried out the murder of innocents."

In 1956, Israel imposed a nighttime curfew on its Arab citizens because of growing tensions with Egypt. A group of laborers unaware of the curfew returned to Kfar Kassem after a day's work and were shot to death by Israeli border policemen. The troops were later convicted of murder but many were released from prison early.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's 8 million residents and, unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hold citizenship rights. But they often complain of being treated as second-class citizens. Most don't serve in the military, which is mandatory for Jews, and many Jews consider them disloyal for sympathizing with the country's enemies.

Rivlin, a staunch nationalist, has been a strong proponent of coexistence throughout his long political career.

"The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who returned to their land after two millennia of exile," he said. "However, the State of Israel will also always be the homeland of the Arab population ... even if none of us had sought it we were destined to live side by side, together, with a shared fate."

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