60 Years Later

Massacres, Expropriation, and Canadian Participation in 1948: Ben Dunkelman and his "Anglo-Saxon Brigade"

When Ben Dunkelman, only recently returned from the European battlefields of WWII, hosted the JNF-Canada’s first annual "Negev Dinner," he had already been approached by Lorna Wingate, widow of the late British Captain, to participate in the looming fight in Palestine. Soon, Dunkelman was juggling management responsibilities at Tip Top Tailors with his tasks as head of the Canadian branch of the Hagana. These included fundraising for weaponry, direct arms procurement, and recruitment for Hagana forces. By the summer of 1948, he was in command of a Brigade actively depopulating Palestinian villages by force – a unit so heavily comprised of recruits from Canada, the United States and South Africa that it came to be known as the "Anglo-Saxon Brigade."

Dunkelman and what was formally known as the Seventh (Sheva) Brigade did, indeed, treat the people of Palestine to that Anglo-Saxon "purity of arms" which so much of the world has come to appreciate, from the Philippines to Kenya, from Vietnam to Iraq. A review of the operations they carried out provides a convenient window into the grim reality of 1948. But before turning to these specific operations, it is necessary to outline the general context within which these operations were executed, and the North American Zionist activities which brought the likes of Dunkelman to Palestine.

The Slide Towards "Brutal Compulsion"

Prior to the 1940s, the political Zionist leadership had been relatively careful in its public declarations. Explicit calls for Jewish statehood in Palestine were generally foregone in favor of the open-ended phrase "Jewish National Home." The demand for Jewish statehood was typically associated with the Revisionist movement, a right-wing splinter from the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization founded under the leadership of Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky – "our own D’Annunzio," WZO president Chaim Weizmann once called him, comparing him to the Italian fascist icon.(Hirst, 36)

The 1940s, however, witnessed what Hannah Arendt aptly described as a "Revisionist landslide in the Zionist Organization."(134) Beginning in 1942, mainstream Zionist bodies began openly proclaiming their call for Zionist statehood over Palestine. It is worth quoting Arendt, describing these developments in 1944, at some length:

"This is a turning-point in Zionist history; for it means that the Revisionist program, so long bitterly repudiated, has proved finally victorious. The Atlantic City Resolution [of the Zionist Organization of America in 1944] goes even a step further than the Biltmore program (1942), in which the Jewish minority had granted minority rights to the Arab majority. This time the Arabs were simply not mentioned in the resolution, which obviously leaves them the choice between voluntary emigration or second-class citizenship. It seems to admit that only opportunist reasons had previously prevented that Zionist movement from stating its final aims. These aims now appear to be completely identical with those of the extremists as far as the future constitution of Palestine is concerned."(131)

Arendt was on the mark, except in describing the prospect of widespread Palestinian Arab emigration as "voluntary." David Ben-Gurion, the ascendant leader at the helm of the new policy approach, had no illusions that the issue would so easily resolve itself: "It is impossible to imagine general evacuation without compulsion," he remarked in 1941, "and brutal compulsion."

Ben-Gurion’s commitment to extreme measures was fed by events in wartime Europe, but not always in predictable ways. For example, he made a counter-intuitive (and somewhat chilling) point of taking inspiration from certain of these developments: "In the present war," he noted, "the idea of transferring a population is gaining more sympathy as a practical and the most secure means of solving the dangerous and painful problem of national minorities."(Masalha, 128)

In Palestine, in any event, the Arab "minority" was in fact still a two-thirds majority. And so Ben-Gurion stepped up preparations for the sort of organized compulsion without which it would be nearly impossible to substantially change this.

The International Cover of "Partition"

The role of Canadian diplomacy in helping to set the international diplomatic context for the disaster which swept Palestine in 1948 will be addressed in Section 3 of this article. Here, suffice it to outline in extremely broad terms the international setting for the country’s violent transformation.

By the end of the 1930s, British policy-makers had moved significantly out of alignment with the Zionist movement, convinced that the costs of sponsoring Zionist ambitions – in terms of local resistance, as well as regional hostility in an area where Britain was keen on maintaining a strong imperial presence – were prohibitively high. Additional wartime calculations were certainly at work for a time. Emerging from WWII, Britain came into tense conflict with a Zionist movement from which it hoped to disassociate itself, and which was fighting to supplant British authorities as the governing force in Palestine.

The British position was weakened considerably by the increasing support for Zionist ambitions provided by the United States. This support, which by October 1946 involved open endorsement by President Truman of the call for Jewish statehood, posed real difficulties for British planners. The British meanwhile faced direct attacks by Revisionist forces, including the assassination in 1944 of Lord Moyne (British resident minister in Cairo and, incidentally, owner of Guinness beverages) and the bombing in 1946 of British headquarters in Palestine. In February 1947, the British turned the question of Palestine to the United Nations and announced their intention to withdraw.

In November 1947, with many of its members under considerable U.S. pressure, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, the Plan of Partition with Economic Union. According to this resolution, Palestine was to be partitioned between a Jewish and an Arab state, with an international regime controlling an area around Jerusalem which also encompassed Bethlehem.

The Jewish state was to consist of approximately 15,000,000 dunams – including the most valuable land: most of the coast, the interior plains – of which no more than 1,678,000 dunams (11.2 percent) was under Jewish ownership. Living in this proposed territory were 499,000 Jews and 438,000 Palestinians, a Jewish majority existing only if the boundaries were strictly observed. The proposed Arab state spanned 12,000,000 dunams (with 1,364,000 Palestinian and 608,000 Jewish inhabitants). Jewish owners had title to about 130,000 dunams, or 1 percent, of this territory. (Khalidi ’07, 103 & 106)

There was certainly no legal authorization by the United Nations for anything like compulsory transfer of residents of either state; the residency and citizenship rights of all inhabitants were to be respected: "No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language or sex," the resolution declared. On the other hand, neither did this UN resolution provide for the enforcement of these supposed safeguards. Britain was unwilling to play any enforcement role, and announced a withdrawal date of May 15, 1948.

The decision to effectively leave the issue of enforcement to be determined by the local balance of forces must be considered in light of the massive weakening of Palestinian Arab society, and empowerment of political Zionists, under the British mandate. The resulting balance of forces was well understood. In 1946, Lieutenant General J.C. D’Arcy, Britain’s General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Palestine, had been interviewed by an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry regarding this balance. Israeli scholar Amicam Nachmani relates the following exchange between D’Arcy and British Committee representative Sir Frederick Leggett: "In the event of a future Arab-Jewish confrontation, asked Leggett, ‘would that mean a considerable slaughter of the Arabs?’ D’Arcy’s answer was clear: ‘Yes, indeed.’"(171)

For their part, the Arab delegations to the United Nations rejected Resolution 181. Their political demands were significantly in accord with those of many other peoples calling for decolonization and independence after WWII in areas of longstanding European domination and settlement (at least outside of the Western hemisphere, where the historical depth of colonization and settlement produced different circumstances). The demand for Palestine was a unitary state with up to one third of the legislature comprised of Jewish representatives. Facing UN-sponsored partition, Arab delegations argued that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should be given the opportunity to consider whether such a political settlement could legally be imposed against the wishes of a majority population. (Bercuson ’85, 55; Khalidi ’07, 102)

In the diplomatic context set in part by this rejection, the political Zionist movement responded tactically. In internal meetings, the movement’s leadership rejected the Partition Plan, while publicly, the Jewish Agency accepted it. The formula that emerged, and is in persistent use to this day, was more or less as follows: Resolution 181 was taken to represent diplomatic authorization for the creation of a Jewish state; but, at the same time, rejection of the resolution by Arab parties to the conflict was said to render its specific proposals – regarding boundaries, for example, and the residency and citizenship rights of non-Jews – null and void. The geographic scope and the character of the state would be determined by force and unilateral political decree.

So it was, as Walid Khalidi explains, that even as Ben-Gurion’s forces "were poised to pounce on fields they had not tilled and orchards they had not planted and towns and villages they had not built or lived in, the Zionists, by accepting the 1947 UN partition according to their own lights, also wrapped themselves in the sanctimonious garb of moral superiority as adherents, in a posture of self-defense, to the impartial will of the international community."(’07, 110)

Meanwhile, practical preparations to fill the military vacuum opened by Britain’s pending withdrawal were well underway.


North America and the Hagana’s Military Supply Networks

Broadly speaking, there were three distinct Zionist paramilitary groupings in Palestine as 1948 approached. The most important of these was the Hagana, the quasi-official military arm of the Jewish Agency. The others were the Revisionist Irgun (Etzel) and Stern Gang (Lehi). These briefly amalgamated after the Second World War into a "Jewish Resistance Movement," and forces drawn from all three (anchored by the Hagana) would later form the basis of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The Revisionist militias were most public about drawing recruits and other support from North America, but it was the Hagana that was most important.

In exploring the history of Canadian interaction with Israel/Palestine during this period, two books by David Bercuson – The Secret Army and Canada and the Birth of Israel – provide much useful information. In his work, Bercuson adopts the all-too-familiar Canadian approach of expressing barely-veiled contempt for Palestinians from a posture of ostensible diplomatic, journalistic or (in his case) scholarly moderation. But one need not adopt his value judgments to draw from his research, which does provide perhaps the most detailed account of Canadian Zionist activity and government policy towards Palestine during this period.

The Jewish Agency leadership leaned heavily on its international affiliates to bolster its military capabilities. "By the end of World War II," Bercuson explains, "the Hagana had developed a sophisticated structure with branches that reached into Europe and North America."(’83, 9-10) In 1945, Ben-Gurion visited the United States for a meeting in New York which set these structures into real motion. The meeting was presided over by the American Zionist Rudolf Sonneborn, and had in attendance Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, president of the Zionist Organization of America and chairman of the American Section of the Jewish Agency; Henry Montor, the head of the United Palestine Appeal; and, among others, Sam Zacks, the president of the Zionist Organization of Canada. (Calhoun, 24; Stock, 11; Bercuson ’83, 44) This meeting resulted in the establishment of what was called the Sonneborn Institute.

Up until this time, the tax-exempt Keren Hayesod/United Palestine Appeal campaigns had overseen fundraising for the Jewish Agency, for military expenditures as for other purposes. Such fundraising did continue, and even escalated. In 1945/6, the UPA-funded Jewish Agency programs grouped under the heading "National Organization and Security" amounted to slightly over $3.8 million. By 1948, as a leading figure in U.S. Zionist fundraising activities would later explain, this "had grown to $28,000,000, including $3,000,000 for the Political Department of the Agency and $25,000,000 for security needs."(Stock, 127) However, more discrete channels were also required, and this is where the Sonneborn Institute factored in.

The need for discretion was long understood, and was shown to be very real when the issue of "security" expenditures with U.S. charitable dollars "was brought to the attention of the IRS by Jewish anti-Zionist leader Lessing Rosenwald" in 1948. The IRS responded by briefly revoking the tax-exempt charitable status of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) campaign within which the UPA had come to operate.(Stock, 127)

This possibility was long anticipated, and it was to minimize the likelihood of such costs that arms procurement and fundraising for military purposes were often directed through the Sonneborn Institute. "Although some cash came from overseas," Bercuson writes, "most was raised locally at small private meetings. Donors contributed directly to the Jewish Agency. No questions were asked; no receipts were given. This fund-raising was done without any direct contact with either established Zionist or non-Zionist Jewish organizations or such Jewish charitable institutions as the United Palestine Appeal."(’83, 36)

Over time, this arrangement formalized. Dummy corporations were established, with the New York-based Materials for Palestine as the principal hub. In Canada, a separate set of companies functioned in association with the operation, the most blatantly contraband products being channeled through Victory Equipment and Supply Limited. These activities were distanced from public Zionist advocacy and fundraising structures. Practically, they were nonetheless organized under the direct auspices of the umbrella Canadian Zionist coalition, the United Zionist Council (UZC). (Bercuson ’83, 37 & 45)

By various means, Canadians smuggled military equipment, including machine gun parts, to Hagana forces in Palestine; sometimes this simply involved misnaming cargo shipments: "Flame throwers became ‘insecticide sprayers,’" as Bercuson explains. While Canadian Zionists "may have contributed only a handful of planes and guns," Bercuson asserts, "Canadian radio sets and other radio equipment became the backbone of Israel’s military communication network."(’83, 48)

From Flame Throwers to Recruits

By the spring of 1947, Ben-Gurion had decided that in addition to supplies, military advisors and recruits from abroad would prove helpful. His practical search for such international participants "began in the United States in December 1947. At that time, Moshe Shertok, head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department and unofficial foreign minister, approached General John Hilldring, Assistant Secretary of State. Shertok was looking for help in obtaining military equipment and in enlisting the services of ‘two or three competent American officers who would be prepared to proceed to Palestine and advise on defense arrangements.’"(Bercuson ’83, 52) Hilldring put Shertok in contact with former U.S. Army Colonel David Marcus, a West Point graduate with WWII experience.

By the time direct recruitment was set in motion, Ben Dunkelman was already accustomed to his duties as head of the Canadian branch of the Hagana. Dunkelman was suited to the job: he was well-connected, had access to substantial resources, and had fought in WWII with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. In the course of his military experience, he had been sent to Britain to receive intensive officer’s combat training in the use of mortars, and put these lessons to notable use on the battlefield. Initially, Canadian Hagana activities centered on low-profile fundraising, arms procurement and smuggling. Then, according to Dunkelman’s memoirs, Colonel Marcus visited to inform him "that the Hagana command had decided to recruit experienced combat soldiers to serve in the Jewish forces. They wanted me to get to work on recruiting an infantry brigade of English-speaking volunteers, which I would lead in action."(157)

This was part of a broad international recruitment drive focused on the U.S., Canada, and South Africa. A recent document on the effort produced by the Israeli Ministry of Education explains: "In Canada, recruitment began in early 1948, and yielded excellent results within a very short time when some 100 infantry and armored corps veterans of World War II enlisted in the service of the Hagana."(15) This document estimates the number of Canadian recruits who served with Hagana forces in 1948 at 232.

Obviously, these recruits were a small component of a much broader political Zionist military force which operated during this period. Still, the operations in which they participated changed many lives, and terminated the traditional existence of many Palestinian communities. Their history is well worth reviewing.

Canadian Arrivals: From Nachson to Barak

Following the passage of United Nations Resolution 181 in November 1947, and the decision of the British to leave in May, things started to move forward decisively. Palestinian Arab strikes and demonstrations, including sporadic acts of violence, ensued; political Zionist paramilitary operations were initiated in earnest.

This article does not intend to provide a military history of the crucial phase of the Israel-Palestine conflict which followed. Rather, it seeks to review some of the obvious aspects of Canadian participation in the violent transformation of Palestine in 1948, particularly the forced depopulation of many Palestinian communities, and to locate this participation within the context of the broader fight for a Jewish state in the political Zionist sense of the term – that is to say, a state with a commanding Jewish majority.

Ilan Pappé’s recent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine does an excellent job of describing how events of 1948, particularly the displacement from their homes of several hundred thousand indigenous Palestinian Arabs, extended from political Zionist efforts to demographically transform the country. This book builds upon a history of compelling work on these events produced over the decades by many dedicated researchers, the Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi prominent among them.

From as early as December 1947, Pappé explains, Zionist paramilitary operations were resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinians, but were carried out in line with a loose doctrine of "retaliation." It was not until early 1948 that an institutional and policy framework was instituted which could facilitate systematic ethnic cleansing.

Pappé traces the crucial decisions which brought about this shift to a consultative committee established by Ben-Gurion in late 1947, and comprised of such Zionist officials as the JNF’s Yosef Weitz, high-ranking Hagana commanders and other trusted Zionist leaders. It was under the direction of this body, Pappé asserts, that a policy involving unprovoked expulsion orders was put into effect. "The first targets were three villages around the ancient Roman city of Caesarea," he recounts. "Qisarya was the first village to be expelled in its entirety, on 15 February 1948. The expulsion took only a few hours and was carried out so systematically that the Jewish troops were able to evacuate and destroy another four villages on the same day, all under the watchful eyes of the British troops stationed in police stations nearby."(75) At the same time, Hagana forces underwent a significant overhaul, and numerous new Brigades were established.

While it did not mark such a major landmark in the conflict as a whole, soon after this, paramilitary attacks (particularly by the elite Hagana units of what was known as the Palmach) on those tenants of Wadi al-Hawarith who remained in the vicinity of their original lands resulted in their displacement, finally completing their eviction and dissolution as a community; the homes they had constructed for themselves were subsequently destroyed.(Khalidi ’92, 565)

A major documentary landmark in the political Zionist turn towards widespread expulsions at this time was the issuance – at the decision of Ben-Gurion’s consultative committee, Pappé argues – of Plan D (Dalet). Produced in March 1948, the text of Plan D is available in English translation, and includes, for example, calls for: "Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously." Its guidelines were to be implemented in the course of thirteen planned operations, eight of which were outside the area earmarked by the United Nations for "Jewish statehood" (in the restricted sense specified by Resolution 181).(Khalidi ’88, 29 & 17)

It was the inauguration of Plan D with the initiation of Operation Nachson that defined the context into which Canadian recruits began arriving in April. The most infamous action carried out in the course of Operation Nachson was the massacre of upwards of 100 Palestinian civilians, including children and babies, perpetrated by the Irgun and Stern Gang on April 9 at the village of Deir Yassin. But it was Hagana forces which anchored the operation, carrying out numerous expulsions and home demolitions in the process. (eg. Pappé, 87-91)

Arriving in April, Dunkelman was first attached to the Harel Brigade, a Palmach unit participating in Operation Nachson under the command of Israel’s ethnic cleansing bone-breakercum-"dove," Yitzhak Rabin. An experienced mortar man, Dunkelman was unhappy with the state of Hagana artillery capacities and approached Ben-Gurion with his critique. Dunkelman recounts the exchange as follows:

"When [Ben-Gurion] asked me if I could take the necessary steps to get the mortars into action as quickly as possible, I agreed – but only on condition that I was given full and complete authority over all phases of the operation: production, distribution, and training of crews. … Grudgingly, he gave in, asking me to go outside and dictate the letter to his secretary."(224-225)

Whether or not one takes Dunkelman’s claim to exclusive authority over the development of Hagana mortar capacities at face value, the claim must be understood in relation to the fact that it was not just against Palestinian militias or other armed forces that such mortars were brought to bear, but also (and quite consistently) against Palestinian civilian centres in order to bring about their depopulation.

Mostly, Canadian recruits were not clumped together. International recruits were distributed throughout the Hagana structure in order to fill roles for which the specific experience of veterans was required. However, one platoon-sized group of Canadian infantrymen was kept together and incorporated into the Givati Brigade.

These recruits arrived at their post just as the Givati Brigade attacked the village of ‘Aqir on May 4. According to a New York Times report on the assault, some 3,000 Palestinians left the village in the first several hours of the attack; a few weeks later, the remaining villagers were also expelled. (Khalidi ’92, 360) The Givati Brigade then prepared for its major offensive in May, Operation Barak, which was launched on the 9th.

David Bercuson describes the prominent involvement of the "Canadian platoon" in the May 12 occupation of Bashshit, a village of more than 1,600 people which was subsequently destroyed.(Bercuson ’83, 102) Like many of the offensives carried out under Plan D, Operation Barak also involved the occupation of villages well within the territory designated by the UN for Arab statehood: Bayt Daras, for example, a village of nearly 3,000 people, located in the Gaza district, which was depopulated on May 10 under the pressure of mortar attacks and a ground invasion by Givati troops; or the twin villages of al-Batani al-Sharqi and al-Batani al-Gharbi, also in the Gaza district, located within the proposed Arab state yet occupied and depopulated by Givati on May 13 and May 18, respectively.(Khalidi ’92, 363, 87, 85 & 84)

Until the formal termination of the British mandate on May 15, resistance to Hagana operations was mounted by Palestinian militias and irregular volunteer forces drawing support from neighbouring countries. The intervention of Arab states after May 15 did not shake the confidence of the Zionist leadership in its capacity to simultaneously engage hostile forces and aggressively depopulate Palestinian communities: "the mass evictions were not affected by the end of the Mandate," Pappé explains, "but went ahead uninterrupted. There had been ethnic cleansing on the day before 15 May 1948, and the same ethnic cleansing operations took place after. Israel had enough troops both to handle the Arab armies and to continue cleansing the land. … For most Palestinians, the date of 15 May 1948 was of no special significance at the time: it was just one more day in the horrific calendar of ethnic cleansing that had started more than five months earlier."(130-131) Nonetheless, it was on this day that Israeli statehood was formally declared.

One village conquered on May 15 itself was al-Maghar, occupied by Givati. The fate of al-Maghar points to the spirit with which the Jewish National Fund would approach its activities in the era of Zionist statehood. By mid-June, the JNF was working to thoroughly level the village. Exactly one month after its initial occupation, Yosef Weitz visited the site to view the work in progress. "‘Three tractors are completing its destruction,’ he later wrote. ‘I was surprised that nothing moved me at the sight. … Not regret and not hatred, as this is the way of the world.’"(Khalidi ’92, 395)

The "Anglo-Saxon Brigade" and Operation Dekel

Perhaps the most glaring examples of Canadian culpability in the ethnic cleansing of 1948 are provided by the Seventh Brigade operations carried out in the summer and the fall under the command of Ben Dunkelman. During the summer, the Brigade had 170 English-speaking volunteers, including almost the entirety of one of its infantry companies. By October, the number of English-speaking recruits from abroad was up to about 300 – hence the designation of the Seventh as "the Anglo-Saxon Brigade." (Markovitzky, 31)


Dunkelman was given command of the Seventh Brigade by David Ben-Gurion in early July. At the time, the Brigade was dealing with morale problems resulting from its participation in failed efforts to conquer the Latrun area from its inhabitants and the forces of the Transjordan Legion. (Incidentally, among the communities whose existence was thus preserved for a time were the villages of Beit Nuba, Imwas and Yalu. In 1967, these villages were captured by Israel along with the whole of the West Bank, their inhabitants expelled, their lands de facto annexed. In the early ’70s, Canada’s tax-exempt Jewish National Fund sponsored the establishment on their lands of the infamous "Canada Park": today, plaques honoring contributors ranging from the Montreal student association Hillel to the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department are proudly affixed to the stone ruins of village homes.)

In short order after Dunkelman’s assumption of command, the Seventh Brigade initiated a large-scale offensive termed Operation Dekel. This entailed engagement with local militias and forces of the all-volunteer Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the occupation of much of the lower Galilee, and the depopulation of numerous villages.

In his memoirs, Dunkelman claims to have learned in the course of his 1931-2 settlement activities that "the Arabs … dislike the darkness, and I could always use that fact to my advantage. Sixteen years later, when I was a combat commander, I was to remember this weakness."(44) As the name of Wingate’s Special Night Squads suggests, Dunkelman was not significantly breaking from Hagana ranks in adopting this approach. In any event, it is with this lesson that he sought to raise his troops’ morale.

He chose as a first target an ALA position at Tel Kissan. There was, he told the attacking commander, every reason for optimism: "If you come from the rear, under cover of darkness, you’ll be able to take the place with a single platoon – and the Arabs will run for their lives!" His advice was taken, and he relays the outcome with pride: "The operation was a complete success!"(244)

The same night, the Seventh joined the Carmeli Brigade in subjecting Kuwaykat, a village of more than 1,000 people, to heavy mortar fire. One villager recalled: "We were awakened by the loudest noise we had ever heard, shells exploding and artillery fire … the whole village was in a panic … women were screaming, children were crying … Most of the villagers began to flee with their pajamas on." Two people were killed and two wounded during the bombardment. "I don’t know whether the artillery softening up of the village caused casualties," a company commander from the 21st Battalion later said, "but the psychological effect was achieved and the village’s non-combatants fled before we began the assault."(Nazzal, 72-3; Khalidi ’92, 22)

That was the night of July 9-10, and opened Operation Dekel. The operation then turned towards additional Arab population centres. Again with support from the Carmeli Brigade, the Seventh assaulted ‘Amqa on July 10-11. The attack began with mortar bombardment of the village, which seems to have caused most of the villagers to leave. The population of ‘Amqa was predominantly Druze, a minority which sometimes collaborated with Israeli forces. ‘Amqa is reported to be "the only Druze village in western Galilee to be shelled and evacuated."(Khalidi ’92, 4)

Then, on July 13, the Seventh began a major push towards Nazareth. This included an assault on Shafa Amr in the night of July 14-15, marking the height of Hagana-Druze collaboration in 1948. Referring in particular to the role of his subordinate Joe Weiner – "a former permanent force sergeant-major in the Canadian artillery who had been with me in the mortars" – Dunkelman describes his tactical reliance on collaboration with the Druze: "Everything went according to plan. While the Moslem section was being shelled, the assault force – the 79th Armoured Battalion under Joe Weiner, with two companies from Arele Yariv’s 21st Battalion – approached the walls. They and the Druze defenders fired harmlessly over each other’s heads. The attackers quietly passed through the Druze lines, entering the village and taking the Moslems from the rear. Within a short time, the whole village was securely in our hands …". (247 & 261)

From Shafa Amr, the Seventh pushed southeast to Nazareth, which it finally conquered on July 16. As head of the Seventh and as overall commander for Operation Dekel, Dunkelman was responsible for extending over Nazareth a regime of Israeli military governance which would last until 1966, and a system of discrimination against Arab inhabitants which persists (albeit in a less crude form) right up to the present. Nonetheless, his supposed moderation in carrying out this conquest is often emphasized.

At issue is Dunkelman’s reluctance to ethnically cleanse the city. According to Ben-Gurion, Moshe Carmel, commander of the northern front, gave an order "to uproot all the inhabitants at Nazareth," which was relayed to Dunkelman. But even Yosef Weitz, in his grand fantasies of mass expulsions, exempted Nazareth from such a policy. Dunkelman – mulling the fate of "one of the most sanctified shrines of the Christian world," and wary of the "severe international repercussions" of rash action – asked for higher authorization. Dunkelman’s immediate superior thus asked IDF General Staff for a ruling: "Tell me immediately, urgently, whether to expel the inhabitants from the city of Nazareth. In my view all, save for clerics, should be expelled." Ben-Gurion vetoed any such expulsion, and the inhabitants remained. (Morris ’04, 419; Dunkelman, 266)

The notion that Dunkelman thus merits appreciation as a humanitarian of a sort is somewhat preposterous. One may consider, even sticking to the assault on Nazareth, the violent depopulation of the village of Saffuriya, a predominantly Muslim community of more than 4,000 (swelled by some 2,500 refugees from Shafa Amr), which was the immediate prelude to the capture of Nazareth. The historian Nafez Nazzal quotes Salih Muhammad Nassir, a farmer and the quartermaster for the village militia, describing the nighttime assault of July 15-16:

"…planes flew over the village and dropped barrels filled with explosives, metal fragments, nails and glass. They were very loud and disrupting… They shook the whole village, broke windows, doors, killed or wounded some of the villagers and many of the village livestock. We expected a war but not an air and tank war.’

"The shelling and artillery bombardment of the village continued sporadically throughout the night as the Israelis advanced."(75)

Today, the lands of Saffuriya host the Jewish agricultural settlement of Tzippori, founded in 1949, and a JNF pine forest. (Khalidi ’92, 352-3) Many former inhabitants of the village live in Nazareth – citizens of Israel, now, but forbidden from returning to their nearby homes – their lands, located within eyesight, expropriated as "absentee property," a status unchanged by the close proximity and nominal citizenship rights of the owners.

No, far from having clean hands, Dunkelman and the forces under his command were directly culpable for the war crimes that defined the extension of Israeli state authority over the Galilee. If anything, they distinguished themselves only by means of particularly severe brutality. Ilan Pappé writes: "In many of the Palestinian oral histories that have now come to the fore, few brigade names appear. However, Brigade Seven is mentioned again and again, together with such adjectives as ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarous.’"(159)

Operation Dekel was hardly pretty. But to understand how this reputation was earned, it is necessary to turn to Seventh Brigade operations in the fall, conducted as part of the offensive named Operation Hiram.

Competent Research and Twisted Morality, Courtesy of Benny Morris

First, a brief sidebar on sourcing is called for. Looking back at the history of 1948, it is difficult to avoid the research of the Israeli historian Benny Morris. Still, it is inappropriate to draw from this research without a quick note on the researcher. Just as David Bercuson’s posture of moderate contempt for Palestinians represents a time-honored Canadian tradition, so Morris represents a startling trend in Israeli political culture. This is the combination of a recognition that massive ethnic cleansing was carried out against Palestinians in 1948, with the judgment that it represented a positive project which should continue to guide state policy.

In his recent book Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook locates this disturbing combination within the strategic debates that dominate elite policy discussions in contemporary Israel. Cook draws our attention to a series interviews with Morris that have been published over the last several years in the Israeli press. Morris is quoted stating, for example, the following –

Regarding the limitations of the operations which established the Israeli state:

"I think [Ben-Gurion] made a serious historical mistake in 1948. Even though he understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered. … I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all … If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself."

Regarding the "volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza":

"Something like a cage needs to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked away one way or another."

On possible next steps, and how these might apply to Palestinian citizens of Israel:

"If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment … But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions."

(From interviews conducted by Ha’aretz in 2004, cited in Cook, 107-108)

This article will not explore the significance of these recent comments or the debates of which they form a part in any detail. However, it is only appropriate to note their existence before using Morris’s research.

"An Awe-Inspiring Sight"

Returning to Operation Hiram, there is no question that in the course of this offensive, conducted in the autumn of 1948, Seventh Brigade forces under Dunkelman’s command carried out serious atrocities. The testimony of Palestinian survivors, the reports of United Nations observers, and since-declassified Israeli records show this beyond and possible doubt. These atrocities included expulsion of whole villages, massacre of unarmed civilians, and rape.

There has been some controversy regarding whether these atrocities were carried out in line with orders issued by Moshe Carmel, the IDF officer in overall command of Operation Hiram, or on the initiative of lower-order commanders.(eg. Morris ’99) But whether Dunkelman ordered such atrocities in line with commands from above, on his own initiative, or left the matter to be decided by subordinate officers (no disciplinary action was taken), the issue of culpability remains unavoidable.

Dunkelman, for his part, writes in his memoirs about the operations in question without a hint of repentance. For example, he recalls: "Jish was not heavily defended, and its capture would make it a base for the first phase: the capture of Sasa, which was undefended. After completing the three-phase plan with the capture of Sasa, we intended to move on to Tarshiha and Tarbiha, taking the forces there in the rear, and then to advance northeast and retake Malkiya." He expresses satisfaction with this phase of the assault: "It was an awe-inspiring sight to see them hurtling recklessly up the hill towards the enemy with all guns blazing into the night, while the other units poured effective supporting fire into Jish and the neighbouring village of Safsaf. The assault was spectacular and daring. The armoured cars rushed the defence positions, overwhelming the Arabs before they had time to get organized."(291 & 294)

The assaults being described involved substantial atrocities. Drawing from Israeli records, Benny Morris writes: "It emerges that the main massacres [during Operation Hiram] occurred in Saliha, Safsaf, Jish and the (Lebanese) village of Hule, between 30 October and 2 November. In the first three villages, Seventh Brigade troops were responsible. At Saliha it appears that troops blew up a house, possibly the village mosque, killing 60-94 persons who had been crowded into it. In Safsaf, troops shot and then dumped into a well 50-70 villagers and POWs. In Jish, the troops apparently murdered about 10 Moroccan POWs (who had served with the Syrian Army) and a number of civilians, including, apparently, four Maronite Christians, and a woman and her baby. In Hule … a company commander and a sergeant of the Carmeli Brigade’s 22nd Battalion shot some three dozen captured Lebanese soldiers and peasants and then demolished a house on top of them, killing them all. Civilians appear to have been murdered at Sa’sa as well."(’04, 481)

Of the five villages mentioned here, only Hule, in Lebanon, was not taken by the Seventh. It is not as if the Seventh avoided incursions into Lebanon: "In flagrant defiance of the law," Dunkelman explains proudly, "we undertook many trips across the Lebanese border …," where they had Lebanese villagers prepare them food.(311) But it was in the cases of Saliha, Safsaf, Jish, and Sa’sa that the Seventh Brigade carried out some of its worst atrocities.

In Saliha, the lower end of Morris’s estimate of 60-94 people killed by bombing draws from the diary of JNF official Yosef Nahmani, who "refers to ‘60-70′ men and women murdered after they ‘had raised a white flag’." In Jish, one local politician reported, "the army surrounded the village and carried out searches. In the course of the search soldiers robbed several of the houses and stole 605 pounds, jewelry and other valuables. When the people who were robbed insisted on being given receipts for their property, they were taken to a remote place and shot dead."(Morris ’04, 500; Segev, 72)

There are also numerous testimonies of rape during these operations. Regarding the aftermath of the overnight shelling and occupation of Safsaf (October 29-30), Nafez Nazzal relays one Palestinian’s testimony:

"Umm Shahadah al-Dalih, among those present, recalled that tragic morning: ‘As we lined up, a few Jewish soldiers ordered four girls to accompany them to carry water for the soldiers. Instead, they took them to our empty houses and raped them. About 70 of our men were blindfolded and shot to death, one after the other, in front of us. The soldiers took their bodies and threw them on the cement covering of the village’s spring and dumped sand on them.’"(94-95)

As for the occupation of Sa’sa, Ilan Pappé draws from the testimony of Palestinian refugees – most of whom today live in Lebanon in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp – to construct the following account:

"After it had been occupied, the soldiers of Brigade Seven ran amok, firing randomly at anyone in the houses and on the streets. Besides the fifteen villagers killed, they left behind them a large number of wounded. The troops then demolished all the houses, apart from a few that the members of Kibbutz Sasa, built on the ruins of the village, took over for themselves after the forced eviction of their original owners."(183)

Predictably, such actions helped to clear the lands of Palestinians. "These atrocities, mostly committed against Muslims, no doubt precipitated the flight of communities on the path of the IDF advance," writes Morris. "What happened at Safsaf and Jish no doubt reached the villagers of Ras al Ahmar, ‘Alma, Deishum and al Malikiya hours before the Seventh Brigade’s columns. These villages, apart from ‘Alma, seem to have been completely or largely empty when the IDF arrived." Drawing from Morris’s earlier work, Walid Khalidi outlines the fate of ‘Alma: "Although the Israeli Minority Affairs Ministry later listed ‘Alma among the villages that had surrendered during the operation and were therefore not ‘punished,’ Morris states that its residents were ‘uprooted and expelled.’ He does not give the circumstances of expulsion, but it was either carried out by units of the Seventh Brigade during the attack itself, or was implemented following an official decision taken in subsequent weeks." (Morris ’04, 482; Khalidi ’92, 433)

And so it was that the Anglo-Saxon Brigade earned its reputation.

From Ethnic Cleansing to Expropriation: The Making of Canadian Hero

The title of the late Israeli dissident Tanya Reinhart’s 2003 book – Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 – expresses the widespread impression that the conflict that then erupted was just one phase of an ongoing process. Indeed, Reinhart’s title draws from a November 2000 statement by IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon to the effect that Israeli policy was working towards "the second half of 1948." In 2002, discussing what he considered the appropriate strategy for dealing with "the Palestinian threat," Ya’alon elaborated: "I maintain that it is cancer … There are all kinds of solutions to cancerous manifestations. Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy."

Notwithstanding this, 1948 was a defining moment in the history of Israel/Palestine. By 1949, when large-scale military operations subsided and a series of armistice agreements established a cessation of major hostilities with the neighboring states, Palestine had been transformed. The Israeli state exercised control over 78% of the former mandate, within which only about a quarter of a million indigenous Palestinians remained. The extension of Israeli state authority had involved not only what Weizmann called "the miraculous simplification of Israel’s tasks" (McDonald, 176) – namely, the expulsion of most of the land’s native population – but also a massive expropriation of Palestinian property.

Ian Lustick and Tom Segev have explored in detail the mechanisms of "wholesale robbery in legal guise," as the Arab-affairs editor of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz then described it, by which Palestinian land and property was stolen. As Segev writes, "tens of thousands of Israelis, soldiers and civilians, helped themselves to the spoils." The process was complex, and not uniformly organized: "A good many of the transactions fell into that gray area between what the law permitted and what was considered illegal, between outright robbery and official expropriation."(Lustick, 175; Segev, 79)

For a time, the process provoked heated debate even within the Israeli cabinet. Minister of Agriculture Aharon Cizling stated: "It’s been said that there were cases of rape in Ramlah. I can forgive rape, but I will never forgive other acts which seem to me much worse. When they enter a town and forcibly remove rings from the fingers and jewelry from someone’s neck, that’s a very grave matter . . . ". Writing to Ben-Gurion, Cizling added: "up to now we have dealt with individual looters, both soldiers and civilians. Now, however, there are more and more reports about acts which, judging by their nature and extent, could only have been carried out by (government) order. … Meanwhile, private plundering still goes on, too."(Segev, 72-3)

Ben-Gurion could hardly have been disturbed by the practice of expropriation itself, which he was central in orchestrating. He had for some time come to actively discourage JNF purchase of territory, insisting that "[t]he war will give us the land. The concepts of ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ are peace concepts only, and in war they lose their whole meaning."(Masalha ’92, 180) But he was dedicated to pursuing its redistribution through the official, centralized mechanisms.

As for Ben Dunkelman and the Seventh, they joined other Hagana forces in "that gray area" to which Segev refers. Regarding the conclusion of Operation Hiram, Dunkelman boasts: "our booty also included large numbers of cattle, abandoned by their fleeing owners. At a loss what to do with them, I turned the beasts over to the local kibbutzim, for which I later received a stern reprimand from Ben-Gurion. He told me I should have held on to them until they could be turned over to the ‘appropriate authorities’ … He might have been even more indignant if he had been able to attend our wedding reception, where hundreds of men of the brigade appeared, carrying trays of meat."(296)

After the fighting, Dunkelman briefly tried out life as an Israeli businessman. He entered the housing and textile production markets, and secured the franchise to bottle Coca-Cola. But before long, he returned to Canada and the family business.

At no point do Dunkelman or other Canadian participants in the ethnic cleansing and expropriation operations of 1948 appear to have been held to account for their crimes. Even decades later, with the full effects of these events well-documented and Dunkelman’s account of his participation published and circulating, he retained a prestigious public profile.

Dunkelman "cleared the whole of Galilee," one Toronto Star article explained in 1992; he "helped in the liberation of northern Israel," the Star added in ’97. "An energetic non- conformist from his school days," the Globe and Mail read in 1984 – just when Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, most of them from the Galilee, were suffering from the aftermath of a renewed Israeli assault – "Dunkelman alternated work in the family business (Tip Top Tailors) with distinguished military service that took him to Europe for the Second World War and to Israel in 1948." In 1999, in fact, the Globe deemed his record consistent with status as "a Canadian and Israeli war hero."

It is customary to honor veterans. But uncritical praise for a prominent culprit in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that is still ongoing is extremely unhealthy for a culture, especially one with its own record of colonization and ethnic cleansing of indigenous people. At this moment, the United Jewish Appeal Federation (UJA) of Greater Toronto is putting the finishing touches on a "Party Like It’s 1948" festival in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the events described above. Meanwhile, the building in which it is headquartered (along with other UIAFC affiliates) maintains a virtual shrine to the ethnic cleanser of Kuwaykat and Saffuriya, the commanding officer who oversaw massacres from Jish to Safsaf. This situation and the limited criticism it evokes are symptomatic of a refusal to come to grips with the reality of 1948, or with its echoes into the present.

A challenge to this continued failure of Canada’s corporate press, dominant Jewish community organizations, and mainstream political scene as a whole needs to be factored into a broader effort to push this country’s Israel/Palestine policy in a more sane and constructive direction.

Leave a comment