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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1202
December 29, 2015

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Why is the Canadian Media
Ignoring Evidence of 1948 Massacres?

Dan Freeman-Maloy

The better part of a decade ago, I described the Toronto Star's Mitch Potter as “a canary in the mineshaft of liberal Canadian racism.” A piece on 1948 Palestine published in a recent edition of the Toronto Star[1] shows the canary very close to asphyxiating.

Palestinian woman, a child and a jug.

Palestinian woman, a child and a jug. [Photo: Mr Hanini.]

Since Potter insists he was within his rights to describe Palestinian fighters in Gaza as “lemming-like,” he'll surely forgive the metaphor.

The article, entitled “The Toronto man who saved Nazareth,” celebrates the heritage of Ben Dunkelman, the most prominent Canadian to travel to 1948 Palestine to support the Zionist war effort. In more than 2500 words spread across the Star's “Insight” section, Potter and his editors transform this Canadian's role in occupying Palestinian communities into fodder for patriotism. “What he did was bring his hard-earned Canadian military professionalism to help organize a chaotic fighting force and help set down the rules of engagement,” the Star quotes one of a number of friendly sources as explaining. “And that included saying, ‘No, we will not expel civilians.’”

The record of this “gentle giant of a man,” as Potter introduces Dunkelman, is well documented. The son of the founder of Ontario retail giant Tip Top Tailors and a veteran of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, Dunkelman was not an obscure figure. In Canada, he was an eminent member of the country's community of patriotic respectables. In Palestine, he was a participant in the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Galilee, commanding troops who repeatedly massacred civilians.

Zionist Colonization

Dunkelman's record of Canadian patriotism and Zionist colonization has long made for a popular sell. He has been happily remembered as “a Canadian and Israeli war hero,” as the Globe and Mail once described him.[2] His basic character should be apparent to anyone who picks up his autobiography, Dual Allegiance. Potter's latest for the Star pines over lost pages of this book without conveying to readers its utterly thuggish tone. The first five pages, to give you a sense, move from a description of a fight Dunkelman picked with a Palestinian (“Kneeling astride him, I began hitting him again and again, until his body went limp”) to boyhood reminiscences that feature a young Dunkelman in Toronto, soon to enroll in Upper Canada College, “waving a little Union Jack.”[3] A lovely patriotic tale.

In Palestine, Dunkelman did not stop at beating Palestinians with his fists. In the summer and autumn of 1948, he served as commander of the Seventh (Armoured) Brigade of the newly established Israel Defence Forces (IDF). This is a representative sample of how Potter now presents this history to the Star's readership: “Named to lead Israel's 7th Brigade in the final phase of the 1948 war, Dunkelman pushed methodically – and almost bloodlessly – through the Galilee with a series of nighttime flanking movements, eventually ending at the Litani River in Lebanon. He quite literally shaped borders, delivering territory Israel might not otherwise hold today.”


One of the Seventh Brigade's “nighttime flanking movements,” on October 29-30, 1948, brought the Palestinian village of Safsaf under Dunkelman's command. A Palestinian woman from Safsaf, Umm Shahadah al-Salih, described what happened the next morning. Villagers were ordered to assemble in file around two houses to the north of the village. “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.”[4]

If Potter's editors can cough up subway fare to Yonge and Bloor, he can read this and other accounts for free at the local library, in Nafez Nazzal's The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948. The Seventh Brigade's trail of death, destruction, and mass displacement of Palestinians from the Galilee into Lebanon is detailed authoritatively by Nazzal.

But right, this is a Canadian discussion of Palestine. Surely, Palestinians can't be trusted! Unfortunately for Potter and the Star, more than mistrust of Palestinian testimony would be needed to make their whitewashing of these massacres halfway credible. In 1978, the year that Nazzal's study was published, Israel began declassifying documents on these events. The Israeli record tells much the same story.

Israel Galili had been chief of staff of the Haganah, the main precursor to the IDF. In a declassified November 11, 1948 briefing cited by Israeli historian Benny Morris, Galili described the conduct of Dunkelman's men in Safsaf. He spoke of the fate of “52 men tied with a rope and dropped into a well and shot,” and of three cases of rape, including of a fourteen-year-old girl. He also described large-scale killing of civilians by the Seventh Brigade in the villages of Saliha, Jish, and Sa‘sa‘. In Sa‘sa‘, Galili said, Dunkelman's troops committed “mass murder” and then forced all remaining survivors out: “The whole village was expelled.”[5]

Palestinian witnesses recount the most horrifying details. One survivor of the occupation of Safsaf recalled the stabbing of a pregnant woman with a bayonet. The witness lived out his life in the Ayn Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon; his testimony was kept alive by his nephew and cited in Ilan Pappé's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.[6] In his memoirs, Dunkelman admits to authorizing looting by his forces,[7] but predictably does not discuss most abuses. He does, however, proudly relate how one of his units set a landmark in the summer of 1948 with “the first bayonet charge ever mounted by the Israeli Army.” Facing an Arab position in the central Galilee, the company commander “ordered his men to fix bayonets; then, yelling like banshees, they rushed the Arab positions. When the astonished Arabs saw what was coming up the hill at them, they kicked off their boots and fled in terror.”[8]

Palestinian refugees in 1948

We don't know much about specific atrocities with bayonets. We do know that that Operation Hiram, during which Dunkelman's troops carried out severe atrocities, helped push Palestinians out of the Upper Galilee en masse. On October 31, Dunkelman received an order from the IDF's northern command spelling out this objective: “The inhabitants should be assisted to leave the conquered areas,” Dunkelman was instructed.[9] Here massacres by Dunkelman's troops played their part. “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,” writes Morris. “These villages, apart from `Alma, seem to have been completely or largely empty when the IDF arrived.”[10] A week and a half into November 1948, an IDF intelligence report observed that “more than 50,000 new refugees” had crossed the border into Lebanon as a result of Operation Hiram.[11]

Dunkelman – cue Potter's praise – did not order expulsions in every Palestinian community that his forces occupied. He specifically opposed the (widespread) expulsion of Palestinian Christians by Israeli forces.[12] When in July 1948 his troops occupied one of the main Christian centres in Palestine, the city of Nazareth, he spared it the harsher treatment he accorded to predominantly Muslim villages in its vicinity. Potter is effusive with praise! He laments to the Star's readership that Dunkelman “won no medals for refusing to molest civilians” in Nazareth, but takes the opportunity to trumpet Canadian civility: “Transpose that morality to the modern era and imagine how the U.S. military interrogations at Abu Ghraib might have played out with a Dunkelman in command.” If those held at gunpoint were Muslims? Should we really follow this thread? “In many of the Palestinian oral histories that have now come to the fore,” observes Ilan Pappé, “few brigade names appear. However, Brigade Seven is mentioned again and again, together with such adjectives as ‘terrorist’ and ‘barbarous.’”[13]

Israel has not declassified enough documentation for us to know for certain whether Dunkelman ordered his troops to massacre Palestinian civilians in line with instructions from higher-level IDF officers, took the initiative himself, or left the details to lower levels of command. But there is no record of him taking any action to discipline the culprits. By all accepted standards, he is therefore among them. Only the best liberal patriots want to award war criminals prizes for each possible war crime they didn't commit.

Palestinians holding keys for their return

Introducing a co-edited volume entitled Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad Sa’di explore the challenges of asserting Palestinian memory “under the conditions of its silencing by the thundering story of Zionism.”[14] Engaging with 1948 as a landmark of enduring trauma, both individual and collective, may not be simple. But one can imagine an alternate universe in which Canadian journalists made a respectable effort. In which some attempt was made to look to the kind of work assembled by Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, to consider the recorded memories of those whose lives were uprooted by Dunkelman's troops, to bring their experiences into this history.

Instead, the Star basks in patriotic self-satisfaction and ignores the evidence.

The Nakba Is Not Over

This is not just a question of professional standards, or of historical accuracy. As Abu-Lughod and Sa’di argue, “the Nakba is not over yet.”[15] It was Israel's current defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who described Israel's twenty-first century assaults on the Palestinians as “the second half of 1948.”[16] How this war is represented abroad can affect its continuation into the present. I haven't paid much attention to Potter's work since his distortions of Israel's 2006 assaults on Gaza and Lebanon. But it seems he's decided to whitewash past and present attacks on the Palestinians in much the same spirit.

People in Canada need to demand better. In the coming period, we will have to face the fact that the end of the Harper years did not spell an end to Canadian support for Israel's perpetual warfare against the Palestinian people. The liberal patriotic impulse is to bury this problem in comforting myths: to pretend that even in its support for Israel, Canadian liberalism shines. This requires nothing less than falsification of the record. An open discussion of the realities of Palestine will raise troubling questions about local burdens of responsibility. If this is what drives so many opinion-makers to avoid it, it is also what makes it urgent. •

Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in Montreal. For a more detailed review of the record of Western recruits in 1948 Palestine, see this article of his from the Journal of Palestine Studies.


1. Potter's article first appeared in the Saturday December 19 edition of the Star, under the shorter title “The man who saved Nazareth.” After submitting the above criticism to friendly outlets the following day, I was advised to first attempt to get the Star to publish some of the details that Potter's article obscured. This involved a polite submission linked in full here. The editors were mostly unresponsive. On December 28, the Star did run a number of short letters on the story, under the heading “Nazareth story parallels Christmas.”

2. Elizabeth Nickson, “Poor little rich boy grows up,” Globe and Mail (September 25, 1999).

3. Ben Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance: An Autobiography (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976), 1-5.

4. Nafez Nazzal, The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948 (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1978), 95.

5. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 230.

6. Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 184.

7. Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance, 296.

8. Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance, 272.

9. Benny Morris, “Operation Hiram Revisited,” Journal of Palestine Studies 28, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 70.

10. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 482.

11. Morris, Birth Revisited, 473.

12. Morris, Birth Revisited, 477.

13. Pappé, Ethnic Cleansing, 158.

14. Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H. Sa’di, eds., Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 6.

15. Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, Nakba, 10.

16. Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 107.


#2 Bernard 2016-01-02 16:35 EST
more complex
Dunkelman was "replaced as military governor of Nazareth [and] the Seventh Brigade was withdrawn from the city" on July 17, 1948, a day after the city mayor and notables had surrendered it cf. David B. Green, "This day in Jewish History...". Ha'aretz, July 17, 2014), but appears to have continued as commander of the 7th Brigade until July, 1949 (cf. Wikipedia article on the brigade, with list of commanding officers). He had taken command of it in early July following his appointment by Ben Gurion, and reached them on July 5, 1948 (per World Machal Web site). Thus as commander Dunkelman had direct responsibility for the actions of the Seventh Brigade from July 5, 1948 until some time in July, 1949, except for the time he was away from it during the second cease fire (July 18 to Oct. 15, 1848) when he got married, having turned command over to Yosef Eitan, his second in command (cf. World Machal Web site).

During the early part of the time Dunkelman was directly in command, the Seventh Brigade was an important participant in Operation Dekel (July 9 to 15/16) in the northern Galilee. The entry for the operation in Wikipedia lists the Palestinian towns and villages captured, which Israeli troupes were involved (there are quite a few gaps in this info) and happened to the inhabitants. A close reading of this list will demonstrate that whenever the Carmeli Brigade was involved together with the Seventh Brigsde expulsion took place, sometimes with cruelty and war crimes. However, when the Seventh Brigade functioned on its own, there were a few cases when the inhabitants were allowed to stay (eg. Kabul, ad-Damun and Nahf), and some where they were expelled or not allowed to return, and/or the village was destroyed (eg. Mi'ar and Al-Ruways). It must be noted that the commander of the Carmeli Brigade was Moshe Carmel (or Zalitzki-Carmel), who took over as military commander of Nazereth when Dunkelman was relieved of that responsibility (cf. Ben Gurion, War Diary, Vol.2).

Furthermore, during Operation Hiram (60 hours between Oct. 29 and 31, 1948, when another ceasefire was to take effect), which was led by now General Moshe Carmel, the level of expulsion and war atrocities was much higher (cf. Wikipedia, again listing Palestinian towns and villages). Yosef Weitz, head of the JNF's Forestry Dept. and an early advocate of "transferring" Palestinian Arabs, had urged General Yigal Yadin, Head of Operations for the IDF, on Oct. 29 to expel Palestinians from all areas captured during Operation Hiram (cf. Wikipedia entry on Operation Hiram, citing Benny Morris). This was in keeping with what Ben Gurion himself had asked for. Dunkelman appears to have objected, at least as far as Christian Palestinians were concerned. There is evidence in the log books of the Seventh Brigade that on Nov. 2, 1948 he cabled General Carmel in "protest against the eviction of Christians from the village of Rama and its environs. We saw Christians at Rama in the fields thirsty for water and suffering from robbery. Other brigades expelled Christians from villages that did not resist and surrendered to our forces. I suggest that you issue and order to return the Christians to their villages" (cf.

Among the terrible atrocities, especially those of Safsaf noted by Freeman-Malloy, the role of the Seventh Brigade is paramount. As he states, "Israel has not declassified enough documentation for us to know for certain whether Dunkelman ordered his troops to massacre Palestinian civilians in line with instructions from higher-level IDF officers, took the initiative himself, or left the details to lower levels of command." Clearly Dunkelman DID object to some of the actions and orders, however a complete understanding of his role is yet to be determined.

#1 Eric 2015-12-30 01:14 EST
no hero
Saving Nazareth wasn't entirely heroic even in Potter's limited sense, according to a letter by Ted Schmidt in Monday's Star.

"It is true that Dunkelman did defy his commanding officer Moshe Karmi in his refusal to depopulate Nazareth. What is left out of the story is that Carmi immediately consulted the Defence Minister and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The wily Israeli leader knew that kicking Palestinians out of the hometown of Jesus was bad optics."

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