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Perpetrators of the Nakba

perpetrators of the NakbaWhile the testimony of survivors plays a vital role in establishing the facts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, an approach that focuses on perpetrators can tell us much more about why such events occur. Many studies have examined perpetration at the level of ideology and top-level power politics. Studies of perpetrators at lower levels – the people whose violent acts directly accomplish genocide and ethnic cleansing – are rarer, though studies of this type also yield valuable insights.

A superb example of such a study is a long book by Michael Mann (University of California at Los Angeles) – The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Using a consistent theoretical framework, Professor Mann examines in turn pre-modern ethnic cleansing, New World genocides, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, “communist cleansing” by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide.

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, however, does not number among Mann’s case studies. Nor have I been able to locate a strictly comparable study of the Nakba by anyone else. Nur Masalha has written a lucid account of the ideological background (Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882--1948, Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992) and there are several books on the high-level politics of the Nakba (for instance: Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld, 2007; Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge University Press, 2007), but I have not found anything that focuses primarily on rank-and-file perpetrators.       I hope that this essay will prompt someone in a position to undertake a more substantial investigation to do so. 

I start by explaining how I categorize the perpetrators of the Nakba and describing in general terms the behavioral variations among them. Then I consider whether the evidence supports two plausible contrasts – the conventional contrast between “moderate” and “extremist” components of the Zionist forces and a contrast between combatants born or long settled in Palestine and volunteers from the Jewish diaspora. 

Categories of perpetrator

The main military forces that conquered Palestine were the Haganah and its “elite striking force” -- the Palmach. After Israel declared its independence these forces became the Israeli army. Two “dissident” forces also participated in the conquest – the Irgun and the Lehi (Stern Group). 

The bulk of Zionist combatants, and probably all members of the Irgun and Lehi, were Jews born or long established in the Yishuv (the pre-state Zionist community in Palestine). However, a major role was also played by Jews (and a few non-Jews) recruited abroad under two programs:

Machal – about 3,500 volunteers from 43 countries, including about 1,250 from Canada and the United States. Most volunteers were recently discharged soldiers from the Allied armies with combat experience from World War Two; the remainder were young people trained in camps run by Zionist youth movements (especially Beitar).

Gachal – about 20,000 recruited by Haganah emissaries in the refugee camps in Europe and Cyprus. To what extent these people were volunteers is a matter of dispute.

People recruited through Machal and Gachal were not organized into separate military forces but deployed throughout the Haganah and Palmach and later the Israeli army, navy, and air force. However, Machal volunteers were especially prominent in the new navy and air force and in one of the Haganah’s twelve armored brigades – the Seventh Brigade, which fought in the north of Palestine. 

Behavioral variations

There was evidently very little open defiance of orders to massacre, intimidate, and expel Palestinians, although I did find one quite significant case in which an order to expel was defied. 

What is perhaps a typical range of behavior is reflected in Khirbet Khizeh, a novella by S. Yizhar (pen name of Yizhar Smilansky) published in Hebrew in 1949 and in English by Ibis Editions in 2008. The narrator is a reluctant soldier in a company that has received orders to participate in expelling the residents of a Palestinian village and destroying their homes. He timidly tries to restrain the excesses of other soldiers, who want to kill more Arabs, and after the operation complains to the company commander about “this filthy war.” The commander occupies a middle position between the narrator and the enthusiasts, guiding the company to do exactly what their orders require – no more and no less.

This suggests a threefold division – those who simply obey orders, those who not only obey orders but also commit brutalities not required of them, and those who express some sort of protest, however ineffectual.

Hypothesis 1: “moderates” versus “extremists”

A standard Zionist narrative of Israel’s war of independence contrasts the “moderate” Haganah with the “extremist” Irgun and Lehi. The massacre conducted by the Irgun at the village of Deir Yassin supposedly shocked the “official” Zionist leadership, who hastened to dissociate themselves from it.

The trouble with this version is that there were several large-scale massacres (in addition to numerous smaller ones) and not all of them were the work of the relatively few soldiers of the Irgun and Lehi. Thus, the massacre at the coastal village of Tantura was carried out by the Haganah. One Palestinian eyewitness (Yusuf Salam) reports an argument in which an officer named Samson told Yaacov, head of the neighboring Jewish settlement of Zichron Yaacov, that he “had orders to kill the whole lot” (apparently meaning all the men of Tantura). Yaacov succeeded in having the order rescinded, thereby saving the lives of forty men who were about to be shot. [1]

There is considerable evidence that all the massacres – large or small, conducted by Haganah or the Irgun – were intended to serve the same purpose of spreading panic among Palestinians and inducing them to flee. This is why in each group led away to be shot in Tantura one man was spared and told: “Watch how they die and then go tell the others” (testimony of Farid Taha Salam). The Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani portrays a similar scene in his short story He Was a Child That Day: soldiers make some Palestinians get out of their car, line them up along a roadside ditch and shoot them – except for a child, who is told: “You see? Remember this well when you tell the story.” [2]  

Hypothesis 2: “Israelis” versus “diaspora Jews”

Tikva Honig-Parnass, a writer and activist who was born in Palestine, has shared the following reminiscences of her time in the Palmach during the Nakba:

We were the generation that were programmed to commit the mass expulsion. We imbibed it with our mothers’ milk. Although I attended a secular school, we were taught the Bible five days a week as though it were a historical document. And we were already ready when the ’48 war broke out. We were already indifferent to the Palestinians —- not even hating, just indifferent. They became for us a kind of an environmental nuisance. It is the kind of objectification which prepared us not to care about the expulsion.

The inhabitants of the whole area of Beit Jibrin, Beit Jamal and Zakariyah, who are now refugees in Dheisheh and in Beit Jibrin and in camps around Bethlehem, were expelled by the Palmach, in which I was a soldier.

I have a letter that I wrote to my parents on October 30, ’48 on the office stationery of the director of a garage who fled a few days before I came there. I don’t even relate to the fact that I’m writing on someone’s stationery.

In a passage that really raises my hair to this very day, I mention two American volunteers in our unit — there were many American volunteers who came after World War Two – and I call them liberals. We were left Zionists. And that was the decisive difference between us and these two Americans. They were shouting in the evening, after meeting starving women and children on the way back to their villages. And they said that if this new state could not take care of its residents there was no justification for it to be established.

And what was my reaction? I wrote: “Dear mother and father, I am very often sick and tired of these American philanthropists.” And then I continued with my daily news, as though nothing had happened. It was the climax of dehumanization, not only of the Palestinians but of us.

How broadly applicable is the contrast suggested here between the brainwashed young generation of the Yishuv and the “philanthropic” Jewish youngsters of the United States? Let’s juxtapose another document – a message sent to a Palestinian website [4] by a relative of another American volunteer:

I am writing through tears. I wept when I saw the photo of the ruined village of al-Sanbariyya because it was my brother-in-law who helped destroy the village and the lives of those who lived there. My now deceased brother-in-law was born in Los Angeles and after World War II decided he wanted to live in Palestine. He met his wife-to-be at a training camp somewhere in the midwest. While at the camp many of the people decided they wanted to build a kibbutz in Palestine...

My brother-in-law went to Palestine on a ship smuggling refugees into the country when the ship was stopped by the British. He jumped ship and swam to shore and soon he met up with the other Americans. They received weapons, probably from the Haganah, and went to the northern part of Palestine to begin the ethnic cleansing of the land so that they could build Kibbutz Maayan Baruch.

It was a few years later that I met my brother-in-law when he and his wife came to Los Angeles for my marriage to his younger brother. I will never forget how he laughed as he described the frightened villagers fleeing their homes as they left their shoes by the door and their pots on the stove. Later, in an internet search, I found out that the village had been called al-Sanbariyya and had been home to 130 families. His story bothered me, but I was young and caught up in the story of Israel. It was only after the 1967 war that I started having doubts and as I read more and more history of Israel/Palestine,  not always easy to come by,  I discovered the incredible injustices done to the Palestinian people...

Evidently not all young Jewish-American volunteers were such “philanthropes.”

The case of Dunkelman and the Seventh Brigade

A less clear-cut case is that of Ben Dunkelman (Benjamin Ben-David), a Canadian Jew persuaded to volunteer on account of his experience as an officer in World War Two. Ben Gurion appointed Dunkelman commander of the Haganah’s Seventh Brigade in early July 1948. Entering Nazareth in mid-July, he concluded a formal surrender agreement with the town’s Christian and Moslem notables in which he undertook to ensure that no harm would come to its residents. Soon thereafter he received an order from General Chaim Laskov to expel the inhabitants, but refused to comply. The Seventh Brigade was then ordered to withdraw from Nazareth and Avraham Yoffe was appointed to replace Dunkelman as the town’s military governor. Yoffe had served as a battalion commander under Dunkelman, and this may have helped Dunkelman to extract from him a promise to honor the agreement with the notables. Laskov sought confirmation of the expulsion order from Ben Gurion, but Ben Gurion decided to cancel the order. Perhaps he judged that the expulsion of a few more Arabs did not justify the political risk of antagonizing a war hero from a prominent Canadian Jewish family. [5]

Dunkelman’s motive in defying Laskov’s order seems to have been respect for a formal agreement rather than any general objection to expelling Palestinians. Indeed, the Seventh Brigade under his command must have expelled many Palestinians living in the Galilee (outside Nazareth) in the summer of 1948 – despite the fact that its commander and hundreds of his subordinates were volunteers from English-speaking countries. [6] A publication of World Machal, the organization of volunteer veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, tells us that in Operation Hiram the Seventh Brigade “cleared the entire Galilee and routed the ‘Arab Liberation Army’ led by Kaukji” – a fairly clear allusion to expulsion. [7]

If far from all volunteers from abroad were “philanthropists,” there are also indications that far from all soldiers reared in the Yishuv were brainwashed brutes. I have already mentioned the intervention at Tantura by the head of a neighboring Jewish settlement. Other Jews from the same settlement also tried to help the people of Tantura, with whom they had longstanding friendly relations. Yusuf Salam reports:

In Umm Khalid, the deserted village they had transformed into a prison camp, some people from Zichron Yaacov came one day and tried to convince the head of the camp, whose name was Ashkenazi, to treat us more kindly and with less insults and humiliation, but he refused to listen and made them leave.

According to the testimony of Muhammad Kamil al-Dassuki:

A soldier asked me: "You're from Tantura. Do you know someone from the Dassuki family? -"Me," I replied. "Do you know Abu 'Aql?" "He's my mother's brother." He put down his rifle and said: "Where is he?" I said he was at Fraydiss. He then started to cry: "Greet him for me. I know him, I'm the son of Abraham Hallaq, the train conductor on the Haifa-Jaffa line and my father is a friend of your uncle!" Then he asked after my cousins and I told him that Salim and Nimr had been shot. He immediately cursed the murderers and added, "Me, too. Two of my brothers were killed."

And the same witness observes: “In the cemetery I saw cars filled with Jews. Some of them were laughing and singing, but others were terribly silent.” Most of them were to remain silent, and we shall never know what was going on inside them.

Concluding remarks

The general picture that emerges is not all that different from other cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Some people within the perpetrator community were deeply disturbed at what their fellow Jews were doing. Some tried to help the victims, not in every case without success. And yet – as in other historical cases – they were only able to exert a marginal effect on the ongoing tragedy. The overall impression remains one of vicious sadism, cruel pettiness, [8] or at best callous indifference to the suffering of members of the “out group.”


[1] Eyewitness accounts of the events in Tantura are taken from:

Yahya Abu Madi says that the massacre ended because 300 Jews had been taken prisoner at Kfar Etzion “so it would be useful to leave us alive for future prisoner exchanges.” He adds that he does not deny that Yaacov was a compassionate man. It would require detailed research to determine what exactly happened and why, but the Dunkelman case (see below) suggests that some high-ranking Zionist leaders were inclined to placate influential Jews with humanitarian scruples so that they would not resort to public protest and undermine sympathy for Zionism in Western public opinion.

[2] Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, translated by Barbara Harlow and Karen E. Riley (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p. 139. 

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] This account is taken from the Wikipedia article at It is of interest to note that the whole story of the order to expel the population of Nazareth and the ensuing conflict was removed from later editions of Dunkelman’s book, e.g.: Ben Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance: An Autobiography (Macmillan Company of Canada, 1976). The chapter in which the story originally appeared (“Truth Whereby Nations Live”) was eliminated in its entirety.

[6] In summer 1948 the Seventh Brigade had 170 volunteers from English-speaking countries, rising to about 300 in late October. One of the brigade’s infantry companies consisted wholly of English speakers. Source: Dr. Yaacov Markovitzky, Machal: Overseas Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence (World Machal, 2003; internet edition 2007), p. 31 (

[7] ibid. As Masalha's study shows, "clearance" is a well-established euphemism for expulsion in Zionist literature intended for "internal use." Here we apparently have an inadvertent seepage of this usage into a more public source. True, it is not stated what or whom the Seventh Brigade were clearing out of the Galilee. Armed resistance? But that would seem to be covered by “routing.” Perhaps they were busily clearing the land of weeds?

For evidence that Avraham Yoffe too had no objection to expulsion in principle, see: Benny Morris, "Yosef Weitz and the Transfer Committees, 1948-49," Middle Eastern Studies, v. 22, no. 4 (October 1986), p. 523 (quoted by Masalha, p. 190).  

[8] An example of what I mean by “cruel pettiness” comes from the testimony of Amina al-Masri and Tamam al-Masri of Tantura: “In their search for money and gold, they even went through the swaddling clothes of our infants, and when a little girl tarried in taking off an earring, a woman soldier ripped it off and the little one began to bleed."


Also on the Nakba:

How I Discovered the Nakba

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