The phrase “degel shakhor,” lierally “black flag,” refers to a principle in the Israeli military which is supposed to encourage soldiers not to carry out immoral orders. “Just
following orders” was not supposed to be an excuse.
Reality never measures up to ideals, and it is just as hard for Israeli soldiers to defy orders as it is for any other. This was true in 1948 and, as we have seen in the many reports from B’Tselem and the extensive testimonies of Israeli veterans that Shovrim Shtika(Breaking the Silence) has published, it is at least as true today.
But Bernard Avishai, in his latest blog piece, reminded me of the story of Ben Dunkelman, who refused to carry out an order to violate an agreement the IDF had made with the Arab citizens of Nazareth and expel those citizens from the territory the fledgling state held at the time. In the end, Dunkelman’s refusal spared Nazareth’s population from expulsion.
In his autobiography, called Dual Allegiance, Dunkelman tells the story of how, between July 8 and 18, 1948 during Operation Dekel, he led the 7th Brigade and its supporting units as it moved to capture the town of Nazareth. Nazareth surrendered after little more than token resistance. The surrender was formalized in a written agreement, where the town leaders accepted to cease hostilities in return for solemn promises from the Israeli officers, including Dunkelman, that no harm would come to the civilians of the town.
Shortly following the capture, Dunkelman received orders from General Chaim Laskov to expel the civilian population in the town, but he refused to implement these orders. The Israeli journalist and translator Peretz Kidron, with whom Dunkelman collaborated in writing Dual Allegiance, reproduced his record of Dunkelman’s account of the capture of Nazareth in a book chapter entitled “Truth Whereby Nations Live”:
- [less than a day later] Haim Laskov [came] to me with astounding orders: Nazareth’s civilian population was to be evacuated! I was shocked and horrified. I told him I would do nothing of the sort -in view of our promises to safeguard the city’s people, such a move would be both superfluous and harmful. I reminded him that scarcely a day earlier, he and I, as representatives of the Israeli army, had signed the surrender document in which we solemnly pledged to do nothing to harm the city or its population. When Haim saw that I refused to obey the order, he left.
A scarce 12 hours after Dunkelman had refused to expel the inhabitants of Nazareth, Laskov had appointed another officer as military governor.
- Two days after the second truce came into effect, the Seventh Brigade was ordered to withdraw from Nazareth. Avraham Yaffe, who had commanded the 13th battalion in the assault on the city, now reported to me with orders from Moshe Carmel to take over from me as its military governor. I complied with the order, but only after Avraham had given me his word of honour that he would do nothing to harm or displace the Arab population. [....] I felt sure that [the order to withdraw from Nazareth] had been given because of my defiance of the evacuation order.
Dunkelman’s defiance of the evacuation order forced Laskov to attempt to obtain sanction from a higher level. However, David Ben-Gurion finally vetoed the order.The Arab inhabitants in Nazareth were never forced to evacuate.
Would that the IDF had many more Ben Dunkelmans, then and now. For that matter, every army should use him as the model of a soldier.