Shadmi served as the commander of a battalion in the Harel Brigade of the Palmach elite pre-state underground Jewish militia during the War of Independence and later served in other senior command positions in the Israel Defense Forces. His name, however, is best remembered for his involvement in the incident in which dozens of Arab civilians were killed during the Sinai Campaign in 1956.
Shadmi was born in 1922 in the agricultural farm of Bitanya, above Lake Kinneret. He attended the Kadoorie Agricultural High School alongside Yitzhak Rabin, where he enlisted in the Haganah pre-state military underground, and served in the Palmach and Palyam, the Palmach’s naval branch.
During the War of Independence, he served as the commander of the 5th Battalion in the Harel Brigade and participated in the Nahshon campaign to break through the Arab blockade on the main road to Jerusalem. Later, Shadmi was appointed the commander of the 7th Battalion of the Negev Brigade and took part in Operation Horev in the Sinai. Later in his military career, he commanded the officers’ training school, the Golani Brigade and was the chief of Ground Forces and Paratroopers.
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On October 29, 1956, the first day of the Sinai Campaign, Border Police officers fired and killed around 50 residents of the town of Kafr Qasem in central Israel, close to the 1949 armistice line with Jordan (the Green Line), who were returning home from work after a curfew they had not been informed of was imposed. At the time, Shadmi was the commander of the brigade responsible for the area, and his troops were preparing for an escalation along the border with Jordan because of the fighting in the Sinai.
On the day of the incident, Shadmi ordered the curfew to start earlier in his area, but the residents who were at the time at work in Petah Tikva did not know of the change. They were shot upon their return home by the Border Police, who were under the command of Shadmi’s brigade.
At the military trial held after the massacre, the commander of the Border Police battalion, Maj. Shmuel Malinki, said that Shadmi ordered him to enforce the curfew using live fire. Malinki also said that in response to his question: “What will be the fate of the civilians who return to the village after the curfew [takes effect],” Shadmi said: “Allah Yerhamu” – an Arabic phrase asking God to have mercy on the souls of the dead. Malinki said he concluded from Shadmi’s response that it was allowed to shoot to kill those who violated the curfew.
Shadmi denied Malinki’s version and called it a lie. Shadmi was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted. The judges wrote that the charges were baseless and that the killings did not stem directly from the orders he gave. In the end, Shadmi was convicted of the minor violation of exceeding his authority, for pushing up the curfew without the approval of the military governor. The judges said he did so “in good faith,” and fined him a symbolic amount of 10 prutot, or a hundredth of an Israeli pound. He also received a reprimand in his army personnel file for not taking all the necessary steps to prevent “the serious incident.”
When he left the courtroom, he raised his hand high – holding a 10 prutot coin. The scene was captured by press photographers and was used to symbolize the criticism against Shadmi and the entire trial. At an earlier and separate trial, the soldiers who had carried out the shooting were sentenced to prison, but were released after a short period having received a presidential pardon.
The expression “a blatantly illegal order,” also known as “superior orders,” originated during the legal process. The instruction to Israel Defense Forces soldiers that they are obliged to refuse an order “that has a black flag flying over it” has become part of the Kafr Qasem legacy.
“During the Kafr Qasem affair, I stepped on a mine,” Shadmi wrote in his memoirs. “And like all disabled IDF veterans heroically fighting for their rehabilitation and return to life and activity, so I took upon myself the challenge of not breaking, and continuing to serve in the professional army, despite the stigma the press and parts of the public attached to me,” he wrote.