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Note: Although the first edition of Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative has been published, the document undergoes continuous refinement through ongoing stylistic and scholarly review. Text on this page may be changed from time to time as a result of this process.
Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2020, The Israel Palestine Project
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Chapter 11 - The Deir Yassin Massacre: A triggering action of the Palestinian Nakba, 1948
Al-Nakba (in Arabic, “The Catastrophe”) refers to the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians before, during, and after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, including the confiscation of Palestinian property, the massacres committed by Zionist forces, the collapse of Palestinian society, and, ultimately, the loss of the Palestinian homeland while most became refugees (see Note 17). The onset of Al-Nakba is popularly held to be the action that occurred in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in April, 1948.
In the midst of civil war, the Jewish commanders at the time sought to instill fear among the Arabs and cause them to flee their lands and villages. Frightened for their lives, large numbers of Palestinians, including old men, women and children, took what they could carry, left their homes and started walking. Whether they would return and when, they had no idea. In many villages, the Zionist brigades actively expelled residents, and Palestinians fled as well because of war panic and the early desertion of their community leaders. In many cases, once vacated, the villages were destroyed to prevent their use by Arab irregulars behind the front lines. Nevertheless, in spite of these actions, there were also places where Jewish community leaders urged the Palestinians to stay.
The small Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, five miles west of Jerusalem, had signed a non-aggression pact with the Jewish Haganah (precursor of the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF) to avoid hostilities. The village lay along the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the Arabs had cut off to convoys which were supplying West Jerusalem, as part of a siege of West Jerusalem laid in December 1947. On April 9th, 1948, forces from the militant Irgun/Etzel and Lehi groups – groups who had resisted joining in with regular Zionist forces in attacking other Palestinian villages – entered Deir Yassin, with the agreement of the Haganah, who broke their agreement in the non-aggression pact. They were met by a small number of Palestinians who held off the superior force for eight hours. The purpose of the Zionist forces was to frighten the Palestinian residents into flight and to take revenge for attacks and previous atrocities perpetrated against Jewish forces. They intentionally killed men, women, children and the elderly (see Note 18 for multiple sources). Torturing and looting were also reported and well documented. Villagers who weren’t killed during the raid were paraded in open trucks in the Jewish quarters of the Old City before being driven to East Jerusalem.
Several days after the horrific events at Deir Yassin, the New York Times (April 13, 1948) reported that 254 people had been killed, and that women had been raped, although there has never been evidence that rapes took place. The Times report, and others like it with exaggerated numbers, were based on the desire of both sides to intentionally inflate or minimize the numbers killed for their own purposes. Later, the Jews denied their involvement in the massacre, minimized the numbers, or claimed the violence was the action of a dissident group that did not represent the Jewish community. Although the Jewish Agency condemned the atrocity at Deir Yassin, the Lehi and Irgun/Etzel brigades were not disbanded until June, 1948 and the members were included in the IDF. Menachem Begin, later to become prime minister of the new state of Israel, said “The legend of Deir Yassin was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel. Panic overwhelmed the Arabs” (see Note 19).
Although Palestinians also massacred Jews during this time, the Arabs used Deir Yassin and similar appalling events to denounce the Jews as killers and rapists. The exact death toll at Deir Yassin remained unclear for decades until Palestinian scholars (at Beirzeit University in Ramallah) revealed the actual number as 100-105, not counting combatants, thus ending the debate over the numbers killed.
As the civil war and the displacement of Palestinians advanced, Jewish forces began to enlarge their new state, gaining more territory with fewer Palestinians. In March 1948, just prior to Deir Yassin, the Zionist military leadership devised Plan D (in Hebrew, “Tochnit Dalet") to shift from a defensive to an offensive strategy and to create a contiguous Jewish territory in order to be prepared for the expected attack by the Arab armies. One of its consequences was the displacement of many Arabs who were expelled or fled. Plan D was launched in April 1948 with the “Nahshon” operation, aimed to break the siege of West Jerusalem, along with Deir Yassin. By May 1948, it was clear to the leadership of the Yishuv that the exodus of the Palestinians was an unparalleled opportunity to cause a mass exit of Arabs from the areas that were to be contained within the new Jewish state. The Haganah took the initiative in actions that would lead the Arabs to believe they were no longer safe in their villages, and Deir Yassin served as an object lesson. For commanders in the field, the expulsions were for military reasons, but Plan D was also clearly political.
The resistance of the Palestinians, such as evidenced at Deir Yassin, was not uncommon. Many peasants sold fertile lands and their wives’ gold to buy rifles and ammunition. When their resistance proved ineffective and Palestinians were driven out of their villages, they waited in nearby orchards. Many were killed trying to return to their homes. Sometimes, their interdictions of Jewish convoys involved them in battles against the Palmach, the elite forces of the Haganah. Yosef Tabenkin, a prominent Zionist military leader wrote: “The Arabs attacked with very inferior force that only used light, not automatic arms. I doubt if they had thirty men. This was against the superb Palmach Battalion, fully armed including twenty armored cars. The failure of the convoy was decisive and its defeat led to the Jerusalem road blockade.”
Saleh Abd al-Jawad wrote: “Even after the defeat at Deir Yassin, and the restructuring and rearming and reorganizing of the Zionist forces into the Israeli army, [in May 1948] dozens of Palestinian villages fought bravely against dispossession. Many Palestinian leaders were also competent in the field of battle. They fought side by side with their men, and, in fact, the three main Palestinian leaders (Abdel Qadir al-Husayni, Hasan Salameh, and Ibrahim Abou Dayeh) were killed in action in front of their men . . . The war [was] not only a disaster, but also a saga of heroism revealing the [Palestinians’] deep attachment to the land, and their capacity for self-sacrifice in defending it” (see Note 20).
Similarly, the Civil and 1948 Wars saw spirited acts of heroism by Jews. Examples include the courageous defense of “kibbutzim” (collective agricultural settlements) and the May 1948 siege of Jerusalem by the Jordanian Arab Legion, during which sixteen and seventeen-year-old Haganah Youth Corp members successfully defended the north wall of the old city (see Note 21). Jews also defended kibutzim in the south against Egyptian troops and in the north against Syrian troops. Actions such as these demonstrated the Jewish people’s resistance to being destroyed or driven out of Palestine.
The end of the British Mandate in May 1948 marked the beginning of the “1948 War”, also known as Israel’s “War of Independence”. Over the period of the civil war and the 1948 war, “More than 400 Palestinian villages were abandoned or emptied and most of these villages were destroyed, their land used to build Israeli settlements and house new Jewish immigrants” (see Note 22). Reliable sources indicate that at least 700,000 Palestinian refugees were created in the period leading up to May 15, 1948, and the start of the 1948 War. These actions are the origin of the modern Palestinian refugee problem.
17. The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, ed. Philip Mattar, Revised Edition, Facts on File, New York, 2005, pp. 328-329.
18. Aref Al-Aref, Al-Nakba, Beirut 1956; Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, Cambridge University Press, 1988; Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War, Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 125-129; Uri Milstein, Blood Libel at Deir Yassin – The Black Book, 2007; Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, 1972, pp. 266-282; Yoav Gelber, Independence Versus Nakbah: The Arab–Israeli War of 1948, Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew), 2004, pp. 161-153.
19. Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War, p.128.
20. Saleh Abdel Jawad, in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, ed. Robert I. Rotberg, Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 89.
21. Benny Morris, 1948, p. 216.
22. Ibid, p. 329.
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