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Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2018, The Israel Palestine Project
All rights reserved
Note: Although A Common Historical Narrative is complete, 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.
Chapter 9: The Deir Yassin Massacre – a triggering action of the Palestinian Al-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: the confiscation of Palestinian property, the massacres committed by Zionist forces, the collapse of Palestinian society, and, ultimately, the loss of the Palestinian homeland. 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, residents were actively expelled by the Zionist brigades, 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, and to later prevent Palestinians returning to areas targeted for Jewish settlement. 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 brigades – organizationally separate from the Haganah – entered Deir Yassin with the Haganah’s acquiescence. 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. 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 Etzel brigades were not disbanded until mid-September.
Although Jews were also massacred by Palestinians 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.
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 expel the Arabs and extend the capture of Palestinian lands beyond the borders established in UN Resolution 181. Plan D was launched with “Nahshon”, an operation 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 expulsion 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.
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. Yusef 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.”
Even after the defeat at Deir Yassin and the arming and reorganizing of the disparate Israeli forces into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in May, 1948, dozens of Palestinian villages fought bravely against dispossession. Most Palestinian leaders were also competent in the field of battle, fighting side by side with their men. Three of the main Palestinian military leaders (Abdel Qadir al-Husseini, 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 story of heroism showing the Palestinians’ deep attachment to the land, and their capacity for self-sacrifice in defending it.
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. Actions such as these demonstrated the Jewish people’s resistance to being destroyed or driven out of Palestine.
Dealing with the history of Palestinian displacement and expulsion, including massacres, has proved controversial even among Israeli historians. Some historians who revealed plans for cleansing Palestine of its Palestinian inhabitants asserted later that, despite the moral challenge of those actions, the actions were de facto a necessary price to be paid for the establishment of Israel, underlining what Menachem Begin (commander of the Irgun and, later, Prime Minister of Israel) himself had said: "Without Deir Yassin the state of Israel would not exist".
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