Sixty years after Deir Yassin
IT is 60 years since the world heard the news of the massacre at Deir Yassin, a Palestinian quarrying village just west of Jerusalem. Early on the morning of Friday, April 9, 1948, a combined force of Irgun Z'vai Leumi fighters reinforced by members of Lehi (the Stern group)
had stormed the village. By noon, they had overcome any resistance, and began going from house to house, using explosives, and firing into the homes.
According to some contemporary accounts, including that of a Red Cross officer who toured Deir Yassin, more than 250 villagers were killed, half of them women and children. Others say it was no more than 110 people, and that many of villagers had heeded warnings to flee when the attack started. But whatever the numbers, a massacre it was.
It was some weeks before the British Mandate in Palestine ended, and the State of Israel would be proclaimed. Deir Yassin had maintained peaceful relations with nearby Jewish settlements, and it was scheduled to be part of the international zone around Jerusalem under the UN partition plan. But it was on rising ground near the strategic Tel Aviv-Jerusalem convoy route, and so unbeknown to the inhabitatants it was earmarked under a Zionist plan, Operation Nachshon, to be seized and its residents driven out, even it is said to make way for a small airfield.
Further north the mainstream Haganah's Palmach combat units were battling to take the village and strongpoint of Kastel, where Abdel-Kkader el-Husseini's Palestinian force was reinforced by local volunteers. The battle went to and forth for a week. But Deir Yassin's men, true to an agreement with Givat Shaul, had driven away outside forces, and though the Irgun's commanders would claim there were Iraqi and Syrian guerrillas in the village, in fact they found only villagers resisting them, with old Mausers and muskets. The attackers only lost four men.
Although the different Zionist forces had not yet been integrated into one army, they were liaising, and the Haganah command had approved the Irgun attack on Deir Yassin, if not what followed. A Palmach unit was standing by, and the youth brigade, Gadna, were sent in later for the grisly task of collecting bodies.
Colonel Meir Pa'il, a Haganah intelligence officer, was there to see how the 'dissidents' (Irgun and Lehi) performed. He writes:
"It was noon when the battle ended and the shooting stopped. Things had become quiet, but the village had not surrendered. The IZL (Irgun) and Lehi (Stern Gang) irregulars left the places in which they had been hiding and started carrying out clean-up operations in the houses. They fired with all the arms they had, and threw explosives into the buildings. They also shot everyone they saw in the houses, including women and children – indeed the commanders made no attempt to check the disgraceful acts of slaughter. I myself and a number of inhabitants begged the commanders to give orders to their men to stop shooting, but our efforts were unsuccessful. In the meantime, some twenty-five men had been brought out of the houses: they were loaded into a freight truck and led in a ’victory parade,’ like a Roman triumph, through to Mahaneh Yehudah and Zikhron Yosef quarters [of Jerusalem]. At the end of the parade they were taken to a stone quarry between Giv’at Shaul and Deir Yasin and shot in cold blood. The fighters then put the women and children who were still alive on a truck and took them to the Mandelbaum Gate. "
The Zionist leadership had been engaged in secret talks with King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan, hoping to keep his British-officered Arab Legion out of the war, and between them carve up Palestine. Ben Gurion tried to distance his forces from the massacre, and sent an apology to the King. But meanwhile the agreement to integrate the right-wing 'dissidents' with Haganah went ahead, and Deir Yassin was not to be the last massacre.
Four days after the Deir Yassin massacre, Arabs ambushed a convoy heading for the Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus, and massacred the medical workers in what was claimed as a reprisal. As so often happens, the innocent were paying with their lives for the guilty.
But so far as those responsible for what happened at Deir Yassin were concerned, whether or not the forces they unleashed had got out of hand, their savagery served a purpose. As Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander who went on to be prime minister of Israel, winning a Nobel Peace Prize before he invaded Lebanon, boasted of the effects of Deir Yassin:
' Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of "Irgun butchery," were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated'.
Eldad Sheib, of Lehi, who remained an unrepentant racist, did not mind acknowledging the aim was ethnic cleansing:
"Had it not been for Deir Yasin, half a million Arabs would be living in the state of Israel [in 1948]. The state of Israel would not have existed. We must not disregard this, with full awareness of the responsibility involved. All wars are cruel. There is no way out of that. This country will either be Eretz Israel with an absolute Jewish majority and a small Arab minority, or Eretz Ishmael, and Jewish emigration will begin again if we do not expel the Arabs one way or another".
Only in the United States, it seems, has a minor historical revisionist industry sprung up, with the Zionist Organisation of America in denial that there ever was a massacre, and web sites praising the bravery of the Irgun and Sternists and denouncing Meir Pa'il and other witnesses as liars and "leftists". It would seem that while many Israelis, including some Irgun and Lehi veterans, have sought to come to terms with their past in an honest effort to achieve a better, peaceful future with their neighbours, right-wing American Zionists refuse to accept that the other has any case, lest it weaken their resolve to back continuing the ruthless conquest which was seen at Deir Yassin.