Deir Yassin was an Arab village which played a pivotal role both in the war between Israel and the Arabs in 1948 and in the subsequent collective memories of the war on both sides. Although the village had virtually no military value, its impact on the war was profound after lurid stories of a massacre by Jewish forces there in April 1948 spread quickly throughout Palestine. It soon became commonly believed that the Jewish terrorist groups Lehi and Irgun, supported by the defence force Haganah (which was later to become the Israel Defence Forces) had massacred 254 Arabs there, many of them in cold blood. Added to the allegations were stories of rape, looting and mutilation which had apparently accompanied the massacre. Soon, David Ben-Gurion was writing to the king of Jordan to apologize and Palestinians were fleeing their villages in droves, fearing a repeat of the massacre.
It was not until the 1980s and the 1990s that documentary evidence about what happened that day became available, on the occasion of the opening of the Haganah's archives. Over the decades, Deir Yassin had been repeatedly cited as evidence of the malignant plans of the Jewish community in Palestine - this community was called the Yishuv - to eliminate or drive away Palestinian inhabitants. Arab chroniclers said that Deir Yassin was paradigmatic of what they call the nakba inflicted on the Palestinians in 1948 by the Yishuv, and that a massacre was pre-meditated and carried out with the co-operation of the moderate Jewish leadership.
Perhaps surprisingly, they were joined in some of their accusations by this very same moderate Jewish leadership. At the time and in official histories since, Ben-Gurion's political party, Mapai, and the IDF, were energetic in decrying the massacre. "This atrocity has become a weapon in the hands of enemies of Israel since that day," said the IDF's official history. They placed the blame entirely at the feet of the Irgun and Lehi groups, which were their political opponents. When the archives were opened, it appeared that the moderate leadership had actually suppressed evidence which called into question the standard version of events to defame the extremists. But the same documents also discredited the defence of his group's actions that had been given by Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun and future prime minister of Israel.
There is now a broad historical consensus about what happened at Deir Yassin in April 1948. While the standard version of events turned out to be exaggerated, it still emerges as a horrible affair, and one that the moderate Jewish leadership was wise to wish to disassociate itself from. The only people who dissent from the following version of events are sympathizers of the Jewish extremist groups who were involved in the affair and Arab propagandists, with other Israeli and Arab historians in agreement over the details.
This is the true story of Deir Yassin.
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Deir Yassin was a village of 700 that lay to the west of Jerusalem, adjacent to the neighbourhood of Givat Shaul. During the Arab Revolt of 1936 - 39, the village had participated in hostilities and its inhabitants had sometimes attacked western Jerusalem. In 1947, as it became clear that the British Mandate of Palestine would be split between a Jewish and Arab state, and that many Arabs would reject the proposal and initiate hostilities against the Jews, Deir Yassin contacted local Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and requested a non-belligerency agreement. Such agreements were common at the time, as many Arab villages had no interest in engaging in hostilities with their neighbours, with whom they had many economic linkages. The agreement was renewed in 1948, as the civil war between Jew and Arab escalated.
A crucial part of the agreement was that Deir Yassin would not allow foreign Arab militias to use the village as a base to attack Jerusalem either. This was especially important to the Yishuv because Deir Yassin lay on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which was needed to supply the Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Jerusalem - which was supposed to become an international enclave under the partition plan - was entirely surrounded by Arab land. Arab militias from outside Palestine were occupying villages on the crucial road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv - often against the wishes of the residents - and attacking Jewish convoys. By the time of the attack on Deir Yassin, the situation had developed into a full-blown siege and relief was desperately needed. The residents of Deir Yassin had proved tenacious in their desire to keep the Arab militias out of their village, and the foreign forces apparently even killed a villager and slaughtered the village's sheep when they refused.
On the 5th of April, the Haganah launched its first major military operation, which was designed to lift the siege of Jerusalem by driving out Arab militias. Deir Yassin, known to be co-operative, was not included in the original plan. But then the Haganah were approached by Irgun and Lehi, extremist groups whose goals conflicted with the moderate leadership of the Yishuv. Subscribing to revisionist Zionism, these groups wanted to see a Jewish state across a vast tract of the Middle East and they wanted to see it brought about by force. They had carried out terrorist attacks against the British - including, most famously, the bombing of the King David Hotel - and Lehi had even tried to forge a deal with the Nazis, figuring they had a mutual enemy in the British. Referred to as "dissidents" or "revisionists" and seen as young hotheads by the mainstream Jewish leadership, there was nevertheless a private dialogue between the groups.
When the war broke out, the Haganah needed all the allies it could get. Facing the numerically superior Palestinians and the threat of invasion by numerous Arab nations, the mainstream Jewish leadership was in no mood to start battles inside the Yishuv. In April, the revisionist groups were worried they were being politically outflanked by the Haganah because of the success of its military operation, and they desperately wanted in. Figuring that it was better to have them inside pissing out than outside pissing in, the Haganah suggested they participate in the operation; but the dissidents were not interested in the targets suggested to them, which they said would be too difficult. Instead they had their own proposal: attack Deir Yassin.
Initially the Haganah had not planned to conquer and permanently occupy the villages on the road, fearing they would be spread too thin and burdened by occupation. But they soon found that if they drove the Arab militias out of villages and then left, the irregulars swiftly returned; as such, they began depopulating and destroying the villages altogether. This course of action was followed because given a choice between destruction or a burdensome occupation, they chose the former. But the dissidents were given a different goal: they were to occupy Deir Yassin and stay there, because if it was destroyed then the ruins could be used as a staging post for an attack on Jerusalem. The Haganah hoped this would keep the revisionists busy, but it came at the cost of attacking a previously quiet Arab village.
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On April 10th, the Irgun and Lehi attacked with some 120 fighters. Before they attacked, they sent in a van with a loudspeaker to warn the village of the impending attack: the hope was that the villagers would flee, although in some accounts military-aged males were not given permission to leave. However, it seems that the van overturned some half a mile from Deir Yassin and so it is unlikely many residents heard its warning anyway. As such, they soon found themselves in the midst of brutal urban combat.
The stiffness of the resistance faced by the attackers is contested. The IDF claimed there were not any foreign irregulars in the village at all, although several days earlier Givat Shaul had come under fire from the village. Arab historians have said, on the basis of oral testimonies, that the villagers resisted the attack tenaciously. Four of the attackers died and some dozens were injured; the dissidents were inexperienced in warfare and it seems they began to panic. They blazed ammunition in house-to-house fighting, lobbing grenades into family homes and used explosives to blow up some houses. The Haganah provided further ammunition and came to assist the dissidents in taking the house of the village headman, which was the village's strong point.
It was not so much the battle phase that created the legend of Deir Yassin, but what happened next. Once the village was subdued, unarmed villagers were allegedly rounded up and shot, some after being trucked around Jerusalem in a macabre victory parade. It was alleged that the dissidents raped and then killed Arab women, in some cases after using them as forced labour. Other stories included the murder of pregnant women, the bayoneting of women in their genitals, and the murder of fetuses. Widespread looting is also said to have occurred - this, at the least, is attested to by Haganah sources from the time. It quickly became established that precisely 254 - or over a third - of the villagers had died. The rest were trucked to East Jerusalem.
The incident was quickly reported in the Arab media as part of a pre-meditated plan of massacre and transfer which the Jews had planned for all of the Palestinians. Arab radio repeated the atrocity stories, which became embellished with the retelling. Meanwhile, the dissident groups were only too proud to trumpet the violence they had inflicted on the Arabs, correctly assessing that it would promote the flight of many Palestinians from the mandate altogether. And rather than trying to dampen down the criticism, the Haganah used it as evidence that the dissident groups were fanatics who could not be trusted, making Deir Yassin part of the internal politics of the Yishuv as well as an incident in its relations with the Arab world. They were also no doubt thankful that in the future, villagers thought twice about resisting attack.
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But when cooler heads prevailed, the idea that Deir Yassin was a pre-meditated bloodbath began to be called into question. The truth turns out to be more complex.
Leaders of both Lehi and Irgun claimed that their forces had been told to abide by the Geneva Conventions when attacking, and that their goal had been the transfer of the population out of the village. Some Israeli historians have supported both claims, whereas some Arab historians have agreed from the documents that the goal was transfer. However, it all came down to the execution. The troops panicked. They were inexperienced, and they were young radicals. Given that they were so poorly trained in combat, one has to wonder the extent to which their training in the laws of war was superior; and their inclination to follow them, even if ordered, must also be called into question. Menachim Begin's claim that the heavy Arab death count was due to the ferocity of the fighting - with 40% of the attackers also becoming casualties - does not mesh with contemporary reports.
The assault on Deir Yassin was part of a dirty war. Attacks on civilians were commonplace and terrorism was committed by both sides. In December 1947, after the Irgun had killed six Arabs, Palestinians massacred 39 Jews at the Haifa oil refineries; their response to Deir Yassin would be the murder of seventy seven medical staff on their way to Mount Scopus. Both communities felt themselves to be fighting for their existence, the Jews because they were so outnumbered and the Arabs because of their poor social cohesion and military organization. As the atrocities piled up, the desire for revenge built up too - especially among the dissident Jewish groups. Deir Yassin was not part of a pre-meditated plan of annihilation, but the breakdown of discipline by an inexperienced militia thirsty for revenge and infamy.
The number of dead turned out to be exaggerated according to most studies, as did the atrocity stories. At the time, internal Haganah documents reported 110 dead and no signs of mutilation. This count was corroborated by the first serious Arab study in 1987, which listed the names of 107 who had died. The most comprehensive Arab study, Walid Khalidi's Deir Yassin, reported that the author could not find any survivors who would back the claims about rapes or other crimes against women. He concluded that the Arab media had exaggerated the atrocities in an attempt to persuade foreign Arab states to intervene by declaring war against the Yishuv. A later Israeli university study also placed the number of dead at 110, a figure which is now accepted by most historians.
It is indisputable that some of these civilians were killed in sporadic executions and revenge attacks once the guns had gone quiet; how many, we will never know. Many also died during the heavy fighting. But the casualty count of 110 out of a population of 700 is a significant reduction on the claim of 252 which circulated for so long, and seems to belie claims of an organized attempt to annihilate the village's population. As left-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote in reference to the systematic murder of 8,000 Muslims by Serb forces in 1995, "This was no Srebrenica."
While the traditional Arab narrative tried to paint the events of Deir Yassin as typical of Yishuv policy, Israeli historians went out of their way to say it was atypical: what happened here was the work of extreme elements who were repudiated by the mainstream Jewish leadership. Both contain an element of truth. The dead at Deir Yassin fell victim to the most extreme and angriest segment of the Yishuv, but similar atrocities involving smaller numbers of people were routinely perpetrated by both sides in the war. Collective punishment and violence against civilians was not rare on either side, but no-one has ever produced evidence to show that what happened at Deir Yassin was part of a pre-meditated plot to depopulate Arab Palestine through terrifying massacres. Its aberration was in its scale.
The killings were unconscionable acts of no military value committed by thugs who were rightly condemned, and later militarily confronted, by their own people. But the myth of Deir Yassin as an unparalled, centrally-directed orgy of brutality was ill-founded. It was certainly a moral low-point in this war, but the breakdown of discipline was not fundamentally atypical in the ebb and flow of a conflict in which human life had little value. As Israeli historian Yitzhak Levy would later write, "the honor of the Jewish soldier was violated" by the actions of the revisionists on that April day. This was true, and not for the last time - but nor to the extent which was widely assumed for many decades after the event. The horrible truth of how brutal this war was ought to be enough, without the need for exaggeration.
Benny Moris, 'The Historiography of Deir Yassin', The Journal of Israeli History 24, no. 1 (2005) is an overview of the historical literature on Deir Yassin by an Israeli historian who has made a controversial career out of studying 1948. See also the same author's Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Menachem Begin's The Revolt contains the standard Irgun defence. Search the sites of Iranian or Arab news sources and you will find frequent references to the event as part of criticisms of Israel.