The Capture of Deir Yassin
(April 9, 1948)
The battle to capture Deir Yassin during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence remains one of the most infamous, yet misunderstood, incidents in the history of Israel. During the battle, launched by the Irgun, approximately 100 Arabs were killed.
- Background to the Battle
- No Easy Battle
- Counting the Dead
Background to the Battle
The United Nations resolved
that Jerusalem would be an
international city apart from the Arab and Jewish states demarcated
in the partition resolution.
The 150,000 Jewish inhabitants were under constant military pressure;
the 2,500 Jews living in the Old City were victims of an Arab blockade that lasted five months before they
were forced to surrender on May 29, 1948. Prior to the surrender, and
throughout the siege on Jerusalem,
Jewish convoys tried to reach the city to alleviate the food shortage,
which, by April, had become critical.
Meanwhile, the Arab forces, which had engaged in sporadic and unorganized
ambushes since December 1947, began to make an organized attempt to
cut off the highway linking Tel
Aviv with Jerusalem -
the city's only supply route. The Arabs controlled several strategic
vantage points, which overlooked the highway and enabled them to fire
on the convoys trying to reach the beleaguered city with supplies. Deir
Yassin was situated on a hill, about 2600 feet high, which commanded
a wide view of the vicinity and was located less than a mile from the
suburbs of Jerusalem. The
population was 750.1
On April 6, Operation
Nachshon was launched to open the road to Jerusalem.
The village of Deir Yassin was included on the list of Arab villages
to be occupied as part of the operation. The following day Haganah commander David Shaltiel wrote to the leaders of the Lehi and Irgun:
I learn that you plan an attack on Deir Yassin. I wish to point out
that the capture of Deir Yassin and its holding are one stage in our general plan. I have
no objection to your carrying out the operation provided you are able to hold the village.
If you are unable to do so I warn you against blowing up the village which will result in
its inhabitants abandoning it and its ruins and deserted houses being occupied by foreign
forces....Furthermore, if foreign forces took over, this would upset our general plan for
establishing an airfield.2
The Irgun decided
to attack Deir Yassin on April 9, while the Haganah was still engaged in the battle for Kastel. This was the first major
Irgun attack against the Arabs. Previously, the Irgun and Lehi had concentrated their attacks against the British.
No Easy Battle
According to Irgun leader Menachem Begin, the assault
was carried out by 100 members of that organization; other authors say
it was as many as 132 men from both groups. Begin stated that a small
open truck fitted with a loudspeaker was driven to the entrance of the
village before the attack and broadcast a warning to civilians to evacuate
the area, which many did.3 Most writers
say the warning was never issued because the truck with the loudspeaker
rolled into a ditch before it could broadcast the warning.4 One of the fighters said, the ditch was filled in and the truck continued
on to the village. "One of us called out on the loudspeaker in
Arabic, telling the inhabitants to put down their weapons and flee.
I don't know if they heard, and I know these appeals had no effect."5
Contrary to revisionist histories that the town was filled with
peaceful innocents, residents and foreign troops opened fire on the attackers. One fighter
described his experience:
My unit stormed and passed the first row of houses. I was among the
first to enter the village. There were a few other guys with me, each encouraging the
other to advance. At the top of the street I saw a man in khaki clothing running ahead. I
thought he was one of ours. I ran after him and told him, "advance to that
house." Suddenly he turned around, aimed his rifle and shot. He was an Iraqi soldier.
I was hit in the foot.6
The battle was ferocious and took several hours. The Irgun suffered 41
casualties, including four dead.
Counting the Dead
Surprisingly, after the “massacre,” the Irgun escorted a
representative of the Red Cross through the town and held a press conference. The New
York Times' subsequent description of the battle was essentially the same as Begin's.
The Times said more than 200 Arabs were killed, 40 captured and 70 women and
children were released. No hint of a massacre appeared in the report. “Paradoxically,
the Jews say about 250 out of 400 village inhabitants [were killed], while Arab survivors
say only 110 of 1,000.”7 A study by Bir Zeit University,
based on discussions with each family from the village, arrived at a figure of 107 Arab
civilians dead and 12 wounded, in addition to 13 "fighters," evidence that the
number of dead was smaller than claimed and that the village did have troops based there.8 Other Arab sources have subsequently suggested the number may have been even lower.9
Deir Yassin after the attack
In fact, the attackers left open an escape corridor from the
village and more than 200 residents left unharmed. For example, at 9:30
A.M., about five hours after the fighting started, the Lehi evacuated
40 old men, women and children on trucks and took them to a base in
Sheikh Bader. Later, the Arabs were taken to East Jerusalem. Starting
at 2:00 P.M., residents were taken out of the village. The trucks passed
through the Orthodox neighborhood
of Mea Shearim after
the Sabbath had begun, so the
neighborhood people cursed and spit at them, not because they were Arabs,
but because the vehicles were desecrating the Sabbath. Seeing the Arabs
in the hands of Jews also helped raise the morale of the people of Jerusalem
who were despondent from the setbacks in the fighting to that point.10 Another source says 70 women and children were taken away and turned
over to the British.11 If the intent was
to massacre the inhabitants, no one would have been evacuated.
After the remaining Arabs feigned surrender and then fired on the
Jewish troops, some Jews killed Arab soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. None of the
sources specify how many women and children were killed (the Times report said it
was about half the victims; their original casualty figure came from the Irgun source),
but there were some among the casualties. Any intentional murder of children or women is
completely unjustified. At least some of the women who were killed, however, became
targets because of men who tried to disguise themselves as women. The Irgun commander
reported, for example, that the attackers "found men dressed as women and therefore
they began to shoot at women who did not hasten to go down to the place designated for
gathering the prisoners."12 Another story was told by a
member of the Haganah who overheard a group of Arabs from Deir Yassin who said "the
Jews found out that Arab warriors had disguised themselves as women. The Jews searched the
women too. One of the people being checked realized he had been caught, took out a pistol
and shot the Jewish commander. His friends, crazed with anger, shot in all directions and
killed the Arabs in the area."13
Contrary to claims from Arab propagandists at the time and some since,
no evidence has ever been produced that any women were raped. On the contrary, every
villager ever interviewed has denied these allegations. Like many of the claims, this was
a deliberate propaganda ploy, but one that backfired. Hazam Nusseibi, who worked for the
Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1948, admitted being told by Hussein Khalidi, a
Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin
resident in 1948 told Khalidi "there was no rape," but Khalidi replied, "We
have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews."
Nusseibeh told the BBC 50 years later, "This was our biggest mistake. We did not
realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at
Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror."14
The Jewish Agency, upon learning of the attack, immediately expressed
its “horror and disgust.” It also sent a letter expressing the Agency's shock and
disapproval to Transjordan's King Abdullah.
The Arab Higher Committee hoped exaggerated reports about a “massacre”
at Deir Yassin would shock the population of the Arab countries into bringing pressure on
their governments to intervene in Palestine. Instead, the immediate impact was to
stimulate a new Palestinian exodus.
Just four days after the reports from Deir Yassin were published, an
Arab force ambushed a Jewish convoy on the way to Hadassah Hospital, killing 77 Jews,
including doctors, nurses, patients, and the director of the hospital. Another 23 people
were injured. This massacre attracted little attention and is never mentioned by
those who are quick to bring up Deir Yassin. Moreover, despite attacks such as this
against the Jewish community in Palestine, in which more than 500 Jews were killed in the
first four months after the partition decision alone, Jews did not flee.
The Palestinians knew, despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the Jews
were not trying to annihilate them; otherwise, they would not have been allowed to
evacuate Tiberias, Haifa or any of the other towns captured by the Jews. Moreover, the Palestinians could find
sanctuary in nearby states. The Jews, however, had no place to run had they wanted to.
They were willing to fight to the death for their country. It came to that for many,
because the Arabs were interested in annihilating the Jews, as Secretary-General of
the Arab League Azzam Pasha made clear in an interview with the Egyptian paper Akhbar al-Yom before the war (October 11, 1947): It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.
References to Deir Yassin have remained a staple of anti-Israel
propaganda for decades because the incident was unique.
Sources: 1"Dayr Yasin," Bir
2Dan Kurzman, Genesis
1948, (OH: New American Library, Inc., 1970), p. 141.
3Menachem Begin, The
Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), pp. xx-xxi, 162-163.
4See, for example, Amos Perlmutter, The
Life and Times of Menachem Begin, (NY: Doubleday, 1987), p. 214;
J. Bowyer Bell, Terror
Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin*s
Press, 1977), p. 292-96; Kurzman, p. 142.
5Uri Milstein, History
of Israel's War of Independence. Vol. IV, (Lanham: University
Press of America. 1999), p. 262.
6Milstein, p. 262.
7Kurzman, p. 148.
8Sharif Kanaana and Nihad Zitawi, "Deir
Yassin," Monograph No. 4, Destroyed Palestinian Villages Documentation
Project (Bir Zeit: Documentation Center of Bir Zeit University, 1987),
9Sharif Kanaana, "Reinterpreting Deir
Zeit University, (April 1998).
10Milstein, p. 267
11"Dayr Yasin," Bir
12Yehoshua Gorodenchik testimony at Jabotinsky
13Milstein, p. 276.
14"Israel and the Arabs: The 50 Year