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.
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.
Aerial view of Deir Yassin showing the Arabs defensive trenches built into the mountain
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.
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.
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 Zeit University.
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), p. 55.
9Sharif Kanaana, "Reinterpreting Deir Yassin," Bir Zeit University, (April 1998).
10Milstein, p. 267
11"Dayr Yasin," Bir Zeit University.
12Yehoshua Gorodenchik testimony at Jabotinsky Archives.
13Milstein, p. 276.
14"Israel and the Arabs: The 50 Year Conflict," BBC.
Photos: Library of Congress; The Irgun Site