Deir Yassin: The Evidence

Deir Yassin

The Evidence

Ami Isseroff 1999

Presented by the PEACE Middle East Dialog Group 

Prologue

The long struggle between Arabs and Jews has produced a sorry history of inhumanity. Jews can recall violence, massacres and bloody riots beginning in 1920 and even before. Arabs recall numerous incidents of The 1948 War – Israel’s War of Independence, including massacres and forcible exile, that were part of the great exodus, that was the genesis of the refugee problem. Both sides recall and recount the many terror attacks and reprisal raids and acts of violence and repression that have been part of our collective experience. If we are to make peace, then each side must acknowledge the actions committed in its name, by its own people, and understand the origins of the hate and mistrust engendered in the other side. It is not constructive for Jews to confront Arabs, or Arabs to confront Jews each with the misdeeds of the other side. Rather, it is up to each side to come to terms with its own contribution to the nightmare that has been the history of the conflict.

The most symbolic incident for Arab Palestinians has been, for many years, the conquest and massacre in the village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, by forces of the Revisionist Etzel (IRGUN) and Lehi {Lochamei Herut Yisrael or “Stern Gang”} groups, on April 9, 1948. At the time, the Jewish leadership did not deny that there had been a massacre, by forces not under its control, and in fact apologized to King Abdullah of Jordan. This sad and bloody deed has become a part of our common heritage.

In recent years, as Israeli political opinion has moved rightwards, revisionists and their apologists have tried to deny the magnitude of what happened at Deir Yassin, to shift blame onto the Haganah or to deny that there was a massacre entirely. Morton A. Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, published a report entitled Deir Yassin History of a Lie1 that claims there was no massacre at Deir Yassin. Others have quoted this study widely and published their own denials. For Palestinians, Deir Yassin has become symbolic of the conflict. What happened at Deir Yassin undoubtedly influenced the rest of the war of Independence, and perhaps subsequent IDF conduct. It is thus important that we establish the facts to the best of our ability.

A precise account of what happened at Deir Yassin will probably elude us forever. Each eye-witness tells a different story with a slightly different timetable. Some key documents are still classified. Nonetheless, it is possible to relate the broad outlines of what must have happened with a good degree of confidence. I shall do that below in summary form, and then I shall detail the reasons for reaching each of the major conclusions. Some of the most important references are appended as exhibits, listed in the Introduction.

The Story

This is a brief account of the background to the attack and the attack itself.

Jerusalem 1948

From December, 1947, after the United Nations General Assembly had adopted the partition plan for Palestine, Jewish Jerusalem had been under siege. Jerusalem was located deep within the territory allotted to the Palestinians, and was to have been internationalized. Palestinian irregular forces, aided by inhabitants of villages along the roads, did their best to cut off transport of food and war materials to Jerusalem. The defense of Jerusalem was conducted by Haganah and Palmach underground forces, under the direction of the Haganah national headquarters. The British army, still nominally in charge until May 15, 1948, did little or nothing to prevent these attacks and ensure the safety of Jewish and Arab citizens. The Haganah adopted different tactics for convoying supplies by various routes. By April 1948 the situation had become critical, and it was decided to mount a large scale attack, Operation Nachshon, that would conquer several villages that had been bases for attacks on convoys.

The Irgun and Lehi underground forces, belonging to the Revisionist or “dissident” party (later part of the Likud) refused to join the Haganah on the grounds that the Zionist national leadership was willing to “give in” to the requirements of UN resolution 181 and allow the internationalization of Jerusalem. The dissidents, numbering about 120, competed with the Haganah and Palmach for the favor of the populace, who were hungry, fearful and desperate for action that would save them. After their terrorist activities became clearly counter-productive, the dissidents operations were curtailed by actions of the Haganah. Thus, these organizations were relatively inactive for a long period before April 1948. Operation Nachshon presented them with a challenge, since they understood that people would contrast this large and bold action with their own total ineffectiveness.2

Deir Yassin

Deir Yassin was a village near the entrance to Jerusalem, north west of Givat Shaul. Not wishing to endanger itself, it had concluded a peace pact with Givat Shaul that was approved by Yitzhak Navon, who headed the Arab division of Haganah intelligence. A similar pact was made by the village of Abu Ghosh. There is every indication that Deir Yassin kept to this pact. They had repeatedly and actively resisted alliances and offers of help from irregulars headquartered in Ein Kerem,3 though it is possible that some Palestinian irregulars were quartered there against the will of the inhabitants. The village was separated from the Jerusalem road by a high ridge, and villagers could only reach the main road through Givat Shaul. There was no possibility of controlling the main road or firing on the main road from the village. Estimates of village population at the time range from 450 to 1,200, including refugees from nearby Romema and Lifta. 4

The Attack

At the beginning of April Irgun and Lehi commanders met and decided to attack Deir Yassin. They rejected suggestions by their own commanders, and by Haganah commander David Shaltiel, to attack strategically important targets (Sheikh Jerakh, Ein Kerem, Qoloniya) because they felt they were too difficult for their inexperienced and ill-equipped soldiers. 5They investigated and found, to the best of their knowledge, that Deir Yassin was a quiet and peaceful village, and decided to attack it nonetheless. It was later claimed that Deir Yassin served as a base of attacks and or quartered foreign soldiers, but these were not part of the considerations involved in deciding upon the attack. During some of the preliminary meetings the idea of a massacre was discussed and rejected.6 David Shaltiel gave the Etzel/Lehi commanders a letter saying he had no objection to attacking the village, provided they could hold the village thereafter. 7

The Irgun and Lehi attacked on the morning of Friday April 9, 1948. The map shows the general plan of the area and of the attack. The attack went poorly, because, as Haganah intelligence reported, the two dissident groups had no training, no coordination, no knowledge of how to provide cover fire or carry out leap-frog attacks in which squads provide each other with cover in turn. While the Lehi advanced in the northeast quarter of the village, the Etzel people were unable to make any progress in the south western part of the village allotted to them, in part because of rifle sniper fire from a vantage point in the Mukhtar’s house located on the western heights. This was finally and quickly neutralized by Haganah units using a mortar sometime between 10:00 or 12:00 A.M, after which Haganah units left. 8

There was no longer any resistance, but the village did not surrender. Most of the men had fled, and perhaps there was no recognized leader who could surrender. At this point, or perhaps before, during the heat of battle itself, Etzel and Lehi soldiers began going from house to house and shooting the inhabitants, usually women and children. Groups of prisoners were also taken out of Deir Yassin and paraded on trucks in the streets of Jerusalem before jeering inhabitants before being passed over to the Arab sector. One group of about 15 to 25 men was returned to the village, taken to the village quarry and shot. This specific incident is described by then Captain Meir Pail of the Palmach. 9

Cleanup and Epilogue

The Etzel and Lehi issued a statement glorifying the attack, and claiming that 254 people had been killed, according to the Etzel commander, Raanan. 10 The Haganah, based on the report submitted by Captain Meir Pail, 11 along with an independent report by Etzioni intelligence officer Mordehai Gihon 12 who visited the village on April 9, and Eliahu Arbel, another Haganah officer , who inspected the village on April 10, 13 issued a condemnation of the massacre. Etzel commander Raanan reneged on their commitment to hold the village. By his own admission in later testimony, he cited the letter from Shaltiel as saying that that the Haganah must hold the village, but the letter said that the dissidents must hold the village.14 On April 12th units of the Gadna youth corps relieved the Etzel and Lehi and took up the thankless task of cleaning up of the mess left by the dissidents, including burial of bodies. 15

There were at least two direct reprisals attributed to Deir Yassin. On April 13, Arabs attacked a convoy to Hadassah hospital near Sheikh Jerakh, killing 78 civilian medical personnel and 5 of the convoy defenders. When the Gush Etzion compound surrendered on the eve of Israeli Independence, Arab irregulars machine gunned 50 people after they had surrendered. Witnesses say the attackers were yelling “Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin,” when they entered Gush Etzion.

Points of Contention

Following are questions and answers regarding the major points of contention, and some side issues and ‘Red Herrings.’

Major Questions

Was there a Massacre?

There can be no doubt at all that large numbers of civilians were killed unjustifiably at Deir Yassin. Mordehai Gihon, intelligence officer of the Haganah Etzioni Brigade, wrote in his report, submitted April 10 1948:The murder of falachim and innocent citizens, faithful allies of the western sector, who kept faith despite pressure from the gangs, even during the conquest of Sharfa, {Mt Herzl} may lose us the trust of all those Arabs who hoped to be saved from destruction by agreements with us. 16

Meir Pail submitted an independent report, along with his films to David Shaltiel on the morning of April 10, 1948. The report was transmitted to Yisrael Galili, head of the Haganah in Tel-Aviv. It began with a passage from Haim Nahman Bialik’s Poem “In the City of Carnage.” Pail related that people were stood in the corners of houses and shot. Afterwards he and the photographer entered the house and took pictures. He related, as noted that about 15-25 men were taken to the quarry, stood up against a natural wall in the quarry and shot, also recorded on film at the IDF archive. 17 The report and the film are still classified. Even Yisrael Galili could not get to them in 1978. 18 Yitzhak Levi apparently had a copy in his own file, however.

This is what it looked like from the other side. Fahimeh Ali Mustafa Zeidan age 11 at the time of the massacre, testified, “As soon as the sun rose, there was knocking at the door, but we did not answer. They blew the door down, entered and started searching the place; they got to the store room, and took us out one-by-one. They shot the son-in-law, and when one of his daughters screamed, they shot her too. They then called my brother Mahmoud and shot him in our presence, and when my mother screamed and bent over my brother, carrying my little sister Khadra, who was still being breast fed, they shot my mother too. We all started screaming and crying, but were told that if we did not stop, they would shoot us all. They then lined us up, shot at us, and left.19

Uri Milstein, who has tried to minimize the massacre and involve the Haganah, wrote “nobody denies: most of the dead in Deir Yassin were old men, women and children, and only a few of them were young men who could be classified as warriors, even though in the Etzel-Lehi meeting before the battle the suggestion (which was raised) of killing civilians had not been accepted, and even though the attackers called upon the villagers to leave the village at the beginning of the attack.” 20

Of course, Milstein knows that the villagers never heard this call to leave. The fact that the idea of killing civilians was raised, which we know from many sources, indicates that people had it in mind.

There is also abundant evidence of single atrocities and individual cruelty. For example, a refugee, Mohammed Aref Samir testified: A pregnant woman, who was coming back with her son from the bakery, was murdered and her belly was smashed. 21 This type of atrocity is confirmed by a Jewish witness as well. Shoshana Shatai, commander of a Gadna unit that participated in the burial operation said, “ I went into one house and there was a woman there with a great smashed belly.” 22

Following is the testimony of Yehoshua Gorodenchik, Etzel Commander, translated from a typescript held in the Jabotinsky archives:“After we had suffered many casualties we started thinking about retreat. We had prisoners, and before withdrawing we decided to get rid of them. We also killed the wounded, since in any event we could not give them first aid. In another place about 80 Arab prisoners were killed, after one of the them opened fire and killed one of the people who came to give first aid.” 23

Eliahu Arbel, an officer of the Haganah, visited Deir Yassin on April 10, 1948 at the request of Haganah District Commander David Shaltiel. He wrote: “On the following day, after the operation, I inspected the village, in accordance with the order of General Shaltiel. Accompanied by an officer of the attacking unit, I saw the horrors that the fighters had created. I saw bodies of women and children, who were murdered in their houses in cold blood by gun fire, with no signs of battle and not as the result of blowing up the houses.”

From my experience I know well that there is no war without killing, and that not only combatants get killed. I have seen a great deal of war, but I never saw a sight like Deir Yassin and therefore I cannot forget what happened there.” 24

Dr Engel, who visited the village with the Red Cross on April 12, reported:“…It was clear that they (the attackers) had gone from house to house and shot the people at close range. I was a doctor in the German army for 5 years, in WWI, but I had not seen such a horrifying spectacle.” 25

How many were killed?

There is no way to determine the exact number of casualties at Deir Yassin. On the evening of the attack, Irgun commander Mordehai Raanan manufactured his second easily detectable falsehood of the day, and reported that ‘we counted 254 dead.’ Later he said that he had invented a large figure to scare the Arabs. Bodies were scattered about in the houses and buried under rubble, and no body counts at all had been made. A study by Bir Zeit University researchers in 1987 concluded that there were 107 civilian dead and 12 wounded, in addition to 13 fighters. This study was based on interviews of refugees native to the village. 26

However, since the population of the village was swelled by refugees to as many as 1,200 people, it is possible, even likely, that villagers did not happen to know all the people who were casualties.

In the body count estimates, we find that Haganah intelligence officer Mordehai Gihon who came on April 9, said, “I estimated that there were four cisterns ( or pits) full of bodies, and in each pit there were 20 bodies, and several tens more in the quarry.” 27 This might add up to around 110.

On April 12, 1948 doctors Avigdori and Druyan of the Histadrut Medical association reported seeing: “in the Wadi 25 bodies, one over the other, uncovered, children and women.” 28

Yehoshua Arieli, Gadna Youth leader who came on April 12 as well (apparently after the doctors) said, “There were three or four concentrations of bodies. Each in the corner of a house… It was difficult to get the bodies out of two houses. We got permission to blow up the houses with the bodies. In the morning we did it. We buried about seventy bodies in a communal grave and blew up two groups, with about twenty bodies in each.” 29

Again, we get about 110 bodies, but they could not all be the same bodies. Even assuming that the bodies in the corners of the houses were actually in cisterns or pits outside the houses, the bodies in the quarry found earlier by Gihon are not the same as the ones in the two houses that were blown up. They could not be, since the bodies would not have been moved from the quarry back into the houses and placed in such a way that they could not be extracted!. This suggests that there were more than 110 dead, perhaps 140. But we still have not accounted for 25 bodies that were in the Wadi, as reported by the doctors. These could have been moved sometime on April 12th and thrown into cisterns, but it seems unlikely.

Side Issues and Red Herrings

Several side issues and red herrings have been introduced into the narrative of Deir Yassin. Some arise from the obsession of professional historians with detail, some in a desire to sensationalize the story, and some from a desire to obscure the fact of the massacre with unnecessary, contradictory and confusing ‘facts.’

Was Deir Yassin a legitimate military target?

Revisionists and their apologists, including Uri Milstein in his book , and Morton Klein in the ZOA report, have tried to make a case that Deir Yassin was a legitimate military target, that the Haganah viewed the attack on Deir Yassin as part of their plan, that there were foreign Arab soldiers quartered there and shooting from Deir Yassin.

We can establish that :

  1. The motivation for attacking Deir Yassin had nothing to do with military considerations.
  2. The attack was not instigated by the Haganah or desired by the Haganah or part of any specific Haganah plan. David Shaltiel showed poor judgment and moral bankruptcy in permitting the attack, but he could not have known there would be a massacre.
  3. There may have been a few foreign or irregular Arab soldiers in Deir Yassin, but they were not there in appreciable numbers on April 9, and there is no real evidence of foreign or irregular Arab soldiers stationed there in force except for the 150 that entered and were asked to leave in March.

The justification for these conclusions is given below. remembering that Deir Yassin had had a pact with the Haganah and Givat Shaul and had, according to the Haganah, adhered scrupulously to the pact. This was known also to the Irgun and the pact was publicized in their newspaper Ma’as, three weeks before the attack. 30

What was the motivation for attacking Deir Yassin?

According to Yehoshua Ophir, who wrote from the point of view of the revisionists:

” Gal’s (Gal, nom de guerre of Yehoshua Goldshmidt, was the Irgun Operations officer-A.I.) father, Reb Joseph Tzvi Goldshmidt, a Jewish ritual slaughterer (shochet) in Givat Shaul, was famous in his youth as a brave warrior against the Arab rioters from adjacent Deir Yassin…Goldshmidt learned from his father to be a soldier and also got his inspiration to fight the Arab village from him. This village had frequently endangered the lives of the inhabitants of the neighborhood in which he grew up. When he returned to Jerusalem in 1948, the old shochet reminded his son to ‘remember what Deir Yassin did to us.’” 31

Yehuda Lapidot, Irgun Commander, who now claims that Deir Yassin was a vital military target, testified as recorded in the Jabotinsky archives:

“The original idea to attack Deir Yassin, was Gal’s , according to what I heard at the time. The reason was mainly economical. That is, to get booty in order to maintain the bases that we had set up at that time with very poor resources. The main idea was nonetheless the military and security conquest of the point…” 32

Lapidot contradicts himself, since he first says the main reason (“siba ikarit” was economical, and then he says the main idea (r’ayon ikari) was military and security conquest (“hakibush hazvai vehabitchoni“) whatever that means.

From Uri Milstein’s account of the meeting of Irgun and Lehi commanders to plan the attack, we find that:

Some of the participants in the meeting talked about the goods that would be captured in Deir Yassin, if it were conquered, and claimed that they could serve to fill the warehouses of both organizations. David Siton, a Lehi member, recounted later that he was opposed to the attack on a quiet village. “I said that an operation like that would hurt the Jewish neighborhoods in the western part of the city, but IZL people said that the inhabitants of Deir Yassin were getting ready to attack Jewish neighborhoods. We checked, and found out it was not true. Our chaps entered the village, talked to the Arabs and heard from then that they were not interested in harming the Jews, and that they are men of peace Zettler (Yehoshua Zettler, Lehi Commander, A.I.) heard this and said “There are good Arabs, quiet Arabs. 33

This may have been a naive way to assess the intentions of the village, but there is no doubt that at the time the attack was planned, the Etzel and Lehi did not believe the village was a threat.

Was the attack part of the Haganah plan or done at the insistence of the Haganah?

Meir Pail claims that when he visited David Shaltiel and tried to dissuade him from allowing the attack, Shaltiel said he had tried to offer the Irgun and Lehi several other targets, but they had refused:

The commanders of the underground groups came to Shaltiel and asked his approval for the operation. Shaltiel was surprised at their choice and asked, “Why go to Deir Yassin? It is a quiet village. There is a non-aggression pact between Givat Shaul and the Mukhtar of Deir Yassin. The village is not a security problem in any way. Our problem is in the battle for the Qastel. I suggest you participate in the operations in that area. I will give you a base in Bayit Vagan, and from there you will take over Ein Kerem, which is providing Arab reinforcements to the Qastel.” The commanders of the underground groups rejected this suggestion as too complicated. Shaltiel said, “I will give you an easier mission. Take Motza as a base and attack Qolonia, where the gangs attacking Motza have their base. You can do whatever you please there.” 34

Eliahu Arbel (‘Nimrod’), who was for a time one of the liaisons between the Haganah and the dissidents, said that he had met with dissident officers and worked out a plan to attack Malchah with Haganah support. The plan fell through because the dissidents insisted that the Haganah give them a machine gun and crew to be placed wherever the Irgun wanted and under their command. Arbel also noted that they asked him what he thought about Deir Yassin, and he replied that it was a quiet village, though not from love of the Jews, but rather because of its poor topographic position, and that attacking it was a waste of resources. 35

It is conceivable, that once the permission for the attack was given, the Haganah was interested in making some strategic use of it. On April 8, 1948, the Arab irregular troops had conquered the Qastel following the death of Abdel Khader Al-Hussesini Suleiman, their highly regarded commander. Lower Motza was also threatened. The Haganah was to attack the Qastel again at dawn on April 9th.

According to Milstein,“A few of the Lehi people said that Meret {Zalman Meret, Haganah Liaison- A.I.} had met with Dror and Barzilai {dissidents – A.I.} on April 8, before evening, in his house in Beit HaKerem. Barzilai said of this meeting: “Meret asked, in Shaltiel’s name, that we attack on Friday (Deir Yassin) April 9 at dawn, to help with the reconquest of the Qastel. We asked him for vehicles, ammunition and food, and he immediately filled our requests. We brought the request for a dawn attack to Zettler {Lehi commander- A.I} and Raanan {Irgun commander} for approval. Zettler: “There were many extremely religious people in the Lehi, and I tried not to operate on the Sabbath; the attack on Friday morning was liable to have brought us into operational activiity on the Sabbath, but after receiving from Dror the urgent request of Shaltiel I agreed to attack on Friday at dawn.” 36

However, this, and similar evidence of coordination on April 8, does not warrant the following conclusion by Milstein:

“In the light of this testimony we can assume that the counterattack plan of Yigal Yadin in the Jerusalem area included, along with the battle for the Qastel and opening of the road to the plains, the attack of the Etzel and Lehi on Deir Yassin. 37

The reasoning is completely fallacious, because the situation in the Qastel did not arise until April 8, after the plan to attack Deir Yassin was set, and because there is no evidence that anyone in the Haganah outside Jerusalem knew about planned attack on Deir Yassin. Moreover, it is probable that the timing of the attack on the Qastel, set for 3:30 AM on April 9, was not set until very late on April 8. The Qastel had fallen on the afternoon of April 8. Yitzhak Levi reports that all afternoon there were ‘negotiations’ with Haganah headquarters, and only after lengthy exchanges was the order given to retake the Qastel. 38

A great point of contention is the letter written by David Shaltiel which the Irgun and Lehi requested. It is entirely unclear why he wrote this letter.

I have been informed that you are planning to carry out an operation in Deir Yassin. I want to bring to your attention that taking Deir Yassin and holding it are a stage in our general plan. I have no objection to your carrying out the operation, on condition that you have the strength to hold it (Deir Yassin). If you cannot do this I must warn you against demolishing the village with explosives which… would cause the villagers to leave and the ruins and houses to be taken over by foreign forces. 39

There was no good reason for sending this letter. The excuse Shaltiel gave according to Yitzhak Levi, was “Shaltiel chose to provide this permission, since he wanted to keep his authority in at least some form, because it was clear to him that the Irgun and Lehi were going to carry out their plan in any event.” 40 However he could have achieved the same effect without writing the letter, by giving verbal permission. Likewise, he did not have to say ‘part of the general plan.’ The dissidents made much of this unfortunate wording in flyers issued after the battle. However, Meir Pail notes that Shaltiel did not use the word ‘conquest’. He wrote – ‘taking’ ‘tfisata’ in Hebrew. 41 In other words, the Haganah, according to Pail, meant to take up positions peacefully in Deir Yassin, as in Abu Ghosh, another town that had a peace pact, and use the positions to guard the airport. This explains why he wrote ‘I want to call your attention to the fact that..’ If he were giving his positive approval, he would hardly have written that. According to Pail, Shaltiel explained, “So I told them, “You know what, OK. But you aren’t just going to attack and leave. Since we are, with this attack of yours, violating a pact that we signed with them, you must stay in the village and hold it. Because if you leave, the gangs will enter, and then we will have trouble.” 42

Nonetheless, Shaltiel did not need to put all this in writing, and in any event it did no good. However, it was clearly not the intention of the Haganah to encourage the attack, as noted both by Meir Pail43 and Yitzhak Levi.44 Uri Milstein writes that these are late testimonies and cites the letter as proof of Haganah approval. 45 However, on April 11, just two days after the attack, the Etzioni report (apparently by Shaltiel), read “On the previous weekend I found out that the dissidents are about to carry out an operation in Deir Yassin. I warned them that the consequences of this operation would interfere with building the adjacent airstrip, and we suggested to them to act against Qolonia or Ein-Kerem, in order to exploit the operation in the framework of Nachshon. We were refused, and their operation was carried out.” 46

In any event, it is certain that Shaltiel was not thinking in terms of a massacre, though the excuse given for allowing violation of a peace pact is rather lame. The Etzioni report cited above looks like a poor attempt at self justification, but it is quite clear from the report at least, that Shaltiel had acted on his own in permitting the attack, and that Haganah headquarters knew nothing about it. Therefore, the attack on Deir Yassin was not part of any plan of the central Haganah command.

Shaltiel’s letter also indicates that the Irgun/Lehi attack on Deir Yassin, and consequent t expulsion of the population were not part of Haganah policy or “Plan D.” Plan D was prepared by the Haganah in March of 1948, because of the deteriorating situation in the Jerusalem corridor. It contemplated a relatively large operation that would eliminate the Arab irregulars from the villages that they had taken over, and would “temporarily” occupy the villages to prevent re-infiltration. In operation Nahshon, villages such as Qastel that had been emptied of their original inhabitants by the Arab irregulars, were destroyed in order to prevent irregulars from returning and taking up positions in them. However, regarding Deir Yassin, which was inhabited, Shaltiel specifically instructed the Irgun/Lehi in his letter:

If you cannot do this I must warn you against demolishing the village with explosives which… would cause the villagers to leave and the ruins and houses to be taken over by foreign forces.

Clearly, Deir Yassin was to be taken and held, according to the Hagannah in the same way as the friendly village of Abu Ghosh was made part of Israel, without expelling anyone and without hurting civilians. In the light of the above warning against demolishing the village with explosives, it is also difficult to understand how Irgun apologists can contend at one and the same time that the action was part of the Haganah plan and sanctioned by Shaltiel, and also that the numerous dead were due to demolition of houses, which was forbidden by Shaltiel.

Did Deir Yassin Fire on the Jerusalem Road or Interfere with Convoys?

Several sources have contended that Deir Yassin violated the agreement with the Jewish Agency and fired on the road to Jerusalem, or that it was a strategic point that controlled the road 1, 4

Mordechai Rana’an, commander of the Irgun at Deir Yassin is quoted as saying:

“…Deir Yassin controlled the last segment of the road at the entrance to Jerusalem . Conquering the Qastel would not have solved the problem, since the Arabs could block the road near Deir Yassin. Therefore I claim that conquering the village fit into the strategy of the Haganah.” 4

This claim is clearly without foundation. The village was separated from the Jerusalem road by a high ridge, and villagers could only reach the main road through Givat Shaul. This can be verified by anyone who takes the road to Jerusalem and visits Deir Yassin, and is noted by Me’ir Pa’il.4 There was no possibility of controlling the main road or firing on the main road from the village. Therefore it is not surprising that there is no record of a convoy being attacked from Deir Yassin at any time.

There is some evidence to support the view that the village was not entirely peaceful. Survivors testified that Deir Yassin men had fought at Qastel and Motza and also noted that thirteen of the casualties were “fighters” rather than civilians. 19 This could simply mean that they were men defending the village, though they could have been village members of the Arab Liberation Army or foreign soldiers. Irgun fighters apparently found a cache of Bren machine gun ammunition in Deir Yassin.64 While caches of rifle bullets could be understood as part of the tradition of bearing fire arms in every Palestinian village, a machine gun is not a defensive weapon used in peaceful villages. However, there is no real evidence that the guns were ever used. The Davar newspaper of April 4, 1948 reported that on the previous evening, the Jewish neighborhoods of Bayit Vagan and Ein Kerem were fired upon “from the side of” Qastel, Deir Yassin and Ein Kerem. 65 The nature of the gunfire was not specified nor was the actual source pinpointed. On the morning of April 9, 1948, Jerusalem Haganah commander David Shaltiel telegraphed the Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv to report that a mortar emplacement was being set up at or near Deir Yassin, with the purpose of firing on the road. It is not clear where this mortar could have been placed. 66 In any case, there is no record that any hostile activity was reported at any time in any of the meetings that were held to plan the operation or justify the choice of Deir Yassin as a target. Ra’anan did not use the argument that Deir Yassin is a strategic location, for example, in explaining why the Irgun wanted to attack Deir Yassin rather than assist in lifting the blockade by participating in the attacks on Qastel and Qoloniya.

Other Side Issues

Were there Foreign Arab Soldiers in Deir Yassin?

Uri Milstein and Morton Klein’s ZOA report would have us believe that there were large numbers of Arab irregulars and foreign soldiers operating in Deir Yassin. The major evidence for this claim is a quote from the report of Mordehai Gihon, Haganah Intelligence.

According to Milstein: On the thirtieth of March Mordehai Gihon reported “One hundred and fify men, mostly Iraqis, entered Deir Yassin. The inhabitants are leaving, for fear of the foreign troops and reprisal operations by the Jews.“. Milstein also notes that Gihon reported plans of an imminent attack to Haganah Headquarters in this same report, and that Yitzhak Levi of the Shai did not see the report until after the attack. 47

However, according to Yitzhak Levi, the troops had entered and left:

On March 30th there was a report that 150 troops, mostly Iraqi and Syrian, had entered Deir Yassin, and that the villagers were leaving. The Arab command pressured the villagers to agree to the presence of the troops, but gave up in the face of the determined resistance of the inhabitants. 48

There were certainly no great numbers of irregular or foreign Arab soldiers in Deir Yassin on the day of the attack. There might have been a few. For example: Michael Harif: “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. 49

But there is no concrete evidence – uniforms, insignia, or identification papers that have been saved for the archives. One observer claimed seeing two bodies in Syrian uniforms, so the claim cannot be ruled out.

The Bir Zeit study identifies thirteen ‘fighters’ (as opposed to civilians) who died at Deir Yassin. Certainly, there were no masses of soldiers, and most of the people killed were women in children, nobody argues otherwise. Though there probably were Arab soldiers in Deir Yassin, that was clearly not the motivation for the attack, as established above not can it be an excuse for shooting prisoners and children.

Is Meir Pail’s testimony authentic?

Both Uri Milstein and the ZOA study have attempted to cast doubt on Meir Pail’s report, claiming:

1. That he was the only witness to the massacre.
2. That he had a motive for impugning the Lehi/Etzel
3. That Hagana people who were there claim that they did not see
Pail at the site at all.

There was certainly no love lost between Pail and the dissidents. However, he was not, manifestly, the only witness and many of the people cited by Milstein and in turn by the ZOA who said they did not see Pail arrived at Deir Yassin after Pail left. Yehoshua Arieli, the Gadna leader, for example, came to Deir Yassin on April 12, so there was no reason why Milstein should have asked him if he had seen Pail, who was there on April 9. The films that Pail and his companion shot are in the IDF archives, as Uri Milstein himself admits.

In a letter written in 1978, Yisrael Galili, Commander in Chief of the Haganah, wrote:“… I gave the report to colleagues to read, and also to Ben-Gurion. I remember that people commented on the report and the photographs. To my great surprise I cannot get the report from the IDF archives.

Meir Pilevsky {Pail’s former name} was at that time a staff officer for special duties and especially followed the activities of the dissidents in Jerusalem. The General Staff of the Palmach made him available to David Cohen, who was one of my assistants for this issue. I am convinced that the testimony of Meir Pail is reliable and I have not ever heard any doubt about its authenticity.” 50

Were people warned to leave by loudspeaker?

Much space has been wasted on a truck, covered pickup or armored car with a loudspeaker, that either did or did not warn villagers about the impending attack. For example, see ZOA study, 1998: The first of the Jewish fighting units to reach Deir Yassin was led by a truck armed with a loudspeaker. An Iraqi-born Jew, who spoke fluent Arabic, called out to the residents to leave via the western exit from Deir Yassin, which the attackers had left clear for that purpose. Soon after entering the town, however, the truck was hit by Arab gunfire and careened into a ditch. 51

No reference is given in the ZOA study. All other references insist that this truck never got into the village.,51 According to Milstein, “The armored car with the loudspeaker left Givat Shaul a few minutes before 5:00 AM as planned, and by then the battle had already started.” So it was not leading the first unit in this account. Moreover, according to Milstein, the truck never got into the village at all: Ezra Yachin related, “After we filled in the ditch we continued travelling. We passed two barricades and stopped in front of the third, 30 meters away from 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. We alighted from the armored car and joined the attack” 52

There is no mention of being fired upon as the reason for stopping, as in the ZOA report.

An Arab witness in the BBC/WGBH documentary film on the Israel-Palestinian struggle stated that he heard the loudspeaker. So we must assume that at least some people heard this truck. However, the fact is that no Arabs were ever allowed to return to Deir Yassin. Warning people to evacuate there homes forever is not a humanitarian gestures, but a psychological warfare scare tactic.

The whole question is beside the point. It was either a humanitarian gesture that failed, or a device to scare the defenders into leaving. But if the village was peaceful, and had a pact like Abu Ghosh, it could have been taken peacefully like Abu Ghosh, as the Haganah apparently planned. The importance of the truck is that Menachem Begin said, in a radio broadcast soon after the event, that the truck was a great humanitarian gesture, and he repeated that that villagers had been warned by the truck in his book “In the Underground,” 53 though by that time he certainly knew it was not true.

Did people die in exploding houses?

Both Uri Milstein and the ZOA study try to make a case that the deaths occurred because houses were exploded and caved in on their inhabitants. However, Milstein cites as proof a BBC and Mandate report that five houses were demolished.54 Their may have been a few such cases. However, there could not have been many. The Histadrut doctors who examined the bodies reported: “…A mother and her children that were killed by gunfire, two bodies of women who were killed by shooting. In the quarry five bodies {killed} by shooting, and two youths of 13 or 14 {killed} by shooting.”55 The houses were intact. Likewise, the houses seen and described by Yehoshua Arieli, Gadna youth leader. 56

As noted above, Eliahu Arbel, a Haganah officer who visited Deir Yassin on April 10, 1948, wrote:
I saw bodies of women and children, who were murdered in their houses in cold blood by gun fire, with no signs of battle and not as the result of blowing up the houses. 57

Moreover, we know that in 1949, new immigrants were moved into intact houses in the eastern part of Deir Yassin, in a neighborhood renamed “Givath Shaul Beth,” 58 indicating that many houses must have remained intact.

Were there men disguised as women?

The story that there were men disguised as women appears repeatedly as justification for killing women. For example, Irgun commander Yehoshua Gorodenchik reported:
“They {dissidents– A.I.} also found Arab 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.”59

Uri Milstein reported, “On April 9 at noon an Arab fellow disguised as a woman was brought to the Lehi headquarters, and one of the people present shot him in the head. Gideon Sarig, who witnessed this incident, related that some Jewish civilians threw the body of the victim into a fire. “60

Milstein further relates the story told by Yisrael Natach, a member of the Haganah Shai Arab department, who was sitting in a cafe in Ein Kerem disguised as an Arab:
“Refugees arrived from Deir Yassin and related that 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 that 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.” 61

In this way, we could supposedly explain deaths of other women in Deir Yassin. Since however, there were case of children being shot, apparently in cold blood, and murders of prisoners for other reasons related above, we cannot attribute all or most deaths to shooting at women because they were thought to be men.

Were there rapes?

There is no solid evidence to support earlier claims that there were rapes. They are in fact denied by every villager who has been interviewed. In the BBC/WGBH documentary on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Hazam Nusseibeh of the Palestine Broadcasting Service news in 1948, admits that he was told by Hussein Khalidi, a Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin resident in 1948, said “We said, ‘there was no rape.” He goes on to say that Khalidi replied “We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.”

However in his new book, Righteous Victims, Benny Morris notes that Yizhak Levy, head of the Shai, reported to Haganah headquarters that Lehi members had told him that Irgun soldiers had raped and later murdered a number of girls, though Levy added, “We don’t know if this is true.”63 Levy did not cite this material in his own book. While this is certainly hearsay evidence, we cannot longer dismiss the rape claims as totally unfounded.

Was the Massacre Due to Unground Warfare Rules?

It has been contended, chiefly by Uri Milstein, that prior to the establishment of the state, both sides fought with underground armies. They operated under the shadow of the British, and could take no prisoners. Therefore terror tactics became the norm. Indeed, there were numerous raids and reprisal raids, and prisoners were not taken. For example, the 35 people (“lamed heh”) send to relieve Gush Etzion were massacred. While I do not recall that Israeli sources have treated the massacre of the thirty-five with any large degree of understanding for the necessities of underground warfare, in the case of Deir Yassin, however, the logic certainly does not seem to apply:

1. It was not a reprisal for anything in particular.

2. The villagers were not engaged in active combat, so freeing prisoners was not going to free enemy soldiers who would fight another day.

3. The large number of children and women who were killed could not possibly be considered combatants.

Conclusion

Growing up in a Zionist home, I had absorbed the stories of the siege of Jerusalem, the convoys and the ‘Burma road.’ I had also heard of the massacre at Deir Yassin from many sources – and in many versions., including the story about the Arabs dressed as women and other details. When I came across the ZOA account, and contrary Arab accounts, I thought that surely, ‘our side’ cannot be covering up the truth. I was shocked and saddened to learn that that was indeed the case.

The evidence that the Irgun and Lehi perpetrated a massacre at Deir Yassin is overwhelming. It comes from numerous independent sources, Jewish and Arab, Haganah and dissidents and it is recorded on film. It does not depend on the testimony of any one person. There are a number of objections and excuses that have been raised by revisionist sources. None of them would be justification for a massacre, but most of them are untrue in any event. The attack was unprovoked. The motivation for it was supposedly booty and revenge for misdeeds of the village ten years previously. It was not part of any Haganah plan, and was allowed only reluctantly by the Haganah, after the revisionists refused several other options. There were only a few, if any, foreign Arab soldiers in the village. There were possibly a few cases in which Arab men had disguised themselves as women, but these do not explain the shooting of little children. Most casualties, as attested by several independent witnesses, were shot and did not die when houses were blown up. The number of casualties cannot be determined exactly. The most conservative estimate is 107 dead,62 but there were probably more.

The attempt by Revisionist sympathizers to implicate the Haganah in this act does not help the Zionist cause in any way imaginable, nor does it detract from the guilt of the Revisionists. Haganah commander Shaltiel was guilty to the extent that he allowed an attack on a peaceful village, and other individuals provided aid, both with and without the approval of Shaltiel. There is no evidence that Haganah command outside Jerusalem had known of the attack, nor did David Shaltiel imagine there would be a massacre. However, it is undeniable that the Haganah and the State of Israel attempted to minimize and cover up the massacre, apart from isolated verbal attacks on the Revisionists. The people who perpetrated the massacre were never brought to justice. No compensation was offered to victims. Meir Pail’s report, and the accompanying photos, have not been released even though it is more than fifty years after the event.

The attempt by Revisionists and their sympathizers to deny that there was a massacre, or to obscure the facts with all kinds of side issues is shameful and absurd. It is the act of criminals who are still at large, and have not come to grips with their guilt.

References

 

  1. Klein, Morton A. Deir Yassin, History of a Lie, ZOA March, 26, 1998. The study is available from the ZOA and is posted at their Web site: www.zoa.org.

  2. Levi, Yitzhak, Nine Measures, Tel-Aviv, Maarachot. the Israel Defense Army Press , 1986. Passim, especially p. 331 ff.

  3. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. pp 340-341.

  4. Strategic position of Deir Yassin: Pail, Meir Pail Interview with A.I. Oct.1998- also, anyone can go there (Givat Shaul) and see; Population of Deir Yassin: Milstein, Uri The War of Independence Vol. IV: Out of Crisis Came Decision, Zmora – Bitan, Tel-Aviv 1991, p. 256.

  5. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 341; Pail, Meir and Isseroff, Ami Deir Yassin, Eye Witness Account 15.11.1998.

  6. Milstein, op. cit. p. 258.

  7. Shaltiel, David, Jerusalem 1948, Israel Ministry of Defense, Tel Aviv 1981, p. 139.

  8. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p343-344; Pail and Isseroff, op. cit.

  9. Kfir, Ilan, Yediot Ahronot 4.4.72; Pail and Isseroff, op.cit; Daniel McGowan and Marc Ellis eds. Remembering Deir Yassin, Olive Branch Press, Interlink Publishing Group, 1998 p35 ff.

  10. Milstein, op. cit. p. 268; the report of the number 254 is only recalled by Raanan – no written record is presented.

  11. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. ref 59; Pail , Meir, interview, op. cit.

  12. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 342; Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 268;

  13. Arbel, Eliahu, Yedioth Ahronoth, 2.5.72.

  14. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 268, quotes Raanan as saying ‘Take the village into your custody, as it is written in your letter.’ But the letter says the dissidents must hold the village (see Milstein, page 259).

  15. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 272.

  16. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 343.

  17. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 343; Kfir, Ilan Yedioth Ahronot, 4.4.72; Meir Pail interview, op. cit;

  18. Letter from Yisrael Galili to Secretary of Cultural Activities of K. Hulda, 22.4.78, published here.

  19. Kanani, Sharif and Zitawi, Nihad, Deir Yassin, Monograph No.4, Destroyed Palestinian Villages Documentation Project (Bir Zeit: Documentation Center of Bir Zeit University, 1987), p.55.

  20. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 273.

  21. Milstein, Uri op. cit. p. 275.

  22. Milstein, Uri op. cit. p. 272.

  23. Gorodenchik, Yehoshua, testimony at Jabotinsky Archives; repeated in part in Segal, Yisrael, Koteret Rashit, 19.1.83.

  24. Arbel, Eliahu, Yedioth Ahronoth. 2.5.72

  25. Milstein, Uri op. cit. p. 270.

  26. Sharif Kanani, and Zitawi, Nihad Deir Yassin, Monograph No.4, Destroyed Palestinian Villages Documentation Project (Bir Zeit: Documentation Center of Bir Zeit University, 1987). p.57 (tr. Maha Mansour)

  27. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 274.

  28. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 271.

  29. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 272.

  30. Levi, Yizhak, op. cit. pp. 340-341.

  31. Ophir, Yehoshua ‘al Hachomot’ (‘On the Walls’) Tel Aviv, Jabotinsky Center, 1951, page 49.

  32. Lapidot, Yehudah, testimony at Jabotinsky Archives; repeated in part in Segal, Yisrael, Koteret Rashit, 19.1.83.

  33. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 256.

  34. Kfir, Ilan, Yediot Ahronot 4.4.72; Essentially the same account is given by Pail in the interview conducted with A.I.

  35. Arbel, Eliahu, loc. cit.

  36. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 260.

  37. ibid.

  38. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 157.

  39. Shaltiel, David loc. cit.

  40. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 341.

  41. Pail, Meir Interview op. cit.

  42. ibid.

  43. Kfir, Ilan, Yediot Ahronot 4.4.72; Essentially the same account is given by Pail in the interview conducted with A.I.

  44. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. pp. 341-342.

  45. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 259.

  46. Shaltiel, David op. cit. p.140.

  47. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 257.

  48. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p. 340.

  49. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 262.

  50. Letter from Yisrael Galili to Secretary of Cultural Activities of K. Hulda, 22.4.78, published here.

  51. Levi, Yitzhak, op. cit. p 342.

  52. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 262.

  53. Segal, Yisrael, Koteret Rashit, 19.1.83.

  54. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 263.

  55. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 271.

  56. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 272.

  57. Arbel, Eliahu, loc. cit.

  58. Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem 1947-1949, Cambridge Middle East Library, 1987, p. 193.

  59. Gorodenchik, Yehoshua, op. cit.

  60. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 267.

  61. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 276.

  62. Kanani, Sharif and Zitawi, Nihad, op. cit. p. 57.

  63. Morris, Benny, Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf, 1999, p. 208.

  64. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 265

  65. Davar, April 4, 1948 (in Hebrew) Page 1. The item reads: “For the first time on Saturday night, west Jerusalem neighborhoods were attacked: Beit Hakerem and Bayit Vagan. The attack came from the side (direction) of Deir Yassin and Ein Kerem, as well as from the side (direction) of Qoloniya. The defenders returned fire; The shooting continued all…” (the remainder is lost because a different article is continued in the same column.).

  66. Milstein, Uri, op. cit. p. 258

 


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