Deir Yassin: The Massacre that Sparked the Nakba 

April 9 marked the 70th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre, in which Jewish militias murdered over 100 Palestinian men, women and children as part of a self-described “cleansing” campaign to expel indigenous Arabs to make way for the nascent Jewish state of Israel. 

One of the key ideological elements of Zionism — the movement for the re-establishment of a Jewish nation in Palestine — is the premise of what literary theorist Edward Said called “the excluded presence” of the indigenous population of Palestine. From its earliest days, Zionism, which is at its core a settler colonial movement of white, mostly European people usurping Arabs they often viewed as inferior or backwards, propagated the myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, argued that a Jewish state in Palestine would “form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” 

Such supremacist notions, brimming with messianic self-righteousness and bolstered by European fealty to the Westphalian state system which presumed non-European territories were ripe for colonization, allowed Zionists to justify horrific crimes against the Palestinian people. This, just a few years after Jews had suffered one of the worst episodes of genocide in human history, and even more recently, after the international community had condemned Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg for many of the same atrocities Jews were now committing in pursuit of their own lebensraum in Palestine.

The trouble with Zionism is that is presumes universal belief in, or at least acceptance of, the deity and prophecy of the Old Testament, which according to the sacred mythology, promised the Jews, “God’s Chosen People,” all of Palestine. The Arabs of Palestine, who comprised 90 percent or more of the population there for centuries preceding Zionist colonization, certainly did not believe nor accept this. 

Nor did the British, who ruled Palestine from 1923 until Jewish terrorism drove them out in 1947 and who had, after originally authorizing in the Balfour Declaration a homeland for the Jewish people within Palestine, limited Jewish immigration in 1939 after having found the colonists had violated the declaration’s provision that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” There is no way to avoid prejudicing civil and religious rights under settler-colonialism, especially the Jewish supremacist settler-colonialism that is Zionism. 

Thus there were two major obstacles to achieving the Zionist endgame of an independent Jewish state of Israel encompassing all of Palestine: the British and, of course, the Palestinians themselves. The British were dispatched via a prolonged wave of assassinations, terror bombings and other attacks, often planned and carried out by men who would later become prime ministers and other leaders of Israel. The Palestinians — a people who, as Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion presciently warned would “not tire easily” in the face of “usurpation of its land” — proved much tougher to erase. 

There was, however, much erasing to do. As Yosef Weitz, director of the Jewish National Land Fund, had declared

“It must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country… There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer them all… we must not leave a single village, a single tribe.” 

To that end, Ben-Gurion and his inner circle devised Plan Dalet, the “principle objective” of which was, according to a directive to Jewish militia troops, “the destruction of Arab villages… and the eviction of the villagers.” 

On April 8, 1948, the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin was prosperous, expanding and, despite rapidly deteriorating relations between Palestine’s Arabs and Jews as all-out war neared, at peace with its Jewish neighbors. Limestone mining was the main source of employment for Deir Yassin’s 600 or so residents, who traded widely with Jews and supplied markets in Jerusalem, five kilometers (3.1 miles) to the east. The Jewish village of Givat Shaul stood between Deir Yassin and the main road to Jerusalem. As hostilities grew in the wake of the United Nations plan to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Deir Yassin and Givat Shaul signed a peace pact, which was approved by Haganah, the main Jewish paramilitary force that would later form the core of the Israel Defense Forces. 

Peace treaty or not, Haganah, as well as the terrorist groups Irgun and Lehi, which were respectively commanded by future prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were determined to attack Deir Yassin. The first phase of Israel’s war of independence focused heavily on controlling Palestine’s roads, the lifelines linking Jewish communities through territory that was still populated overwhelmingly by Arabs. Irgun and Lehi viewed Deir Yassin as a threat to controlling the main road to Jerusalem as well to nearby Jewish communities and had few if any qualms about breaking the peace pact. 

A plan was devised to attack Deir Yassin before dawn on April 9, expel all of its residents and kill those who refused to leave in order to seize the village and terrorize Arabs throughout Palestine into flight. In language horrifically reminiscent of the recent Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, Irgun officer Ben-Zion Cohen recounted how Lehi members proposed “liquidating” the entire village. Fortunately, the proposal was rejected, although Deir Yassin was indeed ultimately “liquidated,” like more than 400 other destroyed Arab villages in 1948-49.

Women and children were meant to be spared, and residents were meant to be warned by loudspeaker to encourage their escape. However, the armored vehicle carrying the loudspeaker crashed early during the attack and the 120 attackers encountered fierce resistance, including sniper fire, from the village guards and other residents, many of whom were armed. The inexperienced Jewish fighters resorted to going from house to house, tossing grenades indiscriminately into each one before storming inside and spraying survivors with submachine guns and other weapons. Fahimeh Ali Mustafa Zeidan, who was 11 years old, later recalled how the attackers…

… 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.

Meir Pa’il, an intelligence officer in Palmach, the Haganah strike force, later described his fellow Jewish fighters as “full of lust for murder” during and after the attack. Israeli historian Benny Morris claims there were cases of mutilation and rape. One resident described how the attackers shot a pregnant woman before bashing in her belly; such atrocities were confirmed by Jewish participants. Pa’il wrote that Irgun and Lehi fighters… 

…were going about the village robbing and stealing everything: chickens, radio sets, sugar, money, gold and more… Each [one] walked about the village dirty with blood and proud of the number of persons he had killed. 

“I have seen a great deal of war, but I never saw a sight like Deir Yassin,” confessed Haganah officer Eliahu Arbel, who “saw bodies of women and children who were murdered in their houses in cold blood.” 

“To me, it looked a bit like a pogrom,” said Haganah intelligence officer Mordechai Gichon, referring to the organized slaughter of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe that drove so many of them to flee to Palestine. “When the Cossacks burst into Jewish neighborhoods, then that should have looked something like this.” 

Pa’il wrote of finding a house in the center of the village where 200 terrified women and children had been rounded up, and of a “commander [who] explained that they intended to kill all of them.” Fortunately, help arrived shortly thereafter in the form of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Givat Shaul, who rushed to Deir Yassin in time to shame the attackers into sparing the prisoners. 

Some survivors, including women and children, were forced onto trucks and paraded through the streets of West Jerusalem, where residents spit, stoned and taunted them. Some of the prisoners were then executed. Haganah intelligence officer Yitzhak Levy wrote of a mother and her child, as well as seven old men and women, who were executed in a quarry. 

When it was all over, over 100 men, women and children of Deir Yassin lay dead, while the village’s defenders managed to kill four of the attacking Jews. Word of the massacre spread like wildfire and succeeded in the stated Zionist goal of terrorizing Arabs in other towns and villages throughout Palestine into permanently fleeing their homes and their homeland. Haganah psychological warfare operators approaching Arab villages often broadcast over loudspeakers recordings of shrieking Arab women accompanied by exhortations to leave immediately or face a similar fate as Deir Yassin. The massacre was a major motivator of Arab flight from Palestine, the beginning of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe;” the ethnic cleansing of some 750,000 Arabs from Palestine during Israel’s war for independence.

The international community was horrified and outraged when news of Deir Yassin got out. In the United States, a group of prominent Jews including Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the editors of the New York Times blasting the “terrorist bands [who] attacked a peaceful village.” Others compared the Deir Yassin attackers to Nazis. However, then, as now, the Zionists committing horrific crimes cared little for what the world thought. For all its horror, leading Zionists touted Deir Yassin as a smashing success. “We created terror among the Arabs,” Menachem Begin boasted at the time. “In one blow, we changed the strategic situation.” 

In the heroic myth-making endemic to all settler-colonial states, atrocities are unceremoniously buried like so many victims’ bloating corpses. Many Israelis today, including some leading historians, deny any massacre occurred at Deir Yassin, despite the overwhelming evidence presented by village residents, Jewish perpetrators and international observers. To these revisionists, any negative portrayal of Israel or even Zionism is rooted in antisemitism, or if the accuser is Jewish, in self-loathing, a “trick we always use” to deflect legitimate criticism, according to the late Israeli government minister Shulamit Aloni. 

And so although the Jewish Agency for Israel — the head of Jewish affairs in Palestine — and the Haganah condemned and apologized for Deir Yassin, and although an IDF intelligence officer’s report states “there can be no doubt at all that large numbers of civilians were killed unjustifiably” there, there is a strain of denialism among Israelis akin to those other supremacists who deny the undeniable events of the Holocaust. Seventy years after the horrors of Deir Yassin, it is more necessary than ever to ensure that, like the Nazi genocide of Jews, we “never forget” the brutal massacre of that peaceful village or the wider catastrophe it sparked. 

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Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

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