The Massacre That Never Was

In addition to collapsing the myth of Israeli “occupation,” the White House’s recent announcement about Israeli settlements invites a fresh look at other pervasive myths in the Middle East that for decades have demonized Israel.

One thinks immediately of the Deir Yassin “massacre” of April 1948 and the more recent Muhammed al Durah affair in 2000, in which a 12-year old Arab boy became the defining symbol of Palestinian “martyrdom” at the hands of the “brutal” Israeli government.

The al Durah hoax (the boy was not only not murdered by Israeli soldiers but indications are the entire incident was staged) was eventually exposed, but not before the “victim” became a Palestinian rallying cry to foment terrorism and hatred against Israel.

But it is the above-cited Deir Yassin massacre that is most frequently referenced as an example of “sadistic” Israeli treatment of Arab Palestinians. The alleged atrocity in the Arab village of pre-state Israel became a founding myth of the Palestinian cause, marking their alleged “expulsion.”

This blood libel was propagated by Arab leaders in 1948 to incite other Arab countries to join the war against the nascent state of Israel. Instead, the so-called horrors perpetrated at Deir Yassin sparked massive Arab flight from the West Bank to escape further “massacres.”

That in turn set the stage for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. For seven decades, no Arab state except Jordan has agreed to absorb more than a very limited numbers of these refugees. They remained in squalid UNWRA refugee camps, becoming radicalized under PLO terrorist leader Yassir Arafat, who in 1964 renamed them and their descendants “Palestinians.”

Arafat unleashed a campaign of unprecedented terror against Israeli civilians, demanding the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians, as well as a Palestinian state in the territory of Yehuda and Shomron (West Bank).

Legacy of Lies Continues to Flourish

Over the years, an entire cottage industry has developed to memorialize the victims of alleged “heinous crimes” perpetrated by the Irgun, Lechi and Palmach forces against the villagers of Deir Yassin.

Scores of articles and online sites depict gruesome atrocities including the burning alive of innocent men, women and children. Pilgrimages to Deir Yassin take place yearly on the anniversary of the battle and are glamorized by the media.

Pro-Arab propagandists in the United States and England have formed an association, “Deir Yassin Remembered,” to build memorials and to keep alive the memory of the alleged massacre. The Jewish fighters in the conflict are depicted not only as “terrorists” but as Nazis, with an obvious effort to draw parallels between the Holocaust and Deir Yassin.

The drip-drip effect of this mythology has gained global traction, spilling over to the present. Today’s propaganda-driven view of Israel as a brutal occupying power is rooted in the false legacy of Deir Yassin which is regularly quoted by anti-Israel activists.

Significant evidence and authoritative studies challenging the Palestinian narrative are wholly ignored.

A ‘Peaceful’ Village Filled with Guerilla Fighters

The prevailing narrative of Deir Yassin rests on three claims: the village was peaceful when it was overrun by Jewish fighters; the residents themselves were noncombatants who had forged a non-aggression pact with their Jewish neighbors; and some 100 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were brutally mistreated and then murdered by the Jewish attackers.

Following the atrocity, the story goes, the yishuv’s leaders inflated the number of dead (to 254 killed) in order to terrorize Arab communities and make them flee.

Scholars have long disputed each of these claims, writes Dr. Eliezer Tauber, a noted Israeli history professor and expert on the early phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His book, Deir Yassin: The End of a Myth, is a comprehensive treatment on the subject drawn from Israeli, Palestinian, British and UN sources.

The book recounts the fighting minute-by-minute and across all sectors of the battle. Its conclusions are based on documents and recorded interviews conducted by the various parties over the past seven decades. Prof. Tauber also interviewed the few eyewitnesses who are still alive, including Palestinian refugees.

“For the past five years, I have carried out an in-depth research into the affair, learned to know the village, who lived there and where, their names, and above all, the exact circumstances of death of each of the people killed there,” wrote Prof. Tauber.

“Contrary to what one could expect, I found that the testimonies of the Jewish attackers on the one hand, and the Arab survivors on the other hand, were surprisingly similar, at times almost identical. The results were astounding, but clear. There was no massacre in Deir Yassin. No atrocities against women. Lots of unfounded Palestinian propaganda.”

In his book, Tauber unravels two separate myths about the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem—the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian one. Israelis believe that the Palestinians followed their leaders’ exhortations to evacuate their homes temporarily and then return with the victorious Arab armies. Yet that is not what spurred Palestinians to leave, the historian says.

The Palestinians claim that the Israelis expelled them in 1948, but this too in incorrect; the Israelis did nothing to drive the mass departure.

The true story of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, Tauber maintains, was a flight mainly motivated by panic over a massacre that never happened.

What Really Happened in Deir Yassin?

After the United Nations passed the 1947 proposal to partition the former British mandate into two states, Arab militias laid siege to Jerusalem, cutting off supply routes and threatening the 150,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city.

Jerusalem at that time was outside the UN-dictated borders of what was to become the Jewish State, according to the Partition Plan. The growing number of Arab onslaughts and escalating casualties—higher than anywhere else in the country—compounded by isolation from the coastal plain and mounting food shortages, were tightening the vise on the inhabitants of the Holy City.

Jewish aid convoys with food and medical supplies tried to reach Jerusalem to assist its beleaguered residents, but Arab militias cut off the highway from Tel Aviv and it became impossible to get through.

Deir Yassin, situated on a hill less than a mile from Jerusalem’s suburbs, had a commanding view of Givat Shaul, Bet Hakerem, Yefe Nof, and the road to Bayit Vegan, as well as the section of road linking Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

Far from being a peaceful Arab village, Deir Yassin was heavily armed and also harbored foreign troops—mostly Iraqi. These fighters, along with the village’s residents, had been attacking nearby Jewish neighborhoods and traffic on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

The village served as a halfway site for forces moving up from the Arab villages of Ein Karem and Malha in the south, to Kastel and Kolonia, which overlooked the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road. During the fierce battle for Kastel at the beginning of April, Arab reinforcements had passed through Deir Yassin on their way to the battlefield, and had helped to drive out the Jewish force.

Jewish military leaders felt the village had to be subdued as part of the military operation to open the road to Jerusalem. Occupying Deir Yassin became a key military objective during the first phase of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Although later denying it for political reasons, the Haganah sanctioned the attack on Deir Yassin, and later took part in it by means of its striking force, the Palmach. Most of the fighting was carried out by the Irgun and Lechi forces.

The battle was ferocious and took about ten hours, in part because the attackers were poorly trained, disorganized, lacked reliable intelligence, and had no idea what to do with prisoners, writes historian Tauber.

One of the Jewish fighters described his experience this way:

“From every house and from every window, gunfire was directed against us and we threw grenades in that direction. The inhabitants had Sten guns, rifles and pistols. Our men stormed forward from house to house while throwing explosive devices inside, driven by the thought, “either them or us.” For us it came down to a question of life: If he lives, I will die…”

‘This Was Not a Punitive Action’

Excerpts from the two-volume book, Besieged (1992), by Yehuda Lapidot, a former member of Irgun who took part in the operation against Deir Yassin, and later served as assistant to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, capture some of the battle’s chilling moments.

“Raanan, Commander of the Irgun in Jerusalem, opened the meeting. He surveyed the strategic plan, aimed at liberating the whole of Jerusalem,” Lapidot wrote about the preliminaries to the operation.

“He emphasized that this was not a punitive action and that we must avoid causing unnecessary injury. He stressed repeatedly that we must not harm old people, women or children. Moreover, any Arabs who surrendered, including fighters, were to be taken prisoner and not hurt in any way.

“Raanan related that in order to prevent superfluous casualties, it had been decided that an armored car equipped with a loudspeaker would enter the village ahead of the troops before they opened fire, and launch the operation.

“In this way, the villagers would be informed that the village was surrounded by Jewish fighters, and would be exhorted to leave for Ein Karem or to surrender. They would also be informed that the road to Ein Karem was open and safe.

“At 2 a.m. the Irgun fighters were driven from the Etz Hayim base to Bet Hakerem. The force moved into the wadi, where the platoons split up, each platoon climbing up the terraced slope to its assigned area of action.

“The Lechi unit assembled at Givat Shaul and proceeded from there towards the target. Some of the force advanced behind the armored car, which was proceeding along the path towards the center of the village.

“Close to 04:45, the village guards spotted suspicious movement. One of them called out in Arabic: ‘Mahmoud’, and an Irgun fighter, who thought that someone had shouted the password ‘ahdut’ (solidarity), responded with the second half of the password in Hebrew ‘lohemet’. The Arabs opened fire and shots were fired from all sides.

The armored car advanced along the path to the outskirts of the village, where it encountered a trench and was forced to come to a halt. A message was announced over loudspeaker at the entrance to the village, while shots were fired at the car from the adjacent houses.

“The other units launched an onslaught, accompanied by explosions and gunfire. Arab resistance was strong and every house became an armed fortress. Many fighters were injured in the first onslaught, including a number of commanders who had been advancing ahead of their units.

“When the center of the village had been occupied, we concentrated all the wounded in a courtyard and sought ways to evacuate them. Among them was Yiftach who had been hit in the stomach, but remained fully conscious. When I asked how he was, his reply was clear-cut: “Please do me a favor and shoot me in the head. I can’t bear the pain anymore.”

“We laid him on a makeshift stretcher (a door which had been ripped from its hinges) and four fighters carried him towards Givat Shaul, where he was then evacuated to a hospital. Tragically, he later died.

“The pace of the battle was slow because we were fighting in a built-up area, and both sides suffered heavy losses. In order to silence the source of fire, our fighters were forced to use hand-grenades, and in some cases even to blow up houses. Shots were fired from all sides. We rapidly lost half our fighters, and our ammunition was seriously depleted.”

Inflating the Number of Arab casualties

“The Irgun suffered 41 casualties, including four dead. 101 Arabs were killed, a quarter of them active combatants and most of the rest in combat conditions,” asserts Tauber in Deir Yassin: The End of a Myth.

Some women were killed when Arabs dressed in women’s attire pretended to surrender and then whipped out pistols and shot Jewish fighters dead. Jewish forces fired back at all women nearby.

“The attackers took an additional 200 villagers prisoner and safely released them in Arab Jerusalem. The battle ended in the victory of Irgun and Lechi. No massacre took place. When the fighting ended, the killing stopped,” the historian writes.

On Saturday night, April 10, 1948, the Irgun radio station ‘Kol Zion Halochemet’ broadcasting from Tel Aviv announced that, according to a wireless report from the Irgun headquarters in Jerusalem, the attackers had suffered four dead (the number later rose to five, when Yiftach died) and 32 wounded. According to the report, 240 Arabs had been killed.

“This news item was in fact inaccurate,” concedes Lapidot in Besieged. “The Irgun commander in Jerusalem had deliberately exaggerated the number to demoralize the enemy. Our own casualties were much higher than reported.”

In his testimony, Raanan related that when he radioed headquarters in Tel Aviv, he had been unaware of the precise number of enemy casualties. He had invented a number, and had been aware that the true figure was much lower. Exaggerated reports of enemy casualties, he reasoned, would instill fear in Palestine’s Arabs and deter them from attacking Jews.

The Supreme Arab Committee further exaggerated the story and reported 254 Arabs killed, Tauber notes, believing that claims of higher casualties would render Arab villages more militant.

Research conducted some time later, based on Arab sources, reveals that the number of Arab dead did not exceed one hundred. An accurate body count of the Arab victims was conducted after the battle by two physicians, Dr. Z. Avigdori and his deputy, Dr. A. Druyan.

According to IDF files of the period, these physicians came to the village and asked permission to examine the corpses. They told the Irgun commander that they had been sent by the Jewish Agency to report on any mutilations or other atrocities perpetrated by Irgun and Lechi fighters on the Arabs. They sought permission to move freely about the village so that they could report only what they saw with their own eyes.

Moving from house to house, the physicians counted the corpses and assessed the cause of death. The report, which is filed in the IDF Archives, attests that there were no more than 46 corpses in total. In addition, they reported that bullets or bombs had caused the deaths, and that “all the bodies were dressed in their own clothes, limbs were whole and we saw no signs of mutilation.”

This report was never given the circulation it deserved. Instead, the media’s appetite for the morbid and gruesome prevailed.

On April 12, 1948 Dana Schmidt wrote a “special to the New York Times” story about a massacre and atrocities against women committed by Jews at Deir Yassin. The story, attributed to Dr. Hussein Khalidi, secretary of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee at the time, was taken at face value and spread like wildfire around the world.

Puncturing the Myth on BBC

In 1998, Hazen Nusseibeh, an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service’s Arabic news in 1948, was interviewed for the BBC television series, “Israel and the Arabs: the 50-year conflict.”

Nusseibeh describes an encounter with Deir Yassin survivors and Palestinian leaders, including Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, at the Jafa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

I asked Dr. Khalidi how we should cover the story,” recalled Nusseibah, now living in Amman. He said, “We must make the most of this.” So we wrote a press release stating that at Deir Yassin children were murdered, pregnant women were assaulted and mutilated. All sorts of atrocities.”

In an article, “Deir Yassin, a Casualty of Guns and Propaganda”, by Paul Holmes (Reuters) , the author interviewed Mohammed Radwan who was a resident of Deir Yassi in 1948, and fought for several hours before running out of bullets.

“I know when I speak, G-d knows the truth,” said Radwan, who puts the number of villagers killed at 93, listed in his own handwriting. “There were no assaults on women, no pregnant women who were slit open. All lies. It was propaganda that Arabs put out so Arab the armies would invade”, he said. “They ended up expelling people from all of Palestine on the rumor of Deir Yassin.”

Tauber quotes a Deir Yassin survivor, identified as Abu Mahmud, who said the villagers protested the claims of assaults against Deir Yassin women at the time. “We said there were no atrocities against women.”

“Khalidi answered us, ‘We have to say there was, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.’”

“Although this evidence has been available in publicly accessible archives since 1998, it has been almost universally ignored,” writes historian Eliezer Tauber. “For example, on November 28, 2001, an article in The Guardian repeated the fabrication in referring to “the Palestinian village where 254 villagers were massacred in April 1948, in the most spectacular single attack in the conquest of Palestine.”

Instead of refuting the lies when they were first circulated, Israel’s leaders took the fateful course of allowing them to go unchallenged during the country’s formative years. For Ben Gurion and his political cronies, the weakening of Israel’s moral image and authority in the wake of the Deir Yassin blood libel was apparently not a matter of great concern.

For these opportunists, the libel’s usefulness as a tool to backstab their political rivals evidently overrode all other considerations.

***

Historic Roll Call At UN

Seventy-two years ago, the United Nations General Assembly met in New York to debate Resolution 181, a proposal for a partition plan dividing the former British mandate territory between the region’s Jewish and Arab populations.

The UN had been founded just two years earlier and hosted fifty-six member countries. A two-thirds majority would be needed to ratify the proposal.

The authors of the resolution were members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, better known by its acronym, UNSCOP. The committee members had traveled to pre-state Israel in June and had remained there for three months to study and investigate all angles of the Arab-Israeli situation.

The Jewish state ultimately proposed by UNSCOP was larger than the area designated to them by the previous Peel Commission; Peel had proposed 20 percent of Palestine west of the Jordan for the Jews, and 80 percent for the Arabs.

UNSCOP, on the other hand, proposed 55 percent for the Jews—most of it desert—and 45 percent for the Arabs. For the Jews, the projected population balance of the two proposed states was cause for grave concern.

The Jewish state proposed by UNSCOP would have 498,000 Jews and 407,000 Arabs. The Arab state would be home to 725,000 Arabs and a mere 10,000 Jews.

Palestine Might Have Been Theirs

Given Arab birth rates and the ease of drawing Arabs from other states into West Bank territory to create a majority, UNSCOP presented the Arabs with a golden opportunity. Had they accepted its plan, all of Palestine might have been theirs in a generation.

But the Arab Higher Committee rejected UNSCOP outright, just as they had rejected the Peel Commission, while the Jewish Agency accepted the proposal.

Initially, American support for an independent Israel was lukewarm at best. The State Department under George Marshall had long opposed Jewish-independence; a day before the vote, a secret CIA report urged President Truman not to lend his support. “The Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years,” the CIA predicted.

The president ignored this advice and gave the Partition Plan not only America’s vote, but pressured other countries who were recipients of U.S. aid to back the plan as well.

In a bizarre twist, the Soviet Union, who had so ruthlessly persecuted its own Jewish masses, indicated it would back an independent Jewish state. Historians believe this was because Soviet leaders envisioned the Jewish state taking on a socialist character, which would humiliate “western imperialist countries” like Britain and the United States.

Key figures in the Jewish Agency had been reared in an atheistic communist ideology, and the early kibbutzim were patterned after a socialist model, so the Soviets were not that far off.

When the General Assembly convened on November 29, 1947 to vote on the UNSCOP proposal, Jews around the world huddled around their radios listening to the roll call. Many fervently hoped for a two-thirds majority to pass the Partition Plan.

Others, all too aware of the Arab war it would ignite, and the dangers of a secular Jewish leadership at the helm of the future state, opposed statehood.

As expected by that point, the Soviet Union and the United States voted in favor. The British abstained. To the surprise of leading political pundits, seven of the seventeen countries who had initially signaled they would abstain now voted in favor. The roll call came to an end with the Partition of Palestine passing by a vote of 33 in favor, 13 opposed, and 10 abstentions.

The Partition would take effect six months later, in May 1948.

Arab militias from neighboring countries including Egypt, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon, responded by immediately launching attacks against Jewish cities, settlements and armed forces. The yishuv greared up for a war in which it was vastly ill-equipped and outnumbered.

“It will be a war of annihilation,” vowed Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League. “It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”

It was against this ominous backdrop that the battle of Deir Yassin played out.

***

“Your Enemies Shall Come from Within”

One of the least known aspects of the myth of the massacre is the shocking fact that it was partially the creation of the Jewish Agency leadership, the Zionist Executive. The aim was to discredit Irgun and Lechi, who were viewed as rivals for the political leadership of the yishuv and ultimately, of the hoped-for state.

To undercut public sympathy for these groups, the Jewish Agency launched a smear campaign three days after the Deir Yassin battle. Haganah commander David Shaltiel published a leaflet that described the Irgun and Lechi fighters as a band of robbers, whose aim was murder and looting.

He accused their troops of “slaughtering women, children and men, not in the course of a military action, but deliberately for purposes of butchery and murder alone.”

In response to this assault, the Irgun issued a leaflet denying the Haganah charges. “Deir Yassin was captured after heavy fighting,” the leaflet stated. “Our fighters were shot at from almost every house with rifles and machine-guns. The large number of our casualties, several dozen, bears witness to this, as does the quantity of arms which fell into our hands, and the number of Syrian and Iraqi dead, who were part of the regular army force there.

“Our troops conducted themselves as no other military force would have done: they waived the element of surprise. Before the actual battle began, they cautioned the villagers by loudspeaker and appealed to women and children to leave at once and find shelter on the slope of the hill…”

[The Arabs have never denied that a loudspeaker was used, and an Arab League publication on Israeli aggression notes, “On the night of April 9, 1948, the quiet Arab village of Deir Yassin was taken by surprise when a loudspeaker called the inhabitants to evacuate the village immediately. –Yehuda Lapidot, Besieged]

The Irgun also published a letter from Shaltiel to Raanan which revealed that Shaltiel had not only known about the planned operation against Deir Yassin and sanctioned it, but had even considered it part of the Haganah plan. The publication of the letter caused great embarrassment to the Haganah leadership, exposed Shaltiel, and presumably his superiors, as ruthless liars.