Media Analysis

‘The open wounds of the conflict owe very much to Deir Yassin’: 70 years since the Deir Yassin Massacre

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For the 70th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre, I spoke to Matthew Hogan who authored a peer-reviewed study of the incident for The Historian journal (“The 1948 Massacre At Deir Yassin Revisited”, Winter 2001) and recently served as consultant for the new documentary 1948: Creation and Catastrophe. He has spoken on Deir Yassin to classes at the University of Maryland and his paper has been broadly cited and assigned in university courses.   Mr. Hogan has been an independent researcher in history. He received his Juris Doctor (J.D.)from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1992.

What was the Deir Yassin Massacre?

Well, first let me note that the Deir Yassin Massacre was indeed a massacre, something which a few have a hard time digesting. 

Anyway, what basically happened was that several dozen Palestinian Arab villagers were killed without military necessity on April 9, 1948 in their home village of Deir Yassin. They likely also endured other  abuses during and after the takeover of that village that day by irregular Jewish forces.

 It was a very significant event that accompanied the end of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948 and the setup of the state of Israel and influenced heavily the fighting around it.

In what ways specifically was, and is, Deir Yassin significant?

Reports of the event greatly accelerated Palestinian flight from the areas that became Israel and also helped crystallize the actual decision by the Arab states to go to war with the new state. The Palestinian refugee issue and Arab-Israeli regional war, in one historic tragic package. 

The event has also grown to become a symbol of unjust Palestinian loss and the “Palestinian plight” as a whole.  

How did the event come about?

After the 1947 U.N. partition resolution was passed recommending a Jewish and Arab state with Jerusalem internationalized, the British began drawing down their military presence.  During that drawdown, both Jewish and Arab forces inside Palestine mobilized and began fighting.  Historians call this time before May 15, 1948  the “civil war”, just before the regional war directly between new Israel and the Arab states began.  

During the civil war, a siege of Jewish Jerusalem by Arabs was somewhat successful at the start of April 1948.  Fighting greatly intensified. 

The small dissident Jewish groups Irgun and Lehi thought it wise to take Deir Yassin, a quarry village near Jerusalem, expel its population of about 750, and commandeer much needed supplies.  This was despite a truce with the village arranged by the more mainstream Haganah, the official pre-state Israeli military force whose strategic focus was on other villages.  

Perhaps it was because of the truce that it was attacked since that lulled it into being an easy target for a surprise attack.

Anyway, the two “dissident” groups did indeed attack the town. They met some resistance, called in the Haganah for help, occupied the village, and then after the Haganah left, took out their rage on the many villagers who remained, massacring and abusing a great many of them.

About 105-110 or so were killed, largely old men, women, and children.  The rest were expelled, many being paraded in public as captives.

Wait, we usually hear about 200 or 250 dead?

That figure is conclusively wrong although it still circulates wildly.  That was actually an exaggerated number announced by the Irgun leader after the attack so that  – as he himself explained – the reports of the incident might better induce panic among the Arabs of Palestine.

Today, all serious historians on all sides of the issue, from extreme Zionists to fervent Palestinian nationalists, accept the lower figure of about 105-110, which is based on cross-comparisons of the missing done by villagers at different times.

Are there any other common errors about the incident?

Yes, one particular one: Deaths did not occur from any series of entire houses being blown up, although one house or so may have had extensive damage.

 Although still disputed, it is far far more likely that no serious blowing up of multiple village houses took place in the course of the attack or massacre.  Or at least it is very unlikely that the blowing up of houses caused significant casualties.  It was a massacre, not an accident.  

Victims were essentially shot, stabbed, and blown up at close range by hand grenades, and relatively few died in the course of fighting or any demolition. 

 If you read, for example, that the village was a “smoking ruin” or half of it was gone, be very very skeptical.  Not that the person telling it is dishonest, just that they are relaying conventional wisdom uncritically, like the 250 number.

 Most of the claims about the houses being blown up comes from perpetrators of the massacre later trying to explain it away.  Eyewitness accounts from others examining the scene soon afterwards indicate finding bodies inside intact structurally undisturbed residences, usually with signs of gunshot or other direct wounds on the bodies. 

Further adding to doubt about the role of alleged large scale demolition is that there is no reported large number of wounded or dismembered bodies by independent real-time visitors that would normally accompany huge blasts which kill lots of people.  

Several credible eyewitnesses have been explicitly adamant that house demolition was no main cause of death.

 And attempting to blow up houses with explosives while under active fire during combat is probably not really all that feasible or wise. 

So reports of blown up houses are false?

As to them being the cause of the large number of deaths, yes, false. And also not likely to have happened much at all, except some relatively inconsequential physical destruction here and there.  One exception is that a small artillery hit or two by the Haganah on one large house may have killed or wounded a few villagers resisting there from the rooftop or the balcony with rifles, and did do significant damage to that particular house before the Haganah withdrew from the town.

Just to ensure the record is straight: there was one contemporary report to the British by escaping villagers that suggests some houses were blown up very very early in the morning.  But that report (very early a.m.) is well before the time those who claim they performed such bombings said they had happened (late morning). It may have been just an attempt by villagers to press the British to intervene. 

Most significant, though, is that the scene of the village and the descriptions of the dead, as reported by many visitors of the time, was not one of extensive house destruction or the deadly after-effects of major explosions.

The slaughter was up close and personal.  As the head of Jerusalem’s Magen David Adom  — the Jewish Red Cross – said:  “It was clear that they had gone from house to house and shot the people at close range.”

Was the slaughter pre-planned?

Some debate on that but the answer is probably no, or at least not “officially”.  There is some evidence that the organizational command centers of at least one of the attacking groups even ordered the local commanders to take specific care to avoid excess killing.  But the attackers did nonetheless discuss beforehand killing all the men and showing no pity on resisting women or children.  And anyway they wanted to expel the villagers through fear, so the conditions and attitudes were ripe for a massacre.

Once the attackers encountered resistance, they grew enraged.  These were young extremist men about 19 years old, full of ethnic warfare anger, warrior bombast, a terrorist tactical ethos, and had recently heard stories of Arab forces mutilating Jewish fighter corpses— which indeed had happened not long before.  They were primed for sadism, which exploded once the villagers fought back somewhat effectively for a bit until the Haganah was brought in to save the day.  

The Haganah appears not to have been involved in the massacre as their presence in the fighting was brief but they were able to stop resistance.  The Haganah suffered no casualties but the Irgun and Lehu suffered 5 dead, and about 30 reported wounded, but most were said to be lightly wounded.

There are other atrocities reported, what about them?

It appears clear that lots of looting took place but that is no surprise after taking a town though it was said that earrings were physically ripped off women’s ears

More serious abuses alleged are sexual assault, physical and psychological torture, mutilation of bodies, and the parading of the captives.  I think the evidence is strong that all these happened.

 The last was widely witnessed with trucks parading villagers on King George V Avenue.  There are multiple reports of killing of family members in front of others.  Burning alive of at least one villager.  One probably credible photograph suggests bodies laid out in mock copulation.  A Haganah burial crew member reported multiple castrated bodies.   One pregnant woman as indicated from multiple accounts appears to have been disemboweled.

Sexual assault is more difficult to establish and very sensitive but ultimately very significant as well.  But yes, incidents of that kind probably did accompany the massacre.

What is especially challenging or sensitive about that?

The reports of rape at Deir Yassin at the time were one factor in making the news of Deir Yassin so effective in causing Palestinian villagers across the country to flee.  Obviously reports of massacre are shocking enough but the fact of sexual assault, bad enough in itself, was multiplied in impact by the cultural patriarchal “family honor” issue among traditional Palestinians and which attaches communal shame to a victim of assault and the family.  

Many oral histories of Palestinians across the land mention accounts of rape at Deir Yassin as an important factor is driving them to flee their homes for the sake of protecting honor.  

The honor issue also inhibits investigation and open discussion of the event, which is already difficult enough.

But you did indicate you think sexual assaults did take place?

Yes, it is likely it happened – I have isolated 4 to 5 independent lines of evidence, including documents from the time plus circumstantial evidence.  

Quick note: on the Web if you research this incident you may see references to Hazem Nusseibeh, who back in 1948 was a reporter of news for the Palestine Arab radio station.  A BBC interview with him in the late 1990s distorts what he says and that is used to argue there was no massacre or no sexual assault at Deir Yassin. 

There was certainly a massacre at minimum and likely assaults as well. 

Contrary to descriptions, Nusseibeh never says he falsely reported anything when he reported in 1948 that at Deir Yassin children were killed and “all sorts of atrocities” took place. The narrator actually puts words in his mouth implying he backed away from that.  So if you see online polemics that say Nusseibeh admitted to lying about the event, of even Wikipedia entries saying that, that is false.

You seem quite certain there was a massacre, what convinces you?

Well aside from the general consensus of history, the copious documentation emerging since the event which even includes partial admissions by the participants, along with the logic of the circumstances, etc., there are the numbers.

Numbers don’t lie and they are damning.

Let’s see: 105 or so dead in one village attack with small arms?  That’s 15% of the population.  That’s almost half of the proportion of dead-to-population as the atomic bombs, but here with no heavy artillery used or air strikes much less plutonium!  

Someone or several were clearly doing some serious slow-motion killing.

And then the mystery of the wounded. . . . 

What about the wounded?

Well, they’re missing, except for a relatively small number.

It is a classic powerful sign of intentional careful slaughter when there are more dead than wounded.   The recent Florida school shooting had 17 dead and 16 injured, for example.  More dead than wounded. Why would that be? There is more motive and time and freedom to carefully kill those present and to “finish off” those who are merely wounded. 

Deir Yassin has even a worse ratio than the school incident

– one village source reports only about 15 wounded; the Red Cross chief’s visit reported as a second hand guess in his diary maybe 70 wounded.  

But 105 dead if done unintentionally should have left 200 or much more wounded.  Usually the number of wounded is twice to three times the number of dead.  So the lack of 200 or more is a massive amount of missing wounded.  Wounded of such amount is not even remotely part of the record.  All that suggests then that at minimum the attackers took time to eliminate the incapacitated wounded that might normally occur.  That’s a massacre.

Also 105 or so dead on one side of a small military action?  And the defenders are in strong stone buildings? Versus only 5 dead on the other side?  

Very lopsided ratio even if buildings were blown up, which they almost certainly were not.  

Just by itself that last consideration suggests that someone or some group took extra time to kill lots of people.

And the dead are mostly women, elderly and children?  Those people are the ones who should be least vulnerable to lethal fire, unless it was an intentional targeting of civilians at one point.

So very many near-conclusive indicators of a massacre are there – before we even touch the recollections and documentation which also bolster the fact of massacre.

Back to Deir Yassin’s significance, you said the two main effects of the event were…?

First, Palestinians throughout the land became unusually terrified of what might happen to them if Zionist forces captured their towns or neighborhoods. Thus the Palestinian refugee problem takes off exponentially (though the massacre is not the only factor in that.)  

Meanwhile, the Arab states, which were hoping for a face-saving solution to avoid going to conventional war over the new state of Israel, found themselves pressured by events. Popular opinion — and even elite opinion —  in the broader Arab world grew insistent of there being actual military action, particularly after Deir Yassin.  

In secret high-level discussions aiming to avoid war in May 1948, Emir Abdullah the ruler of Transjordan (Jordan) named Deir Yassin as the reason he had little flexibility to offer to delay or to avoid fighting. 

Was Deir Yassin “an isolated incident”?

As a massacre of that proportion and scope in that war, it was rare but others approach and exceed it.  

Certainly, the apparent retaliatory massacre for Deir Yassin, an assault on and slaughter of Jewish medical workers in a convoy to Hadassah Hospital performed by Arab irregulars a few days after Deir Yassin, was proportionately worse, leaving only 10% of the convoy’s medical personnel alive.  It was moderately smaller in absolute number, though no children were killed as none were in the group.

The probable massacre of Palestinians at Tantura and at Duwaymah much later may approach it.  Killing of Palestinians in urban areas like Lydda (Lod) was larger in absolute numbers than Deir Yassin.  The exact proportion of Jews killed in multiple atrocities around Gush Etzion in those months may also approach it in scope depending on how measured.  

Deir Yassin’s massacre was not isolated in that smaller excess killings and abuses were common in both directions in the war.  Leaving enemy combatant bodies mutilated was a frequent tit-for-tat thing, for example. Not taking prisoners was common especially before May 15.

What has happened regarding the town of Deir Yassin since the massacre?

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the pre-state Israel institution, the Jewish Agency, apologized for the event though no one was punished and the two groups that did the deed were eventually incorporated into the main Israeli forces.  

For a short period, it was thought a nearby path to Deir Yassin would become an airfield for West Jerusalem but I believe the winds were too strong there.

Today the village and its buildings are the site of an Israeli mental health center, the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre.  

The expelled villagers were not permitted to return. 

Do you think Deir Yassin should be seen as a symbol of injustice to the Palestinians?

I’ll leave it to the actual stakeholders to decide.  

But what I can say for sure is that the massacre happened. And it was very ugly as such things are, and it drove the conflict to worse levels by helping intensify Palestinian flight and Arab military reaction. 

And the Deir Yassin townspeople meanwhile remain permanently expelled. As do the former residents of many others.

So, the open wounds of the conflict do owe very much to that killing of the children, women, and men of Deir Yassin.  If there is a just and peace-oriented solution, it certainly needs to take into account what happened in that village in April 1948 and its consequences. 

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It wasn’t pre-planned. Irgun had brought a sound truck to broadcast to the villagers but the sound truck got stuck in a ditch. There was a firefight for possession of the village, and four Jewish fighters were killed by the villagers. Some of the villagers were massacred. Many were killed in their homes by hand grenades and rifle fire. How many villagers were killed intentionally in their homes, and how many were killed indiscriminately will… Read more »

For the record re Deir Yassin “Jamil Ahmed, who lived near the edge of the village, remembered the day his village died. During the battle he watched in horror as first his cousin Youssif, and then his brother, Issa, along with several friends were killed. ‘They took them as prisoners, raised their hands, and took them to the edge of the village near my house and sprayed them with gunfire. A blind man was also… Read more »

“several dozen Palestinian Arab villagers were killed”

According to the Wikipedia page on the subject the Red Cross representative counted over 200 bodies: the Irgun commander claimed 254 were killed: a figure of 107 came from an interview with survivors 20 years later, which is likely to be an under estimate.