Op-Ed: Book Review: The Myth of the Deir Yassin Massacre
Yonatan SilvermanThe author is a professional translator from Hebrew to English. He is the author of For the World to See:The Life of Margaret Bourke White. He operates the online newsletter SARTABA.
For 64 years, since 1948, the recollection of the so-called "massacre" of the Arab village of Deir Yassin has been a crucible and a formative experience in Arab Jewish relations, in Israel in particular, but also throughout the whole Arab world.
The massacre story has been an important factor in establishing the idea of a Palestinian nation.
The so-called massacre has also been exploited by Israel’s left to undermine acceptance of and confidence in the Zionist state.
Now, Dr. Uri Milstein, one of Israel’s most pre-eminent historians, has published a book that appears in English, "The Birth of a Palestinian Nation - The Myth of the Deir Yassin Massacre" by Gefen Publishers, which marshals the facts to prove that there was no massacre in Deir Yassin after all.
The Arab village of Deir Yassin no longer exists, but in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Deir Yassin was situated on the western edge of Jerusalem near the Givat Shaul neighborhood.
Although according to what became the accepted version, Deir Yassin was a peaceful Arab village, Dr. Milstein explains that this was really not so. Among other things Arab attacks against Jewish transportation in western Jerusalem emanated from Deir Yassin in 1948 and it was therefore necessary to take measures to take over the village.
The Jewish effort against Deir Yassin originated as a joint plan of the two underground groups, that existed before the declaration of the Jewish state,, Irgun and LEHI, also known as Revisionists, The scheduled date was 9 April 1948.
Milstein shows that Jerusalem’s Hagana commander David Shaltiel was informed of the operation and gave his approval. The Hagana also cooperated with Irgun and LEHI in planning the operation. The Palmach also actively participated in the fighting at one stage.
The joint Irgun-LEHI operation at Deir Yassin began at 4:30 AM on 9 April 1948. The Jewish fighters met serious resistance.
Yehoshua Zeitler, one of the fighters, wrote: “From every house and from every window gunfire was directed against us, and we threw grenades. The inhabitants had Sten guns rifles and pistols. Our men stormed forward from house to house while throwing inside explosive devices. We thought either them or us. For us it was a question of life, if he will live, I will die…”
The fighting in Deir Yassin did not conclude until the next day 10 April 1948. One of the outcomes of the battle was the transport of around 700 village residents to neighboring villages.
How Many Were Killed?
Eyewitness claims of the number of Arab casualties in Deir Yassin following the difficult battle were not high, and most were the Arab fighters disguised as residents - some even disguised as women.
But, strangely, there was a simultaneous Jewish effort to cite a larger number. This, the author shows, emanated from both public relations and political motives.
Mordechai Raanan, the Irgun commander in Jerusalem said: “On that day I did not know, and I could not know how many Arabs were killed. No one had counted the corpses. People estimated that a hundred or 150 people were killed I told the journalists that 254 were killed so that they would publish a large number, and so that the Arabs would be shocked not only in the area of Jerusalem but all over the country, and this objective was achieved…”
Amos Kenan, a former LEHI commander who fought at Deir Yassin, said in a 1996 interview: “My comrades told me the matter of a massacre is a complete lie. There was no massacre. There was a lack of organization…
Shimon Monita, a Hagana agent, relates: “After Deir Yassin I returned to the Palmach and took part in attacks on Arab villages. Most of the inhabitants fled before we arrived, and the villages were captured without fighting or after a short battle. Not only peasants fled from their homes but also urban Arabs from Jerusalem and also from other areas. In that same month the Hagana took control over Haifa. The Intelligence Service reported that the fear of a fate similar to that of the inhabitants of Deir Yassin was one of the factors in breaking the Arab inhabitants of Haifa and causing them to flee.”
Yisrael Bar, a senior Hagana commander wrote: “In the short term, Deir Yassin brought advantages and contributed to the flight of masses of Arabs.”
Milstein soberly reflects: “Without the myth of Deir Yassin, it is doubtful whether the Jews would have succeeded in defeating the Arabs of Palestine by the time of the Declaration of Independence Without this defeat, it is doubtful whether the State of Israel would have succeeded in coping with the attacks of standing armies from outside and attacks of irregular armies from within.”
Milstein, however, explains the other reason for the Jewish side's inflating the number killed, showing how the number was used cynically for political purposes by the left, which knowingly exaggerated and used the myth of the Deir Yssin "massacre" to discredit the two underground movements, Irgun and Lehi, which if was afraid would undermine its efforts to rule the new state of Israel unopposed. It managed to defame the two groups of brave underground fighters, their leaders including Irgun leader Menachem Begin, but thereby also encouraged the Arab use of the myth to villify the Zionist enterprise and seek revenge.
Monita said: "The dissidents [Revisionists] wanted to brag and scare the Arabs. The Hagana and Jewish Agency wanted to smear the dissidents and scare the Arabs. The Arabs wanted to smear the Jews. The British wanted to smear Jewish terrorists. They all latched on to a number invented by Ra’anan. We loaded 30 bodies onto the truck. That was the main group. There were about another 30; all told - about 60 bodies."
Arab Revenge For No Massacre
Four days after the Jewish occupation of Deir Yassin, there was a devastating Arab ambush on a convoy of buses in which Jewish doctors and nurses were traveling, en route to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, where they treated Arabs.
The convoy had to travel through the Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and this is precisely where the Arabs set their deadly trap.
Yitzhak Levy head of Jerusalem Intelligence wrote:
“The explosions and the gunfire against the convoy in Sheikh Jarrah were like the outbreak of a volcano. I understood that something dreadful had happened…”T
There were unmet expectations that British forces stationed in Sheikh Jarrah would come to the rescue of the convoy. Then the Jerusalem based Hagana forces themselves were blocked by the British and failed to enter the picture and save the Jewish doctors and nurses from imminent destruction.
Milstein concludes the tragic episode: “At 1:00 PM the attackers approached the two busses, assaulted them and set them on fire. Some passengers had fled before then to the two armored cars and the ambulance…Remember Deir Yassin. Avenge Deir Yassin. The Arabs shouted.”
Seventy four civilian Jews were murdered in Sheikh Jarrah that day.
The Last Word - and The Longterm Consequence
From Milstein’s insightful conclusions:
“This book has tried to answer the question of how the Palestinian nation was created during the sixty plus years of Israel’s existence.
“It was by means of the blood libel of Deir Yassin which the Jewish left perpetrated against the Jewish right. Five weeks before Israel proclaimed its independence, the leaders of the Yishuv and the leftist elite gave the Palestinian Arabs their seminal myth – the so-called Deir Yassin massacre, which has become the basis for and the symbol of the Nakba that overtook the Arabs of Palestine in 1948.
“In addition to being the first in a series of such actions attributed to Israel, the Deir Yassin massacre has additional importance – it was the direct cause of the flight of most of the Arabs who were living in the territories that became the State of Israel. The fact that instead of fighting, the Arabs ran away from Jaffa, Haifa and Tiberias, even before the State of Israel was established, asserting as they fled that their destiny would be that of Deir Yassin, weakens their claim that they were a nation before 1948.”