The April 9 anniversary of the battle of Deir Yassin has been used yet again by anti-Israel activists around the world in attempts to malign the State of Israel and accuse pre-state Jewish underground groups of perpetrating a massacre against Deir Yassin’s Arab residents during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Underground veterans and historians continue to refute these claims and expose them, ironically, as official Zionist propaganda.
In 1948, the British Mandate was in the process of withdrawing its forces from the country due to their inability to effectively combat Zionist guerilla groups such as the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – Lehi) and the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization - Etzel), which had been steadfast in their determination to liberate the Jewish homeland.
In the months leading up to their evacuation, British forces handed arms and most of their key military positions to the Arab irregular forces they had trained and incited against the country’s Jewish community. Among these important positions were several strategic vantage points along the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which essentially cut off Jerusalem’s supply route and entrapped the city’s Jewish inhabitants.
By March 1948, the road was cut off and Jerusalem was under siege. In response, the Jewish Agency’s official Haganah militia launched Operation Nachshon to break the siege. On April 6, in an effort to secure strategic positions, the Haganah successfully took the al-Qastal village overlooking the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
Deir Yassin was located on the western tip of modern day municipal Jerusalem and two kilometers south of al-Qastal, overlooking the western entrance to the capital. On April 9, about 120 members of Lehi and Etzel, in coordination with the Haganah, attacked Deir Yassin and, following a fierce battle, succeeded in taking the strategic hill.
Although initially commended for their victory in battle, the Jewish fighters of Deir Yassin were soon accused of perpetrating a massacre by the official Jewish Agency leadership in what many view today to have been a political attempt to malign the Etzel commander, Menachem Begin.
The accusations quickly spread to Arab and foreign media circles, prompting a mass flight of Arabs from other areas of the country. According to new historian Benny Morris and Yisrael Eldad (another historian who served as Lehi’s ideological leader), the panicked Arab flight was most important immediate effect of the Deir Yassin battle and the exaggerated media campaign that had followed it.
Both Lehi and Etzel have officially denied that an organized massacre took place at Deir Yassin. Both organizations asserted that the battle had been characterized by heavy fighting and that their troops were under fire from rifles and machine guns from almost every house. Both also pointed out the relatively high rate of their own casualties (attributed to the fact that they had deliberately forsworn the advantages of surprise by issuing a warning via loudspeaker prior to the attack), the large number of weapons they had captured from fallen Arabs, the number of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers among the casualties, which indicated that there were “units of the regular army encamped there.”
All Jewish veterans of the battle, including several Lehi militants on the Left, have consistently denied that a massacre took place. Even anti-Zionist activist Uri Avnery maintains that is friend, Lehi veteran and pro-Arab journalist Amos Kenan, always asserted that a massacre at Deir Yassin had never taken place and that even if it did, it was completely unintentional.
Lehi veteran Ezra Yakhin, who was wounded during the battle of Deir Yassin, offers a detailed eleven page account of the events in the book Elnakam – his memoirs from the period. In it, he attributes the high number of Arab civilian casualties to confusion created by Arab soldiers dressed as women and the killing of several Lehi and Etzel fighters early in the battle. Yakhin asserts that the rumors indicating that a massacre took place only began surfacing once the fighters had returned home and that they were being spread by the official Zionist establishment in order to defame the underground fighters, specifically the Etzel which the Jewish Agency leaders saw as a potential threat to their political power.
Israeli military historian Uri Milstein supports the Lehi and Etzel assertion that there was never an organized massacre at Deir Yassin, although he acknowledges a high number of civilian casualties. He regards the Haganah intelligence reports to have been doctored, either by the authors or later by their superiors, in an attempt to exaggerate the violence and blacken the names of the Etzel and Lehi due to political in-fighting within the Jewish community.
Milstein argues that the killings were typical of war and confirms Yakhin’s claim that the notion of a massacre was a myth created by the Jewish Agency to prevent unification of the Haganah and Etzel, and in particular to prevent the Etzel’s commander, Menahem Begin, from taking office in Israel’s first national unity government under David Ben-Gurion.
Historians and experts continue to note the irony that propaganda originating with the Zionist establishment to malign political opponents has become a central theme in the information war to delegitimize the State of Israel as a whole. David Ben-Gurion’s own propaganda weapon is now being used by Zionism’s enemies in an attempt to destroy everything that Ben-Gurion established.