THE massacre at Deir Yassin 63 years ago has paled in comparison with greater atrocities against the Palestinian people later.
But the tragedy at the small village located on high ground near Jerusalem on April 9, 1948 will continue to be remembered as much for its brutality as for the failure of the Arab leaders and media to handle it properly. The result was as great a disaster as the massacre itself.
The number of those massacred by the Phalangist militia in 1982 at Sabra-Shatila in Lebanon far exceeded the number of Palestinian civilians butchered at Deir Yassin. But its psychological impact gave the Zionist leadership almost what it wanted — a Palestine without Palestinians.
Israeli leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, subsequently condemned the massacre, motivated as they were as much by rivalries among different Zionist militias as by the anxiety to mollify the liberal sections of society in Europe and North America, which were shocked by the scale of the atrocity.
The western media downplayed the tragedy, especially the sexual assault on women, but later evidence confirmed rape and murder. In his book A History of Israel: from Zionism to Our Time, Howard M. Sachar speaks of bodies being mutilated and “thrown into a well” (p333). Later, the Palestine (‘mandatory’) government held an inquiry into the massacre, and the British officer who investigated the tragedy confirmed, “There is … no doubt that many sexual atrocities were committed by the attacking Jews. Many young schoolgirls were raped and later slaughtered. Old women were also molested. Many infants were also butchered and killed … Women had bracelets torn from their arms and rings from their fingers, and parts of some of the women’s ears were severed in order to remove earrings” (cited in The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan p300).
Because it was close to Jerusalem and its inhabitants knew that its strategic location would attract the attention of military leaders on both sides, Deir Yassin elders had sought and secured a sort of ‘no war’ agreement from Haganah, the leading Zionist terrorist organisation. However, this failed to shield them from terror, for the two most fanatical of Haganah’s factions — Etzel and Lechi — violated the understanding and carried out the massacre. Subsequent research showed that Haganah knew of the planned massacre but kept quiet.
The diabolical mind behind the deed was Menachem Begin, who, like most Zionist leaders, was born in Eastern Europe but claimed Palestine’s ownership. Begin had also blown up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, leaving 91 Arab, British and Jewish civilians dead. This man was Israel’s prime minister when the Phalangist militia carried out the Sabra-Shatila massacre more than three decades later when Israeli forces occupied Lebanon.
All along the mandate (1917-1948) the Arab leadership had emphasised upon the Palestinian people the need for staying on and defending themselves instead of fleeing terror. In fact, the Arab high committee announced punishments for those leaving their ancestral homes and threatened to blow up any house which a Palestinian would sell to European settlers. Even the Zionist media carried these appeals, because it didn’t wish to give the impression that the establishment of Israel would lead to ethnic cleansing.
Violence had been going on in Palestine for decades, and when the UN announced the partition plan and the Palestinian leadership and Arab governments rejected it, it was obvious there would be both internal chaos and an invasion from neighbouring Arab countries. Zionist terror had already forced Palestinians to leave many cities, including Haifa and the Jewish part of Jerusalem. Palestinian society then was hardly the modern society it is today. The migration of a large number of political activists, local councillors and professionals in what was a small middle class had deprived the Palestinian people of political and social leadership.
As the date for the British withdrawal neared, Arabs started leaving the zones allotted to the Jewish state. The Deir Yassin atrocity had a devastating effect on the Palestinian people, causing a panic flight. Instead of telling their people to draw strength from the tragedy and redouble the resolve to fight, the Arab leadership and media painted the tragedy in a way that tended to add to Palestinian fright.
A minimum of 800,000 Palestinians fled their country, presenting large parts of their homeland on a silver platter to the European settlers. Many would never see their country again. This was what Palestinians today call the nakba (catastrophe).
According to Tolan, many Palestinians were told by their leaders to leave temporarily, because they would be able to return after the disturbances were over.
The massacre and the subsequent Palestinian flight were considered by many Zionists to be a divine gift. John Rose in Myths of Zionism quotes Begin as saying in his book La Revolte that after Deir Yassin, Zionist militias ran through Palestine “as a hot knife does through butter”. Without Deir Yassin, he said, there would be no Palestine.
Chaim Weizmann, who later became Israel’s first president, saw a divine hand in the Palestinian exodus in the aftermath of Deir Yassin, while Ben-Gurion remarked it was “a miraculous simplification of the problem”. Reacting to the use of the word “miraculous” by several Zionist leaders, Afif Safieh, a Palestinian activist in Britain, wrote, “I have always considered God to be innocent.”
The writer is a member of staff.