Historical and Investigative Research: "Was There a Massacre at Deir Yassin?"
The Pro-PLO Camp Says Yes; The Historical Documentation Says Otherwise
Historical and Investigative Research, 20 Nov 2005
by Francisco Gil-White
In any conflict, we can expect the interested parties to say that their opponents are bad, so finding the balance of justice requires that we go beyond the mutual accusations of the participants.
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, supporters of the PLO charge that the "Palestinian refugee problem" stems from supposed civilian massacres carried out by Jewish forces, which created a panic resulting in the flight of the Arab population. The argument rests almost exclusively on the repetition of the allegation that Jewish forces perpetrated a massacre of Arab civilians at Deir Yassin.
Since the entire argument rests heavily on Deir Yassin, what will be left of the accusation against the Jews if Arab civilians were not massacred at Deir Yassin?
Allegations by Arabs
What happened at Deir Yassin? One way to get a feel for why so many people around the world believe that Jewish forces massacred Arab civilians at Deir Yassin is to read a major newspaper. For example, according to The Guardian, Deir Yassin is
“. . .the Palestinian village where 254 [Arab] villagers were massacred in April 1948, in the most spectacular single attack in the conquest of Palestine.”
Several things are noteworthy about the way in which the Guardian writes. The first is that the Guardian takes it for granted that there was a massacre at Deir Yassin, even though this allegation has always been hotly disputed. But not a hint of that controversy in the Guardian's article. I shall come back to this.
Second, notice that the phrase “the conquest of Palestine” is designed to suggest that a place existed called ‘Palestine,’ and that it was conquered in a war of aggression. In fact, however, a foreign colonial power, Britain, had baptized a piece of land in the Middle East as ‘Palestine’ after the Ottoman Empire lost its Middle Eastern possessions in 1918. In 1921-22, the British radically re-drew the boundaries of ‘Palestine,’ making it less than half its previous size. That’s how much reality ‘Palestine’ had.[1a]
But even if one were to grant the reality of ‘Palestine’ the Guardian would still be wrong when it claims that this land was conquered in a Jewish war of aggression, because the Jews were defending themselves from an Arab attack. And by the way, the explicit and loudly stated Arab objective was to exterminate the Israeli Jews. Consider what Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, promised:
"This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades."
That the attacking Arabs could speak this way only three years after Adolf Hitler had finished exterminating the European Jewish population is astonishing. One wishes to avert the eyes but one must not -- this reveals how fiercely the antisemitic passion burned in the hearts of Israel’s Arab enemies in 1948.
Notice also that the Guardian’s phrase “the most spectacular single attack” appears to suggest that there were many such attacks, as if the Jews had conducted themselves on the battlefield worse than the Arabs. But...it was the Arabs who meant to exterminate the Jews. And the Arabs were not alone. The Nation, in 1948, publishing the official documents it had obtained, exposed that the US State Department supported, and the British Foreign Office sponsored, the Arab side in this war. This included the British sending captured Nazi officers to 'advise' the Arab armies.[2a]
So given that the Guardian braves historical absurdity in order to write with an anti-Jewish slant, we are now entitled to wonder if the Guardian might not be dishonest when it takes it for granted that there was a massacre of Arab civilians by Jewish forces at Deir Yassin. But if we are capable of skepticism on this point, it is because we have performed the historical analysis, which most people do not. Most people simply read the Guardian, trusting what they read, and what they understand is that the Arab allegations are supposedly fact.
They are not.
The allegations about Deir Yassin on the Arab side all seem to go back to a certain Hussein Khalidi. As Palestine Facts explains,
“Khalidi was one of the originators of the ‘massacre’ allegation in 1948. It was Khalidi’s claims about Jewish atrocities in Dir Yassin that were the basis for an article in the New York Times by its correspondent, Dana Schmidt (on April 12, 1948), claiming a massacre took place. The Times article has been widely reprinted and cited as ‘proof’ of the massacre throughout the past 50 years.”
This is what Dana Schmidt from the New York Times wrote in 1948:
"Dr. Hussein Khalidi, secretary of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee, denounced the 'massacre' of 250 Arab men, women, and children by Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang, Zionist terrorist groups, at Deir Yassin on Friday."[4a]
[NOTE: Although the New York Times calls the Irgun a "terrorist" group, this is a slander, for which consult the footnote.[4b] ]
Now, to understand whether Hussein Khalidi's charges should have been believed in the first place, it pays to recall who was Hajj Amin al Husseini, because Hajj Amin was Khalidi's boss.
Hajj Amin mentored Yasser Arafat and Al Fatah, the core of the PLO, but before that he was the Mufti of Jerusalem, from which position he organized terrorist riots against innocent Jews in the British Mandate territory in 1921, 1929, and 1936-37 (the British rewarded him with the post of Mufti after he organized the first terrorist riot in 1920). During World War II, Hajj Amin became a top Nazi and organized SS divisions in Yugoslavia composed of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim volunteers who were responsible for many of the hundreds of thousands of Serbian, Jewish, and Roma civilian deaths at the Croatian death-camp system of Jasenovac (others they killed in their homes). Hajj Amin also played a leading role in getting some 400,000 Hungarian Jews sent to die in Auschwitz. It was Hajj Amin al Husseini who created the "Palestine Arab Higher Committee," which, as the New York Times informs us (see above), had Hussein Khalidi for secretary. So, if the charge of a massacre at Deir Yassin came from the leader of Hajj Amin’s organization, doesn’t that suggest that the accusation might be a fabrication?
What would be the smoking gun that the Arab accusations about Deir Yassin were, in fact, fabrications?
“The 1998 BBC TV series, Israel and the Arabs: the 50 year Conflict, documented that Arab Higher Committee officials Hazem Nusseibeh and Hussein Khalidi falsified facts [about Deir Yassin] and originated, for propaganda purposes, charges of rape.”
How did the BBC document this? Nusseibeh confessed!
I point out two things. The first is that the BBC report came out three full years before the 2001 article in the Guardian that got us started, and which accuses the Israeli Jews -- with zero hint of a controversy, as if it were a standard historical fact -- of having supposedly committed a massacre at Deir Yassin.
The second is that there is no reason to doubt what the BBC reports, as it fits perfectly with everything else we know. For example, it fits nicely with the fact that, in 1948, the Mufti Hajj Amin al Husseini, through his Arab Higher Committee, of which Khalidi was the secretary, was trying to get the Palestinian Arabs to flee the area. Joseph Farah, a Christian Arab, has documented with Arab newspaper articles written close to the time of the events that there was no ambiguity on this point. It turns out that
“The 15th May, 1948, arrived... On that day the mufti of Jerusalem [Hajj Amin al Husseini] appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country, because the Arab armies were about to enter and fight in their stead.”
The Arab newspapers lamented this as a tactical mistake:
“By spreading rumors of Jewish atrocities, killings of women and children etc., [Arab leaders] instilled fear and terror in the hearts of the Arabs in Palestine, until they fled leaving their homes and properties to the enemy.”
Both of the above quotes come from the Arab newspapers that Farah cites (and there are others).
Finally, there was never anything to substantiate the charges of rape.
"Contrary to claims from Arab propagandists at the time and some since, no evidence has ever been produced that any women were raped. On the contrary, every villager ever interviewed has denied these allegations. Like many of the claims, this was a deliberate propaganda ploy, but one that backfired. Hazam Nusseibi, who worked for the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1948, admitted being told by Hussein Khalidi, a Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin resident in 1948 told Khalidi 'there was no rape,' but Khalidi replied, 'We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.' Nusseibeh told the BBC 50 years later, 'This was our biggest mistake. We did not realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror.'"
Let us review:
- the genocidal antisemite Hajj Amin had a policy to make the Arabs flee;
- the man responsible for making up "rumors of Jewish atrocities" to make the Arabs flee was Hussein Khalidi, Hajj Amin's deputy;
- these "rumors of Jewish atrocities" were rumors, specifically, about Deir Yassin.
- the guy Khalidi got to spread these rumors about Deir Yassin, Nusseibeh, confesses that they made it all up.
What, then, are those who would accuse the Jews of chasing out the Arabs left with?
Allegations by Jews
Supporters of the PLO are fond of citing Jewish sources, because some Jewish sources indeed have claimed that there was a massacre at Deir Yassin.
For example, the same 1948 New York Times article by Dana Adams Schmidt says this:
"The executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine expressed tonight 'horror and disgust' at the 'barbarous manner in which this action had been carried out.'"
For many, this is will look like automatic proof that the massacre happened because, they ask themselves, why would Jews lie against self-interest?
Ah, but that assumes that all Jews have the same interest -- a touch of antisemitism (“they’re all the same. . .”). In fact, "the Jews" did not make an accusation about Deir Yassin -- the Jewish Agency did. So the question is: Did this organization, by name "Jewish Agency," have an interest in smearing the Jewish army led by Menachem Begin, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (or Irgun, for short, or ETZEL, in acronym), with the label 'terrorist'?
The answer is yes.
Israeli Jews have been sharply divided politically from the time before the founding of the state of Israel. Before becoming a state, the Yishuv, the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine, was a motley collection of unions, plus some other organizations. The left was dominant, so most political activity was conducted in the unions, which developed political parties, and eventually also militias. But the dominant feeling among leftists, who were the overwhelming majority, is that they didn't want to participate in any violence -- even in self-defense. This extreme pacifism of the Zionist Jews made their self-defense quite difficult, and historian Anita Shapira has written an entire volume trying to understand why it took so long for these Jews to begin to defend themselves from Arab terrorist attacks:
Shapira, A. 1992. Land and power: The Zionist resort to force 1881-1948. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Now, the leftists were sharply divided among themselves on many questions, and certainly on all the important questions. But the sharpest divide in the Yishuv -- which reflected an equally deep divide in the Diaspora -- was between the leftists, the socialist/mainstream Labor Zionists and the ‘Revisionists.’ The latter received this name because they wanted a Zionist movement that was more open to different kinds of ways of life, rather than the frankly bolshevist strand of socialism that the Labor Zionists favored. In addition, these so-called Revisionists believed that, in the face of wave after wave of Arab terrorist riots against innocent Jewish civilians in the 1920s and 30s, the pacifist attitude of the dominant leftists, which forbade reprisals, was politically unwise and morally absurd. So they created the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (ETZEL).
"[Etzel was] founded in 1931 by a group of Haganah commanders, who left the Haganah [the main Jewish militia] in protest against its defense charter ... Etzel rejected the 'restraint' policy of the Haganah and carried out armed reprisals against Arabs, which were condemned by the Jewish Agency."[8a]
For their use of force in self-defense (from which all Jews in British Mandate Palestine benefited), the Irgun was called ‘fascist’ by the Labor Zionists and their allies. This shows how passionate the leftist Jews had been before 1936-37 in their pathological renunciation of all violence, even in self-defense, and also the depth of the feelings aroused by the political split among the Jews. Once this political context is understood, it makes sense that some Jews joined the chorus of lies about Deir Yassin.
As we saw above, it was the Jewish Agency accusing the Irgun. The Jewish Agency was run by David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, who were not stout defenders of the Jews, exactly (read about that here).
The Irgun and Lehi (these were the names of the two main Revisionist militias) had been persecuted by Ben-Gurion's Haganah. Despite this, when the war of 1948 exploded, the Revisionists swallowed their pride and joined the Haganah to defend Israel like good patriots, but the political conflict continued to seethe. Historian Uri Milstein, author of the most meticulously researched multi-volume history of the 1948 war, explains as follows:
"The Deir-Yassin events became an ‘affair’ due to the juxtaposition of several factors, foremost among them the struggle within the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Israel]. The Deir-Yassin affair was used for political ends by MAPAM and the Revisionist parties, which were not represented on the Jewish Agency Executive. MAPAM heavily influenced the Hagana combat forces; the Revisionists had influence on ETZEL and indirectly on LEHI."[9a]
Keep in mind that the core of the Haganah was the Palmach -- essentially the private militia of the leftist MAPAM party, which is why MAPAM had so much influence over the Haganah.
Now, despite the wartime union between the leftists and the Revisionists, there was a desire among many in the left to discredit the Revisionists, even at the cost of Jewish security (for the war still raged), in such a way as to deny them any political role in the future state. Thus, the allegation by the leftists -- and especially by MAPAM -- became that soldiers of the Irgun and Lehi had supposedly committed a massacre at Deir Yassin.
Historian Uri Milstein writes:
“The Dir Yassin affair occurred on April 9 1948, following the capture, by Irgun, Lehi, and Palmach soldiers, of this Arab village, situated west of Jerusalem. The following day, Meir Pa’il, Internal Security Unit commander, responsible for organizing activities against the Irgun and Lehi in Jerusalem, reported to Chief of Haganah National HQ, Yisrael Galili (also a leader of the leftist Mapam Party), that 254 men women and children were massacred by Irgun and Lehi troops in Dir Yassin. This was a false report.”
All of the crucial political information appears in the quote above. The Jewish source making the Deir Yassin allegation against the Irgun and Lehi, Meir Pa’il, was an official in the Haganah (the leftist militia), and his job was “organizing activities against [the Revisionist forces of] the Irgun and Lehi.” He made his report to a leader of the leftist MAPAM party; MAPAM was interested in derailing the Revisionists, as Milstein explains:
“For much of MAPAM’s leadership at the time, the great disaster facing the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Israel] was not its defeat in the battle for the roads or losing America’s support for the founding of a Jewish state, but a possible agreement between the Hagana and ETZEL [Irgun Tzvai Leumi]. Anything that would thwart this development was legitimate in their eyes. The decisive struggle would occur when the Zionist Executive met.
And then, for MAPAM, opportunity knocked; Deir-Yassin happened.”
What Milstein is saying is that because there was a sharp political rivalry between leftist MAPAM and the Irgun, the accusation that the Irgun had committed a massacre at Deir Yassin was convenient for MAPAM.
The first thing that must be pointed out is what this implies about the culture and ethics of the Jewish forces and people. If some Jews could remove other Jews as political rivals by accusing them of having committed a massacre against Arab civilians, this means that the Jewish side considered the targeting of Arab civilians a tremendous crime. It is worth pausing to fully absorb this. And, once absorbed, it is worth returning to this: Azzam Pasha told us above how the Arabs felt about their Nazi-led forces killing Jewish civilians: this was the goal.
Perhaps the above paragraph should be read once again. It's the sort of thing that produces Enlightenment.
Now, given that MAPAM had a political motive to slander the Irgun, it should not come as a big surprise that Meir Pa’il, MAPAM’s weapon against the Irgun, could not back up his allegations. Uri Milstein writes, “On a massacre following the battle there is only the account of Me’ir Pa’il, who claims that he was in the village during and after the battle.” But, in fact, all the evidence gathered by historian Uri Milstein suggests that Me’ir Pa’il was never there, contrary to what Pa’il has claimed:
Moshe Idelstein, the friend who supposedly had invited Pa’il to Deir-Yassin, asserts, “I didn’t invite Me’ir Pa’il and he wasn’t at Deir-Yassin.” Other ETZEL and LEHI men state that Pa’il was not at Deir-Yassin and could not have been there without their knowing it. Zetler, Ra’anan, Barzilai, Lapidot and Zelivansky state that they did not see Pa’il at Deir-Yassin. Pa’il’s claims also go unsubstantiated by Hagana personnel. Statements by She’alti’el, Mart, Eldad and Schiff mention neither his name nor his code names (“Avraham” and “Ram”). Pa’il spoke about exchanges between him and Palmach soldiers in Deir-Yassin. Eren and Gihon, who were acquainted with Pa’il at the time, did not see him at Deir-Yassin. Shlomo Havilyo, the Hagana’s western Jerusalem commander, was at Givat-Sha’ul on April 9th. “I didn’t see Me’ir Pa’il,” he says. “I knew him well. I’d remember it if he was there.” Ari’eli, who supervised the burials, says that he did not see Me’ir Pa’il at Deir-Yassin, much less talk with him about the number of bodies buried or any other matter.”
To read Uri Milstein’s section on the distortions and fabrications about Deir Yassin in full, with his references, visit here: http://www.hirhome.com/israel/milstein-deir-yassin.htm
The political divide in Israel has not abated, and some of those Jews who made the original fraudulent accusations about Deir Yassin -- for example, Meir Pa'il -- are still alive and repeating them. An entire edifice of historical fabrications has been built to glorify the leftist leaders during the War of Independence and simultaneously to besmirch the Revisionist camp and their political heirs.[13a]
What happened at Deir Yassin?
So what happened at Deir Yassin? Certainly, quite a few Arab civilians died (the best estimate puts the toll at 110, not 254), but they died during the course of the battle, and they were not targeted for destruction. On the contrary, efforts were made to warn them before the battle started. Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, gives the following account:
. . .there is a moral aspect to the story of Dir Yassin. At that village, whose name was publicized throughout the world, both sides suffered heavy casualties. We had four killed and nearly forty wounded. The number of casualties was nearly forty per cent of the total number of the attackers. The Arab troops suffered casualties three times as heavy. The fighting was thus very severe. Yet the hostile propaganda, disseminated throughout the world, deliberately ignored the fact that the civilian population of Dir Yassin was actually given a warning by us before the battle began. One of our tenders carrying a loud speaker was stationed at the entrance to the village and it exhorted in Arabic all women, children and aged to leave their houses and to take shelter on the slope of the hill. By giving this humane warning our fighters threw away the element of complete surprise, and thus increased their own risk in the ensuing battle. A substantial number of the inhabitants obeyed the warning and they were unhurt. A few did not leave their stone houses -- perhaps because of the confusion. The fire of the enemy was murderous -- to which the number of our casualties bears eloquent testimony. Our men were compelled to fight for every house; to overcome the enemy they used large numbers of hand-grenades. And the civilians who had disregarded our warnings suffered inevitable casualties.
The education which we gave our soldiers throughout the years of revolt was based on the observance of the traditional laws of war. We never broke them unless the enemy first did so and thus forced us, in accordance with the accepted custom of war, to apply reprisals. I am convinced, too, that our officers and men wished to avoid a single unnecessary casualty in the Dir Yassin battle. But those who throw stones of denunciation at the conquerors of Dir Yassin would do well not to don the cloak of hypocrisy.
The Moral Argument
Coming back to the arguments made by supporters of the Arabs, let us ask this question. How could the accusation of a massacre at Deir Yassin -- even had it been true -- make the argument that it is recruited for, namely, that the moral position of the Israeli Jews is inferior and therefore that they owe the Arabs?
Even if the Jews had massacred Arabs at Deir Yassin (which they did not), given the historical context of the 1948 war, it would not alter the global moral position of the Jews versus the Arabs.
First, the Jews did not start the 1948 war. After the UN voted to create the state of Israel alongside an Arab state in the Levant in 1947, the Arab states chose not to recognize Israel and immediately declared war, with the enthusiastic support of Arabs living in British Mandate Palestine, who participated.
It was a lopsided contest. Israel, at the time a sliver of land much smaller even than its current diminutive size, and without a real army, was attacked simultaneously by all the surrounding Arab states.
Moreover, Israel’s enemies stated very clearly that their objective was genocide. I quote again Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, who promised:
“This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
The war was brutal, and the Arabs took no prisoners. Any Jews who fell alive into Arab hands were routinely tortured to death (I shall spare you the details of the methods). This happened to such an extent that most Jewish soldiers left wounded on the battlefield, beyond the reach of their comrades, would commit suicide by exploding a grenade.
The Arabs also directed many attacks against civilians. For example, on April 12 Dana Schmidt, from the New York Times, insisted that
"Dr. Hussein Khalidi, secretary of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee...said...that the Arabs planned no reprisals [for Deir Yassin]"[4a]
And yet, the day after,
"on April 13, 78 Jews, mostly medical personnel riding to Hadassah Hospital, were slain. That was the Arab answer to Deir-Yassin”
The two events are not even remotely equivalent. Deir Yassin was being used as a base to attack Jewish convoys going to Jerusalem. It was a legitimate military target. Many civilians did die there, but they died as a result of combat operations, and efforts were made to warn them before the attack began. Nobody targeted the Arab civilians at Deir Yassin. By contrast, “78 Jews, mostly medical personnel riding to Hadassah Hospital” are not a military target, but the very opposite of one.
So we have the following:
- The creation of the state of Israel was legal: it was approved by a vote in the General Assembly at the UN.
- The war of aggression by the surrounding Arab states was illegal -- as all wars of aggression naturally are.
- The stated objective of Israel’s enemies was to exterminate the Jews.
- In the conduct of war, the Arabs routinely targeted Jewish civilians and murdered captured Jewish soldiers.
None of this is to deny that some crimes were committed by Jewish soldiers, and the best documentation on Deir Yassin (for example, the work of Uri Milstein) does argue for the claim that some individual soldiers committed individual crimes in the heat of combat. What the best documentation denies is the accusations that were loudly made: namely, 1) that a mass of civilians was rounded up after the battle and massacred, and 2) that women were raped. The best research on Deir Yassin also denies the claim that 254 civilians died in the attack (the best documented figure is 110).
Individual crimes of war are committed by every side in every war. They shouldn't be, but an army whose soldiers commit zero crimes in wartime has not yet been assembled. What matters when morally evaluating an army in a particular war, then, is not whether crimes of war occurred at all (since some always will), but whether such crimes of war were policy, whether they were common, and whether they were internally prosecuted and punished by the army itself. In the case of the Arabs (who, lest we forget, were the aggressors) murdering civilians was policy: in fact their policy was the extermination of the Jewish people. In the case of the Jews, crimes of war were so exceptional that the accusation of a massacre could be used by one Jewish faction against another to provoke horror in Jewish society and gain a political advantage. Moreover, lest we forget, the Jews did not even start this war -- they were merely fighting for their survival.
Thus, even if one could argue that Jewish forces massacred Arab civilians at Deir Yassin, this incident by itself would not affect the global moral balance. What is remarkable is that Deir Yassin is almost the only case that supporters of the PLO bring up in order to support the claim that the Israeli Jews supposedly chased the Arabs out in 1948. And the accusation is a fraud.