Did the Deir Yasin massacre actually happen? New book investigates - review

Was there a massacre or a battle, with many fewer killed civilians than portrayed?

 A PALESTINIAN woman holds portraits of relatives she said were killed in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. The book examines whether Irgun and Lehi fighters perpetrated a massacre against Palestinians at Deir Yasin in 1948. (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN woman holds portraits of relatives she said were killed in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. The book examines whether Irgun and Lehi fighters perpetrated a massacre against Palestinians at Deir Yasin in 1948.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

In 2009, Nord-Sud XXI, an NGO in special consultative status at the UN, submitted a statement to its Human Rights Council that “Israel’s aggression is very strong evidence of its intention and acting to commit genocide.” 

That Israel pursues a policy of genocide against the “Palestinian people” is a common anti-Zionist theme. Sociologist Martin Shaw, a scholar of genocide, has written, “We can conclude that prewar Zionism included the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality toward Arab society” and demanded that Israel should “come to terms with the genocide of 1948.”

The origins of this claim undoubtedly lay in the battle that took place at Deir Yasin on the western outskirts of Jerusalem adjacent to the Givat Shaul neighborhood on April 9, 1948. As the Zochrot NGO insists, it is “the best-known and perhaps bloodiest atrocity of the war… [a] massacre.”

An editorial in The Palestine Post, this paper’s predecessor, published on April 12, 1948, referred to the “dreadful crimes” at Deir Yasin, and on April 15 continued to write of “the vile and unpunished barbarism of Deir Yasin.” Its April 12 news item on the battle was headlined “[Jewish] Agency berates massacre.”

But was there a massacre? Was there a premeditated plan to kill, indiscriminately, noncombatants or other civilians? What exactly happened that Friday morning? How many Arabs were killed, who were they, and in what circumstances did their deaths occur? Were, perhaps, Arabs allowed to escape? Were villagers safely driven to the Old City? Who made claims of rape, limb removal and disembowelment of bodies? And what of massacres omitted by Arabs such as the Hadassah convoy and Gush Etzion or those done by the Palmah or Hagana?

 Aftermath of attack on Hadassah convoy, 13 April 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Aftermath of attack on Hadassah convoy, 13 April 1948. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Research over the years into what did happen in the village that Friday for sure has provided a fuller and more comprehensive insight into the events of that day when fighters of the Irgun and Stern Group, the two pre-state undergrounds that attacked the village, with the approval of Jerusalem Hagana commander David Shaltiel. There are memoirs of the participants, their commanders and, as well, those of their detractors – of the Hagana and Palmah. Yet, for many years there was no credible counter-retelling to offset the claims of a “massacre.”

The Zionist Organization of America’s 1998 pamphlet for the first time published Hebrew material previously unavailable in English. Uri Milstein published The Birth of a Palestinian Nation: The Myth of the Deir Yassin Massacre. The “best” that Benny Morris could do in his 2005 study was to conclude there had been no massacre but a “haphazard slaughter of one or more families and of small batches of prisoners of war and the execution of individuals.”

Most of all, what was lacking was a genuine insight into reliable Arab sources.

The first breakthrough came in 1987 with Bir Zeit academics Sharif Kan’ane and Nihad Zeitawi’s study. Instead of 245–254 killed, as claimed until then, the fatalities dropped to 107, based only on interviews with the survivors, but not with documentation. Thanks to the BBC’s television series shown in 1998, central Arab figures revealed more of the truth of the episode in English.

Hazen Nusseibeh, who edited news for the Palestine Broadcasting Service’s Arabic division in 1948, retold his conversation with Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee. He had asked Khalidi on the Saturday following the fighting how to cover the story, and the reply was “We must make the most of this.” That “most” was a press release stating that “at Deir Yasin children were murdered, pregnant women were raped. All sorts of atrocities.”

WE HAVE now The Massacre That Never Was, Prof. Eliezer Tauber’s book, which, incidentally, itself has a back story in that no academic press would agree to publish it, as, seemingly, it goes against the accepted narrative.

There are three main elements to the narrative of Deir Yasin as well as several minor ones.

The first is the term “massacre,” as the AP communiqué of April 11 termed the events, or as the Deir Yassin Remembered website has it, the villagers “had been systematically murdered.” Is it justified, and what was its role in the flight of Palestine’s Arabs?

The second is the downplaying of Deir Yasin’s own history within the context of the terrorist campaign of Palestine’s Arabs against their Jewish neighbors.

The third is the defamation campaign waged by the Mapai elite against the Revisionist dissidents, against the backdrop of their responsibility for massacres.

The reader will learn that, according to Tauber, there was no preplanned massacre. As for the numbers, while on April 10, the day after the battle, The New York Times reported: “In house-to-house fighting, the Jews killed more than 200 Arabs, half of them women and children,” Tauber actually lists each and every one of the 101 Arab fatalities. Furthermore, on page 207, Tauber concludes that “most of the [Arabs] killed in the village were killed during the battle and under battle conditions and not in a subsequent deliberate massacre.” 

In other words, while noncombatants were indeed killed, according to his research, only a very few were purposely murdered outside the framework of actual combat. None of this justifies Israel’s fighters’ conduct during that period in instances when there were violations, like those of many other armed forces. And there were certainly differences in many parts of the war between the Hagana and the other forces. But Tauber’s research puts the incident in a new light, especially compared to some Palestinian conduct during the war, and it reveals how the Hagana may also have had an interest in allowing the Palestinians to frame its Jewish rival groups for worse violations than what actually occurred. 

Tauber adds historical depth to the incident. Did Deir Yasin live in peace with its Jewish neighbors? Many did. Yet in March 1914, some made an assault on the Jews residing in nearby Givat Shaul, throwing stones at the Jews praying in the synagogue and beating them. Police intervention rescued them.

Bernard Wasserstein, in his The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929, page 69, missing from Tauber’s bibliography, quotes British documents that the village served as a center of weapons trafficking during the violent 1920 riot. Indeed, throughout the Mandate period, Jews suffered from attacks of Deir Yasinites, especially during 1929 and the 1936-1939 wave of anti-Jewish terrorism.

On April 2, 1948, sniping from Deir Yasin was directed at the Jewish neighborhoods of Bet Hakerem and Yefeh Nof. According to reports by the Shai (Hagana Intelligence), fortifications were being constructed in the village, and a large number of arms were being stockpiled. Men of Deir Yasin took an active part in the battle for Castel, had dug trenches at the entry to the village, and many of the villagers were armed. As Tauber makes clear, the residents planned for a battle and, mistakenly, presumed the attacking Jewish force had planned for just a raid. 

On the other hand, the attackers also made a mistaken assumption that the villagers would flee at the first shots. While 70% of the villagers escaped via a route purposely left open, of those who remained in the village, 90% survived, according to Tauber’s book. That would put into question the claims of a massacre. 

In addition, Tauber makes sure we also know more of the involvement of the Red Cross, the Jewish Agency, Hagana and Palmah.

Of course, one could feel quite uncomfortable learning that in the end Arab civilians were killed. On the other hand, Tauber details how Arab leaders themselves falsified the events at Deir Yasin and then turned that fabrication to their disadvantage, with no less that Azzam Pasha, the Arab League’s secretary-general, admitting Deir Yasin was the “turning point” in the war.

Today, 75 years later, we still face Arab canards. Deconstructing Deir Yasin, even if unpleasant because it also draws attention to an incident where Israel was not at its best by any account, may also assist addressing ongoing contemporary distortions.

There is much more to be found in Tauber’s meticulous and comprehensive review of material in three languages, his comparing testimonies and testing their reliability, challenging notions and prejudices as well as bringing order and sense not only to the events of those few hours of combat but to the decades of lies, cover-ups, false accusations and ignored facts.

As bad as the events at Deir Yasin were, there is enough information that has been brought to light by Tauber that begs for a reassessment of its massacre label. 

The Massacre That Never WasBy Eliezer TauberThe Toby Press336 pages; $39.95