Fifty years after Israel became a state, the tragic story of an Arab village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem once again haunts the delicate relations between Jews and Arabs.
In the early hours of April 9, 1948, Jewish underground fighters from two dissident groups stormed Deir Yassin, killing at least 120 of its residents – – including women and children — in what became one of the bloodiest battles leading up to Israel’s independence.
“Remember Deir Yassin” endures to this day as a rallying call for Palestinians and their sympathizers.
What exactly happened that day has long been a source of controversy. History has recorded the event as a massacre in which the Irgun and Stern groups slaughtered Arab soldiers and civilians.
Some Israeli and Jewish leaders, pointing to a different version of the facts surrounding the fight for Deir Yassin, have denounced the allegation as a farce. They say the battle was crucial for Jewish survival and accuse Palestinians of sensationalizing the incident to try to win support for their plight.
The incident has gained new attention as Palestinians prepared to commemorate its 50th anniversary this week with a series of vigils and conferences in the United States and Israel.
Deir Yassin has “become an emotional rallying cry” for Palestinians and their sympathizers, and “as you get further and further away in time, it takes on more relevance and greater meaning,” said Kenneth Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history and political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.
While much surrounding the incident continues to be disputed, this much is known:
Deir Yassin was a village of some 500 Arabs, strategically located on a hill overlooking the main highway entering Jerusalem. The Irgun and Stern militia forces, led by such figures as Menachem Begin, captured the village with help from the Haganah, the pre-state army.
Much of the debate focuses on what occurred during and immediately after the Jewish attack, and whether the Palestinians fell as innocent bystanders amid the intense fighting or were purposefully gunned down by Jewish forces.
The battle of Deir Yassin “has come to symbolize for Palestinians the beginning of their so-called catastrophe,” said Daniel McGowan, director of the New York- based Deir Yassin Remembered, which organized the anniversary campaign.
The attack marked “the beginning of the depopulation of over 400 Arab villages, and the beginning of the exile of roughly 700,000 Palestinians,” he said.
Jewish activists, meanwhile, have launched a counteroffensive, claiming that there was no massacre.
“The Arabs have used this to demonize Israel, to make it seem as if there’s a moral equivalence between the terrorism of the Arabs and the terrorism of the Jews, and to help reduce support for Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
A new ZOA report, “Deir Yassin: History of a Lie,” says that civilians were killed unintentionally during fierce house-to-house fighting when Arab soldiers turned the village into a fortress. It cites eyewitness accounts of Jewish fighters who denied a massacre and points to a little-known Palestinian study which found that the death toll only amounted to half of what was originally claimed.
McGowan called the ZOA report “revisionist propaganda,” adding that it represents “a twisting of history in the same disgusting and vile way that Holocaust revisionists twist that history.”
Perhaps the least controversial aspect of the ongoing debate is the death toll. After originally being placed at 240, subsequent research conducted by Bir Zeit University in the West Bank found that the fatalities did not exceed 120. The ZOA report cites the Palestinian study’s finding on the number.
Both sides inflated the numbers initially — the Jewish forces to arouse fear, the Arabs to attest that a massacre had taken place. Four Jewish soldiers were killed in the fighting.
But Israeli military historians disagree about whether the deaths occurred before or after the fighting.
Uri Milstein, who wrote a four-volume book on Israel’s War of Independence, contends that most of the casualties occurred during the fighting.
He disputes the account of Meir Pa’il, another Israeli military historian who was at Deir Yassin and says that the killings took place after the fighting had ended and the Haganah had withdrawn, leaving the Irgun and Stern soldiers in the village.
“I heard shooting and bombing from one house to another, and as I entered those houses I saw women, children and elderly men who were shot to death,” said Pa’il, who in 1948 was a young Haganah intelligence officer monitoring the Irgun and Stern groups.
“Later on I saw how they took some 25 men, drove them through Jerusalem and put them before a firing squad at an old quarry.”
Labor Zionist leaders initially confirmed there was a massacre in what some said was an attempt to discredit the rival Irgun and Stern groups. The Israeli government, however, gradually backed away from that position.
In 1969, then-Foreign Minister Abba Eban issued a pamphlet describing the massacre accusation as a “fairy tale” and “the `big lie’ of Deir Yassin.”
“This was no massacre of an unarmed, peaceful village population by a military unit as Arab propaganda pretends; the Irgun fought and won a battle, there was no aftermath of outrage or brutal excess,” the report said.
New testimony has emerged to support that assertion.
In a forthcoming BBC television series, “Israel and the Arabs: the 50-Year Conflict,” an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service’s Arabic news in 1948 claims he was instructed by Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, to exaggerate abuses, claiming that children were murdered and pregnant women were raped.
Deir Yassin survivor Abu Mahmoud told the BBC that the villagers protested about being asked to exaggerate.
Why the assault was ordered is still questioned today.
“We and the Jews were the best of friends, like brothers we were,” Radwan Abu- Mahmoud, a survivor, said in an interview this week. “There was no reason in the world why they should have attacked us.”
Pa’il, the military historian, agrees. “There was an agreement between the village head of Deir Yassin and the village head of the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Givat Shaul not to shoot at each other,” he said.
While Milstein insists that what happened at Deir Yassin is what happens in wars — innocent people die. But, he said, “Deir Yassin was one of the most important events in the war in that it sped up the exodus of Arabs from other places, fearing that Deir Yassin might repeat itself.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.