July 13, 2009


When discussing the Israeli Palestinian dispute, some Palestinian supporters who like to point to a history of Jewish abuses against innocent Arabs over the last six decades sometimes refer to a particularly infamous battle during the War of 1948 that took place in a small town on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Hwy called Deir Yassin. For many reasons, not the least of which concerns political infighting between the major factions of the Israeli body politic, Deir Yassin has taken on a life of its own over the last 61 years.

Deir Yassin has been called a “massacre” by Palestinian and Arab groups as well as Leftist commentators in the West. It might be considered a “massacre” but no more than the Haifa Refinery massacre on December 30, 1947, and the doctors and nurses massacre on the road to Hadassa hospital on Mount Scopus, on April 13, 1948, or any of the other massacres that became part of the fighting history of Israel’s War of Independence. These other “massacres” have long been forgotten by most people accept for the few historians that deal with the course of this eighteen month war.  This is not the case with Deir Yassin.

Deir Yassin was one of many towns and villages that had to be cleared during Operation Nachshon, the overall operation to open the road to besieged Jerusalem in April, 1948. Not to take action on this road would mean giving up on Jewish Jerusalem, which was as unthinkable then as it is now.  The Jews of Jerusalem had been besieged since January, with no electricity, food, water, or any of the other vital necessities of life. People in the Jewish quarter of the city were literally starving to death. Without the opening of the road to allow convoys of supplies to enter the city, it was almost a certainty that Jewish Jerusalem would fall to the enemy. For this reason, David Ben Gurion, head of the Jewish agency and first Prime minister in waiting,  ordered 1500 Haganna troops to take part in the operation, the largest of its kind up to that time in the battle for Palestine in 1947 and 1948.

The Israeli military has long been the dominant force in the Middle East. No Arab army has been able to defeat it.  A foregone conclusion for so long that it’s hard to believe that the history was ever anything but total Israeli domination over its neighbors. But, this was not always the case. Before the start of the 1948 war it was very tenable on whether the Jews could defeat the Arab enemy and established their state by the time the British would leave in May. The belief that the Jews were in a dire strait and faced the very sobering possibility of defeat began to take shape almost immediately after the partition vote on November 29, 1947 and did not abate itself until June of 1948 when it became clear that by the end of the war a Jewish State of some kind would emerge intact. Operation Nachshon was part of the push to change this dynamic and many towns, including Deir Yassin along that stretch of road were fought over and won by Jewish forces. In discussing the beginning of this realization in March of 1948 Benny Morris, a prominent historian on the expulsion of the Arabs during Israel’s War of Independence  wrote:

“The toll on Jewish life and security in the battle of the roads and dire prospect of pan-Arab invasion had left the Yishuv (community) with very narrow margins of safety. It could not afford to leave pockets of actively or potentially hostile Arabs behind its line. This was certainly true regarding vital roads and areas such as the Jerusalem Corridor…when the Yishuv faced, and it knew it faced, a life and death struggle. “ (p.236, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge, 2004.)

Depending on the source anywhere between 300 to 600 Arab towns and villages were destroyed during the eighteen months of war in 1947-1948. Why does Deir Yassin stand out among all of the others? Why is this remembered and the other villages are not, at least from the Israeli Left? The answer to this is simple. Although massacres were common during that war the Left in Israel, politically signified at that time as the Mapam party had a stake in making an issue out of the Deir Yassin battle. As independence approached, their influence over the Yishuv  began to wane. Their reactions were to lash out at the now growing middle of the road leadership, led by David Ben Gurion, and attempted to subvert it by making accusations of improper and immoral acts against the enemy. Deir Yassin was the perfect model to make this stand for several reasons. First, this town  was singled out to be fought with primarily LEHI (Sternists) and ETZEL (Begin’s Urgun) forces in a Haganna sanctioned attack. LEHI and ETZEL were the ideological enemies of the Mapam. Second, by indicting the Haganna as sanctioning the operation and allowing these “barbarian” groups to “murder, rape, pillage and steal,”  they believed that they could make criminal any political belief to the right of the extreme Left in Israel. Third, they  saw this whole incident as an opportunity to oppose the  Yishuv’s shift toward American and British democracy and away from Stalinist Russia.

The Palmach, the armed wing of the Mapam,  was, like ETZEL and LEHI not opposed to establishing a state by force, and indeed took part in many militant operations before May 14,1948. But, Mapam never indicted Palmach, only those groups that were their ideological opposites and only because they lost favor and support  from the people as a political force.  Although Mapam has long been disbanded and the Palmach like ETZEL, LEHI and Haganna have all been melded into the IDF, the extreme political  Left still uses this tactic today. Deir Yassin, according to the Left, is one of a long line of accused abuses by the Zionist movement.

Today, it is mostly forgotten that Deir Yassin was an ugly battle among many ugly battles of that war which were fought hard by both sides  and perpetuated the deaths of many innocent people both Jewish and Arab. But, as this story lingers now into the 21st century, it is apparent that Deir Yassin is a cause celeb against Israel’s motives during the War of Independence, and that the Arabs for whatever reasons needed to be defeated, did not deserve to be tortured and massacred in such a manner.  Through propaganda and emphasizing Israeli brutality it is mostly lost on history that the Jews with their proverbial backs up against the wall fought hard to survive and won their state  motivated by liberty rather than motivated by domination over a lesser equipped Arab minority.

After the War of Independence Deir Yassin was so touted by the Left it was of course picked up by the Arab propaganda machine sometime in the 1950s and the two groups joined in an unholy alliance against a common enemy that exists until this very day. It is one of the rallying cries to show the “barbarous” nature of the Israeli occupation forces. It is still taught in universities across the English and Arab speaking world as the proof that Israel needs to be punished for its actions. The calls for this punishment range from a much weaker diminished Israel to its complete annihilation and in its place an Arab Muslim state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

If we are going to be fair, when considering the place of the Deir Yassin battle it must be looked at in the context of the time, the desperation of one people to quite literally survive the conflict and the total incompetence of the other side in trying to explain why they lost that war so badly. The fact is that Israel’s war of Independence was a war not unlike most wars in that the human tragedy factor was very high on both sides. Probably more on the Jewish side simply because the Arabs had the opportunity to flee to the safety of bordering Arab governments and the Jews didn’t. The Jews, unlike their Arab counterparts,  had to make their stand in Palestine and nowhere else. Consequently, many innocent Jews, without guns in their hands died in this endeavor. However, this is never indicated by the Left or for the obvious reasons by the Arab side. As Morris explained in the above quote in April of 1948, with the survival of the coming Jewish State, the very lives of hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children hung in the balance.  And, it did not become clear that the Jews would survive at all until the first truce went into effect on June 9th, 1948.

Deir Yassin was awful. But, so were many of the battles fought during that time. We should be cognizant of that and urge our leaders, professors, journalists and historians to reflect that fairness in their reports on this history.  It is time we set the record straight.

Photo at top courtesy of peace.maripo.com

Note: The photo is the dead on the Arab side after the battle. Look closely at the bodies, most of them are wearing uniforms, indicating they were soldiers not massacred civilians.


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