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Friday, April 08, 2011

What happened at Deir Yassin?

Saturday is Deir Yassin day, a day that commemorates a massacre that never was.

It's much harder to prove that there was no massacre at Deir Yassin than it would be today. Today, you'd have drones flying overhead photographing the battle to prove that your troops did not commit a massacre. But like Jenin 50 years later, there was no massacre at Deir Yassin (which is known today as Har Nof). It was all an Arab lie - one of the first instances of Pallywood.
The attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem (today, the Har Nof neighborhood) was not, as claimed, a "massacre" nor was it a premeditated killing. As we now know from Arab sources and other independent research, (see Bregman, Ahron & El-Tahri, Jihan, "The Fifty Years War, Israel and the Arabs," Penguin Books, BBC Books, London, 1998. pp. 27-34 and Klein, Morton A., “Deir Yassin History of a Lie, ZOA, NY 2005) the number of dead at the village was between 93 and 110, at the most. All of them were killed during the course of the battle, in house-to-house fighting. There were no mutilations or atrocities caused to the corpses as per testimony from the villagers themselves. The attacking combined force of Irgun and Lehi units brought with them a loudspeaker to the village entrance to warn the inhabitants. They also left an escape route open, which led to Ein Karem, so as not to have to harm the inhabitants unnecessarily and hundreds took advantage of this Jewish act of kindness in battle. All these preparations and actions belie any intent of a massacre.

We should recall that, for example, when Hulda was attacked in 1929, Efraim Chisik, brother of Devora Chisik who was killed nine years earlier at Tel Chai, after being shot dead by Arabs was then set alight and his body burned. The British soldiers who saved the survivors did not permit them to take with them his body which was recovered several days later, horribly mutilated as were the bodies of the famous 35 of Gush Etzion who were killed in January 1948.

The fighters were instructed before the attack specifically not to harm unarmed civilians. The survivors were provided transportation to the Old City of Jerusalem and no physical injury was done to them after the surrender. True, the battle itself was not conducted with the utmost professionalism. The underground combatants were not fully trained in urban warfare of this type. The house-to-house character of the fighting, the shooting from within the homes and the lack of knowledge of who was in the houses, all led to the use of dynamite rather indiscriminately causing thus many of the deaths. The portrayal in another recent docudrama, “The Promised Land” shown on Britain's’ Channel Four, is so ludicrous as to be a stain on film professionalism. The battle at the village, part of the “Nahshon” campaign to relieve Jerusalem of the siege the Arabs were applying to the city by blocking the main highway, was approved by the Hagana commander. Deir Yassin provided a base for the Arab attacks on the Castel and the Histadrut Davar newspaper issue of April 4, 1948, contained a report that the previous Friday night, shots from snipers had been fired from Deir Yassin towards Bet Hakerem and Bayit VeGan Jewish neighborhoods (see here). A local Palmach unit provided mortar support fire at one point. Claims of rape, butchering of bodies and other atrocities is simply not true.

The village, portrayed as a quiet and uninvolved village in the fighting, is also misleading. In the first instance, Iraqi soldiers and other Arabs state irregulars had been in the village for weeks. Secondly, the villagers had been involved in the 1920 and 1929 Arab communal riots on nearby Jews and in 1938, the Hagana attacked the village in a reprisal raid after sniper fire was directed at the main Jerusalem high way. The attacking force suffered 35% casualties of 5 killed and 40 injured.

Even Benny Morris included this in his 1999 book Righteous Victims:

"The attack, on the morning of April 9, was carried out with the prior approval of, and in cooperation with, the Jerusalem command of the Haganah. Some 130 IZL [Irgun Zvai Leumi - The National Military Organization] and LHI [Lohamei 'Herut Yisrael - Freedom Fighters of Israel a.k.a. the Stern Gang] fighters took part. During the battle, Haganah machine-gunners stationed nearby supplied covering fire, and two Palmah squads [Strike force within the Haganah] in armored cars joined in the actual battle. Palmah squads also helped evacuate the wounded, and the Haganah helped the combatants with ammunition...

But what is missing from all these commemoration events and film treatments is quite a simple fact: the village’s fate was sealed when sniping from the village was directed at two Jewish neighborhoods, Beit HaKerem and Bayit V’Gan, the Friday night before its conquest. For a rigorous treatment of the events see Uri Milstein’s account, among others.
Read the whole thing.

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At 3:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carl, I'm baffled as to why the mlstein-deir-yassin link is supposed to refute a massacre--the headline speaks of debunking the "myths" but even if the research indicates the action's casualties or the conduct of the fighters were exaggerated for a variety of reasons--it cumulatively, even with the contradictions between witnesses, portrays the battle as an "extreme" incident, that "revealed the fighter's brutality toward the adversary, soldier or civilian."

Even with testimony that there were Arab soldiers dressed as women in the village, the total research gathered by Milstein still suggests a Mylai type incident.

"The house-to-house character of the fighting, the shooting from within the homes and the lack of knowledge of who was in the houses, all led to the use of dynamite rather indiscriminately causing thus many of the deaths."

The commander himself, Ra'anan has this to say:

"At 11 a.m., we resumed action. We blew up the first house. We blew up another about every quarter hour. We had no idea who was inside. We regarded every house as a fortified position."

He is saying they didn't know who was in the houses and that they "regarded every house as a fortified position"--not that there was firing from every house.

He mentions only one house that was evacuated and as it happened, its inhabitants were apparently all killed by one fighter as revenge for a fighter found dead nearby.

"By that method, we reached the house where Yiftah lay. As we got to him, we saw he’d passed away. A young soldier holding a Bren gun took up a position nearby. We warned the people inside the house that we were about to blow it up. Having seen what had happened to the other residents, they came out with their hands up. There were nine people, a woman and a child among them. They guy with the Bren gun suddenly squeezed the trigger. A burst hit the Arabs. 'That’s for Yiftah!' he yelled. 'What have you done?' we shouted at him. 'One of them had a rifle and was trying to shoot,' he replied. Other men confirmed later that one of the Arabs had stood up."

Village survivor Samir also mentions a Bren gun:

"They set up a Bren gun in a house they had taken and shot whoever crossed its line of fire. My cousin went out to see what happened to his uncle, who had been shot a few minutes before. He was killed, too."

The argument that since Arabs used terror or fired on Jewish positions or posed a strategic danger all bets could be off is not an argument that the fighting in this village did not de facto devolve into a situation in which all bets were removed.

Uri Milstein does not conclude that the fog of war and the propagandistic and political cross currents and motivations surrounding the incident and exaggerating the casualties disprove a massacre. Rather he concludes on a war-is-hell note:

"The ugly face of war leers through the battle of Deir-Yassin and the ensuing public scandal. Its events have been presented ever since as an exception to the general nature of the War of Independence. That is a misrepresentation. Similar events, albeit of a less extreme nature, took place at other sites and times during the War of Independence and the wars to come. They are typical of war. The battle itself revealed the fighter’s brutality toward the adversary, soldier or civilian."

At 11:16 AM, Blogger YMedad said...

I am baffled by this presentation and the conclusions drawn. One cannot comprehend Deir Yassin without knowing that in 1920, its residents were engaged in gun-running as per British Intelligence as recorded in Bernard Wasserstein's book, The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929. And they attacked Givat Shaull in 1929. And Bet HaKerem in 1936 and over the next three years shot at traffic on the Jerusalem Highway. (p. 7 here) and that's before the sniping.

Of course the fighting devolved into a sloppy military operation. I noted that.

But, and this is my point, based on talks with persons who participated in the action, there was no planned massacre, and no massacre took place at the time. An exit to Ein Karem was utilized by hundreds (the village had 650 persons resident, more or less; we know gangs and Iraqi irregulars joined and 107 at the most died in the fighting. that leaves at least 600 not "massacred". odd, no? The fighters I spoke with said that no one was purposefully shot after the fighting but that people were shot during the battle, in house-to-house and in-the-street fighting. The houses dynamited, actually just doors blown in and grenades tossed in windows, was done under the assumption that non-fighters had left.

In kfar Etzion, 120 Jews were lined up for a picture and then mowed down. The Hadassah Convoy was medical personnel and they were burned alive. That's a massacre.

Let's get our heads straight.

At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate this comment-- on the one hand, that they took a quarter hour per house does back up the recollection that the fighters were taking fire from houses. But the commander himself said that the family unit that left their house realized "what had happened to the other inhabitants" which does suggest, as noted, that operations continued house to house with a realization that the method was taking civilian life as charges were thrown into the houses. The analysis as presented itself notes that a group of survivors transported from the scene were almost killed after the engagement according to the Jewish fighters--hotheads had to be restrained.

The point is not to hand out yoffi nefesh traffic citations in a house to house fire fight but I don't think that repeated Arab massacres automatically give a pass to the Deir Yassin battle. It is a sign of something going wrong when nine civilians are shot down after they have evacuated a house and are in custody because an Arab "stood up".

One out of every six inhabitants of a village ending up dead is not problem free--the analysis does not imo prove that Pa'il's testimony--which is very troubling and contradicts the Lechi/Etzel account --is a fabrication. Photographs he claims he sent of a battle he claims to have witnessed did end up in the IDF archive.

Also, while we have grown accustomed to fabricated atrocity tales from Arab eyewitnesses, survivor Samir's account tracks the commander's and suggests caution in throwing out Pa'ils testimony as a big politically motivated lie.

Personally, just me, I don't know what happened here. A battle as experienced is not the same thing as a battle recollected and analyzed in peace and sheket. War takes civilian deaths, particularly when fighters mix with civilians and civilians are on again off again irregular combatants with no uniforms. But for me the jury is still out.

A final note: the battle, however, conducted, served a tactical/strategic purpose as a village was secured and pressure relieved on Jewish positions. Today some seem to believe that air, rocket, and artillery campaigns are a substitute for ground engagement. But these campaigns in similar mixed-use civilian-combatant environments also can produce high collateral casualties in civilian neighborhoods without achieving lasting results.


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