Today is the 65th anniversary of the massacre at Deir Yassin, a village near West Jerusalem. Early in the morning of 9 April 1948, around 120 members of the underground Jewish militia groups, the Irgun (also known as the IZL), and the Stern Gang, entered the Palestinian Arab village of Deir Yassin and killed somewhere between 100 and 250 people, including men, women, children, and the elderly. Some died from gunshots, others from hand grenades being thrown into their homes. Other villagers were killed after being taken on a victory parade through West Jerusalem. (This was later disputed). There were reports of rapes and mutilations.
The massacre took place against the backdrop of the bitter civil war that preceded the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. Just months before, in November 1947, the United Nations had proposed that Palestine be divided into an Arab state and a Jewish one, with Jerusalem administrated independently of either side. The Arabs rejected the UN’s proposal, and civil war ensued.
Deir Yassin was a peaceful village that had signed a non-aggression pact, but fell into the UN’s plans for the independent Jerusalem area. What happened there was not unique: there were other massacres. But it marked the first time that Jewish forces really went on the offensive, and had far-reaching consequences that explain the fact that it retains such symbolic value.
News of the killings at Deir Yassin and other villages sparked terror within the Palestinian community, causing hundreds of thousands of them to flee from their towns and villages as Jewish troops advanced. It also strengthened the resolve of neighbouring Arab nations to intervene. On 15 May 1948, one day after the British Mandate ended and Israel declared its independence, several Arab armies invaded and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war began.
Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, said at the time: “We created terror among the Arabs and all the villages around. In one blow, we changed the strategic situation.” Indeed, the events changed the course of the conflict. Although the two groups carrying them out were underground, extremist militia, both of their leaders – Begin, and Yitzhak Shamir of the Stern Gang – later became prime ministers of the newly formed state of Israel.
After the war ended, in 1949, the Jewish neighbourhood of Giyat Shaul Bet was built on what used to be Deir Yassin, despite protests and requests that it be left uninhabited, or at least, that settlement be postponed. Today, it is part of Har Nof, an Orthodox area.
In a letter to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, protesting the resettlement plans, four prominent Jewish scholars, Martin Buber, Ernst Simon, Werner Senator and Cecil Roth, wrote that the massacre at Deir Yassin had become “infamous throughout the…whole world. In Deir Yassin hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred. Let the village of Deir Yassin remain uninhabited for the time being, and let its desolation be a terrible and tragic symbol of war, and a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder.”
Why, 65 years later, does this massacre still matter? For a start, there is the fact that what happened at Deir Yassin precipitated the mass expulsion of Palestinian citizens. According to UN estimates, 750,000 Palestinians fled in 1948. These refugees and their descendants now number about 4.5 million, making them the largest and longst standing refugee population in the world. There is also the fact that the events at this village were, in effect, a microcosm of what happened across the country. A village was brutally emptied; a new settlement was built on its place; and the original dwellers lost the right to return forever.
In an article written on the 50th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre, Jewish theologian and former Harvard academic Marc Ellis said that the events were “the shadow-side of the formation of Israel”. Discussing the way in which the event is forgotten or repressed in Israel, he suggests: “Perhaps the burial of this tragedy in Jewish consciousness has a more significant reason. In Israel and Palestine today, there is a fear of raising this issue. The fear is that the Jewish history of dispossession, known and mourned by all Jews, the dispossession of Palestinians, if analyzed and affirmed, is all too familiar.”
Buber, the scholar who protested against the building of settlements on the ground of the massacre, concluded his thoughts: “The time will come when it will be possible to conceive of some act in Deir Yassin, an act which will symbolize our people’s desire for justice and brotherhood with the Arab people.” Sixty five years later, and that time has still not arrived. That, in itself, is a tragedy worth commemorating.