In April 1948, Deir Yassin was an Arab village of about a thousand residents. It was captured then by Jewish forces seeking to break the siege of Jerusalem during the war for Israel’s independence. Most of the fighting was done by the underground soldiers of the Irgun and Lehi, with assistance from the Haganah, the official fighting force of the Jewish establishment. A truck-mounted loudspeaker blaring a warning for residents to flee the village fell into a trench that had been dug by villagers. The result was a bloody house-to-house battle with a high death toll.
That much everyone agrees on. But how high was the death toll? How many of the Arabs killed were combatants? What were the circumstances under which they died? All that has been the subject of much dispute. Interestingly, the testimonies of the Jews and Arabs who were at Deir Yassin that day are consistent with each other. Meanwhile, a narrative was formed about Deir Yassin in the public imagination—one that portrays Jewish troops as rapists and child-murderers. That narrative was established by people far from the scene who were crafting post-battle propaganda. How to correct the record?
That was the task Eliezer Tauber, an influential Middle East historian and former dean at Bar-Ilan University, set for himself. It was simple but ambitious: He would comb through the eyewitness testimony in Hebrew and Arabic to identify every single fatality and how each person died. “I do not think the investigator will be able to reach his research goals,” was how one reader for the Israel Science Foundation responded to Tauber’s book proposal. But Tauber succeeded. The book that resulted, The Massacre That Never Was, came out in Israel in 2018. It is indisputably the authoritative account of the battle that began the morning of April 9, 1948.
American readers have had to wait four years for a translation from the Hebrew. Why? Well, one university press in America told Tauber that “we could sell well to the right-wing community here but we would end up with a terrible reputation,” as Shmuel Rosner reported in 2018. Koren Publishers admirably stepped into the breach and, by publishing The Massacre That Never Was, has not only done the historical record a genuine service but has also exposed the cowardice and pusillanimity of the publishing houses that refused to touch Tauber’s groundbreaking work for fear of offending the leftists and Arabists who dominate Middle Eastern studies in American universities.
The background to the Deir Yassin tragedy is this: Palestine’s Arab population declared war on the nascent Jewish state as soon as the United Nations approved its plan to partition Mandatory Palestine into two countries, one Jewish and one Arab, in November 1947.
Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile Arab villages, and the British, who favored the Arabs, remained in control until the expiration of the Mandate (which would come in May 1948). Jerusalem was thus cut off from the other Jewish towns and put under siege. To prevent starvation and mass murder, Jewish forces had to pacify or conquer the villages surrounding the road to Jerusalem. Arab attacks on the road made it impossible to resupply the Jews of Jerusalem with food and arms.
Deir Yassin was one such place. Though it had economic ties with nearby Jewish villages, Arabs from Deir Yassin had joined the widespread anti-Jewish violence in 1929 and then again during the Arab Revolt of 1936–39. After the partition vote, relations between the Deir Yassin Arabs and the Jews began to erode for good.
Haganah intelligence overestimated the number of Arab fighters who would be present in Deir Yassin—and vastly underestimated the firepower awaiting Jewish forces. So while Jewish forces outnumbered their Arab counterparts, those forces did not have sufficient weaponry; they went into battle with mere pistols or malfunctioning machine guns. The villagers also built firing positions and, crucially, impassable trenches, one of which disabled the vehicle carrying the warning loudspeaker.
Further complicating matters was the fact that Irgun and Lehi commanders relied on runners instead of radios to communicate, and the siege of Jerusalem meant that the Jerusalem branches of the underground had become operationally independent from their central leadership. Irgun leader Menachem Begin, for example, didn’t
even know which village was being targeted. His only demands of the forces theoretically under his command were that they warn the villagers first (hence the ill-fated loudspeaker) and that Irgun and Lehi follow international law.
Chaos reigned. The first Jewish forces to enter the village accidentally gave away their position when they mistook Arab guards for Jewish soldiers. The car with the loudspeaker got stuck. The guns of the Jewish forces proved largely useless against the stone structures of the village, which meant they had to blast their way into (and sometimes through) houses with explosives. They did so only after warning the inhabitants at each home; Arab survivors confirmed the individual warnings.
The Arab side added to the confusion. Women took part in combat, including as snipers. Some male fighters were disguised as women. Some male combatants attempted to mix in with convoys of female prisoners. And Arab snipers shot Arab prisoners who were helping transport the wounded.
Still, most of the villagers (around 700) were able to flee. In the end, 101 villagers were killed in the battle according to Tauber’s exhaustive process, which involved cross-listing genealogical records with fatality lists from researchers and village leaders over the course of decades. Tauber was able to ascertain the circumstances in which 84 were killed. Of those 84, “61 were killed under battle conditions.” The majority were men, though some of the women killed were combatants as well. There was no evidence of rape at all.
Arab survivor testimony confirms these findings. So what led British Chief Secretary of Palestine Henry Gurney to say the atrocities were so shocking that Bergen-Belsen “pales beside them”? What made UN High Commissioner Alan Cunningham claim that “women and children were stripped, lined up, photographed and then slaughtered by automatic fire”?
There was fault on the Jewish side, to be sure: One Irgun officer (who was not at Deir Yassin) at first inflated the number of Arab casualties, thinking that would serve as a psychological victory over the Arabs. But such chest-puffery was brief and insignificant. The man most responsible for the lies of Deir Yassin was Husayn al-Khalidi, secretary of the Arab Higher Committee.
“We must make the most of this,” Khalidi told Arab journalist Hazzim Nusayba. “I think we should give this the utmost propaganda possible because the Arab countries apparently are not interested in assisting us.” According to Khalidi, the Arab authorities were therefore “forced to give a picture—not what is actually happening—but we had to exaggerate a little bit so that maybe the Arab countries would become enthusiastic to come and assist us.”
Khalidi instructed a group of survivors to participate in the ruse, telling them, “We want you to say that the Jews slaughtered people, committed atrocities, raped, and stole gold.”
The scheme panicked the Palestinian Arabs. “We cannot bear that our women should be raped,” local leaders responded. Remarkably, it was the people of Deir Yassin who tried to put the genie back in the bottle.
“There were no rapes. It’s all lies. There were no pregnant women who were slit open. It was propaganda…so Arab armies would invade,” one testified.
“Frankly speaking, I never heard from them anything about any incident of sexual assault,” said another.
When the battlefield was inspected, all the dead were found fully clothed with no signs of abuse or mutilation.
It wasn’t just sexual violence that the survivors of Deir Yassin pooh-poohed. “I believe that most of those who were killed were among the fighters and the women and children who helped the fighters,” one survivor said. Another recalled: “They did not kill women. They did not kill small children. Only men above the age of 15 or 16.” A third: “I did not see them actually slaughtering women or children in front of me.” Yet another survivor, when asked if he or anyone else had witnessed rumored executions in the quarries, responded: “Whoever was busy in a battle could not see.”
Perhaps no piece of anti-Zionist propaganda backfired on the Palestinians with greater force than the myth of Deir Yassin. They effectively depopulated themselves from the area. “The other villages started to leave one after the other, without resistance, out of fear and apprehension of another similar massacre,” a survivor wrote a few years after the battle. According to a Palestinian researcher who interviewed survivors in the 1990s, “the Deir Yassin affair was the main cause for the 1948 exodus.” Palestinian officials blamed the Deir Yassin rumors for causing “the collapse of armed resistance,” as families throughout the country fled and soldiers ran back from the front to protect their families who were staying put. As many as 700,000 Palestinian Arabs went to Gaza or Jordan.
The lies also inspired reprisals. Jews defending Kfar Etzion surrendered to Arab invaders, who slaughtered over a hundred of them anyway, some chanting “Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin.” Similar chants could be heard from attackers who ambushed a convoy of Jewish medical staff en route to Hadassah hospital, killing nearly 80. Even the British tried to get in on the action: Cunningham, the high commissioner, ordered airstrikes on Deir Yassin to kill the remaining Jewish soldiers. Irgun and Lehi learned of the order and handed over control of Deir Yassin to the Haganah. Cunningham called off the strike.
What happened after Deir Yassin was emblematic of the Arab–Israeli conflict on the whole. The Jews are falsely accused of atrocities their enemies actually carry out—with intent. Global powerbrokers amplify the lies. Jewish lives are taken. Universities, publishing houses, and news media censor the facts so only the lie remains.
All of it hurts the Palestinian national cause in whose name the actions are supposedly taken. But that, of course, is a sacrifice Israel’s enemies are willing to make, as Tauber’s extraordinary book makes crystal clear.
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