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Early in the morning of April 9th 1948, commandos of the Irgun (headed by Menachem Begin) and the Stern Gang attacked Deir Yassin, a beautiful Arab village with cut stone houses located on the west side of Jerusalem. It was several weeks before the end of the British Mandate and the declaration of the State of Israel. The village lay outside the area to be assigned by the United Nations to the Jewish state; it had a peaceful reputation; it was even said by a Jewish newspaper to have driven out some Arab militants. But it was located on high ground in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and with the knowledge of the mainstream Jewish defence force, the Haganah, it was to be conquered and held.
In spite of being better armed, the two Jewish gangs were at first unable to conquer the village. But after they elicited the help of a small band of Palmach troops (the elite fighters of the Haganah), Deir Yassin soon fell. The Palmach soldiers left; it was then that the massacre began. That evening over tea and cookies, in the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul, gang members told foreign correspondents that over 200 Arabs were killed and forty taken prisoner. This was reported in the New York Times the very next day (4/10/48, p. 6). The terrorists claimed to have lost four of their own forces. They boasted of the “battle” but made no mention of the male Palestinians whom they had loaded onto trucks, paraded through some Jewish sections of Jerusalem, and then taken back to a stone quarry between Givat Shaul and Deir Yassin and shot to death. On April 13th the New York Times reported that 254 Arab men, women, and children had been killed at Deir Yassin; there was no mention of prisoners.
The official Zionist leaders of the Haganah denounced the dissidents of the Irgun and the Stern Gang accusing them of massacre, robbery, looting and barbarism. Ben Gurion even sent an apology to King Abdullah. But this horrific act served the future state of Israel well. As Begin said, “Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of ‘Irgun butchery’ were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be over estimated.” (The Revolt, p. 164)
While modern historians argue that Begin’s claims were exaggerated and that the actual number of Arabs killed was closer to 100, they all agree that the massacre at Deir Yassin marked the beginning of the depopulation of over 400 Arab villages and the exile of over 700,000 Palestinians.
In spite of protests by Martin Buber and other noted scholars, within a year the village was repopulated with orthodox Jewish immigrants from Poland, Rumania and Slovakia. Its cemetery was bulldozed and its name was wiped off the map.
Deir Yassin Today
Although virtually all Palestinians in the world know of Deir Yassin, few have ever been there. The site is not identified on post-1948 maps of Israel. But it is not difficult to find. The central part of Deir Yassin is a cluster of buildings now used as a mental hospital. To the east lies the industrial area of Givat Shaul; to the north lies Har Hamenuchot (the Jewish cemetery), to the west, built into the side of the mountain on which Deir Yassin is located is Har Nof, a new settlement of orthodox Jews. To the south is a steep valley terraced and containing part of the Jerusalem Forest. On the other side of that valley, roughly a mile and a half from Deir Yassin and in clear view of it, are Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem.
While not difficult to find, Deir Yassin today is not easy to visit. There are few places to park. Admittance to the mental hospital grounds is understandably restricted. There are no signs, no plaques, no memorials of any kind. The cemetery is largely gone; the ruins of the deir (monastery) are unmarked; and the quarry from which the residents made a living and in which the bodies of those who were massacred were piled up and burned is likely buried under a fuel storage depot on the south side of the mountain. The orthodox Jews living in the area are not friendly to outsiders and either do not know or refuse to acknowledge any history of Deir Yassin. Not surprisingly, picture taking invites suspicion and criticism. There are no markers, no plaques, no memorials – to all intents and purposes Deir Yassin is no more.
My mother was ill, she was pregnant. They threw something into our house. My sister ran to it and threw it out again and she sent me to tell our father who was still in Kastel. –Deir Yassin survivor Abu Ashraf, aged 7 at the time of the massacre, at London commemoration, Deir Yassin Day 2012