The massacre of Deir Yasin was not the first by Zionist forces in Palestine, nor was it the last. However, the military and political developments that preceded and followed it made it a turning point in the 1948 war and a symbol for Zionist plans to uproot and forcibly evict Palestinians from their towns and villages.
Deir Yasin lies on the eastern slope of an 800-meter-high hill. It faced the Jewish suburbs of West Jerusalem, which at the time included six settlements, the closest of which was Givat Shaul. These colonies formed a formidable barrier between Deir Yasin and Jerusalem. The village’s only link to the outside world was a single dirt road north of the valley that ran through Givat Shaul and then to Jerusalem. A terraced valley with almond, fig, and olive trees and grape orchards separated the village from the colonies. The nearest Arab villages were Lifta and Ayn Karim. In 1948, Deir Yasin occupied an area of 2,700 dunams, over half of which was farmland; an estimated 750 residents lived in 144 houses.
The assault on Deir Yasin was preceded by political and military developments that strongly influenced the course of events. After the Partition Plan for Palestine was passed in November 1947, war broke out. Within the Zionist movement, there was a military rivalry between the Haganah on the one hand and the Irgun (Etzel) and Stern Gang (Lehi) on the other. The Haganah, led by David Ben-Gurion, represented the workers’ faction while the latter two represented the rightist trend that was inspired by the teachings of Vladimir Jabotinski, with Menachem Begin as its most prominent leader. This rivalry was expressed through acts of terrorism against Palestinians, the deadliest of which took place in Jerusalem and its neighboring countryside; Jerusalem was important for symbolic, religious, political, historical, and strategic reasons.
In the first two weeks of April 1948, the balance of power between the Zionists and the Palestinians shifted dramatically; on 4 April the Zionist leadership set into motion Plan Dalet, whose goal was to occupy and ethnically cleanse the area allocated by the Partition Plan to the proposed Jewish state, in addition to whatever territory could be captured from the land allocated to the Arab state, especially the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding area.
The decision to attack Deir Yasin was taken after the Haganah forces occupied the strategically located village of al-Qastal. Yitzhak Levi, the head of Haganah intelligence in Jerusalem at the time, said that Deir Yasin was chosen because the Irgun and Stern militias had relatively few resources and could not launch an operation on as large a scale as those of the Haganah. In addition to needing credit for some operations to avoid being marginalized in Jewish public opinion, they had other goals: to take revenge for the battles of Kfar Etzion and Atarot, to pillage and plunder (Deir Yasin was one of the wealthier Arab villages), and to find an outlet for the racist hatred built up inside them.
According to the attack plan adopted by the leaderships of the Irgun and Stern Gang, their militias would mobilize simultaneously at four strategic points: one group would advance from Givat Shaul and another would advance from the east into the village center, led by an armored vehicle with a loudspeaker attached to it. A third would start from the Beit HaKerem settlement to attack the village from the southeast, at the Shaykh Yasin mosque, while a fourth would also come from Beit HaKerem and outflank the village by attacking from the west. The two groups would send 200 of their toughest fighters, seventy of whom would be kept in reserve. The leaders discussed how they would treat women, children, the elderly, and prisoners. The majority decided that all the men and anyone assisting them would be liquidated. The operation date was set for Friday, 9 April, at 5:15 a.m. The correspondence and recorded conversations between the leaders of the Irgun and Stern and Haganah commanders show that the Haganah approved the attack on Deir Yasin and that the fate of the village was thus sealed sooner or later. In the weeks before the massacre, the residents of Deir Yasin were extremely fearful and apprehensive. Despite the nonaggression pact that the village elders had struck with the Givat Shaul settlement in January 1948, the villagers sensed that the situation was not safe, especially after the capture of al-Qastal, in whose battle many of Deir Yasin’s villagers fought and Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini was martyred. The men were on high alert, guarding the village in shifts and armed only with old rifles.
When the assault began at dawn, the villagers fought heroically until their ammunition was exhausted. Zionist sources mention that the attackers faced fierce resistance and sustained many casualties, which made them call for reinforcements from the Haganah to be able to continue their assault, but it was always an unequal battle. When the two groups (with the help of the Haganah) were able to enter Deir Yasin, its members began massacring the villagers. Using brutal methods (including blowing up houses with their residents trapped still alive inside them), they killed indiscriminately—men, women, children, the elderly—and openly desecrated their bodies. The terrorist attackers sacked the village, looting everything they could get their hands on. Then, they loaded 150 of the villagers they took as prisoners (they referred to them as “enemy combatants”) onto trucks and paraded them in a victory procession in Jewish neighborhoods before dumping them on the outskirts of the Arab neighborhoods so that they could tell people what happened to them in Deir Yasin. Accounts of the massacre are replete with survivor testimony about the savagery of the killers; many witnessed entire families get killed and gave the names of the killed. Meir Pa’il, one of the Palmach’s intelligence officers at the time who was charged by the Haganah leadership with monitoring the operation and preparing a report on it, says that the massacre carried out by the Irgun and Stern was indiscriminate and that no one was spared. He reported the victory procession that went around Jerusalem displaying the captured, after which twenty-five of the men were unloaded from the trucks and shot in cold blood.
Jacques de Reynier, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Jerusalem, is considered the most prominent eyewitness to the Deir Yasin massacre, since he was the only foreigner who was able to enter the village and document what he witnessed. After he received an official Arab request to travel to Deir Yasin, he was advised by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah leadership to stay out of the matter; they refused to guarantee his safety should he decide to visit the village. However, he remained determined and managed to enter the village on 11 April. He describes what he saw there:
“all the militia members, men and women, were young people, some of them teenagers. They were all heavily armed, with revolvers, machine guns, hand grenades and long knives. Most of the knives [I saw] were smeared with blood. Clearly this was an extermination squad to finish off the wounded who were still alive, and it was carrying out its task impeccably.”
Renier speaks of the piles of corpses outside and inside homes; he was able to rescue only three individuals who were still alive. Later, Arab officials asked him to bury the dead at an identifiable location in a befitting manner. After carrying out the massacre the two terrorist groups convened a press conference exclusively for the American print and radio media, where they bragged about the military victory and occupation of Deir Yasin and the massacre of its inhabitants. They also boasted of the participation of the Palmach in the assault, which was a source of great embarrassment for the Jewish Agency. They falsely claimed that they had killed 245 Arabs, a number that was repeated in media accounts; historical sources estimate the number at around 100, with women, children under age 15, and old men making up 75 percent of the total killed. Clearly, the Zionist forces exaggerated the number of victims and deliberately publicized the horrifying details of the massacre with the aim of provoking panic among Palestinians, which would push many of them to leave out of fear of meeting a similar fate.
Deir Yasin had been abandoned to fight its battle on its own; a contingent of the Arab Liberation Army in the nearby village of Ayn Karem, did not intervene, claiming it had not received any orders. The British issued an official communiqué to announce that the UK government had decided to carry out an airstrike on the Jews who occupied Deir Yasin but that it desisted after discovering that the assailants had already left the village.
Palestinians tried to mobilize public opinion around the world through the press and whatever platforms they could use to spread the news of the massacre as widely as possible. But their efforts ended up having the opposite result: instead of influencing the international community to act, it ended up having a negative impact on the morale of Palestinians in other areas. This was not the outcome Dr. Husain Fakhri al-Khalidi, general secretary of the Arab Higher Committee in Jerusalem, had in mind when he broadcast a statement about the massacre with the aim of exposing and denouncing the Zionists and appealing to the Arabs’ sense of honor and pride. However, the massacre did remove King Faruq’s hesitancy when, on 12 April, he informed Arab leaders that Egypt would join the Arab armies in defending Palestine with the expected British evacuation of the country on 15 May.
By the end of 1948, more than 400 villages had been depopulated; some were erased completely. As for Deir Yasin, homes that remained intact were later converted by the Israeli government into a hospital for the mentally ill, surrounded by a fence, with entry restricted only to those with special permission.