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Book Review

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Historian Tauber Ends the Myth of Deir Yassin

August 7th 2017

UNRWA Refugee Camp

The battle for Deir Yassin was a milestone in the Israeli-Arab conflict, but exacting historical research reveals that no individuals were killed outside of battle, and that the myth was the result of a hasty Irgun propaganda effort. A review of a new book.

The battle which took place at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948 should not have been different than any other battle in the War of Independence. For various reasons, the battle went haywire and dozens of Arab citizens were killed (the exact number is disputed), many women were shot, and much property was looted to aid Jews who were in dire straits due to the war.

The events of Deir Yassin became a key symbol in the consciousness of both Arabs and Jews. All those involved, past and present, didn’t hesitate to use demagoguery, half-truths, and unverified data to confirm their prejudices. The claims being made may have declarative value, but certainly no scholarly or factual value.

A book has just come out by the Professor Eliezer Tauber of Bar Ilan University, which examines all the facts, cross-references Arab, Jewish, and British testimony, and follows the battle minute by minute.

Tauber provides a fluid description of an event in which things were happening at the same time in different locations. The book stands out in its detailed approach introducing the various fighters—Jewish and Arab—by name. It allows us to follow all the events in all sectors of fighting. The documentary precision pulls the rug out from under arguments which are tendentious, propaganda-based, and even blatant lies.

Another unique aspect of the book is the feeling of non-tendentiousness it provides. Tauber does not spare any side from his criticism nor avoid calling out shabby planning, partial execution of orders, and even political chicanery on the part of all parties.

Why Deir Yassin

The village of Deir Yassin was located to the west of Jerusalem, on the slope leading into the riverbed of Naḥal Sorek. A Jewish town was erected east of the village at the end of the 19th century which suffered a mortal and murderous blow in the riots of 1929. South of the village was the village of Ein Karem, the Arab villages of Colonia and Lifta were to its north, and the west Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul was erected in the 20th century based on lands purchased from the village of Deir Yassin by Jewish businessmen.

Tauber describes the complicated and fickle relationship between these new neighbors. This relationship combined mutual suspicion with economic cooperation. Here and there, personal friendships emerged, but it was a chilly relationship for the most part. Thanks to the growing Jewish construction in the city, many members of the village switched from primitive agriculture to masonry and flourished.

On the Saturday night of November 29, 1947, the UN adopted the resolution to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states with an internationalized Jerusalem. The Arabs summarily rejected the resolution. The Jews ostensibly accepted it but took no action to ensure its realization. The next day, battles broke out throughout the country; the British army was on the ground but it was mostly concerned with evacuating safely.

David Shaltiel was appointed as commander of Jewish forces in Jerusalem. Shaltiel was an intelligence officer by disposition, with limited interpersonal skills. He had no choice but to be in touch with the commanders of the other underground militias, the Irgun and the Leḥi, and there was mutual mistrust in that relationship. Mordechai Ra’anan (Kaufman) headed the Irgun in Jerusalem and Yehoshua Zetler, one of the first members of the Leḥi and one of its leaders, immediately went to Jerusalem after the acceptance of the UN resolution, which the Leḥi explicitly rejected. Zetler took command of the small underground. He increased their number to 800 and gave them training for field combat, not just guerilla fighting.

Until the end of March 1948, the main efforts of the Haganah were focused on organizing protected convoys of supplies to outlying settlements. After three such convoys were harmed one after the other and dozens of Jews were killed, a new strategy was decided which included the conquest and defense of enemy-held territories. This meant fighting in dense, built-up areas for the first time, as well as handling many POWs and/or their expulsion.

The first such operation was symbolically called Naḥshon, after the Biblical figure Naḥshon son of Aminadav who was, [according to tradition], the first to leap into the Sea of Reeds [in the book of Exodus], and it took place at the same time as the decisive battle between the Palmach and the forces of Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s Arab Liberation Army around Mishmar Ha-Emek in the Jezreel Valley.

The Battle

Most of the fighters who set out to attack the village lacked even basic knowledge in fighting in the field let alone fighting in built up areas, in operating at the squad level and above, and in storming positions, demolition, or the handling of a conquered or surrendering civilian population. Their commanders also lacked this knowledge. They also lacked any intelligence reports, even though the Haganah possessed such information.

Even before the battle took place, the question of how to handle the prisoners came up. There were fighters who suggested killing them to strike fear into the hearts of their neighbors. Commanders Zetler and Ra’anan opposed this on moral grounds. It was decided to bring up a truck with a loudspeaker with an Arabic-speaking fighter warning the residents of the coming battle and suggesting they flee via an escape route southwards to the village of Ein Karem.

The preparatory planning had a Leḥi force attack from the south while an Irgun force would attack from the north. The two forces would meet up in the house of the mukhtar [local chieftain] in the center of the village and identify with the phrase “aḥdut loḥemet” [Fighting Unity]. The fight began later than expected, with the Irgun force advancing in the alleys until it heard a voice emanate from the darkness. He thought he heard the word aḥdut, the first part of the password. He responded with the second part, loḥemet. Within seconds the Irgun force was under withering fire. Only then did the commander realize that the word he actually heard was “Mahmoud.”

At this stage, the battle went entirely out of control and the entire village was engulfed in fire. The truck with the loudspeaker, which happened to be stolen, ran into a ditch and all the attempts to get it out failed. The voice of the loudspeaker sank with it and didn’t reach the ears of the residents.

Tauber points to many Arab women taking part in the battle and notes that members of the Arab Liberation Army, who resided in neighboring Ein Karem, did not at any point come to the aid of their brothers. The method of taking the buildings was by throwing in a grenade and storming them. Many of the residents of the village were harmed in this way and some of the buildings even collapsed on them. The dead and wounded increased, some of them (like the Leḥi fighter Amos Keinan) from friendly fire.

Haganah forces in Givat Shaul were at the ready and awaited the orders of their commanders to join the fight. David Shaltiel agreed to aid the takeover and occupation of the village so long as a solution was found for the dead bodies. Lacking the option of digging graves for them due to the difficult, rocky ground, an attempt was made to burn them, which was not particularly successful.

The village surrendered and was occupied.

The Myth

Tauber inquired into the factors which took a battle and made it into a symbol of human barbarity.

The first such factor was a press conference convened by the Irgun the day after the battle. To glorify the Irgun’s achievement, the spokesman threw out an utterly unrealistic number of Arabs killed in the battle. Many Irgun fighters similarly boasted of their kill count when they returned to Jerusalem.

Haganah forces which arrived in the village were shocked at the sight of the burnt corpses. Some of them, primarily Palmach soldier and later the historian Major General  Meir Pa’il, spoke of what they saw in various frameworks and tried to use it to prove the moral and military weakness of the other undergrounds. Tauber proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the Haganah people speaking of the battle came afterwards and are thus second-hand accounts.

The Arab leadership wished to use Deir Yassin as a rallying cry for the cruelty of the Jews. They spread horror stories via the news agencies. They likely wished to encourage the fighting spirit of the Arabs, but the complete opposite occurred. Deir Yassin, like the loss at Mishmar Ha-Emek and the death of Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini, marked the beginning of the complete collapse and defeat of Palestinian Arab society.

The greatest influence reserving the myth is the international propaganda aimed at using Deir Yassin to attack the moral conduct of the Jews in war and the partial and sometimes distorted use of the testimonies of the survivors.

The End of the Myth?

Tauber’s thorough, well-documented study covers all the bases and aims to set everything straight.

The conclusion from the book is that the battle was conducted in an amateurish manner and there were a lot of blunders—but there was no deliberate massacre. Aside from isolated cases, most of those killed at Deir Yassin, Jews and Arabs alike, were killed in battle.

It’s hard to believe that Tauber’s book will put an end to the use of Deir Yassin for propaganda and political purposes. Myths take on a life of their own and historical facts are but background sets for them. But for those who wish to understand the battle of Deir Yassin from a scholarly and factual perspective, Tauber’s book is a highly important, extensive, and thorough discussion of a retrospectively seminal event in Israeli history.

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