Arab acts of hostility had reached their peak by March, moreover, Arabs now controlled all the inter-urban routes. The road to Jerusalem was blocked, settlements in the Galilee and the Negev were also cut off and daily attacks were perpetrated on convoys. In the four months since the UN resolution, some 850 Jews had been killed throughout the country, most of them in Jerusalem or on the road to the city.
Operation Nachshon was launched on April 6, 1948, with the aim of opening up the road to Jerusalem. The village of Deir Yassin was included on the list of Arab villages to be occupied as part of that operation. Indeed, while fierce fighting was going on at Kastel, Arab reinforcements flooded onto the battlefield through Deir Yassin, which helped to drive back the Jewish occupying force.
When the Haganah command learned of the plan of the Irgun and Lehi to conquer Deir Yassin, David Shaltiel, Haganah Commander in Jerusalem, asked them to coordinate the timing of the operation with the scheduled renewed assault on Kastel. He despatched identical letters to Mordechai Raanan (Irgun Commander in Jerusalem) and Yehoshua Zetler (Lehi Commander in Jerusalem), in which he gave their operation his approval:
To: Shapira (code-name of Zetler)
From: District Commander
I have learned that you intend to carry out an operation against Deir Yassin. I would like to call your attention to the fact that the conquest and continued occupation of Deir Yassin is one of the stages in our overall plan. I have no objection to your carrying out the operation on condition that you are capable of holding on to it. If you are incapable of doing so, I caution you against blowing up the village, since this will lead to the flight of the inhabitants and subsequent occupation of the ruins and the abandoned homes by enemy forces. This will make things difficult rather than contributing to the general campaign, and reoccupation of the site will entail heavy casualties for our men. An additional argument I would like to cite is that if enemy forces are drawn to the place, this will disrupt the plan to establish an aerodrome there.
On April 2, 1948, the inhabitants of Deir Yassin began sniping at the Jewish Quarters of Bet Hakerem and Yefe Nof. According to reports by the Shai (Haganah Intelligence), fortifications were being constructed in the village and a large quantity of arms being stockpiled. Several days before the attack on Deir Yassin, the presence of foreign fighters was reported, including Iraqi soldiers and irregular forces. An Arab research study conducted at Bir Zeit University (near Ramallah) relates that the men of Deir Yassin took an active part in violent acts against Jewish targets and that many of the men of the village fought in the battle for Kastel, together with Abd-el-Kadr el-Husseini. The report also stated that trenches had been dug at the entry to the village, and that more than 100 men had been trained and equipped with rifles and Bren guns. A local guard force had been set up and 40 inhabitants guarded the village every night. (Knaana Sherif, The Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948 - Deir Yassin. Bir Zeit University, Documentation and Research Department 1987).
GOING INTO BATTLE
On Thursday, April 8, about 70 Irgun fighters assembled at the Etz Hayim base (at the entrance to Jerusalem). This was the first time that so large a number of underground fighters had gathered openly, without fear of British policemen or soldiers. The atmosphere was optimistic - after four months of attack, retaliation was finally in sight. The fact that two underground movements were acting together enhanced the sense of security and solidarity, and the password chosen was 'Fighting Solidarity' (Ahdut Lohemet).
Raanan, Commander of the Irgun in Jerusalem, opened the meeting and explained that the conquest of Deir Yassin had both military and political objectives. From the military viewpoint, the aim was not only to liberate the western quarters of Jerusalem from the threat of Deir Yassin, but finally to seize the initiative. It was essential to move from defence to attack and to transfer the fighting to enemy territory. The conquest would also raise the morale of the Jewish population of Jerusalem and restore their self-confidence.
Politically speaking, it would represent a change of approach and constitute a turning point in the war: no further retaliation operations, but from that point on conquest with the aim of holding on to an area. The Jewish people and the entire world would realize that the Jews were not going to give up Jerusalem and, if necessary, would take it by force. (It will be recalled that, according to the UN resolution, Jerusalem was to come under international rule). Raanan added that since the operation was an act of conquest and not of reprisal, the fighters had to avoid inflicting needless injury on Arabs. In particular, he cautioned against harming old people, women and children. Moreover, any Arab who surrendered, including combatants, was to be taken prisoner and not harmed in any way.
In order to prevent unnecessary casualties, it had been decided that the strike force would be preceded by an armored car equipped with a loudspeaker, which would enter the village ahead of the troops. The villagers would be informed that the village was surrounded by Irgun and Lehi fighters, and would be exhorted to leave for Ein Karem or to surrender. They would also be informed that the road to Ein Karem was open and safe.
At 2 a.m. the Irgun fighters, commanded by Ben-Zion Cohen (Giora), were driven from the Etz Hayim base to Bet Hakerem. The force moved into the wadi (riverbed), where the squads split up, each squad climbing up the terraced slope to its allotted field of action.
The Lehi unit assembled at Givat Shaul and proceeded from there towards the target. Some of the force advanced behind the armored car which was proceeding along the path towards the center of the village.
Close to 4:45 am, the village guards spotted suspicious movements. One of them called out in Arabic: 'Mahmoud'; an Irgun fighter, mishearing the cry, thought that someone had shouted the password 'Ahdut' (Solidarity) and responded with the second half of the password in Hebrew: 'Lohemet'. The Arabs opened fire and shooting commenced from all sides.
The armored car advanced along the path and, on reaching the outskirts of the village, encountered a trench and was forced to come to a halt. The loudspeaker was switched on and the message was read out. Heavy fire was directed at the armored car from the adjacent houses and the fighters trapped inside had to be rescued. Injuries were reported, and a first-aid unit set out from Givat Shaul towards the armored car.
The other units began their attack, but Arab resistance was strong, and every house became an armed fortress. Fierce fighting was conducted from house to house. Many of the attackers were injured in the first onslaught, including a number of commanders who had been advancing ahead of their units.
After the center of the village had been occupied, all the wounded were concentrated in one of the courtyards and ways were sought to evacuate them. It turned out that the road to Givat Shaul was impassable because of gunfire from the mukhtar's (local leader) house, which stood on a hilltop overlooking the area.
Since the fighting was taking place in a built-up area, the pace was slow, and both sides suffered heavy losses. In order to silence the source of gunfire, the fighters were forced to use hand-grenades, and in some cases even to blow up houses. There was firing from all sides and half the attackers were put out of action. On top of this, the remaining fighters suffered a shortage of ammunition.
A report on the course of the battle was transmitted by courier to headquarters at Givat Shaul. When word started coming in about the number of casualties and ammunition shortage, several Lehi people went to the Schneller camp and asked a Palmach unit to come to the attackers aid. After receiving the consent of the brigade HQ, the Palmach troops set out in an armored car, equipped with a machine-gun and a two-inch mortar. On arrival in the village, they fired several shells and machine-gun rounds at the mukhtar's house. At that very moment, without prior co-ordination with the Palmach, Yosef Avni charged and captured the mukhtar's house. With the mukhtar's house occupied, firing ceased and the occupation of the village was completed.
When the fighting was over, it was discovered that hundreds of villagers had retreated to Ein Karem, taking advantage of the fact that the road was open. Those who remained in the village surrendered and were taken prisoner. The prisoners, mostly women and children, were loaded onto trucks and taken to East Jerusalem, where they were handed over to their Arab brethren.
Word of the occupation of Deir Yassin spread through the city, and was viewed positively by the Jews of Jerusalem. Not only could the Jewish residents of the western quarters now breath freely, but they felt proud to have finally taken the initiative. The capture of the village marked the completion of the breakthrough of Operation Nachshon, and instilled new hope in the hearts of Jerusalemites. The slogan 'Ahdut Lohemet', which had grabbed the attention of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, reflected the turning point in the response to Arab aggression. In the days that followed, crowds flocked to the Etz Hayim base to express their solidarity with the Irgun fighters.
FACTS AND COMMENTARIES
So much has been written and said about what happened at Deir Yassin that the battle waged on the morning of April 9 has become known as the 'Deir Yassin Massacre'. It is important to analyze the events and to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Massacre means the killing of defenceless people. The 1929 slaughter of the Jews of Hebron by Arabs in the middle of the night was a massacre. When Arab workers at the Haifa refinieries assailed their Jewish co-workers in February 1948, murdering more than 40 of them, a massacre can be said to have taken place. In both cases, the killings were premeditated. The brutal murder of settlers at Kfar Etzion by Arab Legion soldiers in May 1948, after the defenders had surrendered and were defenceless, was also a massacre.
But Deir Yassin?
Firstly, strict orders were given in advance to the fighters not to harm the elderly, women and children. It was also stated explicitly that any Arab who surrendered was to be taken prisoner.
Secondly, an unprecedented action took place at Deir Yassin - a loudspeaker was installed on an armored car to inform the population that the road to Ein Karem was open and safe, and that whoever left the village would not be harmed. The strike force was actually prepared to forfeit the surprise element of battle in order to issue these instructions and thus to prevent Arab civilian casualty.
The Arabs do not deny the use of a loudspeaker; indeed, an Arab League publication entitled "Israeli Aggression" states, inter alia:
"On the night of April 9, 1948, the peaceful Arab village of Deir Yassin was surprised by a loudspeaker, which called on the population to evacuate it immediately."
Thirdly, it is universally agreed that there was bitter fighting at Deir Yassin. More than 100 Arab fighters were well equipped and had large amounts of ammunition. The Arabs occupied fortified positions in stone buildings, while the attackers were exposed to enemy fire. The fierce gunfire directed from the houses forced the attackers to charge, throw grenades and, in several cases, to blow up houses. As a consequence, women and children were among the dead.
According to all the documents and testimonies, it is clear today that fewer than one hundred Arabs were killed at Deir Yassin, and not the 240 as published. Moreover, this was the first instance in the War of Independence where battle had taken place in a built-up area, and such fighting typically claims numerous victims. For the same reason, the number of Irgun and Lehi members injured by Arab fire was 35% of the force (5 dead and 35 wounded).
All the Arab casualties were killed in the course of the fighting. Villagers - men, women and children - who surrendered, were taken prisoner and came to no harm. When the firing ceased, they were transported by truck to East Jerusalem and handed over to their Arab brethren.
The Deir Yassin affair had a strong impact on the course of the War of Independence; the battle was summed up as follows in the "History of the War of Independence", prepared by the History Division of the IDF General Staff:
The Deir Yassin affair was publicized throughout the world as the 'Deir Yassin Massacre', causing great harm to the reputation of the Yishuv. All the Arab propaganda channels disseminated the story at the time, and continue to do so to the present day. But the battle indubitably served to expedite the collapse of the Arab hinterland in the period which followed. More than the deed itself, this was achieved by the publicity it received from Arab spokesmen. They wanted to demonstrate to their people the savagery of the Jews and to instill in them a spirit of religious fervor. In fact, however, they intimidated and alarmed them. They themselves now admit their mistake.
Hazen Nusseibeh, an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service's Arabic news in 1948, was interviewed for the BBC television series "Israel and the Arabs: the 50-year conflict." He describes an encounter with Deir Yassin survivors and Palestinian leaders, including Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, at the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem's Old City.
"I asked Dr. Khalidi how we should cover the story," recalled Nusseibeh, now living in Amman. He said, "We must make the most of this". So we wrote a press release stating that at Deir Yassin children were murdered, pregnant women were raped. All sorts of atrocities."
A Deir Yassin survivor, identified as Abu Mahmud, said the villagers protested at the time.
"We said, 'there was no rape.' Khalidi said, 'We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews'."
In an arlicle "Deir Yassin a casualty of guns and propaganda", by Paul Holmes (Reuters) (http://www.metimes.com/issue98-16/reg/deir.html) he interviewing Mohammed Radwan, who was a resident of Deir Yassi in 1948, and fought for several hours before ruing out of bullets.
"I know when I speak that God is up there and God knows the truth and God will not forgive the liars", said Radwan, who puts the number of villagers killed at 93, listed in his own handwriting. "There were no rapes. It's all lies. There were no pregnant women who were slit open. It was propaganda that... Arabs put out so Arab the armies would invade" he said. "They ended up expelling people from all of Palestine on the rumor of Deir Yassin."
In the book "War Without End", by Anton La Guardia (Thomas Dunne Books, N.Y. 2000) we find the following: "Just before Israel's 50th anniversary celebration, I went to Deir Yassin with Ayish Zeidan, known as Haj Ayish, who had lived in the village as a teenager.
'We heard shooting. My mother did not want us to look out of the window. I fled with my sister, but my mother and my other sisters could not make it. They hid in the cellar for four days and then ran away.'
He said he never believed that more than 110 people had died at Deir Yassin, and accused Arab leaders of exaggerating the atrocities.
'There had been no rape', he said. 'The Arab radio at the time talked of women being killed and raped, but this is not true. I believe that most of those who were killed were among the fighters and the women and children who helped the fighters.'
Deir Yassin - The Village After the Attack