A long projection into the past
What Really Happened in Deir-Yassin 54 Years Ago?
Assembled, translated & edited by Shimon Tzabar
The political and Military Background in Palestine in 1948:
The British left Palestine on the 15th of May 1948. Until that time there was no Israeli government, and no Israeli Army. Until that time, the Jewish military force consisted of three independent groups: The larger one was the Hagana. Within the Hagana there was a strike force known as the Palmah. Outside Hagana there were two more independent smaller forces. The biggest of the two was Etzel, which was the underground terrorist organisation of the opposition party led by Menahem Begin, and the smaller one was Lehi, known also as the Stern Gang, a splinter group which separated from the Etzel a few years previously.
There are many versions of what happened in Deir Yassin on the 9th of April 1948. Some of these versions are propaganda pieces, some of which will be dealt with later on. I wanted to find an Israeli version from a reliable eye-witness, if something like that existed. I sifted through the Israeli Hebrew press for many years until I found something that sounded more or less reliable. I say more or less, because this account is also biased (as we shall see). The account I found was a report done by Dr. Me'ir Pa'ill who is today a member of the Knesset representing the Meretz party. Fifty three years ago however, in April 1948, he was known as Colonel Me'ir Pilavski, a liaison officer representing the Palmah in the headquarters of the Hagana in Jerusalem.
The story of Colonel Me'ir Pilavski appeared in an interview which he gave to Ron Maiberg. The interview was published in the magazine Monitin, no. 32, April 1981, page 36.
The story of Colonel Me'ir Pilavski:
Etzel and Lehi had decided to carry out one operation together. They counted their men and discovered that together they could supply 130 fighters. Among the Etzel members there was one, Joshua Goldshmid, who lived in Giv'at Shaul, a western suburb of Jerusalem close to Deir Yassin and he was the one that pushed for Deir Yassin. The place itself was a small village of 750 inhabitants. It did not have a strategic location and wasn't situated on any important road. And, at that time, there was already an unwritten agreement between Deir Yassin and Giv'at Shaul that they would not shoot or snipe at each other and will not allow outside guards to enter. This agreement was observed until the village was attacked without provocation by the Lehi-Etzel gang.
One night at the end of March 1948, shots were heard coming from Deir Yassin. It was revealed the next morning that an Arab gang had tried to enter the village, but the villagers had fired at them and driven them off.
Since the Hagana was holding the lines of communications, Etzel and Lehi asked David Sha'altiel, the commander of the Hagana's Jerusalem district for a meeting. I'm telling you this to show that I knew what was going on, because I was in the picture from the beginning. Sha'altiel told them that the plan of the Hagana was, that when the British army leave (shortly), they would take over Deir Yassin and level it to build an airport. Instead of attacking Deir Yassin now, he advised them to attack Ein Karem instead... (I omitted here a few irrelevant remarks. Ed.) No, they said, Ein Karem is too difficult. Then Sha'altiel suggested they attack Kolonia. No, they said, that is difficult too. We want Deir Yassin! [ I omitted here too a few irrelevant remarks - Ed].
It was Friday, the 9th of April 1948 and I went in together with them. I had a tommy-gun with a disc magazine, 50 bullets and proper boots. On that day I did not fire even one bullet. With me was a guy with a good Leica camera capable of taking 36 still, black and white pictures. Half of them were shot during the battle and half afterwards. (Here, again, I omitted some irrelevant remarks. Ed.)
The raid was supposed to start two hours before dawn. The road to Deir Yassin was open. It was not mined or obstructed because it was constantly in use. The plan was, that the van carrying the Etzel/Lehi members would drive on this dusty road and a loudspeaker would call to the inhabitants to flee from the village. I was walking on this very road. They (Lehi) didn't know who I was. They were late and reached the village when it was already daylight. The van drove on without lights for about 100 or 200 meters. 'No great deal'. For some obscure reason it got off the road and couldn't get back on to it. I thought that now a small skirmish would develop, but there was actually a battle. From my battleground experience I noticed that the Arabs had only rifles. All their shots were single shots. Only the attackers had automatic weapons. They managed to take over the eastern side of the village with a handful of casualties. The Arabs took over a few houses on the western side of the village and were sniping at us. So it lasted a long time. They didn't move.
I was sitting with my photographer in one of the houses and waited. Suddenly, at about 11 o'clock in the morning, I heard the explosions of 2 inch mortar shells. I looked out of the window and I saw ten Palmah fighters under the command of the late Jacob Wog, descending and taking over the rest of the village. I ran up to them, "Yaki" I asked him", what are you doing here?". "I know" he said, "I returned last night from a raid on Ein Karem and at nine o'clock somebody walks to me and says 'come! There is a crisis. We have attacked Deir Yassin and we've got stuck. It could turn into a disaster! I equipped the platoon with mortars and did a flanking". The Palmach didn't have even one casualty. I said to Yaki: " This is a job by Etzel and Lehi. This isn't our quarter. Take your guys and go to sleep."
I think that if the platoon had stayed on, there would not have been a massacre. They (Etzel & Lehi), were not able to carry out even their own task. We had to send in a tired platoon to finish the job for them.
Suddenly I started to hear shooting from all directions in the village. I ran there with my photographer and I saw gangs of Etzel and Lehi running through the alleys. In my report I added: 'with bulging eyes' as if they were 'running amok'. They were running from house to house. They got inside, and butchered whoever was there by shooting, not by hand grenades! By shooting! I called it hot blooded murder. It was spontaneous, not planned. I ran after them shouting:' what are you doing?' They looked at me as if I was crazy, also with those bulging eyes. The photographer was taking pictures of scenes that I can still see, even now, with my own eyes: A corner in a room. A woman, children and an old man, butchered. Another house. A man, a woman and children were lying in a corner. Not along the walls. Here and there was somebody wounded.
This massacre ended in the afternoon, when some of our people came from Giv'at Shaul and started to shout. Then they stopped it. They gathered those who were still alive and put them in a house while shouting wildly: 'We will explode it on them'.
They took about 20 to 25 men and put them on a lorry. We joined them in their trip to town. They arranged a parade in some of Jerusalem suburbs where they had followers. The crowd cheered and clapped. Then back to the lorry. They took them to a quarry between Giv'at Shaul and Deir Yassin. Took them off the lorry, made them stand against the wall and shot them. This picture was also taken by my photographer.
They took all those that remained (alive in the village), put them on a truck and paraded them through the streets of Jerusalem to the Musrara quarter and from there they let them escape in the direction of the Jaffa gate.
On the Saturday, Etzel and Lehi notified David Sha'altiel: 'Tomorrow we leave the place. We are a crash unit. We don't hold to command posts. They were asked to at least bury the corpses. 'We don't care' was their answer. Two platoons of Gadna, seven and eighth grade students (a pre-military unit of the Hagana.. Ed.), were brought to Deir Yassin on the Sunday and they did most of the burying. They counted the corpses. The Red Cross arrived later on. There were 254 dead out of 750 people who had lived in this village. A third was killed, a third was evacuated and a third escaped.
I wrote my report and sent it to Israel Galili, the head of the Hagana".
This was what Dr.Me'ir Pa'yil told the members of kibbutz Hulda in 1979, when somebody who knew that he had been involved, asked him to tell the true story. Since the members of the kibbutz wanted to know the whole truth, they also invited Mordekhai Ra'anan, the commander of the Etzel unit that was active in Deir Yassin, to tell them his version of what happened on the 9th of April 1948. After Ra'anan told his story, someone in the audience rose up and said that two weeks ago they had heard a completely different story.
Ra'anans answer was: "Me'ir Pa'yil is a liar and a fraud. He was never in Deir Yassin at that time".
Amotz Peleg, the guy in the kibbutz responsible for setting up these debates, decided to clear this matter up. He wrote a letter to Israel Galili who was at the time the general commander of the Hagana. Galili confirmed that Me'ir Payil was actually there and had submitted to him a shocking report and photographs of what happened at Deir Yassin. He added that he had showed this report to Ben-Gurion who was Prime Minister at the time. A facsimile of that letter (in Hebrew) was reproduced in this article. However, Pa'ils original report and the photographs are locked-up in the archives of the Israeli Army and nobody can get access to them, not even Galili himself. Furthermore, even Me'ir Pa'yil the author was denied access to his own report and its photographs.
I mentioned earlier that this report was biased. But its bias consisted of more then just its claims about the incompetence of Etzel and Lehi said to be 'so incompetent as not to be able to conquer Deir Yassin on their own and they needed the help of the Palmah'. It was also biased in its claim that the Hagana was not responsible for the massacre, that it was only the work of Etzel and Lehi. Its similar to what happened years later after the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. The claim is that Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army did not carry out the massacre, and that it was perpetrated by the Christian militia! But who allowed the Christian militia to enter the refugee camp in the first place?
I tried to clear up the role of Etzel and Lehi in the massacre. I looked for an eye witness account from that group and managed to find an eye witness from Lehi. In an interview in the magazine Koteret Rashit on 26/12/1984, Nahum Barnea asks the writer Amos Keinan: "People say that you participated as one of the Lehi fighters in the massacre of Deir Yassin. Is it true?"
Amos Keinan: " I never kept it a secret. I told it to all my Palestinian friends. However, I cannot give an eye witness account because I was wounded early in the morning and was transferred to a hospital on Radak street. I did not see what was going on there. However, I can reconstruct some events from memory because I participated in the planning committee which set the aims of this operation. Nobody there mentioned a massacre. We were discussing two possible targets: Beit Hanina (North Jerusalem) or Deir Yassin. I participated in forward scouting of these two targets…"
I'm surprised by Keinan's first claim that he never kept it a secret, I was a close friend of his since our teenage years and I don't remember him ever mentioning it. He might have told it to his Palestinian friends as he so cheerfully states, and I, with all our friendship, am not a Palestinian but an Israeli. But why did he tell it to the Palestinians? Was it to gain their respect or to frighten them? This part of his interview does not make any sense to me. And, if he was as he claimed, a member of the planning committee, did Amos Keinan approve of the idea to parade 20 or 25 people of Deir Yassin in the Jerusalem suburbs and then execute them in a quarry?
Although my search for an eye-witness account of the massacre is not resolved by Amos Keinan's interview, I think that it is highly significant, because Amos was known as one of the leaders of the Peace Now movement and an interview like this would have allowed him to expose the murderous tendencies of some of his former allies unless, of course, he himself was personally involved.
I also mentioned, previously, that there are propaganda versions of the Deir Yassin massacre. One of them is by Menahem Begin, published on 06/05 1971: " The battle was very difficult. Almost from every house that was built of hard stone they shot at our people. To overcome this fire we had no choice but to throw hand grenades into the houses. After we broadcasted our announcement, we didn't believe that civilians stayed there, but they did. It was painful and tragic for us".
Another version was published by the Israeli Foreign Office on 16/93/1969: "When they entered the conquered houses they were shocked to discover that side by side with Iraqi and Palestinian fighters bodies, there were corpses of women and children. It may well be that these luckless peasants believed that the Arab soldiers would be able to overcome the assault or that they were forbidden to leave the village with the rest, when they had an opportunity to do so before the battle started or they were afraid to leave. They were innocent victims of a cruel war. The responsibility for their deaths falls directly on the Arab soldiers who had to behave according to all the war regulations - to evacuate them from the village the moment they had decided to turn it into a citadel."
The most extreme and bizarre version is that of Eliahu Amikam, a journalist on the staff of the tabloid Yediot Aharonot, who published on 19/08/1960: " In Deir-Yassin there were soldiers of regular foreign armies, including Nazis with swastika emblems. Among the corpses there were Iraqis, Syrians and Yugoslavs lying in their military uniform. Swastika ribbons were torn off their sleeves".
Click here to see Deir Yassin Remembered's recent op-ed in the New York Times.
NEW on the main DYR web site: "Semitic Blood Feud" by Gregory M. DeSylva