Academic journal article The Historian

The 1948 Massacre at Deir Yassin Revisited

Academic journal article The Historian

The 1948 Massacre at Deir Yassin Revisited

Article excerpt

Between 9 and 11 April 1948, over 100 Arab townspeople were massacred by Jewish paramilitaries in Deir Yassin near Jerusalem in the British Mandate of Palestine. The incident was pivotal in modern Middle East history, becoming in one Israeli historian's words, "a landmark in the chronicles of the Israel-Arab conflict and a symbol of the horrors of war."(1) It greatly stimulated Palestinian Arab refugee flight and appears to have been critical in the final decision of the Arab states to intervene directly in Palestine in 1948 to thwart the creation of the state of Israel. The Deir Yassin incident, therefore, is intimately connected to the two main issues that have defined the Arab-Israeli conflict: the armed hostility to Israel by the Arab states and the enduring Palestinian refugee issue.

The massacre's historical prominence in such a major conflict has subjected it to various, often polemical, interpretations about its scope and causation.(2) This paper revisits the Deir Yassin incident to present an up-to-date narrative and analysis of the event based on a wide-ranging survey of available Israeli, Palestinian, and other sources that have emerged over time. These sources include very recent research and argumentation associated with the fiftieth anniversary of the incident, as well as the papers of journalist and author Larry Collins archived at Georgetown University. The latter are a rich and generally untapped collection of authoritative primary and secondary sources on the 1948 Middle East war.

The narrative that emerges is of a wartime tragedy of complex causation, neither wholly spontaneous nor wholly premeditated, during which an inept booty and morale-building raid by irregular Jewish fighters became an episode of prolonged slaughter and wanton abuse of Arab civilians. The study confirms an increasingly accepted lower casualty figure; that significant house demolition did not occur during the takeover, in contrast to most conventional reconstructions; the likelihood of sexual assault incidents; and the theorization of different motivational states during the course of the massacre.

The Deir Yassin incident was part of the Middle East war of 1948, variously referred to as the Israeli War of Independence, the First Arab-Israeli War, or the First Palestine War. The conflict arose out of decades-old competing claims of nationalist Jews and Arabs for sovereignty over Palestine (today Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip). European Jewish nationalists, organized as Zionists in 1897, sought to establish a Jewish state through colonization of Palestine, while Arab nationalists sought an Arab state for Palestine's Arab majority.

Although there existed a traditional Jewish community and a significant Jewish settler population in Palestine prior to World War I, Jewish immigration began in earnest after a British League of Nations Mandate was established over Palestine following Turkey's defeat in World War I. The Mandate incorporated the policy enunciated in the 1917 British Balfour Declaration favoring the establishment of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine. Intramural violence among Britons, Arabs, and Jews characterized different periods of the Mandate, with some of the worst strife occurring in 1929 and again from 1936 to 1939. The 1929 Arab-Jewish clash included deadly Arab attacks on the Jewish community, climaxing in the massacre of dozens of non-Zionist religious Jews in Hebron. The Arab rebellion against the British in the late 1930s led to the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Arabs through official counterinsurgecy and internal Arab disputes, as well as causing the deaths of hundreds of Jews in Arab raids, terror attacks, and combat against Jews who assisted the British.(3)

Despite such political tensions, Jewish immigration increased dramatically over the 1930s as Jews fled economic desperation and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and particularly Nazi Germany. …

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