Deir Yassin and the Flight of the Palestinians

BradleyCollege Papers, History, Religion, Undergraduate Work6 Comments

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate history course called Modern Middle East.  I was taking a very involved course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict at the same time, so my papers for the Modern Middle East class focused on Palestine and Israel as well.  The paper was given 15/15 points.  I’d like to have written more, but it was only supposed to be 5 pages.  If I’d had more time (or a requirement for more pages!) I’d probably have written more about how the Arabs and Jews both deliberately exaggerated to the events at Deir Yassin to their own advantage, and detriment.

Deir Yassin Massacre Victims

Deir Yassin Massacre Victims via Palestine Solidarity Project

Impact of the Deir Yassin Massacre on the Palestinian Exodus in 1948

In 1917, Britain conquered Jerusalem and ruled the region through a military administration. In 1920, the San Remo Conference awarded Britain the mandate of Palestine, which was sanctioned by the League of Nations in 1922.[1] By 1947, the British had grown weary of the sectarian violence between the Zionist Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine and as part of an overall downsizing of their colonial holdings after the economic stresses of World War II turned over the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations, which decided, in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, to solve the problem by separating the parties through land partition.[2]

The 29 November 1947 UN partition plan would have granted 55% of the land (much of it desert) to the Jews and 40% to the Arabs, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem falling under international control. The Jews accepted the plan, reasoning that it would provide them a foundation from which to build a Jewish state. The Palestinians, on the other hand, rejected the partition and launched a three day general strike followed by a wave of anti-Jewish terrorism in the cities and on the roads.[3]

As British Mandatory rule drew to a close in early 1948, the conflict between immigrant Jews and native Arab Palestinians erupted into an open civil war. On May 14th, 1948, the day before the Mandate ended, David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, changed the nature of the conflict by declaring the establishment of a Jewish state. The fighting between Jews and Arabs stopped being a sectarian struggle and evolved into a national struggle, not just between the new Israelis and the Palestinians, but between the newly formed Israel and the surrounding Arab states, who joined in the fighting. The war in 1947 – 1948 later became known as the War of Liberation to Israelis and as al-Nakba (“Disaster,” or “Catastrophe” in English) to the Palestinians and Arabs in the Middle East.[4] The Arabs were soundly defeated, leaving the Israeli state in control of more land than originally granted to it by UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected under the assumption that the combined powers of the Arab armies could defeat the Jews.[5]

The conflict was a total defeat for the Palestinians. They not only lost control of a majority portion of the Palestinian Mandate territory, but they also failed to establish political independence. Only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (with larger boundaries than today) remained outside of Israeli control, but they were claimed by other countries who had participated in the war against Israel: Egypt and Jordan. After the 1948 war, Jordan retained control over the resource-rich West Bank and East Jerusalem while Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the worst blow to the Palestinians, however, was being driven from the land and being prevented from returning. During the fighting, Palestinians fled their homes in droves in advance of or during combat between the Jews and Arabs, or to evade Arab militias who abused villagers. A total of approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the 1948 war in Palestine, and the issue showed up time and again in peace talks in the form of demands for the right-of-return of refugees.[6] Today, the number of refugees has ballooned to approximately five million as new generations of Palestinians are born in refugee camps and inherit the refugee status of their parents.[7]

Many factors contributed to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, including expulsion orders, such as those signed by Yitzhak Rabin (later a Prime Minister of Israel) that ejected the Arab population from Lydda;[8] voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes to other countries to avoid loss of capital during the fighting;[9] the flight of Palestinian leadership;[10] and as a result of Israeli actions during the implementation of “Plan Dalet” (also known as Plan D). Plan Dalet would later become known as a very controversial strategic operation which aimed at:

gaining control over the territory assigned to the Jewish state and defending its borders, as well as the blocs of Jewish settlement and such Jewish population as were outside those borders, against regular, para-regular, and guerrilla forces operating from bases outside or inside the nascent Jewish State.[11]

To its critics, especially those in Arab states, the plan called for nothing short of the ethnic cleansing of the land allotted to Israel in the 1947 United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181, which partitioned the land of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.[12]

Plan Dalet wasn’t necessarily a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestinians en masse. It was governed by military considerations and, given the nature of the war and the admixture of populations in Palestine, securing the interior of the Jewish state from ‘external’ threats required the depopulation and destruction of villages that housed hostile militias and irregulars.[13] It was also common for roving irregular forces from other Arab states to impose on villages by demanding housing, since they were there fighting for their interests, supposedly.[14] The people of Deir Yassin had decided to remain neutral in the conflict, refusing entry to outsiders, and worked out a system of signals with the nearby Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul to alert them that roving militias and irregulars were in the area. Deir Yassin hoped that by cooperating, their town would be spared the hardships of war.[15] They would, however, be disappointed.

A widely implemented tactic by the Arabs was to cut off supply lines between the Jewish coast and Jewish population centers inside the country, like Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc. Opening up these supply lines became a priority.[16] At David Ben-Gurion’s insistence, a force of 1500 Jewish troops was mobilized to take part in Operation Nachshon. No longer would the Jews passively protect their convoys with guards; they would instead conquer and hold the routes themselves, as well as the heights surrounding them.[17] It was during Operation Nachshon that the Deir Yassin massacre occurred. The operational order of 3 or 4 April states that “all the Arab villages along the [Khulda-Jerusalem] axis were to be treated as enemy assembly or jump-off bases” and according to Plan Dalet, villages so defined, if offering resistance, should be depopulated (through forced migration) and destroyed.[18]

It’s not clear why, but the Haganah command allowed two Jewish militant extremist groups to participate in Operation Nachshon, perhaps because of the importance of securing the routes and the need for able bodied fighters. Irgun Zevai Leumi (Irgun) and Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi, aka the “Stern Gang”) were widely regarded as terrorists by British mandatory authorities and the Israeli defense establishment itself.[19] For example, in 1946 the Irgun, acting under the direction of Menachem Begin, who would in 1977 become the Prime Minister of Israel under the Likud Party, ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel, which housed the British Mandate headquarters. The final casualty list included ninety-one British, Arab, and Jewish dead.[20]

The result of the Irgun and Lehi’s participation in Nachshon was a massacre of civilians. Despite Deir Yassin’s non-belligerency agreement with neighboring Givat Shaul, Irgun and Lehi forces entered the town to occupy it and met with unexpectedly strong resistance from residents who probably felt betrayed by their Jewish neighbors. During the fighting, Irgun and Lehi forces blew up several houses and gunned down families in the streets. They also rounded up groups of unarmed residents of both sexes and murdered them en masse. Some residents were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem before being taken back to Deir Yassin to be murdered.[21] A Haganah Intelligence Service report states that “whole families – women, old people, children – were killed.”[22] The following day the author of the report added: “[Lehi] members tell of the barbaric behavior of the [Irgun] toward the prisoners and the dead. They also relate that the [Irgun] men raped a number of Arab girls and murdered them afterward (we don’t know if this is true).”[23]

Regardless of whether or not it was true, reports like the one above and the stories told by the survivors rapidly spread throughout the region, becoming headline news. Altogether, about 100 – 120 villagers died that day, but the event became amplified through gossip and the media to such a degree that it became extremely influential in affecting the flight of the Palestinian population.[24] When trying to justify their actions after the fact, the Irgun cited the fear and panic the act caused and its beneficial impact on the Israeli war effort.[25]

The massacre and the way it was emphasized and possibly exaggerated in the media strengthened the resolve of Arab leaders to aid the embattled Palestinians and defeat the Jews. It also caused problems for the Jewish forces when criticized by the Western media, but the most important aspect of the massacre was the role it played in increasing flight from the Palestinian villages.[26] In Beit Iksa, fear caused the start of an immediate evacuation. The same occurred in al-Maliha and the residents of Fajja, near Petah Tikvah, Mansura, and near Ramle quickly called their Jewish neighbors and promised to not fight. In Haifa and surrounding villages, Palestinians heard rumors of Jewish atrocities at Deir Yassin and took flight. In the village of Saris, Arabs offered the attacking Haganah no resistance whatsoever, for fear of sharing Deir Yassin’s fate. [27] The fear of another Jewish massacre of civilians had an impact on the behavior of Palestinian villagers across the territory.

The British noted that whether or not all of those atrocities actually took place, the Haganah and the Jews had certainly profited from it and Jewish political leaders determined that the Deir Yassin massacre was one of two pivotal events in the exodus of Palestine’s Arabs, the other being the fall of Arab Haifa.[28] The psychological impact of the massacre may not have been the main cause of the Palestinian refugee crisis, but it certainly increased the number of people affected, making resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict that much more difficult for generations to come.


[1] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 95.
[2] Ibid., p. 134.
[3] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 13.
[4] Ibid., p. 145.
[5] Tom Segev, One Palestine: Complete, p. 496.
[6] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage, p. 7.
[7] “Palestine refugees”, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
[8] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 429.
[9] Ibid., p. 67.
[10] The Pittsburgh Press, “British Halt Jerusalem Battle,” 1948.
[11] Quoted in David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[12] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[13] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 164.
[14] Ibid., p. 123; p. 114.
[15] Ibid., pp. 90 – 91.
[16] Ibid., p. 66.
[17] Ibid., p. 233.
[18] Ibid.
[19] The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Accept Ultimatum,” 22 September 1948; The Pittsburgh Press, “Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told,” 30 July 1947; St. Petersburg Times, “Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists,” 19 September 1948; St. Petersburg Times, “French Uncover Plot To Bomb London,” 8 September 1947.
[20] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 129 & 259; The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Message Admits Guilt in Death Blast,” 24 July 1946.
[21] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p 237.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 238.
[24] Ibid., p. 238.
[25] Ibid., p. 239.
[26] The Indian Express, “Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State: Azzam Pasha Outlines New Policy,” 21 May 1948.
[27] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 240.
[28] Ibid.



Bibliography

“Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State.” The Indian Express 21 May 1948: 5. Web Archive. 18 May 2012. .
“British Halt Jerusalem Battle: Fresh Troops Pour into City To Keep Peace.” The Pittsburgh Press 3 May 1948: 1. Web Archive. 8 May 2012. .
“Irgun Accept Ultimatum.” The Glasgow Herald 22 Sep 1948: 5. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Irgun Message Admits Guilt In Death Blast: Communique Purported From Underground Claims Warning Went Unheeded.” The Montreal Gazette 24 Jul 1946: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists.” St. Petersburg Times 19 Sep 1948: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. New York: Beacon Press, 2007. Kindle edition.
Lesch, David W. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
McGhee, George Crews. On The Frontline in the Cold War: An Ambassador Reports. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997. Google eBook.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
“Palestine refugees.” n.d. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Web. 17 May 2012. .
Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2001. Print.
“Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told: Sergeants Hanged, Underground Claims.” The Pittsburgh Press 30 Jul 1947: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .

Leave a Reply

6 Comments on "Deir Yassin and the Flight of the Palestinians"

Subscribe to
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Gerald A. Honigman
Bradley…as someone who has done extensive doctoral research and who has been involved with the sources for almost 5 decades now, I can tell you that you are simply mouthing the Arab saga at face value. Do you know what taqiyya is? If not, you need to find out.The truth is very different indeed, and while there are no perfect saints nor sinners in any conflicts, the reality is much different than what you and your Arab friends contend. Firstly, do you even know what “Palestine” was/is and how it got its name in the first place? Secondly, when Arabs… Read more »
Gerald A.Honigman

The Minutes of the Permanent Mandates Commission and other solid documentation show that the vast majority of Arabs in the land were indeed newcomers–settlers–themselves…despite the propaganda. These two articles are very useful on this issue.The first one speaks of one of the allegedly “native Palestinians” for whom the rockets that strike Israel are named:

(Moderated links to comment author’s sites)

Gerald A. Honigman
Bradley…I’m curious. Was the following just an oversight, or is there something else involved? You start out in this analysis speaking of the 1920 conference which awarded the original April 25, 1920 Mandate of Palestine to the Brits. Fair enough…But then you jump to 1947 and speak of 55% of the Mandate being awarded to the Jews. The 55% you speak of was of the territory which remained after Arab nationalism was already awarded 78% of the total land area after Colonial Secretary Churchill orchestrated the separation of all the land east of the Jordan River ar the Cairo Conference… Read more »
wpDiscuz