“I saw a fair number of corpses,” recalled former Knesset member and Israeli government minister, Yair Tsaban, on the massacre carried out on the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, for director, Neta Shoshani. “I don’t remember encountering the corpse of a fighting man. Not at all. I remember mostly women and old men.”
“An old man and a woman, sitting in the corner of a room with their faces to the wall, and they are shot in the back,” he recounted. “That cannot have been in the heat of battle. No way.”
Yet, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, critics vituperatively insist no such assault occurred, as Deir Yassin villagers were the aggressors against several pre-state militias battling for an independent, demarcated Israel.
A few of the surviving smattering of eyewitnesses and participants in the atrocity relayed to Shoshani haunting memories of the decimation of the village — which began on the morning of April 9, 1948, as part of an operation meant to destroy a blockade on the road to Jerusalem in one of many incidents ultimately leading to what Israelis call the War of Independence — for a documentary entitled “Born in Deir Yassin.”
But, like any nation whose violent aggression leads to geostrategic or political victory over less-prepared defending forces, documentation, photographs, testimonies, and accounts from witnesses to the horrific Deir Yassin bloodbath have been cloistered away by the Israeli government. Seven decades after the fact, multiple records requests from Shoshani and Haaretz were not granted by Israel, under the premise the information would needlessly stir further controversy and possibly damage the country’s reputation.
A mere cursory glance at the information Shoshani compiled for the documentary proves Israeli misgivings more than warranted.
“[O]ur movement carried out a tremendous operation to occupy the Arab village on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road — Deir Yassin. I participated in this operation in the most active way,” Yehuda Feder penned in a letter shortly after the massacre, of the operation undertaken by the Menachem Begin-led, pre-state National Military Organization, known by the acronym, Etzel; Lehi, the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel; and other militias.
“This was the first time in my life that at my hands and before my eyes Arabs fell. In the village I killed an armed Arab man and two Arab girls of 16 or 17 who were helping the Arab who was shooting. I stood them against a wall and blasted them with two rounds from the Tommy gun,” Feder blithely wrote of the spontaneous machine gun execution of teenage girls.
“We confiscated a lot of money and silver and gold jewelry fell into our hands,” he said of shameless looting by fighters after they had methodically lobbed grenades at houses, shot women, children, and the elderly, and generally unleashed chaotic bloody terror on the small village.
Unsettling thus aptly characterizes zealousness evident in Feder’s words — though he was far from alone in believing the Deir Yassin assault justified — bubbling unspoken but no less apparent from between the lines he composed 70 years ago. Indeed, the soldier deftly intimated the scope of bloodshed and unapologetic savagery in the concluding line of his letter, writing starkly,
“This was a really tremendous operation and it is with reason that the left is vilifying us again.”
Even with the paucity of solid documentation, thanks to Tel Aviv’s tight lips, Shoshani managed to glean further appalling details from some who took part, including distressing recollections from the Jerusalem commander of Lehi, Yehoshua Zettler.
“They ran like cats,” Zettler chillingly mused to the filmmaker in 2009, shortly before his death, of terrified Palestinians fleeing their homes while pre-state forces lay siege to Deir Yassin. “I won’t tell you that we were there with kid gloves on. House after house … we’re putting in explosives and they are running away. An explosion and move on, an explosion and move on and within a few hours, half the village isn’t there any more.”
Zettler remained adamant until his death that the offensive against the Palestinian Arabs in Deir Yassin was not a massacre — somewhat contradicting his raw account of the aftermath:
“Our guys made a number of mistakes there that made me angry. Why did they do that? They took dead people, piled them up and burned them. There began to be a stink. This is not so simple.”
Professor Mordechai Gichon, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves and Haganah intelligence officer, sent to Deir Yassin after the assault, reports Haaretz, recounted the harrowing scene unfolding as he entered the village decades ago,
“There was a feeling of considerable slaughter and it was hard for me to explain it to myself as having been done in self-defense. My impression was more of a massacre than anything else. If it is a matter of killing innocent civilians, then it can be called a massacre.”
Tsaban, the former Israeli official, recalled deployment to Deir Yassin with fellow members of the Youth Brigades to bury the dead — or, rather, to cover up the enormity of the horror meted by pro-Independence forces in an effort to dodge inevitable brimstone from around the world were the truth made plain.
“The rationale was that the Red Cross was liable to show up at any moment and it was necessary to blur the traces [of the killings] because publication of pictures and testimonies about what had happened in the village would be very damaging to the image of our War of Independence,” Tsaban candidly asserted.
During a visit to the Haganah Archive, Shoshani told Haaretz in an interview in advance of the premier of her documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, a man quietly pulled her aside and conveyed he had taken photographs in Deir Yassin immediately after the massacre — but had not seen those images since.
“The man was Shraga Peled, 91, who at the time of the massacre was in the Haganah Information Service,” Haaretz explains. “He told Shoshani that after the battle he was sent to the village with a camera to document what he saw there. ‘When I got to Deir Yassin, the first thing I saw was a big tree to which a young Arab fellow was tied. And this tree was burnt in a fire. They had tied him to it and burned him. I photographed that,’ he related. He also claims he photographed from afar what looked like a few dozen other corpses collected in a quarry adjacent to the village. He handed the film over to his superiors, he says, and since then he has not seen the photos.
“Possibly this is because the photos are part of the visual material that is hidden to this day in the Archive of the IDF and the Defense Ministry, of which the state is prohibiting publication even 70 years after the fact. Shoshani petitioned the High Court of Justice about this a decade ago as part of her final project at Bezalel. Haaretz joined her in the petition.”
Years of persistent, dedicated research and interviews with witnesses and others revealed for Shoshani the true horrors of April 9, 1948, but there are many who take vociferous issue with the incident at Deir Yassin being termed a massacre — a few even assert it never happened.
Politicized selective descriptions aside, however, Deir Yassin represents a symbolic flashpoint in the acerbic battle for land simultaneously deemed Palestine and Israel, marking the onset oppression and apartheid conditions since endured by Palestinian Arabs under the Israeli occupation.