Few with any sense of intellectual or historical integrity would still question the bloody massacre that took place in the village of Deir Yassin 65 years ago, claiming the lives of over 100 innocent Palestinians. Attempts at covering up the massacre have been dwarfed by grim details by well-respected historians, including some of Israel’s own.
Even narratives offered by historians such as Benny Morris – an honest researcher who remained committed to Zionism despite the ghastly history he had himself uncovered – presented a harrowing version of the events that unfolded on that day: “Whole families were riddled with bullets… men, women, and children were mowed down as they emerged from houses; individuals were taken aside and shot. Haganah intelligence reported ‘there were piles of dead. Some of the prisoners moved to places of incarceration, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors…’”
It was the Irgun Zionist militias of Menachem Begin and the Stern Gang (Lehi) lead by Yitzhak Shamir that took credit for the infamy of that day; and both were rewarded generously for their ‘heroism’. The once wanted criminals rose to prominence to become Israeli Prime Ministers in later years.
The importance of the Deir Yassin massacre to historians often obscures important facts. One amongst them is that Deir Yassin was one of many massacres perpetrated by Zionist troops, including Haganah units. Another is that these militias had jointly formed the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) following the official Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 despite their supposed differences during the conquest of Palestine. David Ben-Gurion had made his decision on May 26 and hesitated little to include both the Irgun and Lehi, alongside the Haganah. Not only did the leaders of the terrorist militias command respect and enjoy prestige within Israeli society, armed forces, and the political elite, but the very murderers who butchered innocent men, women, and children were empowered with bigger guns and continued to ‘serve’ and terrorize for many more years. Another often overlooked fact is that what started at Deir Yassin never truly finished. Sabra and Shatila, Jenin, Gaza, and many more are only recreations of the same event.
But another sad reality also emerged and crystalized in the last 65 years. Since then the right to credible narration has still largely been reserved for Israeli historians. Most of these historians, whether sympathetic or otherwise, either played no part in that history, were privileged by its outcome, or were themselves active participants. Still, it would take an Israeli historian to ‘discover’ a Palestinian massacre in some village at some point in time. For example, only when Israeli journalist Amir Gilat chose to run a story in Ma’arive newspaper a few years ago, citing the research of Israeli master’s degree student Theodore Katz, did western media acknowledge the Tantura massacre. It mattered little that the descendants and relatives of 240 victims of that grief stricken village who were killed in cold blood by Alexandroni troops never ceased remembering their loved ones. A ‘massacre’ is only a massacre when half-heartedly acknowledged by an Israeli historian, no matter how long it takes for that admission to resurface.
Even Palestinian historians, at least those who are held accountable to the rules of western media and academia, find themselves borrowing mostly from Israeli sources, aggrandizing Israeli writers and celebrating Israeli historians who are supposedly more trustworthy than Palestinians. The logic has it that a sympathetic Israeli narrative would win greater acceptance by American or British audiences than one told by a Palestinian, even if the Palestinian historian had lived the event and experienced its every gory detail.
It is a travesty for the Palestinian narrative to live on borrowed analogies, borrowed histories, and borrowed historians in order to enjoy an iota of credibility. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and the problem runs much deeper than this.
In my last book, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story, I charted a detailed account of the Massacre of Beit Daras, when scores of inhabitants of that brave village, located in southern Palestine, were gunned down by Haganah troops only weeks after Deir Yassin inhabitants were massacred in a similar fashion. Beit Daras is the village from which my family was dispossessed to subsist in an impoverished refugee camp in Gaza.
Although Beit Daras was located at the northeastern part of the Gaza District in southern Palestine, it was high on the Zionist leadership agenda as early as the first months of conquest. The small village was one of a few villages and towns marked for destruction in Operation Nachshon and Harel aimed to completely cut off the Jaffa-Jerusalem landmass. The war for Beit Daras began early, as heavy shelling began between March 27-28, 1948, killing 9 villagers and destroying large areas of the village’s crops.
Several attempts had failed to drive the resilient villagers out. What turned out to be the last battle took place in mid-May. Um ‘Adel and Um Mohammed were two young girls in Beit Daras at the time. Now old women in Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, they helped me connect some of the pieces regarding what happened on that day. I provided their historically consistent accounts in my book on Gaza. Here are few excerpts:
Um ‘Adel recalls: “The women and children were told to leave because the news of the Deir Yassin massacre was spreading and with it lots of fear. We were told that the Jews not only massacre people, but rape women. The women had to be sent away, but the men wouldn’t leave. But so many of them were killed. The men fought like lions, and many were killed as well, including Abu Mansi Nassar and his two brothers, Ali Mohammed Hussain al-Osaji, and four youth from al-Maqadima.”
Um Mohammed elaborated: “The town was under bombardment, and it was surrounded from all directions. There was no way out. They surrounded it all, from the direction of Isdud, al-Sawafir and everywhere. We wanted to pursue a way out. The armed men (the Beit Daras fighters) said they were going to check on the road to Isdud, to see if it was open. They moved forward and shot few shots to see if someone would return fire. No one did. But they (the Zionist forces) were hiding and waiting to ambush the people. The armed men returned and told the people to evacuate the women and children. The people went out (including) those who were gathered at my huge house, the family house. There were mostly children and kids in the house.
“The armed men came and said, ‘the road to Isdud is open, evacuate the people.’ The Jews let the people get out, and then they whipped them with bombs and machine guns. More people fell than those who were able to run. My sister and I…started running through the fields; we’d fall and get up. My sister and I escaped together holding each other’s hand. The people who took the main road were either killed or injured, and those who went through the fields. The firing was falling on the people like sand. The bombs from one side and the machine guns from the other. The Jews were on the hill; there was a school and a water reservoir for people and the vegetables. They showered the people with machine guns. A lot of the people died and got injured.”
But many fighters remained in Beit Daras. Not even a massacre would weaken their resolve. The wounded were gathered in many houses, but with little medical care to count on. Some of the dead were hurriedly buried. Many others were unreachable, lying in the sun amidst the blooming fields of spring.