Many countries have been born from violence, some being seized against the will of people who live there, some being carved out of territories in a fashion that made no sense in terms of religion, culture, demographics or geography, and some after a struggle against an oppressive colonial power. However, there is something about the savage brutality of the birth of Israel that is particularly haunting and forever unforgivable. Lands were seized, the inhabitants slaughtered, displaced, humiliated, in full view and with the complicity of the watching world. Metaphors used to describe traumatic birth include “enveloping darkness” and “suffocating layers of trauma”. These can surely be used to describe what the birth of Israel has done to Palestine. And decades later, right-wing Zionists hold sway.
Towards the end of 2022, Israel elected the most religious and far-right government in its history, a coalition in which Netanyahu has made a number of concessions to the far-right partners who are included. The west supports the state of Israel with trade and weapons and the Palestinians continue to be persecuted. They may live in Israel, in East Jerusalem, in Gaza or in the West Bank but everywhere they are still deprived of basic rights and considered to belong to a racially inferior group. The Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 should have acted as a warning to the world that a monster was being created. Shamefully it has somehow escaped being accountable for its atrocities.
Seventy five years ago, on May 15th 1948, the state of Israel was established. Just a month earlier, between April 9th and April 11th, unspeakable atrocities were carried out against Palestinians. This was the attack on Deir Yassin in the British Mandate of Palestine. At this time the final status of the area was still to be determined by the United Nations. The attack was called by an Israeli historian, Matthew Hogan, “a landmark in the chronicles of the Israel-Arab conflict and a symbol of the horrors of war….which still haunts the Middle East”.
Deir Yassin was a peaceful village with a population of around 1,000 people, set on a hill west of Jerusalem. The workforce was mainly employed in quarrying and stone-cutting. The slaughter and suffering which took place have resulted in Deir Yassin becoming a watchword for the suffering Israel would inflict on the Palestinians and which continues to this day. The attack was carried out by at least 130 fighters from two Zionist paramilitary organisations. Some villagers tried to resist, but the attackers advanced and, as they did so, they threw grenades and blew up houses. One hundred and ten villagers, perhaps many more, were thought to have been slaughtered, the elderly, women and children included. Some were shot in the back, some lined against walls and killed with machine gun fire and some tied to trees and the trees set alight so that they burned to death. The villagers were humiliated, and some were raped and mutilated. Others who survived were captured and cruelly paraded in the streets of Jerusalem. According to the United Kingdom Delegation to the United Nations, in a letter to the UN Palestine Commission, sent on April 20th 1948: “The deaths of some 250 Arabs, men, women and children, which occurred during this attack, took place in circumstances of great savagery. Women and children were stripped, lined up, photographed, and then slaughtered by automatic firing and survivors have told of even more incredible bestialities. Those who were taken prisoner were treated with degrading brutality.”
There are clear reasons why this was a pivotal event. The attack was far from unique, but taking place even before the state of Israel had come into existence was particularly shocking, though it gave a chilling foretaste of what was to come. Some would say it became standard practice for the Israelis in their persecution of Palestinians. But it was also decisive because once Palestinians in other villages received news of events at Deir Yassin they began to flee in terror. Finally, no one has ever been held accountable, no one charged with war crimes, and some Zionists refuse to believe that it ever happened, despite documentation, eye witness reports and confirmation from the United Nations.
The massacres by Zionist militias continued. Only six weeks after Deir Yassin, there was another, the Tantura massacre. In fact there were in the region of 70 massacres around this time. Palestinians continue to commemorate the loss of the villages that were once part of their homeland. It is estimated that 15,000 Palestinians were killed. About 700,000 are thought to have fled or been forcibly displaced and tried to settle elsewhere in Palestine or in neighbouring countries as refugees. This was clearly a planned strategy. The purpose of this dispossession of the Palestinian’s land was to make way for the creation of Israel. This was the Nakba, the ‘catastrophe’.
Criminal acts of war of the kind that occurred in Deir Yassin are certainly not atypical. Killing, rape, torture, looting, destruction and displacement all characterise war. These acts of criminality are still of course in use by Israel against the Palestinians today. Some sources trace the current situation back to the 1967 Six Day War, but the roots of conflict go back decades, long before the creation of Israel, and, despite some attempts at agreements and ceasefires, the persecution and violence perpetrated against the Palestinians continues.
The Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) wrote at the time that the slaughter at Deir Yassin and similar events had become infamous: “In Deir Yassin hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred,” he said. “Let the village remain uninhabited for the time being, and let its desolation be a terrible and tragic symbol of war, and a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder.”