In his new book, Deir Yassin: The End of the Myth, Prof. Eliezer Tauber, head of the Institute for the Study of Underground Movements at Bar-Ilan University and former Dean of the Faculty of Jewish Studies at the University, examines the events of that day in April 1948 when the Arab village of Deir Yassin was attacked by Lehi and Etzel (Irgun or IZL) fighters, and reveals step by step the origin of the myth that a massacre was committed against the villagers.
Prof. Tauber opened his recent interview with Arutz Sheva by highlighting the central conclusion of his book.
“Basically there was no massacre in Deir Yassin.”
In explaining what led him to that conclusion, Tauber noted that, since the Israeli-Arab conflict by definition consists of both Israelis and Arabs, it is not possible to reach real conclusions regarding the issues related to it without carefully examining the claims of both sides. This is in contrast to previous writers who examined the Deir Yassin affair by investigating only one side of those involved in the incident.
To write his book, Tauber thus turned to both Jewish and Arab sources, to the testimonies of Etzel (Irgun) and Lehi fighters, and to the testimonies of the Arabs at the scene. Not surprisingly, he said, the testimonies sound similar and express the same conclusion: There was no massacre at Deir Yassin.
The data collection process for the book included locating documents and recorded interviews conducted by the parties over the years, as well as interviews with some of those involved in the affair who are still alive.
According to Tauber, interviews with Arab refugees show an amazing picture that disproves the supposed massacre attributed to underground fighters by politically motivated parties who were not present at the event itself but addressed it later.
Prof. Tauber said that, at the beginning of his work, he embarked on a mission that was considered by many to be impossible–to locate each and every one of the Arabs present at the incident or who died during it, to identify all of them by name and not simply relate to them as “a bunch of Arabs,” and to understand the reasons for the death of each one, investigate these reasons and thereby gain a complete picture of the incident.
“When you understand how each one died, you can understand what happened there,” he said, asserting that the historians who later spread the rumors of a massacre “had no idea of what happened in Deir Yassin.”
In this context, he mentioned the description in Haaretz according to which the incident involved a few defenseless villagers. “They don’t know anything about the village because they based their claims on sources that were not at the scene,” he said, noting that in reality, “the village was fortified. There is a list of guard positions and more. A delegation from the village went to Egypt to obtain weapons. Weapons arrived five days before the attack, a result of totally random timing. Egyptian intelligence arrested them because they bought the weapons on the black market,” he said, noting that “if the weapons had not reached the village, all [the Arab villagers] would have fled, and not only 70 percent of them.”
Prof. Tauber went on to present a number of examples showing the intensive level of investigation he conducted. Among other things, he told of a moment during the event when Etzel (Irgun) men knocked on the door of a house containing a woman and five men, one of whom was holding a rifle.
The woman came out, and she is the one who survived and related the incident. Afterward, the man with the rifle came out, and when the Jewish fighters noticed the rifle, they threw a grenade, and the five men were killed.
Prof. Tauber argues that, based on familiarity with the Arab mentality, the man with the rifle came out to surrender, but the choice to come out with the rifle instead of throwing it down misled the Etzel fighters. The significance is that, while there was no real danger to the Etzel fighters, at the time it was impossible to know this, and their response was appropriate in light of what they perceived was happening.
“If anyone defines this as a ‘massacre,’ I have nothing to say to him,” Tauber said, adding that “At that time a procedure was very common whereby the [Jewish] soldiers surrounded their wounded with women so they would not be shot at, but the Arab snipers continued to shoot and hit the women. I am not arguing about ethics. My book is not a book of ethics but one about historical truth.”
So, then, how did the story of a massacre continue to blossom? Professor Tauber replied: “The story of the massacre grew out of two elements: There was one case–which was reported by the Etzel, in which a group of Arabs left the house and surrendered, but an Etzel fighter shot at them with a machine gun. This is the only exception. This happened in the lower part of the village. When an event happens at the bottom, all the Arabs in the upper part of the village can see it and, indeed, everyone focuses on that one family in their reports. Later, a foreign journalist interviewed one of the family members who was wounded, and she talked about shots at a family.”
Tauber continued: “Hussein al-Khalidi, the Supreme Secretary of the Arab Committee in Jerusalem, then the senior political figure in Jerusalem, was wondering how to enlist the Arab world in a struggle in which the local Arabs didn’t have a chance [on their own]. He told his aide, Hassan Nusseibeh, that they must begin to engage in propaganda because they do not interest the Arab countries. ‘We have to tell Deir Yassin, not as it really happened, but to exaggerate it,’ he said.
“We know this from Hassan Nusseibeh himself, as he has said so in interviews. And then they started to say that 254 people were killed and raped, and the problem of rape is the one that scared the Palestinians more than the killings, giving the story worldwide circulation. As the Arabs say, the person who caused this catastrophe is Hussein al-Khalidi.
“In the book I say that he wanted to prevent a catastrophe, but ended up causing one. It may be that from the logical point of view he did the logical thing, but things went wrong and that [false story] was the number one factor in the flight of the Arabs from Israel. That is how the myth was created,” said Tauber, who noted that Al-Khalidi’s assistant was responsible for the Arab radio broadcast from Jerusalem, so that the exaggerated story that they decided to spread could be immediately broadcast without British censorship. “Within minutes, the story spread across Israel with all the significance [with which it had been purposely imbued].”
And how was the myth born from the Israeli angle, the angle of historians like Meir Pa’il and others? “People like Pa’il came only at four o’clock, an hour and a half after the battle ended, as he himself attests in a report he did not think would be revealed to the public, and as his photographer Shraga Peled, who arrived only an hour later, attests. Likewise with Yechezkel Rabi and Mordechai Gihon, who was the first to arrive and said that he arrived half an hour later. They arrived after the event, and the sights were indeed terrible. Lehi and Etzel members attempted to dispose of the corpses by burning them. The stench was awful.”
Tauber also disproved the oft-cited claim that an Arab man was burned alive after being tied to a tree.
“They [who make this claim] do not know what happened in the village. The Arab was Abd Allah ‘Abd al-Majid Samur, a fighter who tried to escape on the trucks carrying the women and children. At that point, they identified him and shot him and tied the corpse to a tree to burn it. “They did not burn an Arab alive.”
On the interests that led to spreading the myth in the Jewish public, Professor Tauber explains: “Gihon, whose report should be read in its original form, included a remark that the operation attracted great sympathy for the dissidents and that propaganda needed to be produced to present the incident as a military and moral failure. Later these comments were omitted. Meir Pa’il came an hour and a half after the battle and related in his original report that he had seen corpses which he assumed had died in a massacre, meaning that he didn’t see one, but only imagined what had happened.
“Because he stood at the head of the unit working against [the underground Zionist groups vying with the Palmach] Etzel and Lehi, he described the incident as if he had seen the shooting with his own eyes and saw how they fired at people in the quarry. He claimed that there were photographs, but his photographer says he took pictures of dead bodies and not of the shooting itself. All the pictures are of dead bodies and not of the actual shooting.”
Tauber also noted that the Arab stories about the battle of Deir Yassin later reached delusional levels, while abroad the story is presented in such a way as to turn the Jews into Nazis. Nevertheless, he mentioned a blunt quote from an Arab interviewee who was asked whether there had been rape incidents in the village. He responded that this claim was false. “And the interviewer, who understands the effect of this rumor, says ‘In other words, the Jews are free of guilt on these matters, but we still have lost our lands.’”
By: Shimon Cohen