After the massacre, the militias boasted to the press of how many Arabs they had killed.
The New York Times subsequently reported that 254 Arabs were killed in Deir Yassin—the Palestinian village wiped out 70 years ago next month.
That massacre has since come to symbolise all the crimes committed against the Palestinians in 1948.
It wasn’t the only massacre that year—or even the biggest. But it was an early sign of what was in store for Palestinians. Over the coming months hundreds of thousands would be systematically cleared from their homes to make way for the new state of Israel.
For the people of Deir Yassin that happened just before dawn on Friday 9 April.
Two Jewish militias, The Irgun and the Lehi—or Stern Gang—attacked the village, thinking it an easy target. But they were met with fierce resistance.
That the Palestinians tried to defend themselves is sometimes used by Israel to excuse what happened next.
Jewish fighters made their way through the village house by house, throwing grenades into each one before entering and killing anyone still alive.
Captured villagers—many of them children and elderly people—were lined up and sprayed with machine gun fire. Families were mown down on their doorsteps.
A letter by a Lehi fighter—written at the time—breathlessly describes how “this was the first time in my life that at my hands and before my eyes Arabs fell.
“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”.
Despite denying a massacre ever took place, Lehi commander Yehoshua Zettler recently told filmmaker Neta Shoshani, “I won’t tell you that we were there with kid gloves on. They ran like cats.
“House after house we were 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 anymore.”
Once the killing had stopped, bodies were piled up and burned. A group of
25 men and boys were forced into trucks and paraded through Jerusalem, then taken to a quarry and murdered.
When Mordechai Gichcon—an officer from Jewish army the Haganah—arrived at the village, the scene reminded him of the persecution Jews faced in 19th century Russia.
“If you are coming into a civilian locale and dead people are scattered around in it—then it looks like a pogrom,” he said decades later.
“When the Cossacks burst into Jewish neighbourhoods, then that should have looked something like this.”
One Israeli version of this story tries desperately to absolve the attackers of guilt. Apologists tell of how the militias left open an escape route for villagers to flee the attack.
Or how they “evacuated”—forcibly removed—some of those who couldn’t run.
Yet the version told by those who carried out the attack revelled in the horror they had brought—even inflating the scale of the atrocity.
The true number of Palestinians killed is probably closer to 110.
The first higher estimates came from the attackers themselves.
The two lies have the same purpose. Attackers allowed Palestinians to flee because they wanted to empty the village of Arabs.
They killed as many as possible to encourage Arabs in other villages to flee too.
It was part of a plan to systematically empty Palestinian towns, villages and cities of Arabs.
A few months earlier in November 1947 the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution to divide Palestine.
Many tens of thousands of Jews had recently arrived in Palestine after escaping the industrial-scale slaughter of the Nazi Holocaust.
European Jews had already been living in colonies there since the end of the 19th century, often having fled antisemitic persecution.
But as socialist Tony Cliff, a Jew who was born and grew up in Palestine wrote, “The Jews were horribly oppressed but it didn’t guarantee they became progressive or revolutionary.”
This colonial movement—Zionism—sought to build an exclusively Jewish state in all of Palestine.
The Palestinians already living there had to be made to leave. They looked for support from imperialist powers to help them do that.
Britain—which had occupied Palestine since the end of the First World War—supported the Zionists, who helped to police and repress the occupied Palestinians.
But now that Britain’s empire was crumbling it could no longer keep on top of the violent forces it had helped to take root, and decided to leave.
The UN agreed to divide Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews. More than 50 percent of Palestine was “given” to the Jews, who were just a third of the population and occupied no more than 10 percent of the land.
But an exclusively Jewish state needed a Jewish majority.
Zionist leader David Ben Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, worried “There are 40 percent non-Jews in the areas allocated to the Jewish state.
“Such a demographic balance questions our ability to maintain Jewish sovereignty. Only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state”.
Along with other Zionist leaders, Ben Gurion had drawn up a plan. Haganah intelligence officers collected detailed information on every Arab village and urban centre.
Areas of Palestine were divided into zones that were allocated to different Haganah battalions.
Every Palestinian village that stood between isolated Jewish settlements in each zone had to be cleared of Arabs.
Where Arab villages had signed non-aggression pacts with neighbouring Jewish settlements—such as Deir Yassin—underground militias the Irgun and Lehi were tacitly allowed to take over.
As the clearances gathered pace, the Zionist leadership grew bolder and more enthusiastic.
“When I come now to Jerusalem I feel I am in a Jewish city,” Ben Gurion said in February.
“In many Arab neighbourhoods in the West you do not even see one Arab. I do not suppose it will change.
“And what happened in Jerusalem and Haifa can happen in large parts of the country.
“If we persist it is quite possible that in the next six or eight months there will be considerable changes in the country, very considerable and to our advantage”.
By March there was a solid plan—plan Dalet—that left no doubt about the fate of Arab villages.
“These operations should be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their rubble),” it said.
“In the case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state”.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe labelled this plan for what it was—a blueprint for ethnic cleansing. Deir Yassin was among the first villages cleared under plan Dalet.
By that point at least 75,000 Palestinians had already become refugees—months before Britain had even left.
The British army in Palestine was twice the size of the Haganah and could have easily stopped the massacres.
Instead Britain allowed ethnic cleansing to take place in full view of its occupying forces.
It was days after the massacre that the British turned up in Deir Yassin—not far from capital Jerusalem—to investigate. One police officer had been sent but was blocked by the Haganah.
After the initial bragging, the Zionist forces now hoped to hide what they had done.
Even now the Israeli state makes sure that photos of the massacre stay locked in its military archives.
But the Haganah officer who took those photographs—Shraga Peled—remembers them vividly.
“When I got to Deir Yassin, the first thing I saw was a big tree to which a young Arab fellow was tied,” he recalls in Shoshani’s film. “This tree was burnt in a fire. They had tied him to it and burned him. I photographed that”.
Where once they celebrated the massacre, now the Israeli establishment seeks to cover it up—and with good reason.
The groups that committed the massacre went on to form Israel’s army.
Irgun commander Menachem Begin later became the Israeli prime minister.
The memory of Deir Yassin is an embarrassment for Israel—it reveals the horror from which that state was born.