By David Bedein, MSW

New facts behind Deir Yassin: The witness who was not there.

[April 9, 1998] During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, an estimated 600,000 Arabs fled the new Jewish state of Israel. They and their descendants are still refugees. No Arab country will have them. They still languish in refugee camps. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian Arabs continue to mutter "Deir Yassin" when they are asked to describe the tragedy that has befallen their people.

On April 9, 1998, the DEIR YASSIN MEMORIAL COMMITTEE organized vigils throughout the world on the day that marks 50 years to the day when Arab civilians were killed in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood that is known as Deir Yassin.

Until recently, the commonly held assumption amongst Jews and Arabs alike was that Jewish underground fighters had rounded up Deir Yassin's Arab civilians after the battle for control of the village and that they shot them in a ditch. To deny that a massacre ever took place at Deir Yassin would be like an American forgetting the Maine or forgiving the Alamo.

Yet what has now emerged is that the one eyewitness who gave credibility to the account of a massacre, the Haganah intelligene officer, Meir Pe'il, submitted an entirely different report back in 1948 that has only recently been discovered and authenticated in the archives of the Israel Defense Forces.

In that report, Pe'il writes that he arrived at Deir Yassin at 4PM on the day of the event, many hours AFTER the battle that had raged at dawn. In his report, Pe'il described the dead strewn in the village, the bodies in the houses which had been used as defensive outposts by Arab gunmen, and no mention of any massacre. Pe'il's massacre story began only the next day, after an Irgun fighter on the scene called together foreign correspondents and greatly exaggerated the amount of civilian casualties - to 254, instead of the estimated 100, to frighten the Arabs everywhere, as the fighter put it.

Pe'il picked up on this figure and simply added his own footnote days later, adding that the Arab civilans who survived the battle were machine-gunned to death by the dissident Jewish groups, known as the Stern and the Irgun organizations. Pe'il, who was then in charge of a division of Haganah counterintelligence that engaged in a power struggle with the Stern and Irgun units, effectively spread the rumor that the Stern and Irgun groups had indeed massacred the remaining civilians from Deir Yassin.

Pe'il's word was taken as the gospel in almost all Zionist and Arab accounts of the 1948 war... Pe'il, who later rose to the rank of colonel in the Israel Defence Forces, went on to become a military historian and founder of a member of a small left wing faction in Israel's Knesset, would not comment on recent revelations which demonstrate that he was not an eyewitness to an event at Deir Yassin.

Yet as recently as December 1996, Pe'il addressed the Deir Yassin Memorial committee and described in graphic detail how he had seen the Jewish troops from Stern and Irgun drag out the Arab civilians from Deir Yassin to be executed...

Yet in the early days of the Palestinian Arab uprising in 1987 and 1988, the new communications wing of the PLO decided not to emphasize the issue of Deir Yassin. As one prominent PLO media expert put it then, the Deir Yassin account was too loaded with problems and not clear enough. That is why the PLO, at the height of the Intifada in the Spring of 1988, decided not to organize any ceremony to mark forty years to Deir Yassin. One Palestinian professor Beir Zeit University near Ramallah, said at the time that there was no proof of the amount of casualties and no real witnesses that he could find to the massacre. And as recently as January, 1998, Beir Zeit University issued a definitive report in which it published the names of the civilians who died at Deir Yassin, demonstrating that there were about than 100 civilians who died there, not 254.

And in the BBC television series, "Israel and the Arabs: the 50-Year Conflict," scheduled to air next month, an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service's Arabic news in 1948 claims that he was instructed by Hussein Khalidi, the secretary of the Arab High Command, to exaggerate abuses at Deir Yassin and to claim that children were wantonly executed and that pregnant women were raped.

Another reason why the PLO did not push the issue of Deir Yassin was because a prominent elder statesman of the Israel Labor Party, the eloquent former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who openly expressed sympathy for the aspirations of Palestinian Arabs for a state of their own, was quick to point out to his Palestinian colleagues that when he was indeed the foreign minister back in 1969 that his office had published a study that challenged the veracity of any massacre at Deir Yassin,

Meanwhile, both Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America and Daniel McGowan head of the"Deir Yassin Remembered" committee, both of which are based in New York, each point out, each from their own point of view, that more than one hundred and sixty books that describe Zionist history had given credence to the account first reported by Meir Pe'il that Jews had simply murdered Arab civilians, following the battle.

Yet none of these histories of 1948 mention primary sources - Only a commonly accepted assumption that a massacre at Deir Yassin had took place. A massacre did take indeed take place, following the events in Deir Yassin, which had occurred on Friday morning April 9, 1948. On Monday morning, April 13, 1948, an Arab mob, chanting "Deir Yassin", massacred a bus convoy of Jewish doctors and nurses who were headed to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. 78 of Hadassah's medical personnel were murdered. Only recently was it revealed that some of the Hadassah nurses had found refuge in the nearby compound of the British consul, only to be turned over to Arabs who proceeded to slaughter them in revenge for what they thought had occurred at Deir Yassin.

Both sides used the symbol of "Remember Deir Yassin" in 1948. There were Jews who intimidated Arabs with the slogan and their were Arab commanders who rallied their populace with the same adage. Meanwhile, what has fanned the flames of Deir Yassin has been the United Nations decision to confine more than three million Palestinian Arabs to refugee camps, under the premise and promise of the "right of return" to Arab villages that no longer exist.

UN Resolution #194 on the subject of Arab refugees, reaffirmed each year, does not allow for any possibility of compensation for Arab refugees, only for the right of return. As the principal of one of the UNRWA Arab refugee camps declared in March 1998 on a news program of the Palestine Authority's Palestine Broadcasting Corporation, "Deir Yassin and the right of return are on the lips of every Palestinian Arab schoolchild to this day".

The massacre at Deir Yassin may not have happened. Yet its legacy lives on. - As a media research analyst and bureau chief of a Jerusalem-based news agency, I am pleased to offer you the opportunity to peruse this timely essay concerning a Middle East subject that became an American issue this year.


David Bedein, MSW is the Media Research Analyst Bureau Chief : ISRAEL RESOURCE NEWS AGENCY, Beit Agron International Press Center, Jerusalem, Israel.

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