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Deir Yassin Remembered

This year marks the 67th anniversary of the massacre at Deir Yassin, one of the most appalling crimes carried out by the Jewish Irgun and Stern gangs in Palestine.

By Felicity Arbuthnot

            "No person has the right to rain on your dreams" -- Martin Luther King, 1929-1968

April 30, 2012 "Information Clearing House" ---  Many dreams have been rained on since peace was declared at the end of World War II on 8 May 1945. Two veritable hurricanes were commemorated on 9 April this year, as was the funeral of one man who dreamed: Martin Luther King.

The anniversary of the day Baghdad fell nine years ago during the US-led invasion of Iraq also marked the anniversary of the massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin by Jewish forces 64 years before.

Ironically, in the month that Israel has arranged world-wide celebrations to mark its 64th birthday on 26 April this year, Palestine has marked the 64th anniversary of this butchery and carnage, even as almond and olive blossoms and spring flowers fill the slopes of the village where this happened with fragrant life.

The anniversary also marks the beginning of the policy of "cleansing" Palestine's villages by Jewish forces, aiming at the destruction, diminution and fragmentation of what was once Palestine.

The Deir Yassin massacre marked the first time Jewish forces had gone on the attack, setting a precedent and causing a weeping wound in the collective Palestinian soul. Since then, year after year, Palestinian homes, farms, orchards, livelihoods, and even fishing grounds have been destroyed or separated by Israel's security wall, an "iron curtain" that has descended across the land.

One graphic description of the attack on the village of Deir Yassin comes from the diaries of the then Swiss representative of the International Red Cross, Jacques de Reynier, who was the first to reach the site. He was let in by an "enormous German-born member of the Irgun," who told Reynier he owed his life to the Red Cross.

The Jewish Irgun and Stern gangs had denied any involvement in the events at Deir Yassin and had accused Ha Haganah ("Defence"), the Jewish paramilitary organisation that operated in Palestine under the British mandate, of having carried it out. Haganah subsequently became the core of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

However, Sir Alan Cunningham, Britain's High Commissioner in Palestine, later firmly laid the blame on the Irgun and Stern gangs.

On entering the village, what he saw made Reynier "gasp," as did the youth of many of the attackers, some of whom were mere adolescents. "There were people rushing everywhere, in and out of houses, carrying Sten guns, rifles, pistols and long ornate knives. They seemed half mad. I saw a beautiful girl carrying a dagger still covered with blood. I heard screams." The German Irgun member remarked that "we're still mopping up."

"All that I could think of was the SS troops I'd seen in Athens," Reynier wrote, remembering seeing "a young woman stab an elderly man and woman, who were cowering on the doorstep of their hut."

In the first house he reached "everything had been ripped apart. There were bodies strewn around... 'cleaning up' was done with guns and grenades, the work finished with knives." Seeing movement, he saw "a little foot, still warm." A 10-year-old Palestinian girl, "mutilated by a grenade," was still alive. Reynier found an elderly woman hiding behind a woodpile "paralysed with fear" and a dying man.

Reynier estimated seeing some 200 bodies, one of a woman, probably eight months pregnant, shot in the stomach. There were also butchered infants. Schoolgirls and elderly women has been raped and then murdered. Ears had been severed to remove ear rings, bracelets had been torn from arms and rings from fingers.

It subsequently transpired that the dead had been taken to the rock quarry where the villagers had made their living from the expert stone cutting for which they were renowned. The bodies had been doused in petrol and set alight.

"It was a lovely spring day. The almond blossoms were in bloom, the flowers were out, and everywhere there was the stench of the dead, the smell of blood and the terrible odour of corpses burning in the quarry," recalled a horrified Yeshurun Schiff, who, in spite of the horrors he had witnessed, could not bring himself to order revenge on the perpetrators because Jewish history was "too full of stories of fratricidal struggles" to start another in a new land.

A further tragic irony was the good relationship the village had enjoyed with a neighbouring village of Jewish settlers. The village had arranged signals to warn this village if Arab dissidents were approaching, and the Jewish residents had arranged to warn their neighbours if their own dissidents were in the vicinity. However, the pre-dawn attack foiled such plans.

Jewish residents of Palestine overwhelmingly condemned the attack on Deir Yassin, and in an extraordinary move the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem excommunicated those responsible. Yet, an appeal by the Arab Emergency Committee to the British to intervene to halt the violence fell on deaf ears, general Sir Gordon MacMillan commenting that he would risk British lives only in "British interests." Nothing changes.

In the absence of movement from the British authorities, the quiet hero of that day was the Red Cross's Reynier who rescued survivors despite being threatened by "a dozen soldiers, their machine guns aimed at my body. I flew into one of the most towering rages of my life, telling these criminals what I thought of them and threatening them with everything I could think of and then pushed them aside."

On 10 April 1948, Albert Einstein wrote a searing condemnation of what had happened at Deir Yassin, addressing it to Shepard Rifkin, director of the American Friends of the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.

Einstein's message read, "when a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine, the first of those responsible for it would be the British and the second would be the terrorist organisations built up from our own ranks. I am not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people."

A year later, the Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul Beth was founded on the site. In the 1980s, the remains of Deir Yassin were bulldozed to make way for new settlements, as was much of the original cemetery to make way for a highway. The streets of the new neighbourhoods were named after members of the Irgun and Haganah.

The British shadow also stands over the remnants of Palestine. The mandate authorities passed the right of house demolitions to local military commanders without limit or appeal in 1945. Although they stated that this was to be repealed in 1948, they failed to follow the correct procedures, and house demolitions in what was once Palestine are still being carried out under the 67-year-old British law.

In 1947-48, more than 700,000 Palestinians were forcefully removed or fled from their homes. From 1967 to June 2011, 24,813 Palestinian homes were destroyed, with not one permit being issued to Palestinians to build in the Occupied Territories.

According to the Israeli administration, in the first five months of 2011, Israeli forces demolished more Palestinian homes than in the whole of 2010, rendering homeless over 700 Palestinians, of which 341 were minors.

Furthermore, the first draft of a law passed by the Israeli Knesset last June requires, should it become law, Palestinians who have had their homes demolished by Israeli forces to bear the full costs of their destruction.

Many Palestinian homeowners, mainly in Jerusalem, have already been forced to pay for the forced demolition of their own homes. It is perhaps apt that Deir Yassin, where all this insanity arguably began, is now the site of the Kfaur Shaul Mental Health Centre, a large psychiatric hospital.

The demolitions have been carried out using US-made D9 bulldozers, manufactured by the Caterpillar corporation, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In April 1963, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King wrote, "we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

However, there is some heartening news. In peace flotillas, in the recent "flytilla", and in other actions too numerous to count, Jewish people across the world from every walk of life, including doughty Holocaust survivors, have been joining those demanding an end to the oppression and to what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has so eloquently described as the collective paranoia of Israel's "rollercoaster of mass hysteria".

* The writer was researcher for two award-winning documentaries on Iraq, Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq , and Returns , the latter for the Irish broadcaster RTE.

This article was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly


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