Deir Yassin massacre and Israel's normalised denial
On the morning of April 9, 1948, following a tight siege and mortar bombardment, around 130 paramilitaries from the Jewish gangs of Irgun and Stern forced their way into the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, less than a mile from the suburbs of Jerusalem, and began house-to-house assaults.
Part of “Operation Nachshon,” declaredly a military endeavour to break through the blockaded road to Jerusalem, the joint Jewish forces attacked the village with permission from the Haganah, then the leading Jewish militia and with whom the villagers had signed a non-aggression agreement.
Of nearly 70 massacres during the 1948 Nakba, Deir Yassin would become one of those atrocities where almost all the acts of war criminality were unleashed: killing, destruction, pillaging, rape, and displacement.
According to Benny Morris, Israeli historian and initially a leading figure in Israel’s new history revisionist movement, “[The militias] ransacked unscrupulously, stole money and jewels from the survivors, and burned the bodies. Even dismemberment and rape occurred.”
''The massacre set in motion an avalanche of tragic events, that eventually led to the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their land and the destruction of over 500 villages. ''
Ilan Pappé explains that many of the survivors were gathered in one place and murdered in cold blood, many buried in mass graves. Other bodies were piled up and burnt.
The killings took place in circumstances of great savagery, women and children were stripped, lined up, photographed, and then slaughtered by automatic firing, stated a 1948 UN report.
Commander of the Irgun reportedly boasted in a press conference that 240 people were killed. The New York Times on April 13 put the number at just over 200. A similar estimate was reported by Jacques de Reynier, president of the International Red Cross, who was among the first at the site.
In recent studies, the casualties are believed to be below 200.
Once put against the larger context of the Nakba, however, the number of casualties becomes irrelevant. What appears to matter above all else is that the massacre set in motion an avalanche of tragic events, that eventually led to the expulsion of nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their land and the destruction of over 500 villages.
But make no mistake, depopulating Palestine was not a consequential war event, but a carefully planned strategy, otherwise known as Plan Dalet, which was authorised by Ben-Gurion in March 1948. “Operation Nachshon” was, in fact, the first step in the plan.
Exaggerating the scale of the massacre, therefore, was never an act of bravado by overly zealous Jewish militiamen; rather an attempt, and a successful one, to spread panic and scare people into fleeing their homes. One might even say that Deir Yassin laid out a blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
In addition to locking Palestinians into a struggle for land and self-determination, the loss of Palestine also burdened them with an existential struggle for memory, against Israel’s attempts to wipe them out of history. Today, Deir Yassin is one of those sites of memory that vulgarly highlights not only Israel’s denial of its past, but also, and rather disturbingly, the banality and normalisation of that denial.
Since Israel’s inception, mainstream Israeli-Jewish society has been engaged in modes of “avoidance coping,” a maladaptive behavioural characterised by one’s attempts to avoid dealing with stressors that may disrupt their sense of normality.
Pretending that Deir Yassin never happened - especially as it is a well-documented massacre and known to many in Israel - helps many Israelis preserve their “righteous” national narratives, particularly their self-image as victims. A most needed blind spot, as it were, to continue to live on occupied land, on sites of ethnic cleansing and massacres, but without the obligation to own up to the past, let alone come to terms with it.
Nothing is more reflective of this “banality of denial” than the fact that today Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, lies 1500 yards north of the land upon which the village of Deir Yassin once stood. As visitors exit the children’s section of the museum, a dark room filled with candles and names of Jewish children killed in the Shoah, they come in full view of the site of Deir Yassin. The actual ruins of the village remain somewhat visible, but there are no markers, signs, or any mention from the museum tour guides as to what their visitors see from where they stand.
''To that end, to commemorate Deir Yassin is to provide a historical context to today’s Palestine and a meaning to Palestinian plight. Refusing to recognise the Palestinian past, however, is to deny the ongoing displacement and occupation.
Here, Jewish memory and victimhood are deployed as a means to conceal the hierarchies and constellations of power and deny perpetration, as well as to justify and protect the prevailing social order.
But it does not end there. The “banality of denial” sometimes takes on an active and purposeful role mainly to de-emphasise the value of Palestinian victimhood and therefore justify, even if implicitly, Israel’s atrocities. And what can serve this better than a good old “victim-blaming.”
As visitors to the Holocaust museum conclude their tour, they are greeted by a wall dedicated to the former Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Amin Al-Husseini (1897-1974), highlighting and decontextualising his connection with the Nazi Third Reich. To cite Israeli historian Tom Segev, “..the visitor is left to conclude that there is much in common between the Nazis’ plan to destroy the Jews and the Arab enmity.”
Even if the museum visitors were aware of the site of Deir Yassin, they had already been indoctrinated to see the victims as perpetrators, ones who were “pre-emptively stopped” from becoming part of the “Arab plan” to annihilate the Jews. After all, in the mainstream Zionist myths, the massacre was part of the “defensive war,” where Jews were overwhelmed by several Arab armies that allegedly set out to eliminate them.
Although such myths have long been debunked, the mindset that they have moulded continue to dominate. Zionist American scholar, Gil Troy, for instance, goes well beyond labelling the massacre as defensive and the death of civilians as mere collateral damage to painting the Palestinian commemoration of Deir Yassin as nothing but “fateful blood libel.” In other words, anti-Semitic propaganda.
Remembering the past is an active, constructive process, not a mere retrieval of data. An event commemorated is an event rejuvenated and re-conceptualised in service of the present.
To that end, to commemorate Deir Yassin is to provide a historical context to today’s Palestine and a meaning to Palestinian plight. Refusing to recognise the Palestinian past, however, is to deny the ongoing displacement and occupation and; ergo, the Palestinian right to self-determination, peoplehood, and even collective memory.
As if to say, to remember and commemorate the past is to remember Palestine. And as long as Palestine is remembered, it continues to exist. And as it exists, so does the struggle.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.