Explainer: The Deir Yassin Massacre
PHOTO: The ruins of Palestinian homes in Deir Yassin. Within a year of the massacre and the expulsion of its Palestinian residents, Deir Yassin was repopulated with Jewish immigrants and its name erased from the map.
What was the Deir Yassin massacre?
- The Deir Yassin massacre was a massacre of more than 100 Palestinians, including dozens of children, women, and elderly people, carried out by Zionist militias in the Palestinian town of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem on April 9, 1948, during the establishment of the state of Israel. Some of the victims were mutilated and raped before being murdered. Entire families were killed. Dozens of men were paraded through Jerusalem on trucks and then executed in a nearby quarry.
- The massacre was committed by members of the Irgun and Stern Gang, led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, respectively, who would both go on to become prime minister of Israel. The precursor to the Israeli army, the Haganah militia, provided support to the attack on Deir Yassin with mortar fire and by disposing of the bodies. The Haganah was under the control of David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister just over a month after the massacre.
Why was it important?
- The Deir Yassin massacre triggered a mass flight of Palestinians from their homes and land in and around Jerusalem and beyond. It was a pivotal moment in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that was carried out by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army in order to establish Israel as a Jewish majority state in Palestine.
- The Deir Yassin massacre and flood of Palestinians fleeing in terror across their borders helped convince the leaders of neighboring Arab countries, who were initially reluctant to intervene, to get involved militarily when the state of Israel was declared on May 15, 1948, thus marking the start of a series of regional wars over the ensuing decades.
- In the end, approximately three quarters of all Palestinians (upwards of 750,000 people) were expelled from their homeland during Israel’s establishment on 78% of Palestine. This event is known to Palestinians as the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic).
Why does it matter today?
- The massacre at Deir Yassin and its repercussions form a major part of the collective memory of Palestinians and of the collective trauma suffered by generations of Palestinians dispossessed and brutalized by Israel’s apartheid system. It represents the violence, sudden loss of their homes and homeland, and Israel’s near total destruction of Palestinian society during the Nakba, a situation which endures today with Israel continuing to systematically oppress Palestinians and force them out of their homes and off their land. This is known as the Ongoing Nakba.
- The plight of Palestinians expelled from their homes during and after Israel’s establishment and Israel’s denial of their right to return to their homeland is one of the core problems in Palestine/Israel. Most live as stateless refugees in impoverished semi-permanent camps under Israeli military rule in the remaining 22% of Palestine occupied by the Israeli army in the 1967 war (the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza), or in neighboring countries.
- Israel’s failure to hold anyone accountable for what happened in Deir Yassin and the several dozen other massacres committed by Zionist militias and the Israeli army during Israel’s establishment set the tone of virtual impunity that Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians have enjoyed ever since. This lack of accountability and sense of impunity helps to fuel the brutal violence frequently inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers on Palestinians today.
- Many Israelis, including senior political and religious leaders, believe the ethnic cleansing carried out during the Nakba didn’t go far enough and openly call for further expulsions of Palestinians and the destruction of Palestinian communities. These threats and incitement fuel the fears of Palestinians rooted in the memory of the mass expulsions of 1948 and the knowledge that it could happen again.
- In March 2023, after a Palestinian man was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier or settler and settlers torched hundreds of Palestinian homes and cars during a violent rampage in the town of Huwara in the West Bank, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and a key member of the government told an interviewer: “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.” In 2021, Smotrich said that Israel’s first prime minister made a mistake by not expelling all Palestinians during the Nakba, telling Palestinian members of Israel’s parliament: “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.”