Sixty years after Deir Yassin

The 12 March cartoon by South African cartoonist Zapiro that was later attacked by David Saks of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and which sparked debate in the country.


As a 10-year-old growing up in Johannesburg, I celebrated Israel’s birth, 60 years ago. I unquestionably accepted the dramatic accounts of so-called self-defensive actions against Arab violence, to secure the Jewish state. The type of indoctrination South African cartoonist Zapiro so bitingly exposes in his work, raising the hackles of scribes such as David Saks of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. When I became involved in our liberation struggle, I became aware of the similarities with the Palestinian cause in the dispossession of land and birthright by expansionist settler occupation. I came to see that the racial and colonial character of the two conflicts provided greater comparisons than with any other struggle. When Nelson Mandela stated that we know as South Africans “that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” [1] he was not simply talking to our Muslim community, who can be expected to directly empathize, but to all South Africans precisely because of our experience of racial and colonial subjugation, and because we well understand the value of international solidarity.

When I came to learn of the fate that befell the Palestinians, I was shaken to the core and most particularly when I read eye-witness accounts of a massacre of Palestinian villagers that occurred a month before Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence. This was at Deir Yassin, a quiet village just outside Jerusalem, which had the misfortune to lie by the road from Tel Aviv. On 9 April 1948, 254 men, women and children were butchered there by Zionist forces to secure the road. Because this was one of the few such episodes that received media attention in the West, the Zionist leadership did not deny it, but sought to label it an aberration by extremists. In fact, however, the atrocity was part of a broader plan designed by the Zionist High Command, led by Ben Gurion himself, which was aimed at the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the British mandate territory and the seizure of as much land as possible for the intended Jewish state.

There are many accounts that corroborate the orgy of death at Deir Yassin, which went far beyond the Sharpville massacre of 1960 that motivated me to join the African National Congress. [2] My reaction was: if Sharpville had appalled me, could I be indifferent to the suffering at Deir Yassin?

Fahimi Zidan, a Palestinian child who survived by hiding under his parents’ bodies, recalled: “The Jews ordered [us] … to line up against the wall … started shooting … all … were killed: my father … mother … grandfather and grandmother … uncles and aunts and some of their children … Halim Eid saw a man shoot a bullet into the neck of my sister … who was … pregnant. Then he cut her stomach open with a butcher’s knife … In another house, Naaneh Khalil … saw a man take a … sword and slash my neighbor …” [3]

One of the attacking force, a shocked Jewish soldier named Meir Pa’el, reported to the head of his Haganah command:

“It was noon when the battle ended…Things had become quiet, but the village had not surrendered. The Etzel [Irgun] and Lehi [Stern] irregulars … started … cleaning up operations … They fired with all the arms they had, and threw explosives into the houses. They also shot everyone they saw … the commanders made no attempt to check the … slaughter. I … and a number of inhabitants begged the commanders to give orders … to stop shooting, but our efforts were unsuccessful … some 25 men had been brought out of the houses: they were loaded into a … truck and led in a ‘victory parade’ … through … Jerusalem [then] … taken to a … quarry … and shot … The fighters … put the women and children who were still alive on a truck and took them to the Mandelbaum Gate.” [4]

A British officer, Richard Catling, reported:

“There is … no doubt that many sexual atrocities were committed by the attacking Jews. Many young school girls were raped and later slaughtered … Many infants were also butchered and killed. I also saw one old woman … who had been severely beaten about the head with rifle butts …” [5]

Jacques de Reynier of the International Committee of the Red Cross met the “cleaning up” team on his arrival at the village:

“The gang … were young … men and women, armed to the teeth … and [had] also cutlasses in their hands, most of them still blood-stained. A beautiful young girl, with criminal eyes, showed me hers still dripping with blood; she displayed it like a trophy. This was the ‘cleaning up’ team, that was obviously performing its task very conscientiously.”

He described the scene he encountered on entering the homes:

“… amid disemboweled furniture … I found some bodies … the ‘cleaning up’ had been done with machine-guns … hand grenades … finished off with knives … I … turned over … the bodies, and … found … a little girl … mutilated by a hand grenade … everywhere it was the same horrible sight … this gang was admirably disciplined and only acted under orders.” [6]

The atrocity at Deir Yassin is reflective of what happened elsewhere. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has meticulously recorded 31 massacres, from December 1947 to January 1949. They attest to a systematic reign of terror, conducted to induce the flight of Palestinians from the land of their birth. As a result, nearly all Palestinian towns were rapidly depopulated and 418 villages were systematically destroyed.

As Israel’s first minister of agriculture, Aharon Cizling, stated in a 17 November 1948 Cabinet meeting: “I often disagree when the term Nazi was applied to the British … even though the British committed Nazi crimes. But now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being is shaken.” [7] Despite these sentiments, Cizling agreed that the crimes should be hidden, creating a lasting precedent. That such barbarism was conducted by Jewish people a mere three years after the Holocaust must have been too ghastly to contemplate, as it would constitute a major embarrassment for the state of Israel, held-up as a “light unto nations;” hence the attempts to bury the truth behind a veil of secrecy and disinformation. What better way to silence enquiry than the all-encompassing alibi of Israel’s right of self-defense, condoning the use of disproportionate force and collective punishment against any act of resistance.

Precisely because Israel was allowed to get away with such crimes, it continued on its bloody path. According to Ilan Pappe, “Fifteen minutes by car from Tel-Aviv University lies the village of Kfar Qassim where, on 29 October 1956, Israeli troops massacred 49 villagers returning from their fields. Then there was Qibya in the 1950s, Samoa in the 1960s, the villages of the Galilee in 1976, Sabra and Shatila in 1982, Kfar Qana in 1999, Wadi Ara in 2000 and the Jenin Refugee Camp in 2002. And in addition there are the numerous killings B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, keeps track of. There has never been an end of Israel’s killings of Palestinians.” [8] The slaughter of 1,500 Lebanese civilians in Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of that country in 2006; the daily deaths in the Palestinian territories, the 120 in Gaza in a week — including 63 on a single day — in March 2008, one third of whom were children, form part of the same bloody thread that links Israel’s shameful past with that of today.

Israel will soon mark the 60th anniversary of its establishment. In so doing, Israelis and the Zionist supporters would do well to acknowledge the reasons why, for Palestinians and freedom-loving people throughout the world, there will be no cause to celebrate. Indeed, it will be a period of mourning and protest action; a time to recall the countless victims that lie in Israel’s wake, as epitomized by the suffering inflicted on the inhabitants of Deir Yassin, the original site of which is ironically located just a stone’s throw away from where the present day Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, was built.

Unless Israel confronts the past, as so many have attempted to do in South Africa, it will continue to be viewed with revulsion and suspicion. Israelis will continue to regard Arab life as worthless and will continue to live by the sword and deceit, feigning surprise when Palestinians violently respond. Without dealing with the agony it has caused there can be no healing and no solution. To do so is to create the basis for all life to be cherished and for Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, with justice. By being aware of the roots of the conflict, and pledging our solidarity, we South Africans can do our bit to help bring about a just solution and the freedom that Nelson Mandela referred to. I believe that South Africans like Zapiro are doing just that.

Ronnie Kasrils is South African Minister of Intelligence.

Endnotes
[1] Nelson Mandela, International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Pretoria, 4 December 1997.
[2] See Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel, Pantheon, 1988); David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, Faber and Faber, 2003; Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge University Press, 2004); Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications, 2006.
[3] David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, Faber and Farber, 2003, p. 249-50.
[4] Yediot Aharonot, April 1972. This letter only came to light with Pa’el’s consent in 1972. David Hirst ibid p. 251.
[5] David Hirst, ibid and Report of the Criminal Investigation Division, Palestine Government, No. 179/110/17/GS, 13, 15, 16 April 1948. Cited in David Hirst, p. 250.
[6] David Hirst ibid and Jacques de Reynier, A ¨rusalem un Drapeau flottait sur la Ligne de Feu, Editions de la Baconnière, Neuchâtel, 150, p. 71-6 and Hirst ibid p. 252.
[7] Tom Segev, The First Israelis, Owl Books, 1998, p. 26.
[8] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications, 2006, p. 258.

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