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'It's difficult to count'Few survived the massacre of Deir Yassin 50 years ago, and of them, even fewer are alive today to recount its horrors. Amira Howeidy reviews the carnage through their words
Despite controversy over the exact number of those slain in the Deir Yassin massacre, the length of time their murder took and the strategic significance of the location of the village, the survivors' accounts unanimously agree in their descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Jewish gangs begining around daybreak on Friday 9 April 1948, and lasting until dusk.
Abu Mahmoud (1) was 21 when the massacre took place. He and his young friends "were ready for whatever might happen after the battle of Kastel." A day earlier the leader of the Palestinian guerrilla, Abdul-Qader El-Husseini, had been seriously wounded at Al-Qastal. Residents of the neighboring town of Deir Yassin were alarmed. "By 4.30 pm on Thursday 8 April, El-Husseini was dead. We were watching the battle from a distance. After his death we took precautionary masures in case anything happened: we guarded the village until 2.30 the next morning when the Jews began to enter using spot and search lights to look for our fighters. The Jews closed in on the village, exchanging fire with us as they came." Mahmoud Kassem El-Yassini (2) who witnessed the massacre at age 15, clearly remembered that the village had actually been surrounded since the night before. His mother was in labour, "we could not get to a hospital because the village was under siege and there was no way out by night. At four o'clock on the morning of Friday 9 April, we heard shots coming from all directions. Then people started screaming: "The Jews have taken us," and "The Jews are taking hold of Deir Yassin."
In the whole village, he says, there were "40 British-made guns... and no mortar of any kind." By contrast, Abu Mahmoud points out, "The Jews had all sorts of automatic weapons, tanks, missiles, cannons."
"Once they entered the village, fighting became very heavy on the eastern side, and later it spread to other parts, to the quarry and the village centre, until it reached the western edge. The battle was on three fronts: East, South and North," Abu Mahmoud recounts. The Western front, following the pattern of phase 1 of Plan Dalet (3), was open for survivors to escape and tell others of the horrors they had seen with their own eyes.
The fighting, says Abu Mahmoud, continued till around 3.30 in the afternoon. Most survivors describe what happened during the preceding 12 to 14 hours as "indiscriminate" killing. "They used to enter houses and kill women and children indiscriminately," Mahmoud for one recounts.
"I saw how Hilweh Zeidan was killed, along with her husband, her son, her brother and Khumayyes. Hilweh Zeidan went out to collect the body of her husband. They shot her and she fell over his body... I also saw Hayat Bilbeissi, a nurse from Jerusalem who was serving in the village, as she was shot before the door of Musa Hassan's house. The daughter of Abu El-Abed was shot dead as she held her baby niece. The baby was shot too... Whoever tried to run away was shot dead," says Um Mohammed (4), 64, who was fifteen when the events took place.
El-Yassini tells of horrific details. "Everything seemed strange. There was blood everywhere. A dead woman holding her baby reminded me of my mother, so I dashed to our house. I found my mother hiding in fear in the basement and when she saw me she cried and started screaming. She told me to go to my uncle's house next door through a hole in the wall to make sure that the rest of the family was still alive. When I peered through the hole, I saw horror. I could see traces of blood all over the place. All that I could see was blood. I knew that they had all been massacred... I had lost my uncles Youssef and Mohammed Hamida."
Rape, mutilation and humiliation were the norm. Says El-Yassini, "there were [corpses of] women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart; children with their throats cut open, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were even bodies of babies." Moreover, "some had vivid crimson or black scars down the left side of their throats. One of the women held a tiny baby against her body. The bullet had passed through her breast and killed the baby. Someone had slit open her stomach, cutting sideways and then upwards, perhaps trying to kill her unborn child. Her eyes were wide open, her dark face frozen in horror."
The number of the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre remains controversial. Most researchers, following a statement given to the press by Mordechai Ra'anan (the then Irgun Zvai Leumi commander for Jerusalem, and commander of the Deir Yassin operation), use the figure 254. That same figure was confirmed by The 254 figure appears in almost every account of the massacre at the time it occured. Sources endorsing that figure include: the Jewish Agency, a Red Cross official, the New York Times and Dr Hussein AlKhalidi, spokesman of the Jersualem-based Arab Higher Committee. However, this figure has been periodically contested, mainly by extreme right wing Zionist researchers. They claim that the figure cannot be more than 120-140. Yet whatever sources we adopt, it remains an undisputed fact that the number of victims was immense and horrified the survivors. El-Yassini recalls, "I remember hearing a Jewish terrorist who was touring the village and reporting the massacre, saying, 'Minus 15 Arabs. Minus 60 Aras.' After a while his message on the radio to headquarters became: 'It's difficult to count.'" Fifteen-year-old El-Yassini did not count, but "came across the evidence of widespread murder. Dozens of bodies of men littered the streets... Down an alleyway, no more than 50 yards from our house, there lay a pile of corpses. There were more than a dozen young men whose arms and legs were wrapped around each other in the agony of death. All had been shot at point-blank range through the cheek, the bullet tearing away a line of flesh up to the ear before entering the brain... We found out later that whole families were killed. I heard that the Zahran clan lost 40 men, women and children. They were the first family in Deir Yassin to be slaughtered by the Jewish terrorists."
"A Jewish terrorist reporting the massacre was saying, "Minus 15 Arabs. Minus 60 Arabs."
After a while his message on the radio to headquarters was, "It's difficult to count."
Despite the complete destruction of the village, which was now firmly under Jewish control, the killing frenzy continued unabated. According to Abu Yousef (5) who was 21, "after the battle, the Jews took elderly men and women and youths, including four of my cousins and a nephew. They took them all. Women who had on them gold and money were stripped of their gold. After the Jews had removed their dead and wounded, they took the men to the quarry and sprayed them all with bullets... One woman saw her son taken some 40 to 60 metres away from where she and the rest of the women stood, and shot dead. Then they brought Jewish kids to throw stones at his body. Then, they poured kerosene over his body and set it ablaze, while the women watched from a distance."
"Later, we collected together and checked who was missing. We were brought to Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem by the Arab Higher Committee. Each of us was looking for a son, a daughter, a sister or a mother."
"The elderly men were told to remove the dead, both Arabs and Jews. They took the bodies of the Jews and left the Arab bodies; later they were thrown down a well in the village centre."
Abu Mahmoud makes a similar account. "They took about 40 prisoners from the village. After the battle was over, they took them to the quarry where they shot them dead and threw their bodies into the quarry. After they had removed their dead and wounded, they took the prisoners and killed them."
Although the survivors of Deir Yassin were given shelter in the Al-Aqsa mosque, they were still not safe. "I saw many Jewish assailants targeting the Dome of the Rock with mortar bombs" says El-Yassini. "After a while, we had to go to the village of Abu Dies, because in Jerusalem we were constantly under attack. My [pregnant] mother was overdue and on her way to the hospital with her brother, Jewish terrorists threw a bomb at her. She died but the baby survived. We decided to name him Jihad as she had wanted to call him."
(1) Elias Zananiri, Gulf News, 9.4.1997, Sakakini Cultural Center website
(2) Omayma Abdel-Latif, Al-Ahram Weekly, 17.4.97
(3) Salman Abu Setta, paper presented to the Arab Centre for Futuristic and Developmental Research, Cairo, 1996. Pointing to that phase of Plan Dalet (which aimed at capturing villages along the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road from local Palestinian militia), Setta said,"This was the case, always; surrounding the village from three sides, and leaving the fourth open. The murder and mutilation was deliberate, and also the leaving a number of survivors to recount the story. These massacres were one of their tools of war."
(4) Elias Zananiri, Gulf News 9.4.97
(5) Elias Zananiri, Gulf News 9.4.97
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