Fifty-nine years have passed since the massacre at Deir Yassin, in which over a hundred residents of the village were killed, and today, as every year, there will be a memorial ceremony there with the participation of Palestinian survivors. This year, a notice was appended to the invitation to the ceremony: "Recently, old/new voices seeking to discount the war crimes have received center stage in the media... It is important that we be there to remember what some seek to forget."
The phrasing is directed, it seems, at the book by Dr. Uri Milstein, "The Black Book: Blood Libel at Deir Yassin." Milstein argues in his book that the story of the massacre is fictional and that most of the facts published about the affair "are baseless and fraudulent."
"The Hagana wanted to present the right as unfit to rule"
Dr. Uri Milstein
In an interview with Walla! News Milstein seeks to clarify that his research is "a refutation of the widespread account according to which Lehi and Etzel people carried out the massacre." According to him, "exaggeration of the events" to proportions of a massacre of women and children in cold blood was done in order to stain the name of the organizations and to distance them from the centers of power in the state to come. According to him, "The Hagana tried to slander then-Etzel commander Menachem Begin... Everything was done in order to cause the right to appear unfit to rule."
Milstein's research addresses a number of issues. According to him, the number of killed initially stood at 254 and ultimately fell to 110. Milstein claims that "there was no massacre at all," but rather "fighting in built-up areas in which there were many casualties." He equates Palestinian testimonies of abuse and injury of women and children with "exaggeration regarding the massacre in Jenin during 'Operation Defensive Shield.' "A civilian population is likely to be alarmed during war, psychological fear which causes descriptions to be made more severe."
Most of Milstein's criticism is directed at historian Dr. Meir Pa'il, who was appointed to supervise the Hagana's news service ("Sh"ai"). According to him, "All our information on what happened at Deir Yassin is based on Pa'il's writings and that is a problem, because Pa'il had an interest in inflating the massacre, because he was from the Hagana." According to him, the day following the events Pa'il told intelligence officer Mordechai Gichon who wrote a report on the events: "What kind of a report is this? Write a more Zionist report." "I have it on tape," says Milstein, and according to him "when Pa'il said 'more Zionist,' he meant that Gichon write that the Etzel and the Lehi in fact massacred the Arabs."
"The Etzel didn't know how to handle war, but they knew how to kill"
Pa'il rejects Milstein's claims with scorn: "What the Lehi and Etzel people did in Deir Yassin in April 1948 was a despicable act. It cannot be called by any other name," he said in an interview with Walla! News. "There was occupation and killing. It was a completely unnecessary operation from the beginning," he added.
"Deir Yassin was a quiet village that did not harm any Jewish person. The mukhtar [head] of the village even signed a peace agreement with the neighboring Jewish moshav [agricultural community]. Etzel's and Lehi's idea to attack derived from their desire to prove that like the Hagana, they too could attack and conquer." "They wanted the Lehi and Etzel leadership," Pa'il summarizes, "to receive a senior position in the political and military leadership of the state of Israel."
On his part in the incident, Pa'il says that he was sent "as an officer of the Hagana, in order to examine the capabilities of the Etzel and the Lehi... We were there shortly before the War of Independence, and the Hagana asked to know whether the Etzel knew how to fight." "What I discovered there," says Pa'il, "is that they didn't know a thing about field war. Worse, I saw that they knew how to massacre and kill... They are angry with me that I said these things. Let them first be angry at themselves."
Pa'il also attacks Milstein directly: "His research has no basis," he says. "What we have here is a cheap propagandist for the right-wing considerations of the Zionist enterprise." On Milstein's claims that there is the possibility that Pa'il was never even at Deir Yassin, he responds angrily: "I was there, I saw the massacre with my own eyes. Why didn't he ever question me about the things I experienced there?"
"Have the courage to acknowledge the massacre"
Residents of Deir Yassin who will return to mark 59 years since the massacre are not interested in this contest between accounts, in which the Etzel and the Lehi, the Hagana and Sh"ai, political intrigue and power struggles are all involved.
Liali Akel, daughter of the deceased Zaynab Akel, who was a symbol for survivors and their unofficial spokesperson, told Walla! News about life in the shadow of the Deir Yassin trauma. "My mother was 20 years old when the massacre happened," says Akel, "and she told me about that accursed day until her last day... 27 of our family members were killed," she recounts sadly. "Not one of them was armed or carried weapons."
According to her, "The story I remember most is about my mother's brother. The soldiers tossed a grenade into the house and my mother and uncle fled to the yard. Outside, a soldier approached them and told my mother that she must give him 250 liras so that he will free them. She paid him, but immediately afterward he shot her brother in front of her eyes."
"This tragedy haunts us every day," says Akel, "and what I hear about the denial of the massacre doesn't let me rest." According to her, "Israel will never acknowledge that there was a massacre there. The state even turned the area over to private hands and does not permit us to hold a memorial ceremony in the village, but instead behind barbed wire fences."
"Don't hide behind cowardice and irresponsibility," she pleads. "Have the courage to acknowledge the mistake and to take responsibility. It can be the first step toward understanding between us."