“Born in Deir Yassin”
The Secrets/No Access
Deir Yassin is the first Arab village to be conquered in 1948 right after the establishment of the State of Israel. It was then been fenced off when the Israeli government’s Kfar Shaul mental hospital was founded there on it in 1951. “Born in Deir Yassin,” tells the story of the metamorphosis of that piece of land. To receive his mother’s birth records, Dror goes to Kfar Shaul. As he tries to learn about the secrets of his past, the film lets us see and hear conversations with Israeli fighters, members of Lehi and the Irgun that occupied the village, Haganna spies that were sent after them and the Gadna youth that buried the corpses. Through their memories the complete Israeli narrative of the Deir Yassin conquest is exposed.
Director Neta Shoshani shows us the evolution of the village of Deir Yassin. This is not easy to watch— we see a young fellow tied to a tree and set on fire, a woman and an old man shot in back, girls lined up against a wall and shot with a submachine gun and we hear testimonies about the massacre in Deir Yassin. Even though it is now seventy years later, it is difficult to process what we see and hear here. There is a letter, a document in Israel’s archives that is meant to commemorate the heritage of Lehi who were the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel pre-state underground militia. It was written by a member of the underground about 70 years ago. Reading it could reopen the secret of Deir Yassin.
“Last Friday together with Etzel” – the acronym for the National Military Organization, also known as the Irgun, another pre-state underground militia, led by Menachem Begin – “our movement carried out a tremendous operation to occupy the Arab village on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road – Deir Yassin. I participated in this operation in the most active way,” wrote Yehuda Feder, whose nom de guerre in Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) was “Giora.” Giora wrote, “This was the first time in my life that at my hands and before my eyes Arabs fell. In the village I killed an armed Arab man and two Arab girls of 16 or 17 who were helping the Arab who was shooting. I stood them against a wall and blasted them with two rounds from the Tommy gun”. Along with that, he tells about looting in the village with his buddies after it was occupied. “We confiscated a lot of money and silver and gold jewelry fell into our hands,” he wrote. He concludes the letter with the words: “This was a really tremendous operation and it is with reason that the left is vilifying us again.”
This letter is one of the historical documents that we learn of in this film and in it is the story of what happened at Deir Yassin. Director Shoshani did extensive research to make this film and in interviewing last living participants in what took place there, the silence surrounding those events was broken for the first time in front of a camera.
The assault on the village of Deir Yassin began on the morning of April 9, 1948, as part of Operation Nachshon to break through the blockaded road to Jerusalem, with the participation of about 130 Lehi and Irgun fighters who received aid from the Haganna – the pre-independence army. The fighters encountered stiff resistance and sniper fire and advanced slowly through the village lanes while throwing grenades and blowing up houses. Four of the fighters were killed and dozens were wounded. The number of Arab inhabitants who were killed there and the circumstances of their deaths have been disputed for many years, but most researchers state that 110 inhabitants of the village, among them women, children and elderly people, were killed there.
Yehoshua Zettler, the Jerusalem commander of Lehi and of the Deir Yassin operation describes the Arabs who were fleeing from their homes as cats running to save their lives. He, however, denied that his people carried out a massacre in the village but he spared no words to describe the way its inhabitants were killed. Zettler also provided a harsh account of the burning of the bodies of those who were killed, after the village was occupied. Another harsh account comes from Prof. Mordechai Gichon, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, who was a Haganna intelligence officer sent to Deir Yassin when the battle ended. “Coming into a civilian locale and dead people are scattered around in it [– then] it looks like a pogrom. When the Cossacks burst into Jewish neighborhoods, then that should have looked something like this.” He further adds, “There was a feeling of considerable slaughter and it was hard for me to explain it to myself as having been done in self-defense. My impression was more of a massacre than anything else. If it is a matter of killing innocent civilians, then it can be called a massacre.”
Yair Tsaban, a former government minister, tells us that after the massacre, in which he did not participate, he was sent with fellow members of the Youth Brigades to bury the corpses of the dead. “The rationale was that the Red Cross was liable to show up at any moment and it was necessary to blur the traces [of the killings] because publication of pictures and testimonies about what had happened in the village would be very damaging to the image of our War of Independence”. In just a few hours of fighting, the town ceased to exist.
The massacre at Deir Yassin had many repercussions. The Jewish Agency, the chief rabbis and the heads of the Haganna condemned it. The left used it to denounce the right. Abroad, it was compared to the crimes of the Nazis. “Deir Yassin had a profound demographic and political effect: It was followed by mass flight of Arabs from their locales.”
Shraga Peled, 91, who at the time of the massacre was in the Haganna Information Service told Shoshani that after the battle he was sent to the village with a camera to document what he saw there. “When I got to Deir Yassin, the first thing I saw was a big tree to which a young Arab fellow was tied. And this tree was burnt in a fire. They had tied him to it and burned him. I photographed that,” he related. He also claims he photographed from afar what looked like a few dozen other corpses collected in a quarry adjacent to the village. He handed the film over to his superiors, he says, and since then he has not seen the photos. This is possibly because the photos are part of the visual material that is hidden to this day in the Archive of the IDF and the Defense Ministry, of which the state is prohibiting publication even 70 years after the fact. Shoshani petitioned the High Court of Justice about this a decade ago and the state explained that publication of the pictures was liable to damage the state’s foreign relations and the “respect for the dead.” In 2010, after viewing the pictures, the Supreme Court justices rejected the petition, leaving the material far from the public eye. In the meantime Shoshani managed to get hold of some other photos connected to the massacre, among them a series of pictures documenting orphaned children whose parents had been killed at Deir Yassin.
Deir Yassin massacre was not a battle against fighters but rather the sudden occupation of a village, in confrontation with inhabitants who defended their homes with meager means. There were also cases, apparently isolated, of mowing down inhabitants, ‘executions,’ after the fighting was over, for the purpose of deterrence and out of fear.
The Deir Yassin massacre was the first of a number of incidents in which Jewish fighters were involved in killing civilians in the War of Independence and after it was over.
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