Deir Yassin and the Flight of the Palestinians

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate history course called Modern Middle East.  I was taking a very involved course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict at the same time, so my papers for the Modern Middle East class focused on Palestine and Israel as well.  The paper was given 15/15 points.  I’d like to have written more, but it was only supposed to be 5 pages.  If I’d had more time (or a requirement for more pages!) I’d probably have written more about how the Arabs and Jews both deliberately exaggerated to the events at Deir Yassin to their own advantage, and detriment.

Deir Yassin Massacre Victims
Deir Yassin Massacre Victims via Palestine Solidarity Project

Impact of the Deir Yassin Massacre on the Palestinian Exodus in 1948

In 1917, Britain conquered Jerusalem and ruled the region through a military administration. In 1920, the San Remo Conference awarded Britain the mandate of Palestine, which was sanctioned by the League of Nations in 1922.[1] By 1947, the British had grown weary of the sectarian violence between the Zionist Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine and as part of an overall downsizing of their colonial holdings after the economic stresses of World War II turned over the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations, which decided, in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, to solve the problem by separating the parties through land partition.[2]

The 29 November 1947 UN partition plan would have granted 55% of the land (much of it desert) to the Jews and 40% to the Arabs, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem falling under international control. The Jews accepted the plan, reasoning that it would provide them a foundation from which to build a Jewish state. The Palestinians, on the other hand, rejected the partition and launched a three day general strike followed by a wave of anti-Jewish terrorism in the cities and on the roads.[3]

As British Mandatory rule drew to a close in early 1948, the conflict between immigrant Jews and native Arab Palestinians erupted into an open civil war. On May 14th, 1948, the day before the Mandate ended, David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, changed the nature of the conflict by declaring the establishment of a Jewish state. The fighting between Jews and Arabs stopped being a sectarian struggle and evolved into a national struggle, not just between the new Israelis and the Palestinians, but between the newly formed Israel and the surrounding Arab states, who joined in the fighting. The war in 1947 – 1948 later became known as the War of Liberation to Israelis and as al-Nakba (“Disaster,” or “Catastrophe” in English) to the Palestinians and Arabs in the Middle East.[4] The Arabs were soundly defeated, leaving the Israeli state in control of more land than originally granted to it by UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected under the assumption that the combined powers of the Arab armies could defeat the Jews.[5]

The conflict was a total defeat for the Palestinians. They not only lost control of a majority portion of the Palestinian Mandate territory, but they also failed to establish political independence. Only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (with larger boundaries than today) remained outside of Israeli control, but they were claimed by other countries who had participated in the war against Israel: Egypt and Jordan. After the 1948 war, Jordan retained control over the resource-rich West Bank and East Jerusalem while Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the worst blow to the Palestinians, however, was being driven from the land and being prevented from returning. During the fighting, Palestinians fled their homes in droves in advance of or during combat between the Jews and Arabs, or to evade Arab militias who abused villagers. A total of approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the 1948 war in Palestine, and the issue showed up time and again in peace talks in the form of demands for the right-of-return of refugees.[6] Today, the number of refugees has ballooned to approximately five million as new generations of Palestinians are born in refugee camps and inherit the refugee status of their parents.[7]

Many factors contributed to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, including expulsion orders, such as those signed by Yitzhak Rabin (later a Prime Minister of Israel) that ejected the Arab population from Lydda;[8] voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes to other countries to avoid loss of capital during the fighting;[9] the flight of Palestinian leadership;[10] and as a result of Israeli actions during the implementation of “Plan Dalet” (also known as Plan D). Plan Dalet would later become known as a very controversial strategic operation which aimed at:

gaining control over the territory assigned to the Jewish state and defending its borders, as well as the blocs of Jewish settlement and such Jewish population as were outside those borders, against regular, para-regular, and guerrilla forces operating from bases outside or inside the nascent Jewish State.[11]

To its critics, especially those in Arab states, the plan called for nothing short of the ethnic cleansing of the land allotted to Israel in the 1947 United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181, which partitioned the land of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.[12]

Plan Dalet wasn’t necessarily a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestinians en masse. It was governed by military considerations and, given the nature of the war and the admixture of populations in Palestine, securing the interior of the Jewish state from ‘external’ threats required the depopulation and destruction of villages that housed hostile militias and irregulars.[13] It was also common for roving irregular forces from other Arab states to impose on villages by demanding housing, since they were there fighting for their interests, supposedly.[14] The people of Deir Yassin had decided to remain neutral in the conflict, refusing entry to outsiders, and worked out a system of signals with the nearby Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul to alert them that roving militias and irregulars were in the area. Deir Yassin hoped that by cooperating, their town would be spared the hardships of war.[15] They would, however, be disappointed.

A widely implemented tactic by the Arabs was to cut off supply lines between the Jewish coast and Jewish population centers inside the country, like Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc. Opening up these supply lines became a priority.[16] At David Ben-Gurion’s insistence, a force of 1500 Jewish troops was mobilized to take part in Operation Nachshon. No longer would the Jews passively protect their convoys with guards; they would instead conquer and hold the routes themselves, as well as the heights surrounding them.[17] It was during Operation Nachshon that the Deir Yassin massacre occurred. The operational order of 3 or 4 April states that “all the Arab villages along the [Khulda-Jerusalem] axis were to be treated as enemy assembly or jump-off bases” and according to Plan Dalet, villages so defined, if offering resistance, should be depopulated (through forced migration) and destroyed.[18]

It’s not clear why, but the Haganah command allowed two Jewish militant extremist groups to participate in Operation Nachshon, perhaps because of the importance of securing the routes and the need for able bodied fighters. Irgun Zevai Leumi (Irgun) and Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi, aka the “Stern Gang”) were widely regarded as terrorists by British mandatory authorities and the Israeli defense establishment itself.[19] For example, in 1946 the Irgun, acting under the direction of Menachem Begin, who would in 1977 become the Prime Minister of Israel under the Likud Party, ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel, which housed the British Mandate headquarters. The final casualty list included ninety-one British, Arab, and Jewish dead.[20]

The result of the Irgun and Lehi’s participation in Nachshon was a massacre of civilians. Despite Deir Yassin’s non-belligerency agreement with neighboring Givat Shaul, Irgun and Lehi forces entered the town to occupy it and met with unexpectedly strong resistance from residents who probably felt betrayed by their Jewish neighbors. During the fighting, Irgun and Lehi forces blew up several houses and gunned down families in the streets. They also rounded up groups of unarmed residents of both sexes and murdered them en masse. Some residents were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem before being taken back to Deir Yassin to be murdered.[21] A Haganah Intelligence Service report states that “whole families – women, old people, children – were killed.”[22] The following day the author of the report added: “[Lehi] members tell of the barbaric behavior of the [Irgun] toward the prisoners and the dead. They also relate that the [Irgun] men raped a number of Arab girls and murdered them afterward (we don’t know if this is true).”[23]

Regardless of whether or not it was true, reports like the one above and the stories told by the survivors rapidly spread throughout the region, becoming headline news. Altogether, about 100 – 120 villagers died that day, but the event became amplified through gossip and the media to such a degree that it became extremely influential in affecting the flight of the Palestinian population.[24] When trying to justify their actions after the fact, the Irgun cited the fear and panic the act caused and its beneficial impact on the Israeli war effort.[25]

The massacre and the way it was emphasized and possibly exaggerated in the media strengthened the resolve of Arab leaders to aid the embattled Palestinians and defeat the Jews. It also caused problems for the Jewish forces when criticized by the Western media, but the most important aspect of the massacre was the role it played in increasing flight from the Palestinian villages.[26] In Beit Iksa, fear caused the start of an immediate evacuation. The same occurred in al-Maliha and the residents of Fajja, near Petah Tikvah, Mansura, and near Ramle quickly called their Jewish neighbors and promised to not fight. In Haifa and surrounding villages, Palestinians heard rumors of Jewish atrocities at Deir Yassin and took flight. In the village of Saris, Arabs offered the attacking Haganah no resistance whatsoever, for fear of sharing Deir Yassin’s fate. [27] The fear of another Jewish massacre of civilians had an impact on the behavior of Palestinian villagers across the territory.

The British noted that whether or not all of those atrocities actually took place, the Haganah and the Jews had certainly profited from it and Jewish political leaders determined that the Deir Yassin massacre was one of two pivotal events in the exodus of Palestine’s Arabs, the other being the fall of Arab Haifa.[28] The psychological impact of the massacre may not have been the main cause of the Palestinian refugee crisis, but it certainly increased the number of people affected, making resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict that much more difficult for generations to come.

[1] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 95.
[2] Ibid., p. 134.
[3] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 13.
[4] Ibid., p. 145.
[5] Tom Segev, One Palestine: Complete, p. 496.
[6] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage, p. 7.
[7] “Palestine refugees”, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
[8] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 429.
[9] Ibid., p. 67.
[10] The Pittsburgh Press, “British Halt Jerusalem Battle,” 1948.
[11] Quoted in David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[12] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[13] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 164.
[14] Ibid., p. 123; p. 114.
[15] Ibid., pp. 90 – 91.
[16] Ibid., p. 66.
[17] Ibid., p. 233.
[18] Ibid.
[19] The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Accept Ultimatum,” 22 September 1948; The Pittsburgh Press, “Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told,” 30 July 1947; St. Petersburg Times, “Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists,” 19 September 1948; St. Petersburg Times, “French Uncover Plot To Bomb London,” 8 September 1947.
[20] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 129 & 259; The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Message Admits Guilt in Death Blast,” 24 July 1946.
[21] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p 237.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 238.
[24] Ibid., p. 238.
[25] Ibid., p. 239.
[26] The Indian Express, “Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State: Azzam Pasha Outlines New Policy,” 21 May 1948.
[27] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 240.
[28] Ibid.


“Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State.” The Indian Express 21 May 1948: 5. Web Archive. 18 May 2012. .
“British Halt Jerusalem Battle: Fresh Troops Pour into City To Keep Peace.” The Pittsburgh Press 3 May 1948: 1. Web Archive. 8 May 2012. .
“Irgun Accept Ultimatum.” The Glasgow Herald 22 Sep 1948: 5. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Irgun Message Admits Guilt In Death Blast: Communique Purported From Underground Claims Warning Went Unheeded.” The Montreal Gazette 24 Jul 1946: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists.” St. Petersburg Times 19 Sep 1948: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. New York: Beacon Press, 2007. Kindle edition.
Lesch, David W. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
McGhee, George Crews. On The Frontline in the Cold War: An Ambassador Reports. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997. Google eBook.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
“Palestine refugees.” n.d. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Web. 17 May 2012. .
Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2001. Print.
“Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told: Sergeants Hanged, Underground Claims.” The Pittsburgh Press 30 Jul 1947: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .

6 thoughts on “Deir Yassin and the Flight of the Palestinians”

  1. Bradley…as someone who has done extensive doctoral research and who has been involved with the sources for almost 5 decades now, I can tell you that you are simply mouthing the Arab saga at face value. Do you know what taqiyya is? If not, you need to find out.The truth is very different indeed, and while there are no perfect saints nor sinners in any conflicts, the reality is much different than what you and your Arab friends contend.

    Firstly, do you even know what “Palestine” was/is and how it got its name in the first place? Secondly, when Arabs ruled it for several centuries they di it as invading caliphal imperial rulers from Damascus and Baghdad only from the 7th century C.E. until they themselves were displaced by the next sets of imperial rulers…mostly Turks.

    Arabs burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered hundreds of millions of non-Arab peoples in all directions…taking over their lands, forcibly Arabizing Kurds, Copts, “Berbers”, black Africans, native,non-Arab Lebanese, native “Kilab Yahud”–Jew dogs–etc. and so forth. After doing this, they then claimed the whole region was simply “purely Arab patrimony.”

    It’s not an accident that the Foreword to my own book (in over a dozen major universities so far) is written by the President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria and major jacket comments are by an Amazigh “Berber” publisher. Together those 2 gents alone represent some 80 million non-Arab people whose very cultures and languages were/are outlawed by their Arab subjugators.

    You are simply wrong about the Jordan-Palestine connection as well. The separation of Transjordan in ’22 was an attempt to reach a balance between conflicting national claims–and solid documentation–not Arab fairy tales and taqiyya–shows that many if not most Arabs were indeed newcomers into Palestine themselves.

    Since you worry about fairness, are you concerned about what happened at the same time in the Mandate of Mesopotamia? Unlike Arabs who wound up with almost two dozen states–including one on some 80% of the original 1920 Mandate of “Palestine” (the name the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed Judea after the Jews’ 2nd major revolt for freedom…to try to squash the Jews’ hopes once and for all, he renamed the country itself after their historic enemies, the Philistines–invading Greek sea peoples from the islands near Crete), the Kurds got shafted by a collusion of Arab nationalism and British petroleum politics.

    The result? Some 40 million Kurds are stateless to date. My doctoral work on this subject can be found on recommended refernce lists of leading universities all over the world–like Paris’s accalimed Insititut d’Etudes Politique (Sciences Po).

    Do you worry about how Arabs shafted everyone else out of their own small sliver of justice or us it just Arab justice that concerns you? Unlike in the Mandate of Palestine, there was no attempt whatsoever to try to reach a balance between different peoples’ rights in the Mandate of Mesopotamia. The Brits handed it all over to their Arab allies there instead. The story involving how the Arabs have dealt with scores of millions of other pre-Arab/non-Arab native populations is as bad or worse. The latter either accepted dhimmitude and/or forced Arabization or were massacred.


    1. Taqiya is hiding ones religious identity to avoid persecution. I fail to see how that’s relevant here, unless you’re implying that I’m a Muslim and pretending to be otherwise to push a view onto the casual reader of this blog post, in which case you’re mistaken.

      I’m well aware of what Palestine is and the history of the region from the early 600s onward. I also know that the issue of who has ruled it over the centuries isn’t part of the issue that began in the late 1800s and came to a head in 1947-1948. The issue is that the people living there had a right to the land, more of a right than Jews from Europe whose ancestors, the few that may have had ancestors from the region, did.

      Even if Transjordan/Jordan was an attempt to create an Arab state as an attempt to legitimate the creation of a Jewish state, it doesn’t justify land theft by parties who had no right to the land in the first place. If the people who live somewhere don’t want to give up their land to foreigners because a foreign legal body said they should, I don’t blame them. Telling someone from Haifa they should just go to Jordan because it was created for them doesn’t fly either. People build up lives and businesses and assets where they live. You don’t just throw it all away because people in another country say you should so they can accommodate people from yet another country (or set of countries) in your home.

      In regard to your comments about my interest in fairness and the Kurds, I completely agree with you. I’m not taking the Arabs side, or toeing the party line. I’m just being realistic and thinking about this from a moral standpoint. The Kurds got shafted. Hard. Their dispersed across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran and they get walked on in each state. They’re ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from Arabs. The only thing they share is the religion. I personally think Kurds should have their own state. I don’t think you can blame Arabs necessarily for that. The Brits and the French drew the lines that would compose the new Middle Eastern states before World War I even ended. The Western powers created the states, defined the lines, set up the governments and then handed off the reigns to whichever lackey would maintain order and give them oil rights. Things in Turkey didn’t go quite they way they’d hoped and after the 1979 revolution in Iran, that got out of hand as well. Could Turkey let Kurds have an independent state? Perhaps, but not a viable one. It would require land concessions from the other states involved as well. That’s not going to happen. Have Arabs done bad things to Kurds? Sure, but the ultimate blame lies with those who drew the lines in the first place and carved up the Middle East along absurd lines that disregarded ethnicity or religious sect.

      I’m not going to pretend to have read extensively on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam or the Arabization of the lands conquered by the Arab Caliphs, but what I remember from a class I took over a year ago is that when the Arabs conquered new lands they established garrison towns separate from the local populations. Around these garrisons, towns and markets sprung up. Islam was the religion of the wealthy and Arab culture was the culture of the elite rulers and like in any society, those on the bottom strain to reach the top by emulating those at the top. Today people do it by buying Louis Vuitton bags. Back then, people did it by converting to Islam and learning Arabic. So, Arabization and conversion was done for economic reasons initially. I’m sure there were instances were some over-zealous nutbags forced people to convert, but the Quran has a verse that says there can be no compulsion in religion, so that would be an aberration and invalid. All in all, I don’t see it as any more or less cruel or unusual than the way in which English and American/British culture has been spread all over the world in the last 300 or so years.


  2. The Minutes of the Permanent Mandates Commission and other solid documentation show that the vast majority of Arabs in the land were indeed newcomers–settlers–themselves…despite the propaganda. These two articles are very useful on this issue.The first one speaks of one of the allegedly “native Palestinians” for whom the rockets that strike Israel are named:

    (Moderated links to comment author’s sites)


    1. You’ll have to quote something other than your blog articles as sources of information if you want me to take you seriously, or leave your links up in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll consider you to be just link-dropping for hits.


  3. Bradley…I’m curious. Was the following just an oversight, or is there something else involved?

    You start out in this analysis speaking of the 1920 conference which awarded the original April 25, 1920 Mandate of Palestine to the Brits. Fair enough…But then you jump to 1947 and speak of 55% of the Mandate being awarded to the Jews.

    The 55% you speak of was of the territory which remained after Arab nationalism was already awarded 78% of the total land area after Colonial Secretary Churchill orchestrated the separation of all the land east of the Jordan River ar the Cairo Conference in 1921. In 1922, “Tranjordan” was awarded to the Hashemite Arab refugees who were in the process of getting their butts booted out of the Arabian Peninsula by Ibn Saud.

    While both Transjordan and what remained of the original 1920 territory remained tied to the Mandate until 1946, when Jordan declared independence, almost 80% of the original 1920 Mandate was now off limits to Jews.

    When you use 1947 as your starting point to try to show the division of territory between the two competing national groups, you are being less than honest.

    Sir Alec Kirhbride, the Brits East Bank re, wrote extensively about this in his book, A Crackle Of Thorns; Emir Abdullah called this ” a gift from Allah” in his memoirs; etc. I’ve done extensive doctoral studies in this field myself. This is all extensively and validly documented in my own book, The Quest For Justice In The Middle East…The Arab-Israeli Conflict In Greater Perspective.


    1. Without looking back through this post, I don’t think the exclusion of Transjordan, or Jordan, from my discussion of the land dispute between Jews/Israelis and Arabs/Palestinians was unintentional. I left it out on purpose, because Transjordan was not land that anyone wanted or considered part of historic Palestine in the sense of what’s being fought over now. If anyone in the region accepted Transjordan/Jordan as Palestine, the Palestinians would have all gone there, rather than dispersing into refugee camps in half a dozen Arab states. The argument that Transjordan/Jordan is Palestine is a clever one, but doesn’t hold water.

      The establishment of Transjordan/Jordan as an independent Arab kingdom didn’t involve the confiscation of anyone’s land or the expulsion of a population. It was also a continuation of Arab rule in Arab land, which is why no one made a big deal about it. However, the issue in Palestine was the British assisted invasion of Europeans who were intent on establishing a Jewish state on land that hadn’t belonged to anyone in their family trees either ever or for over 1800 years. Land ownership has to have a statue of limitations. The Jews owned about 7% of Palestine legally through land purchases. All of the partition plans wanted to give them more than that and grant them national sovereignty over a portion of the land, land which technically never belonged to them or to the British or to the people trying to give it away. You can’t uproot an entire population under the auspices of “to the victor go the spoils”. We’re far beyond that barbarity.

      I’m under no illusions that Palestinians in the diaspora will ever be able to return home en masse; there’s not enough room for them. I have no illusions about a “right of return”, because Israel can’t be a Jewish state with a Muslim majority. I also have no illusions that Palestine in the historical sense will be united as one single political entity again anytime in the next couple hundred years. However, I think the cheap attempt to say the Arabs already got their state in Transjordan is insulting to the Arabs who lived in Palestine prior to the Jewish takeover, to their legal land ownership, the lineage of their families that had lived there before them, and to the concepts of human rights and justice.

      This paper didn’t try to address the issues of final status solutions, if I remember correctly, but Israel’s attempt to strange the Palestinians into non-existence is not a proper solution. They won’t disappear, and claiming to be waiting on a stable government isn’t going to work either. There are plenty of states with unstable neighbors. With Israel’s military might and international connections, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank the same way they did Lebanon and Gaza. Of course, there’s the issue of the separation barrier and land annexation, and the illegal settlements built in the West Bank…

      It’s a complicated issue.


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