On April 9, 2017, The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) commemorated the 69th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, marked the occasion by connecting the historical event to ongoing Israeli abuses and urging the international community to “hold Israel to account” for its settler-colonial project. Also in commemoration of Deir Yassin, Palestinians in the town of Bil‘in (West Bank) dedicated their weekly Friday protest to the victims of the massacre, while Palestinians across the globe organized events in their communities and used social media to increase public awareness about the massacre.
Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village located five kilometers (three miles) west of Jerusalem’s Old City. By the late 1940s, it was a prosperous village of roughly 700 people. For the inhabitants of Deir Yassin, life as they knew it came to a devastating end during the 1947-1949 war for Palestine. On April 9, 1948, combatants from Zionist paramilitary groups, Irgun Tsvai Leumi (National Military Organization) and LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), stormed and occupied Deir Yassin. The attack was carried out in cooperation with Haganah, the main military arm of the Zionist movement in Palestine.
The villagers had previously signed a non-aggression pact with their Jewish neighbors and even refused to host nearby (Arab) paramilitary units. For the Zionist forces, this made little difference. Conquering Deir Yassin, located in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was critical for the success of Operation Nachshon. The operation was launched in April 1948 to break the siege on Jewish Jerusalem by opening the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road then blockaded by Palestinian militias. The operation was also waged to expel Palestinians from Jerusalem’s western slopes, in order to secure (and expand) the territory allotted to the “Jewish state” by the 1947 United Nations partition plan.
During their invasion of Deir Yassin, Zionist forces killed 107-254 villagers (exact figures are still disputed among historians). Those who survived were driven out and the village was subsequently wiped off the map (today, Giv‘at Shaul and Har Nof sit on its remains). Although not an isolated event (massacres were commonplace during the war), the slaughter at Deir Yassin lies “at the center of Palestinian collective memory” due to its particularly gruesome nature, which included rape, mutilation, and executions.
The historical relevance of the massacre lies in the fact that it was a major catalyst for the mass exodus of Palestinians during the war. Indeed, Zionist forces spread news of the massacre as a form of psychological warfare designed to induce a panicked civilian response.
Today, the importance of remembering Deir Yassin lies, in part, in its impact on sustaining “Palestinian” identity among an exiled, predominately refugee population. Of course, all nationalist identities are bolstered by stories (and knowledge) of the past. Such narratives are often defined and re-defined through a standardized print/media culture and state institutions (such as public schools). But, as a dispersed and stateless population, Palestinians must depend, instead on public commemorative practices, in order to construct, communicate, and preserve a distinct national identity.
At the same time (and perhaps most importantly), popular remembrance of the massacre serves to preserve the memory of the Palestinian nakba (the “catastrophe” of the 1947-1949 war), in the hopes of future redress. Israeli officials (and the Israeli public at large) continue to cover up and deny the state’s responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, going so far as to legally repress its public commemoration. Throughout the “peace process,” Israeli officials have consistently deflected Palestinian refugee claims for return by denying the legality/veracity of their historical narrative. To this end, they have even described the flight of Arab Jews from their homes after 1948 as part of a “fair population and property exchange.” Palestinian remembrance challenges this revisionism and keeps the truth alive, both for its own and to influence negotiations between the two sides.
The importance of history does not lie in naïvely “uncovering” the past. Without purpose, such a gesture rings hollow. The history and memory Deir Yassin is the perfect embodiment of history with purpose, serving to “correct the disciplinary silencing of the past” and setting the foundation for a just political future.