The April 9, 1948 raid against Deir Yassin is arguably the most contentious event in a contentious war. Over the years, varying accounts of the events of the day have come to light, providing some details.
A 1988 Arabic-language study from Beir Zeit University in Ramallah (Kananah, Sharif and Zaytuni, Nihad, Deir Yassin القرى الفلسطينية المدمرة Destroyed Palestinian Villages, Birzeit University Press), seems to have ended the debate over the number of victims, now accepted to be around 110. Other sources have put the number at 116. But there are still many unanswered questions, and the sad truth is, most will remain unanswered. What is clear is that the Irgun (IZL) and Lehi (Stern group) attackers believed that Iraqi soldiers had infiltrated the village (and there’s some evidence that they at least tried to, on several occasions), and that once the raid began, chaos ensued. There doesn’t appear to have been any premeditated goal to kill civilians but the village was to be completely in Jewish hands with a successful mission; civilians, then, had two choices: flee or fight. It’s obvious some were killed before the choice could be made (and others were allegedly killed while or after surrendering.)
It’s also known that many of the attackers were themselves wounded or killed. It cannot be said, then that the village was defenceless, but an armed village was not necessarily a hostile one. That fact was lost on Jewish forces time and again. Indeed, the Haganah’s Arab experts advised repeatedly against attacking friendly (or inflitrated villages) because the result could be unnecessary deaths and more hostility. Still, the claim that only 11 of the villagers were armed [Beir Zeit study], and the amount of ammunition they must have possessed (while Arab forces throughout Palestine were complaining of ammo shortages) to hold off 120 attackers for so many hours also seems suspicious.
The debate also remains open as to the necessity of the raid itself. Many have argued that the raid distracted Arab fighters from the Palmach counterattack at Kastel. That may well be true, but it’s impossible to know. There’s no question the massacre rumours, spread by both the Haganah and Arab leadership, accelerated the flight from Palestine that had started a few months earlier. It also provoked a number of massacres of Jews, notably an attack on a convoy of medical vehicles to Hadassah Hospital on 13 April 1948, in which 79 men and women were killed.
The legacy of the raid on Deir Yassin, can be - should be - understood as a tragedy for both Arabs and Jews. For Palestine’s Arabs, the day remains a symbol of both Palestinian suffering and Zionist extremism; for Jews, the raid continues to represent a stain on the moral consciousness of the Jewish state. And regardless of what really happened that day, both peoples’ perceptions of the events must be acknowledged before there can be any movement forward toward reconciliation.