Massacres during the 1948 Palestine war

Killings and massacres during the 1948 Palestine war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and unarmed soldiers.

Historians disagree concerning the effect these killings and massacres had on the 1948 Palestinian exodus and if whether or not these killings and massacres were carried out with the intent of hastening it.

fter about 30 years of nationalist conflict in Mandatory Palestine between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Zionists and while no agreement could be found between parties, the British decided in February 1947 to terminate the Mandate and, on 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 (II) recommending the adoption and implementation of a plan of partition of Palestine.

The vote was immediately followed by a civil war in which Palestinian Arabs (supported by the Arab Liberation Army) and Palestinian Jews, fought against each other while the region was still fully under British rule. On 15 May 1948, following the Israeli Declaration of Independence the previous day, the armies of a number of Arab countries invaded what had just ceased to be Mandatory Palestine, turning it into the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.

The war caused the death of more than 20,000 people. The yishuv and later the Israelis suffered between 5,700 and 5,800 dead. The number of victims on the Arab side is unclear, but according to Benny Morris, it might have been slightly higher. In his book, Morris also mentions an estimation of 12,000 by Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1950. These losses amounted to around 1 percent of the population of each community.

Depending on the sources and the definition, between 10 and 70 massacres occurred during the 1948 war.

According to Benny Morris, Yishuv (or later Israeli) soldiers killed roughly 800 Arab civilians and prisoners of war. Most of these killings occurred as villages were overrun and captured during the Second phase of the Civil War, Operation Dani, Operation Hiram and Operation Yoav.

According to Benny Morris, Jewish forces were responsible for 24 massacres during the war. Aryeh Yizthaki attests to 10 major massacres with more than 50 victims each. Palestinian researcher Salman Abu-Sitta records 33, half of them occurring during the civil war period. Saleh Abdel Jawad has listed 68 villages where acts of indiscriminate killing of prisoners, and civilians took place, where no threat was posed to Yishuv or Israeli soldiers.

The main massacres and attacks against Jewish civilians were the Haifa Oil Refinery massacre where 39 Jews were killed by Arab workers after Irgun members had thrown a bomb into the crowd, and the Kfar Etzion massacre where around 120-150 defenders were killed by Arab irregulars, according to some accounts with the participation of Arab Legion soldiers. With 80 deaths, the Hadassah medical convoy attack is also reported in some sources as a massacre because it included the mass killing of medical personnel by Arabs.

Both Israeli archives and Palestinian testimonies confirm killings occurred in numerous Arab villages. According to Morris, the “worst cases” were the Saliha massacre with 60 to 70 killed, the Deir Yassin massacre with around 112, Lydda massacre with around 250 and the Abu Shusha massacre with 60-70. In Al-Dawayima, accounts of the death toll vary. Saleh Abd al-Jawad reports 100-200 casualties, Morris has estimated “hundreds” and also reports the IDF investigation which concluded 100 villagers had been killed. David Ben-Gurion gave the figure of 70-80. Saleh Abd al-Jawad reports the village’s mukhtar account that 455 people were missing following the al-Dawayima massacre, including 170 women and children.

Controversy surrounds the assertion that a massacre by Israelis took place at Tantura.

At the beginning of the Civil war, Jewish militias organized several bombing attacks against civilians and military Arab targets. On 12 December 1947, the Irgun placed a car bomb opposite the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, killing 20 people. On 4 January 1948, the Lehi detonated a lorry bomb against the headquarters of the paramilitary al-Najjada located in Jaffa’s Town Hall, killing 15 Arabs and injuring 80. During the night between 5 and 6 January, in Jerusalem, the Haganah bombed the Semiramis Hotel that had been reported to hide Arab militiamen, killing 24 people. The next day, Irgun members in a stolen police van rolled a barrel bomb into a large group of civilians who were waiting for a bus by the Jaffa Gate, killing around 16. Another Irgun bomb went off in the Ramla market on 18 February, killing 7 residents and injuring 45. On 28 February, the Palmach organised a bombing attack against a garage in Haifa, killing 30 people.

On 22 February 1948, supporters of Amin al-Husseini organised, with the help of British deserters, three attacks against the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Using car bombs aimed at the headquarters of the Palestine Post, the Ben Yehuda Street market and the backyard of the Jewish Agency’s offices, killing 22, 53 and 13 Jewish people respectively.

During the first months of 1948, the railway between Cairo and Haifa was often targeted. On 31 March, it was mined near Binyamina, a Jewish settlement in the neighborhood of Caesarea, killing 40 persons and wounding 60. The casualties were all civilians, mostly Arabs. Although there were some soldiers on the train, none were injured. The Palestine Post and the New York Times attributed the attack to Lehi.

The causes of the massacres are a matter of controversy. Morris considers that the killings and massacres occurred “[l]ike [in] most wars involving built-up areas.” According to Ilan Pappé, these took place in the context of an ethnic cleansing that “carr[ied] with it atrocious acts of mass killing and butchering of thousands of Palestinians were killed ruthlessly and savagely by Israeli troops of all backgrounds, ranks and ages.”

During the Civil War, the Haganah operatives had been cautioned against harming women and children but the Irgun and Lehi did not observe this distinction, while “Palestinian Arab militias often deliberately targeted civilians.” Due to the fact the British Mandate was not yet over, neither side could set up regular Prisoner of War camps and therefore take prisoners.

During the Arab-Israeli War, the fighting armies were more or less disciplined and “the killings of civilians and prisoners of war almost stopped, except for the series of atrocities committed by the IDF forces”.

Despite their rhetoric, Arab armies committed few atrocities and no large-scale massacre of prisoners took place when circumstances might have allowed them to happen, as when they took the Old City of Jerusalem or the villages of Atarot, Neve Yaakov, Nitzanim, Gezer and Mishmar Hayarden. On the contrary, on 28 May, when the inhabitants and fighters of the Old City surrendered, in fear for their lives, the Transjordanian Arab Legion protected them from the mob and even wounded or shot dead other Arabs.

With regard to massacres perpetrated by the IDF at the end of the war and particularly during Operation Hiram, where around 10 massacres occurred, Morris and Yoav Gelber consider that lack of discipline cannot explain the events. Gelber points out the “hard feelings [of the soldiers] towards the Palestinians” and the fact that the Palestinians had not fled like in former operations. Benny Morris thinks that they were related to a “general vengefulness and a desire by local commanders to precipitate a civilian exodus”.

To explain the difference in the number of killings and massacres, Morris speculates that “[t]his was probably due to the circumstance that the victorious Israelis captured some four hundred Arab villages and towns during April–November 1948, whereas the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab Liberation Army failed to take any settlements and the Arab armies that invaded in mid-May overran fewer than a dozen Jewish settlements”. He considers too that belligerents behaved reasonably well and that the “1948 [war] is noteworthy for the relatively small number of civilian casualties both in the battles themselves and in the atrocities that accompanied them” in comparison, for example, “with the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s or the Sudanese civil wars of the past fifty years”.

According to historians, whether deliberate or otherwise, the massacres did have a strong impact on the exodus of the Palestinian Arab population. For example, the Deir Yassin massacre is considered to have generated more panic among the Arab population than all other previous operations together and to have caused a mass flight of Palestinians in numerous areas, partly because the actual events at Deir Yassin were greatly embellished by the media.

Additionally, the Deir Yassin massacre became a strong argument for the Arab states to intervene against Israel. Arab League chief Azzam Pasha stated that ‘The massacre of Deir Yassin was to a great extent the cause of the wrath of the Arab nations and the most important factor for sending [in] the Arab armies’.

After the Partition vote, some Arab leaders threatened the Jewish population of Palestine. For example, they spoke of “driving the Jews into the sea” or ridding Palestine “of the Zionist Plague”.

According to the Israeli traditional historiography, these statements reflected the Arab intentions. While Benny Morris considers the real picture of the Arab aims to be more complex, notably because they were well aware they could not defeat the Jews, he argues that the Yishuv was indeed threatened with extinction and feared what would happen if the Arabs won. Gelber, on the other hand, regards these public statements as ‘meaningless’ and judges that the ‘actions [of their armies] imply that the aims of the Arab invasion were decidedly limited and focused mainly on saving Arab Palestine from total Jewish domination’.

During the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine before the war, the criterion of “purity of arms” was used to distinguish between the respective attitudes of the Irgun and Haganah towards Arabs, with the latter priding itself on its adherence to this principle. Generally speaking, this precept requires that “weapons remain pure [and that] they are employed only in self-defence and [never] against innocent civilians and defenceless people”. But if it “remained a central value in education” it was “rather vague and intentionally blurred” at the practical level.

In 1946, at a meeting held between the heads of the Haganah, Ben-Gurion predicted a confrontation between the Arabs of Palestine and the Arab states. Concerning the “principle of purity of arms”, he stressed that: “The end does not justify all means. Our war is based on moral grounds” and during the 1948 War, the Mapam, the political party affiliated to Palmach, asked for “a strict observance of the Jewish Purity of arms to secure the moral character of [the] war”.

When he was criticized by Mapam members for his attitude concerning the Arab refugee problem, Ben-Gurion reminded them the events of Lydda and Ramla and the fact Palmach officers had been responsible for the “outrage that had encouraged the Arabs’ flight made the party uncomfortable.”

According to Avi Shlaim, “purity of arms” is one of the key features of ‘the conventional Zionist account or old history’ whose ‘popular-heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war’ is ‘taught in Israeli schools and used extensively in the quest for legitimacy abroad’. Morris adds that ‘[t]he Israelis’ collective memory of fighters characterized by “purity of arms” is also undermined by the evidence of [the dozen case] of rapes committed in conquered towns and villages.’ According to him, ‘after the war, the Israelis tended to hail the “purity of arms” of its militiamen and soldiers to contrast this with Arab barbarism, which on occasion expressed itself in the mutilation of captured Jewish corpses.’ According to him, ‘this reinforced the Israelis’ positive self-image and helped them “sell” the new state abroad and (…) demonized the enemy’.

There is a controversy among historians concerning the events of Tantura. On the night between 22 and 23 May 1948, soldiers of the Alexandroni brigade attacked the village. The fighting caused the deaths of a few dozen Arabs and 14 Israeli soldiers.

According to the analysis of Gelber, based on a counting of the inhabitants, the refugees, the POW’s and the deaths, there were no people missing and therefore no massacre could have occurred. Morris’s analysis concludes that the documentation and the interviews do not prove that a massacre occurred but that the hypothesis cannot be simply dismissed. Ilan Pappé considers that the testimonies of former Alexandroni soldiers and Palestinian refugees prove, on the contrary, that at least 200 unarmed Tantura villagers were killed, whether in revenge for the death of Israeli soldiers due to sniper shots or later when they were unjustifiably accused of hiding weapons.

Nadine Picaudou studied the evolution of Palestinian historiography on the 1948 war. She argues that the Deir Yassin massacre long remained the only one discussed ‘as if it sufficed to summarize the tragedy of Palestinian victims’. She thinks that during the period for which ‘collective memory conflated with Palestinian nationalist mobilization, one exemplary event sufficed to express the tragedy’. Referring to the study performed in 2007 by Saleh Abd al-Jawad, Zionist Massacres: the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in the 1948 War, she writes that the massacres engaged Palestinian historians’ concerns relatively late, but that when ‘Palestinians began to write their history, the issue of massacres inevitably became one of the relevant factors in accounting for the mass exodus.’

Nadine Picaudou also underlines that ‘Palestinian historiography has retained the nakba paradigm, which reduces the Palestinians to the status of passive victims of Israeli policies, as [illustrated by] the limited attention accorded by researchers to the 1947-48 battles (…)’.

In the context of the 1948 war, several historians pointed out the nuance, sometimes polemically, that can exist between a “battle” and a “massacre”.

Deir Yassin

The village of Deir Yassin was located west of Jerusalem, but its strategic importance was debatable and its inhabitants were not participants in the war. On 9 April, around 120 men from the Irgun and the Lehi attacked the village in the context of the Operation Nachshon. The poorly armed inhabitants showed unexpected resistance to the attack by fighting back. The assailants suffered four dead. Jacques de Reynier, head of the International Red Cross delegation in Palestine, visited Deir Yassin on April 11, 1948 and observed “a total of more than 200 dead, men, women, and children.” After the fighting, some villagers were executed after being exhibited in the streets of Jerusalem. A group of prisoners were executed in a nearby quarry and others at Sheikh Bader. Historians estimate today the total number of deaths at 100 to 120.

In 2007, Israeli military historian Uri Milstein published a controversial book, Blood Libel at Deir Yassin in which he claims that the events of Deir Yassin were the result of a battle and not of a massacre. Moreover, he goes further and, rejects the reality of the atrocities that followed the attack of the village. Nadine Picadou also nuances the events and considers that in the Palestinian historiography, ‘the massacre of Deir Yassin eclipsed the battle of Deir Yassin’. Morris considers that the capture of the village, insignificant on the military point of view, can hardly be considered as a “battle”.

In 1948, Hadassah hospital was located in the enclave of the Mount Scopus, at Jerusalem from where it dominated several Arab quarters. On 14 April, a convoy carrying medical personnel, some injured fighters, munitions and some reinforcement troops, that was protected by Haganah soldiers and armoured cars, tried to reach the enclave. Arab fighters had been informed by an Australian officer that the convoy’s mission was to use the enclave to attack Arab quarters and cut off the road to Ramallah. A large Arab force then ambushed the convoy, and, in the fight, several vehicles were shot up, and couldn’t withdraw. The battle raged for seven hours and British intervention was late in coming. 79 people from the convoy were killed, mainly civilians. Following the incident, Jacques de Reynier urged that in future all convoys be relieved of military escorts and placed under Red Cross protection. This was quickly agreed to. He also asked that the enclave be demilitarised under similar conditions, but this was refused by the Zionist authorities.

While the whole event is usually seen as a massacre, Morris considers it to have been, rather, a battle, given that there was shooting between Arab and Haganah militia and targeted a supply convoy headed for Mount Scopus. He points out however that the death toll incurred by medical personal, who were unarmed, was massive and that seventy-eight people were “slaughtered”.

In July 1948, the Israelis launched the Operation Danny to conquer the cities of Lydda and Ramle. The first attack on Lydda occurred on the afternoon of 11 July when the 89th battalion mounted on armoured cars and jeeps raided the city “spraying machine-gun fire at anything that moved”. “Dozens of Arabs (perhaps as many as 200)” were killed. According to Morris, the description of this raid written by one of the soldiers “combine[s] elements of a battle and a massacre”.

Later, Israeli troops entered the city and took up position in the town center. The only resistance came from the police fort that was held by some Arab Legionnaires and irregulars. Detention compounds were arranged in the mosques and the churches for adult males and 300–400 Israeli soldiers garrisoned the town. In the morning of 12 July, the situation was calm but around 11:30 an incident occurred; two or three armored cars entered the town and a firefight erupted. The skirmish made Lydda’s townspeople believe that the Arab Legion was counter-attacking and probably a few dozen snipers fired against the occupying troops. Israeli soldiers felt threatened, vulnerable because they were isolated among thousands of hostile townspeople and ‘angry [because] they had understood that the town had surrendered’. ‘[They] were told to shoot ‘at any clear target’ or, alternatively, at anyone ‘seen on the streets’. The Arab inhabitants panicked. Many rushed in the streets and were killed.

There is controversy among historians about the events that followed. According to Morris, at the Dahmash mosque some prisoners tried to break out and escape, probably fearing to be massacred. IDF threw grenades and fired rockets at the compound and several dozens Arabs were shot and killed. The Palestinian historiography describes the events differently. According to it, it was civilians that had taken refuge in the mosque, thinking that the Israelis would not dare to profane the sanctuary. The Israelis killed all the people there making 93 to 176 dead. Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela write that there is a confusion between two mosques. According to them, detenees were only gathered around the Great Mosque, where no incident occurred and it is a group of 50-60 armed Arabs who barricaded in the Dahmash mosque. Its storming resulted in the death of 30 Arab militiamen and civilians, including elderly, women and children.

The deaths of July 12 are regarded in the Arab world and by several historians as a massacre. Walid Khalidi calls it “an orgy of indiscriminate killing.” Morris writes that the “jittery Palmahniks massacr[ed] detenees in a mosque compound.” According to Gelber, it was a “bloodier massacre” than at Deir Yassin. Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela write that it was “an intense battle where the demarcation between civilians, irregular combatants and regular army units hardly existed.”

Here is a non-exhaustive table of killings or massacres that took place during the war:

Date Event Perpetrators Victims Notes
18 December 1947 Al-Khisas, Safed Jewish Palmach 10 Arab villagers 10 Arabs dead including five children
30 December 1947 Haifa Oil Refinery massacre Jewish Irgun, Arab workers 6 Arab and 39 Jewish workers 39 Jewish workers killed by Arab workers in the immediate aftermath of an Irgun grenade attack on the Arab workers that had killed 6 and wounded 42
31 December 1947 Balad al-Shaykh massacre, Haifa Jewish Palmach Between 17 and 70 Arab villagers. 3 Jewish forces casualties. Jewish retaliation for the Haifa Oil Refinery massacre. The raiding unit’s orders were to ‘kill maximum adult males.’
5 January 1948 Jaffa ‘Serrani’ Town Hall Jewish Lehi 26 Arab villagers Lehi detonated a truck bomb outside town hall, killing 26 and injuring hundreds.
5 January 1948 Semiramis Hotel bombing, Jerusalem Jewish Haganah perhaps Irgun 24-26 civilians Bomb planted which killed 24-26 people, including the Spanish vice-consul, Manuel Allende Salazar.
8 January 1948 Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem Jewish driver 17 Arab civilians A Jewish driver, attempting to throw a bomb at an Arab checkpoint, accidentally rolled the device into an Arab cafe.
14 Feb 1948 Sa’sa’, Safed Jewish Palmach 60 Arab villagers 60 Arabs killed inside their houses, including small children; 16 houses were demolished. Considered a model raid by Israeli forces.
22 February 1948 Ben Yehuda Street bombing, Jerusalem British deserters and Arab irregulars 58 Jewish civilians Killing 58 Jewish civilians and injuring 140. Arab High Command took responsibility, imploring the Jewish community to stick to the rules of war.
11 March 1948 Jewish Agency for Israel Arab forces 13 Jewish non-combatants Arabs killed 13 Jews in a bombing
13 & 16 March 1948 al-Husayniyya, Safad Jewish Palmach 30 Arab villagers Over 30, including women and children. The massacre also caused many to flee the area. The total death toll was put at dozens by Israeli sources
9 April 1948 Deir Yassin massacre, Jerusalem Jewish Irgun, Palmach and Lehi fighters. 100 to 120 Arab villagers (including combatants). 4 Jewish combatants. The villagers resisted the attack. The attackers fought house-to-house, throwing grenades and shooting. Villagers were also shot down as they fled from their homes down to alleys and others apparently murdered or executed. The massacre was condemned by the Haganah and other mainstream Jewish authorities. The massacre also contributed to increase the 1948 Palestinian exodus
13 April 1948 Hadassah medical convoy massacre, Jerusalem Arab forces 79 Jewish doctors, nurses, members of Haganah and scientists and 1 British soldier. Medical convoy
2 May 1948 Ein al-Zeitun massacre, Safed Jewish Palmach 30-70 Arab villagers Ein al-Zeitun completely depopulated after the Palmach captured the village.
13 May 1948 Kfar Etzion massacre, Hebron Arab forces 157 Jewish residents and Haganah soldiers
13–19 May 1948 Abu Shusha, Haifa Jewish Givati Brigade 60-70 Arab villagers In 1995, a mass grave near the site with 52 bodies was unearthed.
11–12 July 1948 Lydda Jewish 3rd Battalion of the IDF 250-1700 civilians By Israeli accounts at least 250 men, women and children were shot on sight by the 3rd Battalion. Arab sources give a higher estimate at 400-1700.
28 October 1948 Al-Dawayima massacre, Hebron Jewish 89th Commando Battalion, with former Irgun, and Lehi members. 80 to 200 Arab men, women and children. News of the massacre was suppressed by both Israeli (to prevent UN scrutiny) and Arab forces (in order to prevent morale from collapsing as it did after the Deir Yassin massacre).
29 October 1948 Safsaf massacre, Safed Jewish 7th Armored Brigade. 52-70 Arab villagers killed. Between 52 and 70 Arab men shot, killed, and burned in a pit. Several women were raped.
30 October 1948 Saliha, Safed Jewish 7th Armoured Brigade 60 – 70 Arab men and women killed after surrendering. Village completely depopulated.
30 October 1948 Eilabun massacre, Tiberias Jewish Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion 14 Arab villagers killed 13 were executed, 11 from Eilabun (Christians) and 2 refugees (Muslims). Massacre was documented by the UN.
31 October 1948 Hula massacre, Lebanon Jewish Carmeli Brigade 35 and 58 male Arab villagers. Hula was captured without resistance. The commander, first lieutenant Shmuel Lahis, was given seven years in jail for his role in the incident but served only one.
2 November 1948 Arab al-Mawasi massacre, Tiberias Jewish IDF 14 Arab Bedouin men 15 Bedouin men from Khirbat al-Wa’ra al-Sawda’ taken near Eilabun and shot. One survived. Village was completely obliterated.

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