Jewish military briefing at Deir Yassin prior to the massacre Jewish military briefing at Deir Yassin prior to the massacre. Photo: Public Domain

As Israel is brought before the International Court of Justice, John Westmoreland explains the historical background of this accusation against Israel

Israel is increasingly facing accusations that their war against the Palestinian people is a deliberate policy of genocide. The chant on pro-Palestinian demos, ‘Netanyahu you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide’, expresses the desire to see Israel being held to account for war crimes.

Care has to be taken about accusing Israel of genocide for a number of reasons. If Netanyahu ends up in the dock, we want the charges to stick. The Israeli intention is clearly to silence and marginalise Palestinians through ethnic cleansing and the denial of national rights. Nevertheless, it is perfectly correct to lay the charge of genocidal intent at Israel’s door, because it explains the historical persistence of Zionist ethnic cleansing, and where that is leading.

The language used by Israeli politicians that call Palestinians ‘animals’ and ‘Nazis’ reveals both the dehumanising of a people and the intention to treat them as a military threat. This has historically been the precursor to wars of extermination. The systematic murder of doctors, journalists and civilians in Gaza and the West Bank looks like another example.

Israel’s extreme racist pronouncements meet the UN definition of genocidal intent that it identifies as the deliberate intent to destroy ‘in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’, and this has led to South Africa seeking to prosecute Israel in the International Court of Justice. The hope is that an injunction from the ICJ will halt Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians, and force Israel’s backers to face up to their own role in the backing of a criminal state.

That Netanyahu has said Israel will attend the hearing, scheduled for the end of January, shows that there is room for legal manoeuvre, despite the strength of feeling across the world. Israel is a colonising state, and it will use the defence that other liberal imperialist countries have used to excuse mass slaughter – that Israel only uses extreme force when its Palestinian subjects break the rules and fight back.

Yesterday, Israel revealed a plan for what should happen to Gaza after the war ends. This is clearly an attempt to present Israel as part of the Western liberal wing of imperialism. Netanyahu evidently thinks this will play well to the ICJ later this month.

Israeli Defence Minister, Noah Gallant, told the media: ‘Gaza residents are Palestinian, therefore Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against the State of Israel.’ Palestinians will only be allowed to live under Israeli arms.

Blood at the root

Israel’s genocidal intent today is the result of colonialism and ethnic cleansing that was part and parcel of the creation of the Israeli state. And it is useful to look at how ethnic cleansing and the massacre of Palestinian civilians has been an ever-present feature of Zionist settler-colonialism.

The massacre of the villagers in Deir Yassin in 1948 is an important starting point for understanding the roots of Zionist violence. To Albert Einstein and other Jewish thinkers who put their names to a letter published by the New York Times in that year, Deir Yassin looked like the work of fascists, and this was just three years after the fall of the Third Reich.

In 1947, the UN partition of Palestine that gave birth to the state of Israel was approved with the acceptance of Jewish leaders in Palestine, but was rejected by all the Arab countries. The Palestinian people were left with an armed and hostile state that saw them as obstacles to the creation of a greater Israel. What followed was a one-sided civil war between well-armed and highly trained Zionist forces versus a ramshackle civil militia of Palestinian farmers.

Britain had oversight of Palestinian affairs until it withdrew in 1948, but it allowed Zionist paramilitaries to ethnically ‘cleanse’ Arab communities from Palestine. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine resulted in 80% of the Palestinian population being forced to flee their country. They became refugees in neighbouring lands, denied the right to return. This was the Nakba or catastrophe.

Ethnic cleansing

The leading Zionists in Palestine at the end of the war were determined to create a Jewish state. They had fought a terrorist campaign against the British during the Second World War to that end. After the Holocaust, support for a Jewish homeland to be founded in Palestine was boosted and this gave new and devastating energy to the Zionists.

However, from the start, Israel was able to sway the policies of the international power brokers. The guilt complex of European countries and the need to take Jewish aspirations for justice out of Europe speeded up the founding of Israel.

Jews in Palestine had to achieve three things for Israel to get the go-ahead. First, they needed to assuage Western fears about what might happen to the Palestinians, and so they affirmed that the new Israel would be a parliamentary democracy that would abide by the rule of law. Secondly, to make the state viable, they had to increase the proportion of Jews in Palestine so that they could present themselves as the democratic majority. Thirdly, because the theft of Palestinian lands was integral to the founding of the state, they needed to militarise the Jewish population and establish geographical dominance over ports, roads and infrastructure.

A series of plans (A, B, C and D) were formulated by a Consultancy of leading Zionists at the home of David Ben-Gurion, regarded as the founder of the Israeli state. The final plan, Plan D (Dalet), was for the systematic removal of Arab communities in proximity to Jewish settlements.

Plan Dalet viewed all Palestinian villages as military camps. The slaughter of Palestinian villagers was justified to the world as self-defence. Plan Dalet had no time scale. It has never been declared as accomplished, and it is still being carried out. The sequestration of Palestinian homes for ‘military purposes’, the bulldozing of homes and villages or the deployment of soldiers against stone-throwing children are all part of the Plan Dalet playbook.

Plan Dalet was drawn up by the Haganah, the Jewish military force that headed the ethnic cleansing. It included the ‘conquest and destruction of rural areas’. It ordered the evictions of villages, large-scale intimidation, the blowing up of homes, and then mining the ruins to deter anyone from returning. Mass killing was permitted, and the bombardment of population centres to instil panic was sanctioned. Plan Dalet was a blueprint for a terror-state, and remains a feature of Israel today. Deir Yassin was one of the first villages to experience the horror of the plan.

Deir Yassin

Deir Yassin was a prosperous village of farmers on the western slopes of the Jerusalem Mountains. The villagers were on friendly terms with their Jewish neighbours in Givat Shaul. Before the Deir Yassin villagers were massacred, they had determinedly refused to let Arab militias stop there. They were dedicated to peace and coexistence. However, the existence of a friendly and prosperous Palestinian village, approved of by local Jews, with whom they traded, did not fit in with the Zionist narrative.

On 9 April 1948 Jewish fighters burst into the village. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes what happened:

‘Jewish soldiers sprayed the homes of civilians with machine-gun fire, killing many of the inhabitants. The remaining villagers were then gathered in one place and murdered in cold blood, their bodies abused, while a number of women were raped and then killed.’[1]

The number of people massacred is generally agreed to be 170, although this figure does not include those listed as ‘fighters’. Children were not spared, and Pappé records that a row of children was stood against a wall and then sprayed with bullets ‘just for the fun of it’.

Deir Yassin was the prelude to attacks on major urban centres – Jerusalem, Tiberias, Haifa – where barrel-bombs were rolled downhill into tightly packed communities, petrol streams were set alight and the resulting terrified flights of inhabitants were recorded as ‘voluntary departures’. Each attack started with the Haganah’s loud-speaker trucks reminding communities about the fate of Deir Yassin.

The attack on this peaceful Arab village was later described by Israeli leader, Menachem Begin, as ‘absolutely necessary’ in the creation of the state of Israel. Why did he think this? Because it showed Arab communities that there was no chance of remaining in the territory marked out for the future of Israel, and it increased Jewish-Arab enmity. The propaganda of the Haganah worked alongside the terror. Some captured Arabs were exhibited in Jerusalem before being taken to a quarry and murdered. Pacifist Jewish communities in Jerusalem who protested against these crimes were condemned by the Zionists as enemies of Israel.

Jews against Zionism

Deir Yassin represented a turning point in the attitudes of Jews across the world to the fledgling Israeli state. And this is still important today. Earlier this week, hundreds of Jewish activists shut down the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest at Israel’s war crimes. Jewish opposition to Israel makes it more difficult than it otherwise would be for Israel’s backers to smear protesters as anti-Semitic.

As news of the Deir Yassin massacre spread, notable Jewish intellectuals spoke out against Zionism, and some saw the similarities between the attacks on Palestinians and Nazi attacks on Jews a decade before. Many had understood the need for Jews to have a homeland and a refuge from the scourge of anti-Semitism. They had supported the idea of Jews finding a refuge in the Middle East precisely because Arabs had proved to be welcoming to Jews during the Third Reich. But they could not sanction a Jewish occupier state unleashing undiluted nationalism on host communities.

When Menachem Begin set off for the USA in a bid to gain international backing for Israel, Jews in America made their feelings known. In a letter to the New York Times, Albert Einstein along with several other prominent individuals, including the German-born historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt, excoriated Menachem Begin and his nationalist Freedom Party, which was referred to as: ‘a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’.

The letter goes on:

‘Within the Jewish community the Freedom Party have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority. Like other Fascist parties, they have been used to break strikes, and have themselves pressed for the destruction of free trade unions. In their stead, they have proposed corporate unions on the Italian Fascist model.’

The letter ends by asking all decent people to refuse to acknowledge Begin and ‘this latest manifestation of fascism’.

These are strong words, and if they were uttered at a rally for Palestine today might well result in arrest, but to Jews who had survived the Holocaust that had consumed their friends and relatives, the crimes of Israel were indefensible and required the strongest possible condemnation.

That the Western world, at best, chose to look the other way when Deir Yassin was massacred, and, at worst, went on to arm the Israeli state to the teeth, added to the dynamic of Israel’s expansionist violence. The blood-soaked roots of Israel are giving fruit to mass murder and charges of genocide today.

Ending the slaughter will take more than a judgement from the ICJ. Israel’s imperialist backers are up to their necks in bloodshed, and the fight for justice will take more mass mobilisations that are linked to system failure all round. Workable political solutions are looking more revolutionary by the day.

[1] Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), p.90

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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