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Dispute Over 1948 Killings Brings Troubled History to Light

By Ilene R. PrusherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1998



This week, Palestinians will mark the 50th anniversary of Deir Yassin, which to Arabs became the symbol of the war that they call "the Catastrophe" and Israelis call the War of Independence.

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But even among Palestinians who agree the destruction of the village outside Jerusalem is representative of the beginning of their monumental losses in 1948, there is dispute about how many Arabs were killed.

Accounts in local newspapers, which put the figure at 250 slain, were what went into history books. But now, Palestinian researchers say the figure was no higher than 120. That, admits Bir Zeit University professor Sharif Kanaana, is not what Palestinians want to hear.

"My philosophy is that facts are facts," says Mr. Kanaana, a sociologist and ethnographer who lives in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "People think maybe it's not a good idea that I spread that information, but the difference between the two figures doesn't decrease how vicious the killers were."

According to his research, the two Jewish guerrilla groups responsible for the raid, the far-right Lehi and Stern Gangs, gave overblown estimates of the number killed to scare Arabs throughout what was then Palestine into leaving their homes. Palestinians adopted the number in the hope of rounding up international support, Kanaana says.

Israelis said Deir Yassin was a battle, while Palestinians said the pre-state Zionists came in with the explicit purpose of murdering civilians and causing an exodus. When evidence surfaced of house-to-house killing, many Israelis came to accept the view that it had been a mass killing, although perpetrated by extremist forces not acting in concert with the mainstream Hagana, precursors of Israel's Labor movement.

Meir Pe'il, who had been sent by the Hagana to observe at Deir Yassin has said since that what took place was indeed a massacre. Other Israelis insist he fabricated his account to discredit competitors in the Stern Gang or Irgun, whose members eventually helped found the right-wing Likud Party.