Al-Dawayima, 29 October 1948

Al-Dawayima, 29 October 1948
A Most Brutal Massacre Long Kept Under Wraps

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Palestine Survey (British Mandate Government)

The massacre of the village of al-Dawayima is considered to be one of the major massacres of the 1948 war, and perhaps the most horrific. Unlike massacres carried out by Zionist paramilitary groups, such as Deir Yasin on 9 April, the perpetrators of the al-Dawayima massacre were regular armed forces with operational planning capacity. They were part of the armed forces of the new state that, having firmly established its presence, was seeking recognition by the international community and was preparing its application to become a member state of the UN, which meant a pledge to respect all the commitments specified by its charter. Moreover, the massacre of al-Dawayima was not followed by condemnations from Palestinians and Arabs; more than three decades passed before it received attention from scholars and the media.

Al-Dawayima was one of the largest villages in the Hebron subdistrict. It was located 24 km from the city of Hebron and was less than 500 meters above sea level. To its north lay the village of Bayt Jibrin, to the east Dura and Idna, to the west al-Qubayba and Arab al-Jabbarat, and to the south the farmland of Dura. Its land area was 179 dunams and its population was 3,710 according to the British Mandate census of 1945. The village was known for its many ancient Roman ruins. It was famous for its olive groves and was the location of one of the most important farmer’s markets in the region every Friday, suq al-barrein (“the bi-terrain market”), named by the villagers in reference to its produce from both hilly and flat regions.

The village was located in an area of skirmishes between the locals and the Israeli colonies after the end of the Mandate and the departure of the British army. The people of al-Dawayima set up a local committee to handle the defense of the village and purchase weapons. This committee bought several rifles and small quantities of ammunition from some Egyptians.

In the five months that followed the UN Partition Resolution in November 1947, the villagers and other resistance fighters in the Hebron hills engaged in fierce, grueling battles with the Zionist forces such as the one with the settlement of Gush Etzion. In October 1948, the fighting came closer to al-Dawayima, particularly when the Israeli forces were able to occupy a number of nearby villages, starting with al-Maqhaz. They were trying to cut off the Egyptian troops who were stationed in the villages of Iraq al-Manshiyya and al-Faluja and to establish a direct connection with the settlements north of the Bayt Jibrin–al-Faluja battle line.

Matters became grave in the latter half of October when Israel decided to break the Second Truce with the Arab armies and launch Operation Yoav in southern Palestine. Its attacking forces renewed their assault on al-Faluja and Iraq al-Manshiyya, which made the capture of al-Dawayima and its neighboring villages imminent. The young men of the village began organizing nightly guard duty to be prepared for any potential attack. On 27 October 1948, the Egyptian troops withdrew from Bayt Jibrin to Hebron and the people of the villages of Bayt Jibrin and al-Qubayba withdrew along with them in the direction of al-Dawayima and other villages, which meant the Egyptians were completely surrounded in what was later known as the Faluja Pocket. Incidentally, one of their battalions was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who later became president of Egypt.

The people of al-Dawayima attempted to contact the commanders of the Arab armies to ask for protection, but to no avail. This caused panic among the villagers, and some of the women, children, and the elderly left for safety. On 29 October 1948, as the villagers were finishing Friday prayers, news came that the Zionist forces had reached the outskirts of the village.

The assault was carried out by the 89th commando battalion, which was part of the Israeli army’s 8th Armored Brigade, under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh, the founder of the Palmach. The soldiers launched the operation from al-Qubayba in tanks equipped with artillery and machine guns. Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, they split up into sub-groups that attacked the village simultaneously from three directions, opening heavy fire from the north, south, and west while leaving the east open. The village had no more than twenty armed men to defend it based on its western side to try to halt the attack. Some of them opened fire with their rifles, while others massed boulders at the entry points to the village to impede the attackers’ advance. Meanwhile, a number of the villagers took shelter in the village mosque. Others chose to remain in their homes or fled in the direction of Dura and its surrounding villages. One group hid itself in the nearby caves and grottos.

In the face of the overwhelming strength of their attackers, the men defending the village abandoned their posts. The Israeli artillery began pounding the village’s houses and shooting at those who were trying to escape. By midday, the Zionist forces entered the village from the three directions without any significant resistance and began to carry out a massacre. They did this by targeting villagers in three stages: first, in their homes and alleyways; second, in the village mosque; and third, in a cave in the Tor al-Zagh area.

There were two main eyewitnesses to the killings that took place in al-Dawayima: the village mukhtar, Hassan Mahmoud Ihdeib, and an Israeli soldier. The mukhtar’s testimony was part of a letter sent on 14 June 1949 by the secretary of the Arab Refugee Congress in Ramallah to the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, which had convened in Lausanne with the participation of Israel and the concerned Arab states. In it, he stated that when Israeli armored cars stormed the village and started firing, a number of soldiers disembarked on the village streets and started shooting indiscriminately at anything they saw moving. While the elderly took refuge in the mosque, the other villagers started to flee, the mukhtar himself included. However, the following night he returned to the village with some others to find out what happened to those they had left behind. They found around sixty bodies in the mosque, mostly of the elderly, including his own father. They saw a large number of bodies of men, women, and children in the streets. They then made their way to the cave of Iraq al-Zagh, and at the mouth of the cave they found eighty-five bodies, also of men, women, and children.

The mukhtar gave his testimony again in 1984 to an Israeli journalist for the newspaper Hadashot, where he gave additional details; for example, the villagers who had taken shelter in the caves were discovered by the attacking troops. They were ordered to form one single line and march eastwards. As they started to walk, the Israelis opened fire on them. He also recalled that some people returned the following night to bury the bodies in a well. To verify the accuracy of Ihdeib’s claim, the journalist brought four laborers and accompanied him to the spot he had indicated to dig inside the intended well. Indeed, there they discovered human remains – bones and skeletons in a pile and three skulls, including one belonging to a small child – after which the workers stopped digging. Having verified that a massacre had taken place, the journalist went ahead and published her article on 24 August 1984.

The Israeli soldier’s testimony was recorded by S. Kaplan, one of the members of the Mapam Party, who included it as part of a letter he sent to the editor-in-chief of the party newspaper Al-HaMishmar on 8 November 1948, nine days after the massacre occurred. The letter remained suppressed until the Israeli historian Benny Morris discovered it by chance and referred to it in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem published in 1987. (The letter was published in full in Haaretz newspaper in 2016.)

The soldier recalls that they encountered no fighting or resistance in al-Dawayima and that the first wave of troops that attacked killed between 80-100 Arabs, smashing the skulls of children with sticks. Then another batch blockaded all those who had remained home and brought explosives engineers to blow up the houses with the people alive inside them. The solider narrates how one commander ordered the explosives engineer to put two elderly women into a house and then blow it up. The engineer refused to carry out the order, but it was still carried out by other soldiers. He also tells the story of a woman with a newborn who was ordered to clean the backyard of a house where the soldiers were eating, after which she and her infant were shot dead.

In his letter, Kaplan wrote that over the last two weeks he had been listening to stories by soldiers and commanders boasting of their skill in carrying out murders and rapes and how these acts should be considered as stellar “missions” for them. He admitted that his party faced a dilemma: openly circulating this information would have a damaging effect on the image of the new state.

The survivors who managed to reach Hebron informed the UN observers and Arab officials that the Israelis had re-enacted the Deir Yasin massacre in al-Dawayima. The UN made three requests that the Israelis allow its observers to visit the village to investigate; each request was rejected. Then on 8 November, permission was granted to two UN officers to visit the village. The two observers noticed that smoke was still coming out from a number of houses, and some of them were giving off a strange smell that resembled something like burnt bones. When they demanded to inspect the village mosque, an Israeli officer told them they could not enter mosques out of respect for tradition, but a quick glance was enough to confirm that the Israeli soldiers had obviously desecrated the place. Then the Israelis prevented them from examining the other end of the village on the pretext that the Arabs had planted land mines there. However, one of the observers remained skeptical, as the sector in question directly faced the front line with the Arab armies and it would not have made any sense for the Arabs to plant land mines there. When it came to evacuating civilians, the Israelis denied having used force to expel them and even claimed that the villagers fled when the Arab forces withdrew from the area.

The exact number of victims of the massacre is unknown but is estimated to have been in the hundreds. Reports in the Hebron police headquarters pointed to the killing of around 200 of the villagers of al-Dawayima who had taken refuge in the village mosque, most of them elderly and not physically capable of fleeing. The command of the Egyptian garrison in Bethlehem reported that there were 500 victims, while the American consul in Jerusalem wrote in his report that based on the news that had reached him, between 500 and 1,000 Arabs were killed in al-Dawayima. The village mukhtar himself said that he had tallied the number of victims at 455 and had delivered a list with the names of the victims to the Transjordanian military governor. The mukhtar reported also that there were other victims among those who had taken refuge in the village earlier, but the number of which he was unable to determine. Ben-Gurion also pitched in, saying he heard rumors that the Israeli army had killed 70–80 people.

The matter of al-Dawayima was raised in December 1948 during an Israeli cabinet committee’s discussion of transgressions committed during the 1948 war. Aharon Cizling, the minister of agriculture (from the Mapam Party), said that he considered the soldiers to have committed Nazi-like acts and expressed his dissatisfaction at the lack of a serious investigation. However, along with other ministers, he ultimately agreed that there should not be any official public admission of transgressions so as to safeguard Israel’s reputation.

Why did the massacre of al-Dawayima residents not have the same reverberations as the Deir Yasin massacre? Perhaps the most realistic explanation was the one offered by the secretary of the Arab Refugee Congress in Ramallah, who said that the Arab Legion (the Transjordanian military force posted in the Hebron region) feared that spreading of the news of what took place in al-Dawayima would result in a similar wave of mass exodus as was the case with Deir Yasin.

After the massacre, the survivors from al-Dawayima dispersed. At first, a number of them remained in the villages and ancient ruins near the ceasefire line waiting to return to their village. Then, most of them went to refugee camps, including Ain al-Sultan in Jericho, and the camps of al-Arroub and al-Fawwar in the Hebron governorate. Some went to other areas in the West Bank and another group went to refugee camps in Jordan.

In 1955, the Israelis established the settlement of Amatzya on a portion of the rubble of al-Dawayima. All that remained intact was the Sufi shrine of Shaykh Ali, located at the top of a plateau southwest of the village, surrounded by pine and oak trees.

Selected Bibliography: 

Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest: A Modern History of Palestine. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1991.

Khalidi, Walid, ed. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006.

Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Ofir, Jonathan. “'Barbarism by an Educated and Cultured People.' Dawayima Massacre Was Worse than Deir Yassin,” at mondoweiss.net

Palumbo, Michael. The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.