A Palestinian village in 1948: Anatomy of an Israeli massacre

Salman Abu Sitta, Daleen Saah, Tuesday 29 Dec 2020

Palestine’s status as a member of the ICC was resolved this year, opening the door for Palestinians to hold Israel accountable for war crimes, such as the 1948 Abu Shusha massacre

Abu Shusha massacre


The Israeli record of war crimes since 1948 has been unparalleled in its multiplicity, severity, consistency, and duration for over seven decades. Over all this time, Israel has escaped the world's legal accountability, other than occasional motions of censure. Today, however, there are signs that this could change. 

After a number of attempts to exclude Palestine from its jurisdiction, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda determined on 8 June 2020 that there was no reason to deny the status of Palestine as a State Party to the 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC and the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction.

Palestinians, represented by official bodies and NGOs, have since brought forth a stream of Israeli war crimes to the court, with approximately 3,000 documents being submitted to date. It is now up to the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, the body that determines whether to confirm charges in initial judicial proceedings, to give a final decision.

There were at least 156 recorded Israeli war crimes in 1948-1949, as documented in Table 3.2 of the Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966, published by the Palestine Land Society in London in 2010. Published studies have shown that the correlation between the location of a massacre, its date of occurrence, the Israel brigade involved, and the specific Israeli military operation with the depopulation of the village concerned and the method of the expulsion of its population is indisputable.  

There follows the anatomy of a typical war crime and/or a crime against humanity in the massacre that took place at Abu Shusha in the Ramle district of Palestine on 13 May 1948 two days before Israel declared itself a state.   

Following the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 and the onset of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1922, Palestine witnessed a flood of European Jewish settlers, carrying with them the Zionist ideology of colonial settlement.

Zionism is inherently racist in its exclusivity and anti-Palestinian character because it is only feasible through the ethnic cleansing and consistent uprooting of the Palestinian people. This can be seen throughout the massacres that took place in 500 Palestinian villages in and around 1948 and have continued until today in the shape of Israeli state-led violence against the Palestinian people and the illegal annexation of Palestinian land.

The Balfour Declaration promised a “national home,” not a state, to the Jews in Palestine, with the promise of a Palestinian state to be established for the national majority. The latter never happened.

The British Mandate that followed granted full political and civil rights in Palestine to the Jewish minority (which constituted eight per cent of Palestine’s population and owned two per cent of its land) and the Jewish Diaspora, yet failed to recognise the political rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arab majority that comprised 92 per cent of the population.

At the end of the mandate, the United Nations made a non-binding proposal in Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 to divide Palestine into two parts: 55 per cent to be ruled by the Jewish minority and 45 per cent to be ruled by the Arab Palestinian majority with Jerusalem to be a corpus separatumn (separate body).

At the time, the Jewish settlers were 30 per cent of the population and controlled only six per cent of the land in Palestine. Half of the population in the region to be ruled by Jews were Palestinian. No forced displacement of the population was allowed. The Partition Plan was a non-binding proposal that was later dropped by the UN in March 1948.


The UN recommendation to divide Palestine into two states heralded a new period of conflict and suffering in Palestine on an uneven battlefield.

The subsequent massacres and intimidations were led by Jewish terrorist groups such as the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi (Stern Gang) and resulted in the massive expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, businesses, and land in both the cities and rural areas of Palestine.

The ethnic cleansing was made possible by the great disparity between the strength of the Jewish forces and the native inhabitants of Palestine. The former had 120,000 soldiers, among them able-bodied Jewish males aged 16 to 50, mostly military-trained. Many of them were veterans of World War II.

The Jewish armaments were superior to those held by Palestinians, as noted in the Ben Gurion War Diary published by the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut in 1993. More importantly, the Jewish Zionists had small arms, armoured vehicles, munitions factories, and an unlimited amount of locally-produced ammunition.

On the Palestinian side, Britain manipulated the amount of ammunition held by the armies of Egypt and particularly Jordan. The Palestinians had about 2,500 militia men dispersed among a dozen towns and several hundred villages. They had old rifles, few machine guns, and no artillery or tanks. They had no central command and no wireless communications. At best, they were only able to mount defensive operations, rushing to a village after hearing cries for help.

The well-armed and seasoned Zionist troops greatly outnumbered the defenders of the Palestinian civilian population who had only poor and scattered defences.

The Arab irregular volunteers who came to help were a motley, ineffective group that caused more damage than support. This contradicts Israel’s claim that, in expelling the Palestinians, it was acting in self-defence and that the refugees’ exodus was an accident of war and not an Israeli plan.

In the first three months of 1948, Jewish terrorists carried out numerous operations, blowing up buses and Palestinian homes. From 1 April to 14 May 1948, the Haganah mounted a campaign of occupying Palestine. This Zionist invasion of Palestine depopulated 220 main towns and villages, their populations making up half of all Palestine refugees today.

That was before Israel had declared itself as a state and before the British had left Palestine. In the following six months, two-thirds of the Palestinian people were expelled and became refugees.



The Israeli state has yet to acknowledge the history of ethnic cleansing committed by Jewish terrorist groups whose members would later form the Israeli army (IDF).

Since 1948 and continuing until today, Zionism and the Israeli state has perpetuated its propaganda in order to dehumanise the Palestinians and deflect accountability over human-rights violations, justifying its colonial presence.

Zionist propaganda is designed to exploit the fear of anti-Semitism, perpetuating a narrative that the crimes of Israeli violence against the Palestinians are merely a result of Israel’s need to defend itself and broadcasting the perpetual identity of victimhood necessary in order to accomplish settler colonialism in modern times.

While Britain occupied Palestine and formed the British Mandate, the Jewish Zionist movement infiltrated Palestinian lands as they planned to create a state of Israel.

The Zionist militia Haganah would later become the core of the IDF. Between 1920 and 1948, the Haganah was the Jewish terrorist organisation that executed raids and massacres in Palestinian villages. After 1945, the Haganah designed and implemented 31 general military operations, ultimately leading to the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians.


Various plans were drawn up by the Haganah in order to carry out the Zionist agenda in Palestine.

PLAN A: This was drawn up in February 1945 to complement the political aim of a unilateral Israeli declaration of independence. It was designed to suppress the Palestinian Arab resistance to the Zionist takeover of parts of Palestine.

PLAN B: Produced in September 1945, this emerged in May 1947 and was designed to replace Plan A in the context of new developments such as Britain’s submission of the problem of Palestine to the United Nations and growing opposition from surrounding Arab states to the Zionist partition plan.

PLAN C: Produced in May 1946, this emerged in November-December 1947 in the wake of the UN Partition Plan. It was designed to disrupt Arab defensive operations and occupy Arab land situated between isolated Jewish colonies. By the end of March 1947, the Zionist military operations carried out under Plan C had resulted in the depopulation of 30 Palestinian villages with a combined population of about 22,000 people.

PLAN D: This was drawn up in March 1948 to expand Jewish-held areas beyond those allocated to the proposed Jewish state in the UN Partition Plan. Its overall objective was to seize as much territory as possible ahead of the termination of the British Mandate, when the Zionist leaders planned to declare their state.

PLAN E: This was put into effect on or around 2 April 1948. By this time, the size of the Zionist forces had reached 65,000 men, several times greater than the number of Arab defenders, whether they were Palestinian villagers, Muslim Brothers from Egypt, or the motley assortment of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA).  

What ensued was a series of strategic massacre operations against Palestinian villages in the lead-up to Israeli declaration of an independent state, causing massive ethnic cleansing in the name of the new Jewish state.


The village of Abu Shusha had a population of 1,009 Palestinians, all Muslims, with a land area of 9,425 dunums, a majority of which was allocated for cereals or irrigated and used as orchards.

Twenty-four dunams of land were built-upon, featuring houses built close together from mud and stone, one mosque, a number of shops, and an elementary school founded in 1947 with an initial enrollment of 33 children.

1 APRIL 1948: FIRST ATTACK: Abu Shusha was first attacked in the early months of the war. After midnight on 1 April 1948, two platoons of the Giv’ati Brigade Second Battalion, accompanied by other forces, infiltrated the village, and demolition experts blew up a house and a well.

9-12 MAY 1948: OPERATION BARAK: The Abu Shusha massacre took place during the Haganah’s Operations Barak and Maccabi, the Zionist military offensives before the end of the British Mandate to capture villages in the north of Gaza and to attack the Arab Army and Palestinian resistance along the Jerusalem Road.

On 9 May and for three days following, the militia attacked the villages of Bash-shit in the Nabi Rubin Ramle sub district, Beit Daras in northeast Gaza, and the Gaza sub-districts of Batani Al-Sharqi, Batani Al-Gharb, Sawafir Shamaliya and Barqa. Villagers were expelled from the Gaza sub-districts of Ibdis, Julis, and Beit Affa.


13-14 MAY 1948: OPERATION MACCABI: The second part of Operation Barak was Operation Maccabi, which took place between 13 and 14 May 1948. It was during this Operation that the Haganah conquered Abu Shusha, as well as the southeast of Ramle, Al-Qubab, northwest of Latrun, and Mughar, southwest of ‘Aqir.

On 13 May 1948, the residents of Abu Shusha witnessed the arrival of Jewish reinforcements at the neighbouring settlement of Kibbutz Gezer. Everyone in the village realised with fear that their “midnight hour” was upon them and that the final assault on their village was near.

The villagers held a short but passionate debate weighing their options between evacuating their village or remaining and defending it. Deciding to stay, the villagers moved their women, children, and able elders into nearby caves while the men prepared for battle.  

They had 70 rifles, many rusty, one Bren gun (machine gun), and a few mines. The defenders spread around the village perimeter. They began their wait filled with fear and trepidation, and some families even attempted to flee under the cover of darkness rather than face the imminent conflict.


At dawn on 14 May 1948, units of the Zionist Givati Brigade began their final assault on the village of Abu Shusha. The object of the military operation was to occupy the village and deport its Palestinian inhabitants.

The attack came on 14 May from the north in the direction of the nearby Gezer colony, and also from the west, possibly from the Eqron colony several km away. It started with heavy mortar shelling on village houses, killing many people in the streets.

More Haganah troops attacked the village from the west. A centre of command was established on a strategic hill to the northeast of the village in a house called Dar Al-Khawajah, which was directing the military operations.

By 9am, Zionist soldiers had advanced on the village. The fighters of Abu Shusha tried to repel the attack. Their lines, however, were easily broken as their arms were no match for the efficiency of the Zionist forces. Some of the fighters stationed on the village boundary line were disarmed and executed by the Jewish fighters as they took the village. Other unarmed villagers fleeing to the east were captured and killed.

With a loss of ten defenders killed, the invaders took the village and the remaining defenders withdrew. The atrocities then began amid the savage terrorisation of the Palestinian population.


Once Abu Shusha had fallen, the Zionist forces began the process of ethnically cleansing the village of its Palestinian inhabitants.

Villagers were murdered in the streets or in their homes. Some were axed to death, and others were shot. In one house, the Jewish fighters found a group of men and killed them with axes. In front of another house, some men were lined up against a wall and executed. Such apocalyptic scenes were repeated throughout the village and continued until a deathly silence announced “victory”.

Seventy civilians were killed by the Giv’ati Brigade. A report to the International Committee of the Red Cross described the aftermath at the time, saying that “the Jews have committed barbaric acts” including rape.

Three days after the village attack, the Haganah soldiers saw a woman, Fatima Nimr al-Sawalha, emerging from one of the nearby caves to fetch water. The frightened women led the soldiers to the caves, where the inhabitants were subsequently ordered to leave. A few men hid in the far recesses of the caves in order to escape detection, making their escape later. The remaining villagers came out of hiding, where a terrible scene greeted them. The bodies of the slain fighters had been left unburied in the hot May sun. The women saw the bodies of their relatives, their husbands, sons, brothers and uncles.

The only man among them was too old to help, and the soldiers made him raise a white flag of surrender over the village.

The women spoke to one remaining elderly Palestinian man, sheikh Salameh, who asked the soldiers for permission to bury the dead. The women formed a committee and undertook this grisly and painful task. They found it impossible to dig in the hard ground, and there was no one available to conduct the burial services or recite the prayers. Thus, the men were buried where they had fallen rather than in the village graveyard.

After the soldiers had axed 10-year-old Khalil Al-Az’ar to death in front of his mother, they gathered all the remaining villagers, mostly women, children, and elderly men together. They formed two lines of soldiers and ordered the villagers to march between them towards Al-Qubab, a village to the east.

The villagers were not allowed to carry anything with them, and they were forced to march quickly by shooting at their legs. Many were hit, and a woman suffered a miscarriage. Following the ethnic cleansing, this march marked the final expulsion of villagers from Abu Shusha.


Many features of the Abu Shusha massacre were repeated in other villages, as part of the Zionist invasion of Palestine before Israel’s creation.

Four hours after the massacre, the Jewish People’s Council met in Tel Aviv. Those present were there to draft the Declaration of Independence of the new State of Israel. In this declaration, the Arab citizens of the state were promised full and equal citizenship and representation in all state structures.

However, the villagers of Abu Shusha, promised to be equal citizens of the new state, were denied any rights, and their forceful expulsion meant they had no place in the state-in-making. They were forced from lands which legally belonged to them, the land of their patrimony, now seized by European Jewish settlers as these formed the state of Israel.

Today, the land of Abu Shusha is unrecognisable in terms of its authentic Palestinian identity. All historic structures and civilian infrastructure are gone, leaving fields in their place.

Following the massacre in 1948, an Israeli settlement named Ameilim (Karmei Yosef) was established on the site of the destroyed village. The land of Abu Shusha is now used by the Israeli settlement for growing figs, cypress trees, cacti, and a palm tree.

In 2008, there were 6,208 registered refugees from the village out of a total of 8,400. They are now scattered in refugee camps throughout Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. The descendants of the Abu Shusha villagers have never forgotten their right of return.

Salman Abu Sitta is president of the Palestine Land Society and author of the Atlas of Palestine. His pioneering documentation of the Palestinian catastrophe and his cartography and mapping research of 19th to 21st-century Palestine are dedicated to the Palestinian right of return.  

*Daleen Saah is a Palestinian-American urban planner.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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