Commander of deadly 1948 operation at Deir Yassin dies at 94

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Ben-Zion Cohen, who commanded fighters from the Irgun pre-state underground and captured the Arab village of Deir Yassin just west of Jerusalem during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence – and was among those responsible for the massacre there – died on Saturday at the age of 94.

Cohen never expressed remorse over the operation in which about 100 of the village’s residents were killed.

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“If there were another three or four more Deir Yassins in the Land of Israel at the time, not a single Arab would have remained in Israel,” he later said.

Cohen fought the Nazis in World War II. He also fought the British after the war and fought the country’s Arabs during the War of Independence.

Born in 1927 in Jerusalem, Cohen’s parents, Yosef and Hanna, were among the country’s first immigrants from the southwestern Asian Caucasus region. He attended Jerusalem’s best schools and then in 1942 volunteered for the Jewish Settlement Police. He later enlisted in the British Army and fought in a naval commando unit in Italy and Malta during World War II. During that time, he was active in distributing Zionist literature among Jewish partisans in Italy that he had obtained from the Jewish Agency.

In 1946, Cohen enlisted in the Irgun and fought British rule in Mandate Palestine using the pseudonym Giora. In the War of Independence, Cohen was the commander of a company in Jerusalem and was involved in most of the battles in the city. His combat experience in the Jerusalem area included fighting in Shoafat and the Palestinian village of Maliha (now Malha), as well as attempts to break through to the Old City, Mount Zion and Yemin Moshe.

Members of the organization 'Zochrot' in a memorial procession in 2007Credit: Alex Levac

On April 9, 1948, just over a month before the end of the British Mandate and the declaration of Israel’s independence, Cohen led a force of Irgun fighters, who along with members of the pre-state Lehi underground, attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin five kilometers (3 miles) west of Jerusalem. About 100 of the village’s residents, including women, children and the elderly, were killed in the fighting there.

The circumstances of the fighting remain a matter of dispute to this day amid conflicting accounts between the Jewish fighters and many historians. At issue is whether Deir Yassin was the site of a “legitimate” battle or a brutal massacre; whether it was a military operation that went awry or the execution of innocent people.

In his written account, which is in the archives of the Jabotinsky Institute, Cohen recounted the preparations for the battle, which included a discussion with members of the Irgun and Lehi (also known in English as the Stern Gang) regarding the fate of Deir Yassin’s residents.

“With regard to prisoners, women, the elderly and children, there were differences of opinion, but the majority was in favor of wiping out all the men in the village and any other opposing force, whether they be elderly, women or children,” said Cohen. “From these opinions, we could see the desire to take [our] revenge was strong after the enemy had struck us.”

Cohen said that he had instructed his soldiers to throw grenades and open automatic weapon fire before entering houses in the village. The policy was one of the reasons that women and children were killed in Deir Yassin along with armed Arab combatants. Cohen said that his soldiers advanced toward the village crawling on their stomachs, when all of a sudden, dogs began barking and there was shouting.

After Cohen was shot and wounded in the knees, he issued an order to “take the gloves off,” as he said in an interview for Neta Shoshani’s film “Born in Deir Yassin.”

“Then I said, there’s no woman, no man. [We’re] blowing up as many houses as possible, and killing anyone who shoots. Approach the building, lay the explosives, activate them, fall back, blow up the building with all its inhabitants after they’ve opened fire. Immediately after the explosion, we go, because they’re in shock, and the first thing is to [shoot] bursts right and left,” Cohen recounted.

Cacti full of bullet holes after Deir Yassin massacre, 1948Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

When one of his men was also wounded by gunfire, Cohen ordered to stop seven Arabs and order them to carry the wounded soldier on a stretcher – to ensure that Arab snipers didn’t harm him. He said he also ordered his men to “deal with the prisoners if they tried to escape.”

In a written account, he wrote about the Arab fighters whom he killed as well. “I saw an Arab in uniform snipe at our men. I took the rifle from a soldier who stood next to me. The distance between me and the sniper was 30 meters. He hadn’t noticed me. From the first shot, with precise aim at the head, he was killed there. A second Arab, who came to get him, got a bullet in the chest. He fell, too. We eliminated every Arab whom we met on our way at that point, out of a concern a battle would develop in the rear.”

In the interview with Shoshani, the film director, Cohen also spoke about the major effect that the fighting at Deir Yassin had on Arabs throughout the country and that Arab flight began. “They fled from Haifa, fled from Jaffa, fled from everywhere. All of it due to Deir Yassin, the fear of Deir Yassin.”

“If there had been another three or four more Deir Yassins in the Land of Israel at the time, not a single Arab would have remained in the country. What do you think all those refugees in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Syria are from? You know because of whom? There is one Jew who can say that it was because of him. I was the commander at Deir Yassin,” Cohen said.

“To this day, I hold my head high that I was a member of the underground and managed to expel the British, and I managed to defeat the Nazis and managed to defeat the Arabs,” Cohen acknowledged.

After the Irgun was dismantled in 1948, Cohen became involved in dealing with Jewish immigration to Israel. He headed the aliya department of the Jewish Agency in Turkey, and then served in the Mossad intelligence service, where he was involved in bringing Moroccan Jews to Israel. Later he was worked on projects for the Rafael defense firm. Cohen was involved in the construction of the Kishon Port in Haifa and the Haifa Port and the establishment of Israel’s electrochemical industry. He was also the maintenance manager of the facilities of a fertilizer and chemical company that is now part of Israel Chemicals.

Cohen was married to Nadiva, who had been a member of the Lehi pre-state underground in Jerusalem, and had two daughters.

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