Palestine: Where Britain lost the war against terror


Ze'ev Jabotinsky

By Jayantha Somasundaram

What happened in British mandated Palestine in the run-up to Israeli statehood in May 1948 is a classic example of the triumph of terrorism.

The British captured Palestine from the Ottomans during World War I and were mandated by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) to progress Palestine towards independence. Out of a population of 700,000, the religious breakdown in Palestine was about 500,000 Muslims, 90,000 Jews and 70,000 Christians. Up to the first century AD Palestine had been Jewish-majority, then a Christian-majority society (second to the eleventh century) and thereafter Muslim-majority. (DellaPergola)

The Palestinians resented the imposition of British rule and in June 1920 there was an open revolt against the new occupier. Taken unawares the British Army initially went on the defensive, but after reinforcements arrived from British India they regained the advantage and within months the threat had rescinded although sporadic incidents continued until 1922.

In the half century beginning 1880, the USA was the choice of destination for European Jews, with two and a half million migrating over that period. This tide however was stemmed when the US Congress passed the Immigration Act in 1924 limiting this flow. European Jewish immigration into Palestine had begun during Ottoman rule and Jewish settlers had initially welcomed the British Mandate because they believed that London would, in terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. However when immigration accelerated after the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the strength of the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) in Palestine grew, they increasingly began to view the British as a hindrance to their political ambitions. Some Jewish settlers in Palestine believed that despite the Balfour Declaration, a Jewish State could not be secured without an armed struggle against the British. They were called the Porshim, in Hebrew ‘separatists.’

By the time World War II broke out in 1939, there was an insurmountable conflict of interest in Palestine between the Jews and the British rulers. The plight of Jews in Europe in the face of the Nazi genocide was unimaginable. Palestinian Jews desperately wanted a safe haven for refugees from Europe and in order to achieve that, their right to immigrate to Palestine as well as acquire land and settle there. For their security in Palestine the Jews also wanted the ability to import arms, train combatants and be provided with certainty regarding their future in Palestine. Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman who specialises in terrorism and counterterrorism, insurgency and counter-insurgency explains; "The Jewish struggle for statehood employed almost every means at its exponents’ disposal: diplomacy, negotiation, lobbying, civil disobedience, propaganda, information operations, armed resistance, and terrorist violence." (Hoffman: 260)

As a consequence of Arab rioting in August 1929 which saw 67 Jews killed in Hebron, a tragedy that led many Jews to believe in the need for armed action, Irgun - Hā Irgun Ha-Tzvaʾī Ha-Leūmī b-Ērētz Yiśrāʾel – the National Military Organization in the Land of Israel – was formed in 1931. Until his death in 1940, its leader was Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky (later Ze'ev Jabotinsky) a Russian Jew. The number of members of Irgun varied from a few hundred to a few thousand. But Jabotinsky’s influence survived his early death, his ideas being carried forward by Menachem Begin (Israel’s Prime Minister 1977–1983) and the son of his secretary Benzion Mileikowsky, Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1942, Menachem Begin, a Polish Jew, enlisted in the Soviet Union with the Polish Armed Forces in the East, commanded by Gen Władysław Anders, which was later relocated to Palestine. On arrival Begin joined Irgun, which was reeling from the recent loss of its military commander David Raziel and ideologist Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Because the British were fighting Nazi Germany, some Jews in Palestine were sympathetic to the British war effort, but Begin who assumed command in December 1943 wanted Irgun to take on the British. His fear was that Britain would cut off all Jewish migration to Palestine. Begin advocated an urban guerrilla campaign striking at symbols of British rule. This began in February 1944 with simultaneous bombings of immigration offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. They were followed by similar attacks on the land registry offices which restricted Jewish land purchases, the tax department, the police and the army. Irgun’s was a sustained campaign which according to Hoffman would become "a revolutionary model ...emulated and embraced by both anti-colonial and post-colonial era terrorist groups alike." (Hoffman:261)

Besides Irgun another important paramilitary group Lehi emerged in British Palestine. It was founded in 1940 by Avraham Stern. Stern was born in Poland in 1907 but moved to Palestine when he was 18 to study at the Hebrew University and would later join Irgun which was debating what stance should be adopted towards the British who were now fighting Nazi Germany. Stern argued that the Irish example during World War I provided the model for the Jews; to exploit Britain’s preoccupation with a war in Europe to mount pressure on them. He and his followers broke with Irgun in August 1940 and formed the Lohamei herut yisrael (The Fighters for Israel’s Freedom) or Lehi.

Stern’s ideas were taken from Mikhail Bakunin the 19th century Russian anarchist. Bakunin stressed armed struggle and Stern viewed the two millennia of exile as lulling the Jewish people into complacency. According to Professor Shlomo Shpiro of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, a specialist in intelligence, terrorism and security, for Stern the task of nation building in Palestine and the struggle for statehood would enable Jewish exceptionalism to consummate itself. "Our nation has a culture and a level of development higher than those of other nations. We have higher moral values. Some call this ‘the Chosen People.’ We must be a unique group within a unique nation." (Shpiro: 609)

Stern believed that suffering and privation as a consequence of an armed struggle for nationhood and statehood would enable the Jews to rediscover themselves. The armed struggle must not however end with the achievement of statehood; it was a means not an end for the Jewish nation. Combat was therefore not merely the responsibility of the soldier. "Our nation will fight for a long time in its own land it establishes its own sovereign rule...therefore, many more generations of Jewish children will go to school to learn the skills of the sword, and for many generations to come will the Hebrew Kingdom be as a military camp in the Oriental Arab desert." Armed struggle was the duty of all; every Jew had to be a warrior. Religion more than political ends raised armed struggle to a ritual above any other facet of human endeavour. ‘‘Hallelujah with machine guns! The Lord is a Man of War! Hallelujah with battle and bomb! Hallelujah with rifle and grenade! Hallelujah to the Ruler of Zion!’’ (Shpiro: 610)

Unlike many East European Jews who had socialist sympathies and admired the emancipation of the Jews that followed the Russian Revolution, Stern was influenced more by radical right-wing European conservative thinking and the practical gains of De Valera and the Sinn Fein in Ireland. In fact Yitzhak Shamir his lieutenant and successor adopted Michael as his nom de guerre in memory of Michael Collins, the Irish rebel. There were Jewish role models and heroes as well; Bar Kochba the Hebrew nationalist who took on the Romans and David Hareuveni the fifteenth century mystic who wanted to liberate Palestine and perished in the Spanish Inquisition. They provided the religious legitimacy for armed struggle.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the early years of the struggle for statehood, the ideology of Avraham Stern inspired and influenced many young Jews in Palestine, though recruits to Lehi would always be few in number. Stern’s ideas were disseminated not only through Lehi’s newspapers and ideological publications but also through his poetry. His poems used traditional Jewish imagery of the past and the preservation of the tenets of Judaism which had sustained the community and its identity over the centuries for the ongoing war of national liberation. Stern succeeded in creating a nationalist ideology with messianic Jewish elements. "Stern was the first modern Jewish thinker to propound violence and terrorism as a core ideology of national liberation and independence, rather than a temporary or expedient means of self-defense." (Shpiro: 607)

By early 1942 the British Police had effectively penetrated Lehi, had hunted down and killed or arrested its cadre and Stern had become a fugitive. He was finally tracked down and killed on 12 February 1942. Stern was succeeded by Yitzhak Yezernitsky (later Yitzhak Shamir) from Belarus, who would be a future Israeli prime minister (1983–84 and 1986–1992). Under Shamir Lehi adopted Bakunin’s cell structure, became better organised, better equipped and drew new recruits enabling it to launch more effective attacks against the British in Palestine. He ordered the assassination in Cairo in November 1944 of the most senior British official in the region, the Minister Resident for the Middle East, 1st Baron Moyne, Lord Walter Edward Guinness DSO* PC.

To be continued tomorrow

DELLA PERGOLA, Sergio Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects, Policy Implication (IUSSP XXIV General Population Conference Salvador de Bahia, August 2001)

HOFFMAN, Bruce The rationality of terrorism and other forms of political violence: lessons from the Jewish campaign in Palestine 1937-1947 (Small Wars & Insurgencies Vol. 22, No. 2, May 2011, pp 258–272)

SHPIRO, Shlomo The Intellectual Foundations of Jewish National Terrorism: Avraham Stern and the Lehi (Terrorism and Political Violence Vol. 25, No. 4, 2013 pp 606–620)

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