Where Terrorism carved out a Nation: Israel out of Palestine

Jayantha Somasundaram, in Island, April 2019, where the title isPalestine: Where Britain lost the war against terror”

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)

Della Pergola

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but after reinforcements arrived from British India they regained the advantage and within months the threat had rescinded although sporadic incidents continued until 1922.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.

During and after the Second World War there was a huge influx of illegal Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine in ever increasing numbers, though even as late as 1947, the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, still made up two thirds of the population. The British attempted to freeze the status quo in Palestine because they wanted social peace in order to retain control of the territory for geo-strategic reasons. Britain even turned back some Jewish refugee ships while the Holocaust was unfolding. In 1942, the Struma sank in the Black Sea, killing 770 Jewish refugees, after British authorities in Palestine refused to allow its passengers to disembark.

The Haganah, (Defence) the largest of the Jewish armed groups had been in existence from the 1890s, and saw themselves as a self-defence organisation which would be the nucleus of a future Jewish army. With the end of the war, however, Irgun, Lehi, and Haganah, united in the Tenuat Hameri (United Front) in September 1945, and increased their military campaign against the British. The Haganah had grown, by the end of the War it numbered 40,000. So had the Irgun and Lehi which identified terrorism directed at the British as the means to achieve Jewish statehood. Irgun and Lehi operated clandestinely in towns and cities through a network of scattered small cells. Irgun went for prestige British targets, the Lehi for individuals. They invented the letter bomb and used it and other means to kill around 300 civilians.

Bruce Hoffman claims that the Haganah, through its elite force, the Palmach, funded, provided combatants and operated alongside Irgun. According to The Economist “While Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organisation, was entertaining British high commissioners for tea, his nephew and subsequent Defence Minister, Ezer Weizman, was plotting to blow up (Sir) Evelyn Barker, commander of Britain’s forces in Palestine.” (21st Mar 2015)

The British responded by using the Army for counter insurgency. Though high profile Special Air Service troops were among them, their special squads had no experience in urban counter insurgency. The British were militarily handicapped; the army in Palestine was neither trained nor equipped for an urban guerrilla war. Their focus was the Haganah and the kibbutzim agricultural settlements where they operated from. “The real threat to security came from the Irgun and Lehi, which were based in the towns and cities. They operated in widely dispersed, small cells, modelled closely on the IRA, which were immune to dragnet operations.” (Cesarani: 663)


The British High Commissioner in Palestine, Gen Sir Alan Cunningham, complained to the Colonial Secretary George Hall that “I have been most disturbed at lack of information available regarding the terrorist organisations and individuals, and the small success we seem to have in tracking them down;” this he blamed on the ‘‘complete non-cooperation’’ of the Yishuv (the Jewish community). (Hoffman 2013:617)

In July 1946 Begin directed the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. The explosives were placed below its southern wing which “housed the nerve centre of British rule in Palestine: the government secretariat and the headquarters of both British military forces in Palestine and Transjordan and British intelligence.” (Hoffman 2011:263).

The blast killed 91 persons and injured 45 others, many of them civilians. The King David Hotel attack, which is regarded as the single most lethal terrorist incident of the 20th century, secured Irgun’s political objective. It drew the world’s attention to Palestine, the struggle of the Jews and the military impotence of British colonial rule. It exposed the hollow claim of the British Mandate authorities that they were prevailing militarily against terrorism. Begin had successfully created panic among the British public and shaken their confidence in London’s ability to govern Palestine.

Back in the UK newspaper editorials swayed public opinion with this typical report in the Manchester Guardian that the bombings ‘will be a shock to those who imagined that the Government’s firmness had put a stop to Jewish terrorism and had brought about an easier situation in Palestine. In fact, the opposite is the truth.’ (Hoffman 2011:264).

In Palestine, the Mandate authority responded with harsh measures: daily curfews, cordon-and-search operations and even martial law. These extreme measures only alienated people from the British. Begin explained his strategy in these terms: “‘The very existence of an underground must, in the end, undermine the prestige of a colonial regime that lives by the legend of its omnipotence. Every attack which it fails to prevent is a blow at its standing. Even if the attack does not succeed, it makes a dent in that prestige, and that dent widens into a crack which is extended with every succeeding attack.’ Thus, even though the British forces outnumbered the terrorists by 20 to one – so that there was, according to one account, ‘one armed soldier to each adult male Jew in Palestine’ – despite this overwhelming numerical superiority, the British were still unable to destroy the Irgun and maintain order in Palestine.” (Hoffman 2011:265).


In July 1947, in response to the execution of three convicted Irgun terrorists the group publicly hung two captured British Army sergeants. According to the British Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, this outrage was the most significant factor that determined London’s withdrawal from Palestine. “For both the British public and the press, the murders seemed to demonstrate the futility of the situation in Palestine and the pointlessness of remaining there any longer than was absolutely necessary.” (Hoffman 2011:266)

Britain had deployed 100,000 troops in Palestine, saturated Jerusalem and turned it into a fortified camp controlled by barbed wire and curfews. Finally, unable to cope, Britain handed the Palestine issue over to the United Nations. “In 1947 the British Cabinet decided to abandon Palestine after three years of attacks by Jewish terrorists, most belonging to the right-wing Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang)…This was one of the most successful terrorist campaigns ever waged.” (Boot: 325)

Both in Palestine and globally, many Jews were critical of this terror campaign. In 1948, The New York Times published a letter, signed by a number of prominent Jewish figures, including Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook, and Rabbi Jessurun Cardozo, which described Irgun as “a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.”

Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University concludes that “it is indisputable that, at the very least, the successes won through violence by the Irgun clearly demonstrated that, notwithstanding the repeated denials of governments, terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, indeed ‘work’. Even if the Irgun’s success did not manifest itself in terms of the actual acquisition of power in government (Begin and his Herut Party remained in opposition for some 30 years)…their success in attracting attention to themselves and their cause, and most significantly both hastening and affecting government decision-making, cannot be disregarded… Thus the foundations were laid for the transformation of terrorism in the late 1960s from a primarily localized phenomenon into the security problem of global proportions that it is today. Indeed, when US military forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they found a copy of Begin’s seminal work, The Revolt, in the well-stocked library that al Qaeda maintained.” (Hoffman 2011:268).

Lehi continued to operate even after statehood was achieved in May 1948. That September they successfully carried out another spectacular assassination, that of the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Mediator in Palestine, by ambushing his convoy near Jerusalem.

Regrouping in 1949 as the Brit ha-kanaim (Alliance of the Zealots), the Lehi remained committed to armed struggle and the preservation of the Jewish character of Israel. They attacked non-kosher butchers and those working on the Sabbath, and attempted to lob a smoke bomb at the Knesset which wanted to draft women into the military. In 1952 they re-emerged as the Malchut Yisrael (Kingdom of Israel), and bombed the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv in response to anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. And when Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister in 1983 he sought to venerate and preserve the legacy of Stern. In 1985 he established the Lehi Museum in the building where the British Police shot and killed the Lehi commander, Avraham Stern.


DELLA PERGOLA, Sergio Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects, Policy Implication (IUSSP XXIV General Population Conference Salvador de Bahia, August 2001) https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/37f9/76b1ef3efc9d44daa3f00846f6ec06905efe.pdf

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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