AS EASY as it is to dismiss clichés as banal and misleading, the troubling problem is that they often cloak an essential truth. Scoffs and derision often greet the cliché that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Yet freedom fighters is exactly how Israelis view the early Zionists who fought in 1947 for the establishment of Israel—and how Palestinians now consider their fighters resisting Israeli occupation.
The reality is that when faced with a superior military force, such as Britain possessed in 1947 and Israel does today against the Palestinians, terror is the underdog’s only viable weapon. Once a state has been established and legitimized, however, as in the cases of Israel and South Africa, the former “terrorists” tend to gain a veil of legitimacy as well. But legitimacy is now being denied Hamas. Even though Palestinians elected a Hamas-led government in free and fair elections, Israel denies it legitimacy on the grounds that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Sixty years ago, however, at the time of the British Mandate, it was Jews in Palestine who mainly waged terrorism against the Palestinians. As Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion recorded in his personal history of Israel: “From 1946 to 1947 there were scarcely any Arab attacks on the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine].”
The same could not be said for the Zionists. Jewish terrorists waged an intense and bloody campaign against the Palestinians, British, and even some Jews who opposed them leading up to the establishment of Israel.
The two major Jewish terror organizations in pre-independence Palestine were the Irgun Zvai Leumi—National Military Organization, NMO, also known by the Hebrew letters Etzel—founded in 1937, and the Lohamei Herut Israel, Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, Lehi in the Hebrew acronym, also known as the Stern Gang after its leader Avraham Stern, known as Yair, founded in 1940.
The Irgun was led by Menachem Begin, the future Israeli prime minister who was a leading proponent of Revisionist Zionism, the militant branch of Zionism pioneered by Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, which openly despised the Arabs and sought restoration of what it called Eretz Yisrael, the ancient land of Israel. By this was meant “both sides of the Jordan,” the Irgun slogan meaning all of Palestine and Jordan was the rightful home of the Jews.
Another belief of Begin’s was that of the “fighting Jew,” a romanticized idea expressed in Jabotinsky’s old Betar movement song of “we shall create, with sweat and blood, a race of men, strong, brave and cruel.” Israeli scholar Avishai Margalit translated the verse as “proud, generous and cruel,” adding: “Many are still waiting for the generous part to emerge.”
The Irgun was the dominant Jewish terrorist organization, both in size and the number and frequency of its attacks. Its most spectacular feat up to this time had been the July 22, 1946 blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with the killing of 91 people—41 Arabs, 28 British and 17 Jews. Mainstream Zionists despised Begin and his Revisionists, although there was cooperation between the two on military matters. Ben-Gurion, the leader of mainstream Zionism, fought throughout his premiership with Begin.
The other major Jewish terrorist group, Lehi, was more extremist than the Irgun, claiming all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates as belonging to the Jews. When Jabotinsky declared a cease-fire in the fight against Britain and its mandate troops in Palestine during World War II, Stern broke with him and founded Lehi. Stern sought alliance with the Nazis, both because they shared an enemy in Britain and because Lehi shared Hitler’s totalitarian ideology. During the war Sternists openly celebrated Nazi victories on the battlefield.
An infamous document called the “Ankara Document” because it was found in the German Embassy in Ankara after the war, detailed Avraham Stern’s ideas “concerning the solution of the Jewish question in Europe.” It was dated Jan. 11, 1941. At the time, Stern was still a member of the Irgun, which he called by its initials, NMO. Wrote Stern: “The evacuation of the Jewish masses from Europe is a precondition for solving the Jewish question; but this can only be made possible and complete through the settlement of these masses in the home of the Jewish People, Palestine, and through the establishment of a Jewish state in its historical boundaries....The NMO...is well acquainted with the goodwill of the German Reich government and its authorities toward Zionist activity inside Germany and toward Zionist emigration plans....The NMO is closely related to the totalitarian movements in Europe in its ideology and structure.”
In the Partition period, Irgun had around 2,000 men, while Lehi had about 800. Though the memberships were comparatively small, the damage these two groups caused in inflaming animosity between Arab and Jew was considerable. When Stern was killed by British police in 1942, leadership of Lehi was shared; among the leaders were Nathan Yalin-Mor, one of the eventual killers of Count Bernadotte, and Yitzhak Shamir, another future prime minister of Israel.
Arab terrorists carried out some major operations as well, including the bombing of the Jewish Agency and the Palestine Post. But in contrast to Jewish violence, it was unorganized and episodic. As historian Michael C. Hudson noted: “Organized Jewish violence against the British and Arabs (exemplified by the Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946), however, was far more systematic and successful than that of the Palestinians, and the latter were unable to play a significant role in the final years of the Mandate.”
The Jewish Agency, as the official representative of the Jewish community, repeatedly denied any responsibility for the acts of the Irgun and Lehi, maintaining they were underground terrorist groups operating outside the law. However, there was close cooperation among Irgun, Lehi and the Haganah underground army under an agreement called the Hebrew Resistance Movement and aimed specifically against the British Mandatory government. It went into force in the fall of 1945, when “Irgun and Lehi accepted Haganah discipline in the conduct of all armed operations,” in the words of historian Noah Lucas.
By December 1947, British High Commissioner Alan Cunningham reported to London: “...the Haganah and the dissident groups are now working so closely together that the Agency’s claim that they cannot control the dissidents is inadmissible.”