Jewish militias’ reign of terror on Palestine

The Irgun, Stern Group, Haganah and the Palmach were behind dozens of massacres of Arab civilians between 1930 and 1948. These paramilitary groups constitute the building blocks of today’s Israeli Army.

Jewish militias’ reign of terror on Palestine

The Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel, July 22 1946, Jerusalem. (Credit: Wikicommons/Archives British Forces in the Middle East (1945-1947)

It was Saturday, Dec. 13, 1947.

At the northern entrance of Jerusalem's Old City, near a wall over a thousand years old, an explosion erupted.

“Six dead, some 40 wounded, all Arabs,” reported the Lebanese daily Le Jour at the time. Women and children were among the victims.

Meanwhile, L’Orient, another Lebanese French-language newspaper of those times (which would merge with Le Jour in 1971 to become L’Orient-Le Jour), reported that the attack took place near the Damascus Gate, where “a crowd of Arabs was hurrying to catch a bus.”

Fifty kilometers west, a bomb was thrown from a car into a café on King George Avenue, in Jaffa, causing major destruction to the surrounding buildings.

Simultaneously, in the adjacent city of Tel Aviv, a Palestinian was shot dead.

A few hours later, a Jewish militia attacked a village near Lod. The offensive lasted half an hour. There was an Arab dead for every minute that went by.

The death toll stood at “109 Arabs killed and wounded,” according to BBC at the time.

A dark day for Palestine. Like so many others.

Mandatory Palestine, effectively administered by the British monarchy since September 1923, had been in turmoil for over two decades at that point.

Attacks of all kinds were multiplying, both on the Jewish and Arab sides. A revolt was brewing in reaction to the Jewish colonization that had been orchestrated by the Zionist movement since the end of the 19th century.

In Haifa, Safed and Hebron, targeted killings led to riots that turned into massacres.

During the blood duel, a new weapon made its way into militant Jewish circles: the bomb.

The goal was to kill as many civilians as possible. In markets, shopping streets and residential areas, the goal was to instill fear in the population.

“There was an element of revenge aimed at dissuading Palestinians from taking part in the Arab revolt,” explained Yair Wallach, historian and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS).

Echoing contemporary terror techniques, this method claimed thousands of Palestinian lives.

It signaled that “the birth of Israel also involved a terrorist strategy,” said Gilles Ferragu, lecturer in contemporary history at Nanterre University and author of Histoire du terrorisme (History of Terrorism).

While violence against Arab civilians reached its peak during the first Arab-Israeli war (1948-1949), the methods employed throughout the preceding decades revealed a growing willingness in Zionist circles to sacrifice innocent lives.

Global combat

From the outset, several military groups espoused a violent approach towards the Arabs.

The Irgun, a militia that split from the Haganah after deeming it too timid in 1931, espouses the ideology of revisionist Zionist thinker Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky argues that a Jewish state can only be guaranteed through armed force, and only “active” reprisals can fend off the Arabs.

The Irgun’s first terrorist act took place on April 20, 1936, with the murder of two Palestinian workers in a banana plantation in the Sharon region.

Lehi (or Stern Group), which splintered from Irgun in 1940, went even further.

Lehi founder Abraham Stern believed that “in war, there is no room for sentiment.”

Stern was even prepared to collaborate with Nazi Germany to defeat the British troops of Mandatory Palestine. Violence and terrorism, which Jabotinsky viewed as a temporary means of self-defense, became the heart of Stern’s doctrine to “liberate” the Jewish people.

Together, the Irgun and Lehi orchestrated countless terror campaigns.

“Machine-gunning, bombs, etc., targeting both Palestinians and the British authorities, according to the concept of ‘global combat,’ which consisted of hitting all the players in the Palestinian question,” said Ferragu.

These two militias were behind the infamous Deir Yassin massacre, where 100 to 120 Palestinian villagers, mostly women and children, were killed on April 9, 1948. The massacre caused thousands to flee, in fear of a similar fate.

These extremist groups represented a minority of Mandatory Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants until the end of the 1930s.

In the aftermath of the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939), the British tightened conditions for Jewish immigration to Palestine with the publication of the White Paper (1939) — only this further radicalized groups that had previously refrained from violent reprisals.

At this point, the Haganah, a left-wing Zionist militia that dominated the paramilitary scene since its inception in 1920, joined the path of violent action.

“[The Haganah] began to adopt techniques of indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” explained Wallach.

The group murdered three Palestinians in the village of Lubya in the summer of 1939.

May 1941 saw the creation of the Palmach, an elite intervention force.

A few weeks after the Deir Yassin massacre, the Palmach initiated another, lesser-known tragedy when on May 1, 1948, they murdered dozens of Palestinian prisoners in the village of Ain al-Zeitoun, near Safed.

Entrenched camp

In the early 1940s, Jewish militias from across the political spectrum agreed on the need for violent measures.

Violent and terror acts were on the rise.

“Since 1945, Jewish terrorism has undergone a profound transformation,” reported the French daily Le Monde in June 1946. “The earlier anarchist approach of individual attacks appeared to be outdated; instead of focusing on murder, terrorists shifted toward a more overt and direct form of struggle, mobilizing all available resources.”

In practice, this strategy involved a combination of instilling fear and executing targeted attacks on British military or administrative bases.

A noteworthy example of this approach was the bombing of the secretariat of the Mandatory Authority located at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, which left 91 people dead. The attack was carried out by the Irgun with the initial approval of the Haganah.

Repeated offensives created an atmosphere akin to war. Checkpoints, barbed wire, curfews, arrests and executions became routine.

“The country is virtually under siege... Palestine is today an entrenched camp where ultramodern war equipment is accumulating,” reported Le Monde at the time.

While Mandatory Britain denounced the “attacks” and acts of “sabotage,” it hesitated to label these acts as “terrorism.”

Eventually, the political violence became so unbearable that the United Kingdom sought a solution from the United Nations. This would lead to the adoption of the partition plan on Nov. 29, 1947, Ferragu explained.

Nobel Prizes

Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, and Palmach – these names are now relegated to the pages of history. Yet, these paramilitary groups, each with its unique ideologies, were foundational to the formation of the State of Israel.

On May 26, 1948, 12 days after the declaration of the State of Israel, these armed militias were merged, by decree of the fledgling government, to establish the Israeli Army. These same wartime leaders went on to establish Israel’s political leadership.

Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of Lehi, was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1973. He went on to become the Speaker of the Knesset in 1977 and emerged as Israel’s Prime Minister between 1983-1984 and 1986-1992.

Menachem Begin, the former Irgun leader, became Prime Minister from 1977 to 1983. Begin founded the right-wing “Herut” party, which served as a precursor to the Likud. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for his role in the peace agreement with Egypt.

Today’s Israeli narrative openly glorifies these “founding fathers,” considered national heroes.

Located along Alma Beach between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the Irgun Museum now occupies the ruins of one of the few structures that survived the near-complete destruction of this coastal area.

Further inland, about a 20-minute walk away, another museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Lehi. Regrettably, the memory of war crimes has largely faded. While the left-wing Labor Party has long been uncomfortable with this historical chapter, the formative acts of civilian murder never resulted in any kind of prosecution.

“Those responsible for the massacres were never held accountable,” Wallach said. “In the few cases that did result in trials, such as the rape of Bedouin girls in the Negev, the sentences handed down were minimal.”

The history of violence on the land is long and extends far beyond the actions of these militias. From the Jewish Zealots of the 1st century onwards, there has been a tradition of armed violence rooted in the use of force.

Even after the establishment of Israel, new forms of terrorism emerged. Notably, groups influenced by Kahanist ideology and settler gangs have been actively working to instill fear among Palestinians in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian nationalist movement also produced its own proponents of terror since the 1930s. However, the pre-independence era marked the apex of indiscriminate and celebrated violence. It tainted memories for generations and infused its way into all segments of society. The brutality, and its glorification, served as a precursor of further violence.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

It was Saturday, Dec. 13, 1947.At the northern entrance of Jerusalem's Old City, near a wall over a thousand years old, an explosion erupted. “Six dead, some 40 wounded, all Arabs,” reported the Lebanese daily Le Jour at the time. Women and children were among the victims.Meanwhile, L’Orient, another Lebanese French-language newspaper of those times (which would merge with Le Jour in 1971...