Terrorists in Palestine.

In the 1930s, which country posed the greater danger to the Jewish people? Was it Nazi Germany, which seemed bent on making the lives of Jews miserable in order to prompt their emigration? Or was it Britain, which seemed bent on blocking Jewish immigration to Palestine? In retrospect, with our knowledge of the Holocaust, the answer is obvious. At the time, however, some Zionists regarded Britain as the greater danger and more proximate enemy. In 1932 some of them found the Irgun to drive the British out of Palestine by force. When the Second World War broke out and, in Summer 1940, when German victories left the British standing alone, most Zionists saw Germany as the greater enemy. Most decided to support Britain in what amounted to an alliance-of-necessity. That included most of the members of the Irgun.

Most isn’t all: in August 1940 a small group splintered off under Avraham Stern formed a terrorist group called Lehi.[1] Stern tried publishing a newspaper, but his men also robbed banks to fund the organization. One of Stern’s chief subordinates was Yaakov Banai (1920-2009), who had recently arrived from Poland by way of Turkey. Banai took charge of the fighting organization. In January 1942, one of these bank robberies led to a shoot-out in which Jewish civilians were killed. Later that month, Lehi used a bomb to kill three policemen. This put the British police over the edge. In February 1942, British police killed Stern. Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012) took over as leader of Lehi, then rebuilt it.

By early 1944 the Second World War appeared to be turning decisively against Nazi Germany, while news of the Holocaust had filtered out to the Jews in Palestine. The alliance-of-necessity with Britain began to be contested once again among the Zionists. Irgun decided to join Lehi in armed struggle against the British. Irgun’s early actions were essentially non-violent: they bombed government buildings when they were empty and seized weapons from police stations.

Lehi pursued a different course. Eliyahu Hakim (1925-1945) wasborn in Beirut, Lebanon, then under French rule. In 1932 his family moved south along the coast to Haifa, Palestine, then under British rule. In early 1943, Banai recruited Hakim. Soon, the organization ordered him to enlist in the British Army. After training, Hakim was posted to Egypt. He quickly deserted and went into hiding. On 8 August 1944, he formed part of a Lehi group that tried to kill Harold MacMichael, the High Commissioner for Palestine. On 29 September 1944 Lehi caught up with one of the policemen blamed for the death of Stern. Two gunmen shot him eleven times. In October 1944 the British began deporting hundreds of captured Irgun and Lehi men to camps in Eritrea. In November 1944, Lehi paired Hakim with Eliyahu Bet-Zuri (1922-1945) to kill Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State in the Middle East. The two young men shot Moyne on 6 November 1944.[2] The gunmen were captured, tried, and hanged in 1945.

Hard pressure from the British fell on all the Jews in Palestine. In response, the Jewish Agency quietly co-operated with the British, but also launched its own “hunting season” that targeted members of Irgun and Lehi. The “hunting season” warded off British action against the Jewish Agency, but it also thinned the ranks of the agency’s chief political rival. The “hunting season” came to an end in early 1945 and the Second World War in Europe ended soon afterward. All the Zionists began to focus their energies on the struggle to create the state of Israel. Quarrels of the past and of the future were put aside.

[1] Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Knopf, 2015).

[2] One of the pistols used to kill the policemen was also used in the Moyne shootings, so it is possible that one of the gunmen had participated in more than one shooting. Or Lehi just hasd a small arsenal that had to be reused.

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