When the Irgun bombed the Kind David Hotel in July 1946, the British were shocked. Their military and administrative headquarters were “blasted...
out of existence,” as a JTA report at the time described.
Yet Britain was determined to hold on to Palestine.
The Irgun and Lehi, however, were determined to expel them and kept up attacks on vital installations and British soldiers and other security forces. Road mines blew up police and military vehicles. The railways and central stations continued to be bombed; police stations were shot up.
For the Irgun specifically, the King David bombing initiated a period of audacious attacks which drew worldwide attention and eventually convinced most Britons that soldiering on was no option.
Beginning in August, British newspapers reported that Irgun operatives were planning attacks in Europe, including the assassination of British foreign secretary Ernst Bevin, supposedly while Bevin was in Paris for a peace conference.
The next month the Irgun bombed the British embassy in Italy and hinted that attacks might be brought to Britain itself, spurring another media frenzy. “The Irgun threatens London,” one headline read.
In December, the British sentenced two Irgun members to 18 years and 18 lashes. Infuriated, Menachem Begin drew up warnings: “You will not whip Jews in their homeland. And if British authorities whip them, British officers will be whipped publicly in return.”
On the last Friday evening of the year, one Irgun member was whipped.
The following Sunday, three British officers were nabbed, driven a short distance and given 18 lashes. The British were humiliated and mocked throughout the world. The British amnestied the second Irgunist, along with a number of Arab criminals as political cover.
In response to the escalating attacks, the British announced that another army division would be brought to Palestine. Security zones were enlarged – Jews were expelled from seized areas and British citizens were brought in. British soldiers were barred from public areas like movie theaters and cafes.
In mid-February, Britain referred the question of Palestine to the United Nations. But it was unclear what that meant as the British security presence was being expanded, and colonial secretary Creech-Jones declared, “We are not going to the UN to surrender the Mandate.”
So the revolt continued.
On March 1, as part of a day of 16 attacks, the Irgun rammed the gate to the “Bevingrad” security zone in Jerusalem and threw explosives into the British officer’s club, destroying much of the building. The British press reported every development on the bombing. One paper declared “Govern or get out,” and urged the latter.
The next day, the British announced martial law, shutting down the postal service, public transportation and courts. Telephone services were restricted, curfews were enacted in major Jewish areas, and 10,000-soldier searches were conducted in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. British soldiers shot two Jewish civilians, including a four-year-old girl.
But the Lehi and Irgun attacks continued.
In the House of Commons, Winston Churchill asked, “How long is this to go on?” He demanded “accelerating the appeal to the UN.” The British press agreed.
The government asked the UN to hold a special General Assembly session on Palestine, but reserved the right to reject any UN decision. The session was scheduled for April.
Meanwhile, the British decided to carry out death sentences given to captured rebels. On April 16, in the Acre fortress prison, Dov Gruner, Yechiel Drezner, Mordechai Alkochi and Eiezer Kashani were brought to the gallows. In the background, 89 other Irgun and Lehi prisoners sang “Hatikva” from their cells.
The next day, the execution date for Moshe Barzani of the Lehi and Meir Feinstein of the Irgun was announced.
Before they could be hung, Barzani and Feinstein embraced in their cell, letting a grenade explode between them.
Not long after, the UN General Assembly convened and appointed the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to examine the situation.
Neither the Irgun nor Lehi placed much hope in the UN, especially as British policy otherwise remained intact.
Concerned over the fate of their imprisoned comrades, the Irgun had long planned escapes from the Jerusalem central prison and the Acre fortress prison.
The nearly completed escape tunnel being dug in the Jerusalem prison, however, was discovered on April 29, but a few days later the Irgun and Lehi executed an elaborate prison break from Acre. Prisoners on the inside created diversions and blew internal prison gates. Irgun members on the outside pulled up alongside a fortress wall in British army trucks, blew through the wall, scooped up the waiting prisoners and fled. The press around the world reported on the successful attack on the fortress Napoleon could not penetrate.
Some reports noted the perfect execution of the prison break. In fact, a number of Irgun members were killed and three were captured. Though no British lives were lost, the three were sentenced to death – on the day UNSCOP arrived in Palestine.
The death sentences made an impression on UNSCOP – two committee members became Irgun sympathizers.
The committee cabled the UN secretar- general over the timing of the sentences, who in turn appealed to the British to commute the sentences.
While appeals for the lives of the Irgunists were pending, the Hagana brought the Exodus refugee ship to the Palestine coast. The British rammed the ship, boarded and after a violent confrontation with the passengers, forced them to Haifa for immediate deportation. A general strike was called in Tel Aviv. The British loaded the refugees into cage ships (labeled by one correspondent a “floating Auschwitz”) and shipped them to France. France refused to accept unwilling passengers; the British sent them to Germany where they were forcibly disembarked.
In response, the Irgun and Lehi committed a series of non-stop attacks lasting until UNSCOP left.
With three of its members on death row, the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants and warned that if its members were executed, the sergeants would be, too. The British hung the Irgunists at dawn on July 29. That evening the Irgun hung its captives and announced the retaliatory hangings by radio and on wall-posters. The British were notified where the bodies had been left – along with a land mine.
There was outrage in Britain, but instead of “vitaliz[ing] British resistance to the Irgun rebellion,” J. Bower Bell writes that “the two sergeants were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“The consensus gradually formed that the time for evacuation had arrived.”
On August 31, UNSCOP submitted its report to the UN, with a majority report favoring partition.
The attacks continued as the Jewish Agency lobbied in the UN, and Arab representatives remained intractable and issued threats.
When the British delegation left for the UN, the British press called for an exit from Palestine.
Creech-Jones announced that if the UN solution was not agreed to by “both sides,” then Britain would simply evacuate. The Irgun saw it as more tactical maneuvering, but Begin watched the word “evacuate” take on a life of its own.
The diplomacy and maneuvering continued until November 27, when the General Assembly approved partition with both US and Soviet support.
The Yishuv erupted in celebration, but the Irgun and David Ben-Gurion knew it meant war.
British policy was to implement partition with “minimum enthusiasm.”
In practice, that meant non-interference with attacks on Jewish civilians, allowing Arab League-sponsored forces into the country, and authorizing the British-led “Arab Legion” to invade.
Despite it all, on May 14, 1948, the provisional Jewish government declared the establishment of the State of Israel.
The next day, Begin recounted, “the British High Commissioner boarded a British warship. A guard of honor presented arms in his honor, and in honor of the flag as it was lowered.”
“The revolt was victorious.”
Part VII in a series on Revisionist-Zionist history.