Etzel Museum -Tales from the underground

The Etzel Museum in Tel Aviv tells of heroic battles against the British and Arabs, but also the chilling story of Jews fighting Jews.

Etzel_museum (photo credit: LYDIA AISENBERG)
Etzel_museum
(photo credit: LYDIA AISENBERG)

With the green lawns of the Charles Clore Park on three sides and theazure waters of the Mediterranean on the fourth, the stone and blackglass Etzel Museum building on the Tel Aviv shoreline is certainlyimpressive. A blue cloudless sky and attractive layered Jaffa skylinein the near distance are additional factors making the museum buildingstand out - while at the same time somehow blending in with itssurroundings.

An enormous Israeli flag flaps high in the sea breeze above the museum,built over the ruins of a former Ottoman-period building. The museum isdedicated to the memory of operations officer Amihai (Gidi) Paglin and41 fighters of the pre-state paramilitary Etzel (an acronym for IrgunZvai Leumi, or National Military Organization) who fell in the campaignto conquer the nearby Arab town of Jaffa, and also documents otherbattles that Etzel members fought in during the 1947-8 War ofIndependence.

Active in Palestine from 1931 to 1948, the Jewish undergroundorganization retaliated against attacks by Arabs on the Jewishpopulation and rebelled against the British government's 'White Paper'policy that imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.

The integration of the Etzel fighters into the newly-formed IsraelDefense Forces (IDF) was brokered in an agreement signed betweenthen-I.Z.L. Commander-in-Chief Menachem Begin and Israel Galili onbehalf of the government of Israel. But even after the agreement wassigned, there remained a great deal of bitterness between Begin andBen-Gurion and their supporters, much of which centered around the June1948 Altalena affair when Palmah soldiers attacked an arms-carryingEtzel ship close to the Tel Aviv shore.

The Etzel uMseum on the Tel Aviv beachfront belongs to the Museums Unitof the Ministry of Defense, which explains the four girl soldier-guidesmanning the reception desk. The day Metro visited, the museum wasempty, apart from the soldiers and a young security guard - which onthe one hand was useful as nobody got in the way of photographs orobliterated the prolific texts alongside exhibits, but on the other wasa little eerie.

On the beach immediately across the promenade from the museum a fewdozen mostly young Israelis sunbathed or rode surfboards close to theshore. A foreign television crew was busy setting up equipment in theshade at the side of the building, as a municipal worker attempted toclean the pathway around them.

The first portion of the museum deals with the organizational structureof the Etzel. A map of Israel according to the UN partition resolutionof November 29, 1947 is displayed on one wall, alongside another mapwith the boundaries of Israel following the armistice agreements ofJuly 1949.

The map is accompanied by explanations and documents of the Etzel'sresponse to the partition plan and the hostilities that broke out afterthe plan was announced.

A model of steel helmeted soldiers defending their post, surrounded bysandbags and barbed wire, greets the visitor on the first corner turnedin the museum, set out in serpentine fashion. An electronic map servesas an introduction to the entire exhibit showing Etzel positions,attacks and raids and the capture of Arab villages during 1947 and1948, including the infamous attack on the village of Deir Yassin inthe Jerusalem corridor. Maps, documents and photographs are on displayas well as a diorama presenting the heroism of two Etzel womenfighters, who chose death over surrender, in the battle for Yehudiya.

Up on the next floor one finds a description of the attack on Ramle.Fifty-one Etzel fighters died in the battle and many were wounded. Onthe same floor an area focuses on the fighters' training and purchaseof arms, as well as somewhat tongue-in-cheek details of the'requisitions' of British ammunitions, which included 20,000 81mmmortar bombs swiped from a British train transporting ammunition toArab fighters in Gaza.

Following the infiltration of a British army camp near Pardess Hanna,Etzel fighters also 'requisitioned' weapons, ammunition and an armoredvehicle from the British paratroopers stationed at what is today alarge IDF training base known as Mahane 80 on the main Wadi Ara highway.

A large exhibition is dedicated to battles waged in the liberation ofJerusalem, and operations with the pre-state Haganah and Lehi militias.Two interesting dioramas deal with a stronghold of the British in thecity, Zion Gate and in the background, the Old City of Jerusalem.

Another section concentrates on operations in the north such as thebattle at Mishmar Hayarden, cooperation between forces of the Haganahand Etzel in the defense of Safed, and the taking of the Wadi NisnasArab neighborhood in Haifa - in present times the venue for an annualco-existence festival of art, music and culinary delights held duringthe month of the Hannuka, Christmas and Ramadan holidays.

The last section of the museum deals with the Altalena incident. TheEtzel's armaments-carrying ship had embarked from the port ofMarseilles. Upon arrival at the shore of the newly-founded State ofIsrael opposite Kfar Vitkin, Ben-Gurion's demands that the armaments behanded over to the unified Jewish forces were refused. An attack on theship was ordered, and a massive explosion set off by a shell destroyedthe ship and cargo.

The exhibit dealing with the Altalena is the last section of themuseum. A large encased flag of Israel, flown on the deck of theAltalena, hangs on the wall. In the accompanying text one reads thatthe flag was saved minutes before the ship blew up, an Etzel fighterrisking life and limb in an effort to rescue it.

Under a model of the ship, photographs and additional text, a largewhite lifebelt from the ship is propped up against the wall, the nameALTALENA silently shrieking of the tragic circumstances that broughtJews to battle Jews in the State of Israel - appropriately memorializedin a museum just meters from the sea.