The King David Hotel bombing: Letting the people judge the truth

Marking 70 years since the King David Hotel bombing that struck the heart of the British Mandatory government.

Pre-bombing: The British High Commissioner salutes outside the King David Hotel around 1945 (photo credit: FRED CSASZNIK)
Pre-bombing: The British High Commissioner salutes outside the King David Hotel around 1945
(photo credit: FRED CSASZNIK)
Today is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the nerve center of the British Mandatory administration, by members of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, the right-wing paramilitary underground movement headed by Menachem Begin.
The capital’s veteran luxury hotel opened to the public in 1931, built on land acquired in 1929 by a group of affluent Cairo Jews. Today the flagship hotel in the Dan chain controlled by the Federmann family since 1958, it was the second hotel purchased by German immigrants and staunch Zionist brothers Yekutiel and Samuel Federmann – whose sons, Mickey and Ami, today stand at the top of the chain’s managerial totem pole.
The chain now compromises 14 hotels: four in Jerusalem (which in their previous incarnations were the Hyatt, the Moriah and the Ariel); three in Haifa; two in Tel Aviv, where the chain initially started with the purchase of what is now the Dan Hotel on Hayarkon Street; three in Haifa; two in Eilat; and one each in Ashkelon, Herzliya and Caesarea.
Until 1975, the King David had no competition from abroad. Then, in 1975, the Hilton, now the Crowne Plaza, opened its doors behind the Jerusalem International Convention Center. It did not take long for other international brand names to follow: Canadian Pacific, Hyatt, Sheraton and Ramada, to name but a few, and it seemed as if the stately King David would have a difficult battle maintaining its reputation, not to mention its revenue.
But its location, its old-world grandeur and its history as the hotel of choice by visiting and exiled royalty contributed to its continued status.
Even today, it is the hotel favored by royalty, heads of state and government and senior government officials. It also hosts prominent international business leaders, stars from the world of entertainment and other dignitaries and celebrities, some of whose signatures have been copied and enlarged and appear on the floor of the corridor leading to the lobby.
Many years after the bombing, as the guest speaker at a dinner hosted at the King David by the United Jewish Appeal, Begin was introduced as “the man who blew up this hotel.” In truth, although he was involved in the planning, he was not part of the execution.
To mark the anniversary of this significant incident in efforts to strike back at the British Mandate authorities, Tel Aviv’s Yitzhak Rabin Center is hosting a seminar today featuring Prof. Moti Golani, Prof. Aviva Halamish, and journalist Shlomo Nakdimon, plus a panel discussion with the participation of Ruth Kedar and Dr. Ruth Lamdan, daughters of two of the victims, and attorney Aharon Abramovitch, a nephew of one of the victims. The moderator is Dov Weisglass, a lawyer who was prime minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief.
The event, whose participants include people on both the Left and Right, is bound to likewise attract a politically divided audience. Because a large audience is expected, only those who have registered in advance by calling *4585 will be admitted.
Begin – who was considered by the British to be a radical militant and who in the 1950s was denied entry to Britain – became Israel’s first right-wing prime minister with the sweeping 43-seat victory of his Likud party in the May 1977 Knesset election.
Curiously, in a book about the history of the King David that the hotel management gives to high-ranking foreign dignitaries who stay there, the bombing barely rates a mention. It will be interesting to see whether Dan Hotel chain head Mickey Federmann will attend the Rabin Center event.
THERE ARE many versions of the tale of the bombing, but the most accurate is likely that which appears on the Irgun website, which also tells something of the hotel’s history.
The hotel was built by the wealthy and influential Moseri family of Cairo and Alexandria, which set up a shareholding company to finance construction. Wealthy Egyptian businessmen and affluent Jews from around the world were among the shareholders. The luxurious, seven-story building with 200 rooms opened to the public in 1931. In 1938, the southern wing was requisitioned by the Mandatory government and used to house its secretariat, as well as its military command.
The British built a communications center in the basement and, for security reasons, added a side entrance linking the building to an army camp south of the hotel. Less than a third of the rooms were reserved for civilian use.
In 1945, the Hagana, Irgun and Stern Group joined in an alliance known as the United Resistance Movement established by the Jewish Agency. It lasted for some 10 months, until August 1946. The alliance coordinated acts of sabotage and attacks against the British authorities.
On Saturday, June 29, 1946, the British launched Operation Agatha, a massive operation in which soldiers and police searched for arms and incriminating documents, and made arrests in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and several dozen settlements. The Jewish Agency was also raided.
Altogether, some 2,700 people were arrested, including Moshe Sharett, who would later become foreign minister and prime minister. The official purpose of the raid and arrests was to end the state of anarchy existing in Palestine.
Soon afterward, Begin received a letter from Hagana chief Moshe Sneh, with instructions to blow up the King David.
In response, preparatory work began for the bombing. There were several postponements until finally, at 7 a.m. on Monday, July 22, at the Beit Aharon Talmud Torah seminary in Jerusalem, Irgun fighters assembled in one of the classrooms. They realized that they were being sent on a mission, but no one knew what it was. When the commander arrived, he told them their target was the King David.
After the weapons had been distributed, the first unit – the group of “porters” commanded by Yosef Avni – set out by bus and waited at the side entrance to the hotel to assist in unloading the explosives from the van when it arrived. All six were disguised as Arabs so as to avoid arousing suspicion. The strike force headed out next, in a van loaded with seven milk churns, each containing 50 kilograms of explosives and special detonators.
Yisrael “Gideon” Levi, commander of the operation, rode in the van dressed as a Sudanese waiter, while his deputy, Heinrich “Yanai” Reinhold, and the other members of the unit were dressed as Arabs.
The van drove through the streets of Jerusalem, its tarpaulin cover concealing the milk churns and passengers, and halted at the side entrance of the hotel, through which foodstuffs were brought into the basement La Regence restaurant. The fighters easily overcame the guards by the gate and sped to the basement, where they searched all the rooms and assembled the workers in the restaurant kitchen. They then returned to the van, brought the churns into the restaurant and placed them beside the supporting pillars.
Levi set the time fuses for 30 minutes and ordered his men to leave. The kitchen staff was told to leave 10 minutes later.
During the withdrawal from the basement, heavy gunfire was leveled at the group, and two fighters were wounded. One of them, Aharon Abramovitch, later died of his wounds. After exiting the hotel, Levi summoned two women fighters who were waiting nearby and ordered them to carry out their mission.
They ran to a nearby phone both, called the hotel operator and the editorial office of The Palestine Post (the precursor of The Jerusalem Post) and delivered the following message: “I am speaking on behalf of the Hebrew underground. We have placed an explosive device in the hotel. Evacuate it at once. You have been warned.” A phone warning was also delivered to the adjacent French Consulate, which was urged to open windows to prevent blast damage.
The messages were intended to prevent casualties. Twenty-five minutes after they were delivered, Jerusalem was shaken by a shattering explosion, with frightening reverberations.
The entire southern wing of the hotel – all seven floors – was totally destroyed. For reasons that have never been clarified, the staff of the government secretariat and military command remained in their rooms. Some of them were unaware of events, and others were not permitted to leave the building, thus accounting for the large number of victims trapped in the debris.
The British Engineering Corps spent 10 days clearing the wreckage, and on July 31, it was officially announced that 91 people had been killed in the explosion: 28 Britons, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews and five others.
THE SUCCESS of the Jewish underground in striking at the heart of the British government in Palestine, and the high toll of victims, sent shock waves through England and the rest of the world.
At first, the Mandatory government denied having received a phone warning, but testimony submitted to the interrogating judge made it clear beyond a doubt that such a warning had in fact been given. Moreover, The Palestine Post phone operator attested under oath to the police that, immediately after receiving the message, she had called the duty officer at the police station. The French Consulate staff opened their windows, as they had been told to do by the anonymous woman who had phoned; this was further evidence of the warnings.
Other evidence suggests that the large number of casualties was due to numerous flaws in the security arrangements at the King David and a series of errors. The phone warning was disregarded, and although a warning signal was given, an all-clear was sounded shortly before the explosion.
The heads of the Jewish Agency were stunned. They feared that the British would adopt measures even more severe than those imposed during Operation Agatha, and quickly denounced the operation in the strongest terms.
The statement they issued the following day expressed “their feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals.” Even David Ben-Gurion, who was then in Paris, joined the chorus of condemnation. In an interview with the French newspaper France Soir, he declared the Irgun “the enemy of the Jewish people.”
The denunciation by the Jewish Agency totally ignored the fact that the bombing had been carried out as part of the activities of the United Resistance and on the explicit instructions of Sneh.
At the request of the Hagana, the Irgun issued a leaflet accepting responsibility for the operation. It stated, among other things:
“The telephone warnings were given at 12:10-12:15. And if it is true, as the British liars have announced, that the explosion occurred at 12:37, they still had 22 minutes at their disposal in order to evacuate the building of its residents and workers. Therefore, responsibility for loss of life among civilians rests solely with them. It is not true that the persons who delivered the warning spoke ‘on behalf of the United Resistance’ [as the press reported]... On this matter, we are refraining at present from making any further statement, but it is possible that – in the context of the savage and dastardly incitement – it will be necessary to issue such a statement at the appropriate time. We mourn the Jewish victims; they, too, are the tragic victims of the tragic and noble Hebrew war of liberation.”
A year later, the Irgun issued the following statement:
“On July 1 – two days after the British raid on the national institutions and on our towns and villages – we received a letter from the headquarters of the United Resistance, demanding that we carry out an attack on the center of government at the King David Hotel as soon as possible.... Execution of this plan was postponed several times – both for technical reasons and at the request of the United Resistance. It was finally approved on July 22. Notwithstanding this, days later, Kol Yisrael broadcast a statement – in the name of the United Resistance – abhorring the high death toll at the King David caused by the actions of the ‘dissidents’....
“We have kept silent for a whole year. We have faced savage incitement, such as this country has never before known. We have withstood the worst possible provocations – and remained silent. We have witnessed evasion, hypocrisy and cowardice – and remained silent. But today, when the United Resistance has expired and there is no hope that it will ever be revived... there are no longer valid reasons why we should maintain our silence concerning the assault against the center of Nazi-British rule – one of the mightiest attacks ever carried out by a militant underground.
“Now it is permissible to reveal the truth; now we must reveal the truth. Let the people see – and judge.”
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