The war of the Jewish underground in Israel against the British Army 1945-1947


British soldiers guarding the fenced off central bus station during the curfew imposed in Tel Aviv under martial law, 1947

By Gideon

The Jewish insurgency involved paramilitary actions carried out by Jewish underground groups against the British forces and officials in Mandatory Eretz Israel between 1939 and 1948. The tensions between Jewish militant underground organizations and the British mandatory authorities rose from 1938 and intensified with the publication of the White Paper of 1939, which outlined new government policies which placed further restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases and declared the intention of giving independence, with an Arab majority, within ten years. Though World War II brought relative calm, the tensions again escalated into an armed struggle towards the end of the war, when it became clear that the Axis Powers were close to defeat. The conflict lasted until the termination of the British Mandate for Eretz Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.

The White Paper of 1939 was a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain in response to the 1936–39 Arab Revolt, and approved by the House of Commons on 23 May 1939. Although never formally approved, it acted as the governing policy for the British Mandate Mandatory in Eretz Israel between 1939 and 1945. The paper called for the establishment of a Jewish national home in an independent state within 10 years, rejecting the idea of the creation of a Jewish state and the idea of partitioning the land into two states (Jewish and Arab). It also limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 for 5 years, and ruled that further immigration was to be determined by the Arab majority. Restrictions were put on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs. Further, it promised that only with Arab support would Britain allow a Jewish state. This greatly upset Zionists because of the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe at the onset of World War II, particularly in Germany.

In response to the White Paper, the right-wing Zionist militant group Irgun (Etzel), led by Menachem Begin (the sixth Prime Minister of the State of Israel), began formulating plans for a rebellion to evict the British and establish an independent Jewish state. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Irgun, who had been exiled from Eretz Israel by the British, proposed a plan for a revolt to take place in October 1939, which he sent to the Irgun High Command in six coded letters. Under Jabotinsky’s plan, he, together with other “illegals”, would arrive in Eretz Israel by boat, and the Irgun would help him and other passengers escape. Next, the Irgun would raid and occupy Government House, as well as other British centers of power, raise the Jewish national flag, and hold them for at least 24 hours even at a heavy cost. Simultaneously, Zionist leaders in Western Europe and the United States would proclaim an independent Jewish state, and would function as a government-in-exile. Irgun seriously considered carrying out the plan, but was concerned over the heavy losses it would doubtless incur. Irgun leader Avraham Stern (who would later break from Irgun to form Lehi), formed a plan for 40,000 armed Jewish fighters recruited in Europe to sail to Eretz Israel and join the rebellion. The Polish government supported his plan, and began training Jews and setting aside weaponry for them. However, the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 quickly put an end to these plans.

After the outbreak of war in September 1939, the head of the Jewish Agency David Ben-Gurion declared: ‘We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper. On 13 July, the authorities announced the suspension of all Jewish immigration to Eretz Israel until March 1940. The reason given for this decision was the increase in illegal immigrants arriving.

By summer 1945 after World War II ended, 13,000-15,000 Jewish refugees, of Baltic and Polish origin arrived in Italy. In that period, the flight was individual in character; however, the Jewish Agency soon recommended the transfer to Italy of all the Jewish Displaced Persons in Europe. The British authorities that occupied Italy strongly opposed the refugees’ arrival because of concerns related to their Mandate in Eretz Israel. But refugees kept coming, and Italy adopted humanitarian policies. The “blind eye” practice of the Italian border guards ensured that immigration-and, ultimately, illegal migration to Eretz Israel continued. Over time, Jews became predominant in Italy‘s Displaced Persons community.

Italy‘s Jewish refugees were Holocaust survivors from concentration camps and ghettos. In summer 1945, many Jews managed to leave Germany and arrive via Austria to Italy, where they could depart to Eretz Israel. This traffic had a spontaneous, mostly unorganized character. Rumors had led the survivors to strive to reach Italy, and they initially came on their own account. Soon, however, emissaries from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Eretz Israel) came to Europe looking for survivors. At that point, Bricha (flight)-a movement for bringing Jews illegally from Eastern Europe to Israel-became more organized.

As the Jewish Brigade was stationed in northern Italy in the first weeks of 1945, the Sillian and Innichen border crossing on the Austrian Alps was used with ease. Soon, however, the British implemented rigid controls in the area. The Brenner Pass (Passo Del Brennero), over which Bricha guides brought the refugees to the Italian border at night, and from which the Bricha trucks from Merano picked them up, was always the main route. This was largely due to geographical factors: Brenner was the lowest pass over the main chain of Alps and remained open through all seasons of the year. Even large groups could be smuggled through the pass. According to a former Bricha operative, groups of some hundreds of refugees came to Italy via this route. In December 1945, the British erected an outpost in Brenner that enabled stronger control of migration. Consequently, the Reschen Pass (Rezia) route was used more.

Although exact figures cannot be established, the various sources indicate that in 1945 alone about fifteen thousand Jewish refugees entered Italy and from September 1946 to June 1948 about thirty thousand Jewish refugees did so. Between the late summer of 1945 and 1948 a total of about fifty thousand refugees passed through the country. By summer 1950 there were only two thousand Jewish DPs left in Italy.

The gates of Eretz Israel remained closed for the duration of World War II, stranding hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe, many of whom became victims of Hitler’s Final Solution. After the war, the British refused to allow the survivors of the Nazi nightmare to find sanctuary in Eretz Israel. On June 6, 1946, President Truman urged the British government to relieve the suffering of the Jews confined to displaced persons camps in Europe by immediately accepting 100,000 Jewish immigrants. Britain’s Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, replied sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Eretz Israel “because they did not want too many of them in New York.”

Some Jews were able to reach Eretz Israel, many by way of dilapidated ships that members of the Jewish resistance organizations smuggled in. Between August 1945 and the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, 65 “illegal” immigrant ships, carrying 69,878 people, arrived from European shores. In August 1946, however, the British began to intern those they caught in camps in Cyprus. Approximately 50,000 people were detained in the camps, 28,000 of whom were still imprisoned when Israel declared independence.

The British reaction to “illegal Jewish Immigration” after World War II was an impressive, and effective, blockade by the British Navy of the Israeli coast. Only 12 ships managed to run this blockade, with just 2,108 ma’apilim on board. The rest of the ma’apilim – 66,170 people (this number excludes 1,014 who were allowed to enter legally following the famous “La Spezia Affair” and 1,136 who arrived after May 14, 1948) – were caught and detained by the British. The vast majority of them was detained in special detention camps in Cyprus. Other detention places included the Atlit detention camp south of Haifa, and 2 camps near Hamburg, Germany where the Exodus’ ma’apilim were detained. The British gradually released the ma’apilim as part of their allocated monthly quota of certificates (1,500 per month).

The Jewish leadership in Eretz Israel and abroad, initiated local and international propaganda campaign to gain sympathy abroad. The Jewish leaders in Eretz Israel authorities publicized the plight of Holocaust survivors and British attempts to stop them from migrating, hoping to generate negative publicity against Britain around the world. Ben-Gurion publicly stated that the Jewish insurgency was “nourished by despair”, that Britain had “proclaimed war against Zionism”, and that British policy was “to liquidate the Jews as a people.” Of particular significance was the British interceptions of the blockade runners carrying Jewish immigrants. The SS Exodus incident in particular became a major media event. Propaganda against the British over their treatment of the refugees was disseminated around the world, including claims that the Exodus was a “floating Auschwitz”. In one incident, after a baby died at sea aboard a ship, the body was publicly displayed to the press after the ship docked in Haifa for transfer of the passengers to Cyprus, and journalists were told that “the dirty Nazi-British assassins suffocated this innocent victim with gas.”

Britain was at this time negotiating a loan from the United States vital to its economic survival. Its treatment of Jewish survivors generated bad publicity, and encouraged the U.S. Congress to stiffen its terms. Many American Jews were initially politically active in pressing Congress for a suspension of the loan guarantees, but Jewish groups and politicians later retracted their support and came out in favor of the loan, fearing accusations of disloyalty to the United States. U.S. President Harry S. Truman put extensive pressure on the British government over its handling of the situation. The post-war conflict in Eretz Israel caused more damage to Anglo-American relations than any other issue.

Simultaneously with political activity, Ben-Gurion directed the Hagana to organize for an armed struggle against the British. In line with this order, the three underground organizations (Hagana, Etzel and Lechi) decided to coordinate their activities within a framework called The Resistance Movement (“Tnuat Ha’Meri”). In Sep. 1945, Ben Gurion gave the order to take action.

The first operation took place on October 10, 1945. In this operation, a Palmach force broke into the Atlit Detention Camp and freed 208 ma’apilim (illegal immigrants). The ma’apilim formed a long line and started climbing Mt Carmel all the way to Kibbutz Beit Oren. Hundreds of citizens of Haifa took their cars to the Beit Oren road and created a traffic jam which made it difficult for the British to chase them. A British police vehicle was fired upon to prevent it from reaching the kibbutz. From Bet Oren the Ma’apilim went down Mt Carmel on its northern-western slope and mingled with the members of Kibbutz Yagur. A “human wall” prevented the British from entering the kibbutz.

After the end of World War II, Lehi, Haganah and other groups joined in the anti-British Jewish Resistance Movement in 1945–46. In October 1945, the Haganah entered into an alliance with the Irgun and ceased cooperation with the British. In November 1945, units from the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite fighting force, as well as Lehi, carried out the Night of the Trains, sabotaging railway networks across Eretz Israel, and blowing up British guard boats in Jaffa and Haifa. The operation symbolized the founding of the Jewish Resistance Movement. In December 1945, Irgun carried out attacks against the British Intelligence Offices and raided a British Army camp.

In 1946, attacks against the British intensified, and now included military targets. On June 16, 1946, Haganah forces carried out attacks against bridges linking Eretz Israel to the neighboring Arab countries, hoping to stop the transfer of weapons to the Palestinian Arabs. This operation, known as the Night of the Bridges, as well as other attacks around this time, prompted the British to launch Operation Agatha, also known as the Black Sabbath. British military and police forces imposed curfews around the country and conducted searches for arms caches and militants in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and in several dozen Jewish settlements. The British raided the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, confiscating large amounts of paperwork, and arrested Jews suspected of being involved with “terrorism”, including leading members of the Jewish Agency, holding them without trial. The British hoped to deter the Haganah, as well as the more extreme Jewish underground groups Irgun and Lehi, from carrying out further attacks. The Haganah stopped carrying out anti-British operations, officially withdrawing from the Jewish Resistance Movement on July 1, 1946. From then on, the Haganah would focus mainly on organizing illegal Jewish immigration to Eretz Israel through its Mossad LeAliyah Bet branch. However, Irgun and Lehi reacted by intensifying their attacks.

As a response to Operation Agatha, Irgun carried out the King David Hotel bombing, an attack on the building where the central branches of the civil and military administration of Eretz Israel were based, killing 91 people. Although the Haganah had initially approved the attack, this had been withdrawn, a fact which the Haganah’s contact with the Irgun failed to make clear. The approval had also been based on the attack being carried out in the evening, whereas it was carried out at the height of the working day when the hotel was most busy. The Irgun blamed the British for not evacuating the hotel, in spite of a warning sent by telephone. The British government stated that no warning had been received by anyone in a position to act on it. Rather than contacting the British authorities, the warning had been sent to the hotel’s own switchboard, where it was ignored, perhaps because hoax warnings were rife at the time. Due to the Irgun not understanding how temperature affected the fuses, the bomb exploded early. Pedestrians outside the hotel were killed as well as people inside it.

Jewish underground was engaged in constant attacks against British military and police forces. The Jewish Agency Executive, led by David Ben-Gurion, the leading authority of the Jews in Eretz Israel, stayed out of the campaign, but mostly refused to cooperate with the British authorities. The Jewish civilian population, which was hostile to the British, was also largely uncooperative. The main perpetrators of these attacks were the militant groups Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) and Irgun. The two groups, which financed their campaigns through bank robberies, extortions, and private donations, attacked British military and police installations, government offices, and ships being used to deport illegal migrants, often with bombs. In at least one case, a police station was attacked with a large truck bomb. They also sabotaged infrastructure such as railroads, bridges, and oil installations. Some 90 economic targets were attacked, among them 20 trains which were damaged or derailed and five train stations which were attacked, and about dozen attacks against the oil industry were carried out, including a March 1947 Lehi raid on the Shell Oil refinery in Haifa which destroyed some 16,000 tons of petroleum.

Jewish insurgents regularly staged killings of British soldiers and police officers throughout Eretz Israel, employing booby traps, ambushes, snipers, vehicle bombings, and shooting attacks. British armored vehicles faced attacks by remotely detonated IEDs disguised as milestones which blew vehicles off the road and killed or injured occupants. They were seen by the insurgents as their most cost-effective weapon. The Jewish civilian population of Eretz Israel, encouraged by Zionist groups, engaged in riots, strikes, and demonstrations against the British authorities.

The British Army, which eventually had one soldier for every five Jews in Eretz Israel, responded with extensive search operations and raids to arrest militants and uncover illegal arms caches. They regularly imposed curfews, cordons, and collective punishments, and enacted a series of draconian emergency regulations which allowed for arbitrary arrests, to the point that some observers called it a police state.

The British forces supplemented their large operations with smaller ones that had the advantage of surprise, including surprise searches of houses and apartments, random identity and baggage checks on public transportation, mobile checkpoints established quickly following attacks, night patrols, and small-scale raids mounted immediately on new intelligence. The British even deployed special forces in the conflict. Although these operations never managed to quell the insurgency, they did succeed in keeping the insurgents off-balance.

In 1947, the British withdrew their personnel into barbed-wire enclosures known as “Bevingrads” for their own security. Even then, Irgun managed to penetrate one such security zone in March 1947 and stage a bombing attack on the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem, in the heart of a security zone. Despite extensive efforts, the British were never able to stop the insurgency. British security forces found it extremely difficult to detect and counter activities by Irgun and Lehi due to the structure of these groups; they were divided into individual cells; whose members were unknown to those in other cells. Furthermore, the extreme loyalty of the operatives of these groups made it almost impossible for British intelligence to infiltrate them, and made it difficult for British interrogators to extract information from captured members.

The British arrested thousands during their counterinsurgency campaign, often imposing severe prison terms, including for weapons-related offenses. They also began using flogging as a judicial punishment. However, in late December 1946, after an Irgun member was flogged, the group abducted and flogged several British soldiers in return, an event that became known as the Night of the Beatings. While this caused the British to end the use of flogging, they then began to apply the death penalty against convicted insurgents. Within months, four imprisoned Jewish fighters, including three Irgun men that had been arrested during the Night of the Beatings, were hanged.

In some instances, Irgun abducted British soldiers and police officers, and in one instance a judge, and threatened to kill them if executions took place. This tactic succeeded in stopping a few executions. In May 1947, a large prison break was staged when Irgun fighters, in a coordinated attack, blasted a large hole the prison wall, and Jewish prisoners blasted their way out through the doors with smuggled explosives. Some 28 Jewish prisoners and 182 Arab prisoners escaped. During the operation, nine fighters and escapees were killed, most of them when a getaway truck ran into a British roadblock, and five Irgun fighters and eight escapees were captured.

British soldiers run through the old city of Jerusalem

Three out of the five fighters captured were sentenced to death in June; Irgun responded by kidnapping two British sergeants from the Intelligence Corps and threatening to kill them should the sentences be carried out. The British Army carried out extensive search operations. The Haganah cooperated with the British search effort. Efforts to locate the hostages proved fruitless. The British authorities decided to carry out the executions despite the danger to the hostages. On July 29, 1947, the three were executed, and the next day the two British sergeants were killed in response. Their bodies were then hanged from trees in an orange grove near Netanya, and were booby-trapped with a bomb, which later injured a British officer attempting to cut one of the bodies down.

Following this incident, British soldiers and police officers attacked civilians in Tel Aviv, killing five people, and a wave of anti-Semitic rioting swept Britain over the course of several days; the rioting began in Liverpool and spread to other major British cities, including London, Manchester, Cardiff, Derby and Glasgow, causing widespread damage to Jewish property. Following this incident, the British government ordered an end to the use of the death penalty in Eretz Israel.

In January 1947, all non-essential British civilians were evacuated from Eretz Israel. On February 14, 1947, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin informed the House of Commons that the Eretz Israel question would be referred to the United Nations. Meanwhile, depending on perspective, a low-level guerrilla war, or campaigns of terrorism, continued through 1947 and 1948. Eventually, Jewish insurgency against the British was overshadowed by the Jewish-Arab fighting of the 1947–48 Civil War in Mandatory, which started following the UN vote in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan for Eretz Israel.

In 1947, the United States chapter of the United Jewish Appeal raised $150 million in its annual appeal – at that time the largest sum of money ever raised by a charity dependent on private contributions. Half was earmarked for Eretz Israel.

In April 1947 the issue was formally referred to the UN. By this time over 100,000 British soldiers were stationed in Eretz Israel. Referral to the UN led to a period of uncertainty over Eretz Israel’s future. A United Nations committee, the United Nations Special Committee (UNSCOP) was sent to investigate the problem. On August 31, 1947, UNSCOP recommended that Eretz Israel be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. On September 20, 1947, the British cabinet voted to evacuate Eretz Israel.

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David Ben-Gurion: A Profile of a Leader

Remembering Menachem Begin: A Profile of a Leader

The videos below (in Hebrew) provide additional information about the period