Jean Shaoul - 21 June 2003
The following is the first of a two-part series. The concluding part will be published June 23.
Last month the National Archives, formerly known as the Public Record Office, released MI5 Security Service files showing that Zionist terror groups planned to set up cells in London and assassinate the post-war Labour government’s British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.
“Present Trends in Palestine”, an MI5 briefing paper written in August 1946, reported on the activities of the Stern Gang. This was the terrorist group that had assassinated Lord Moyne, the British military governor in Egypt in 1944.
“In recent months it has been reported that they [the Stern Gang] have been training selected members for the purpose of proceeding overseas and assassinating a prominent British personality—special reference having been made several times to Mr. Bevin in this connection,” the paper noted.
One of the leading lights of the Stern Group, which had by this time renamed itself Lehi, was Yitzhak Shamir who became prime minister in 1983 and whose tenure in the highest office in Israel was second only to Ben Gurion.
Another paper, “Threatened Jewish Activity in the United Kingdom, Palestine and Elsewhere”, prepared for the Prime Minister Clement Attlee, focused on the activities of the Irgun.
It noted that the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin—later to become prime minister of Israel in 1977—who had a £2,000 price on his head, “was responsible in the past for the liquidation of members of the police and the military whose activities have been judged especially worthy of Jewish resentment in Palestine.”
The paper was written in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing by the Irgun that had in the previous month blown up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people—Britons, Arabs and Jews—and injured many more.
It said, “Our Jerusalem representative has since received information that the Irgun and Stern Group have decided to send 5 ‘cells’ to London to work along IRA [Irish Republican Army] lines. To use their own words, the terrorists intend ‘to beat the dog in his own kennel’. If the 18 Sternists are executed [for their part in the King David bombing] the Irgun have agreed to co-operate with the Stern Group.”
The intelligence forces believed that if the executions were carried out, there would be at least 100 retaliatory terrorist outrages and “indiscriminate shooting of British officers and soldiers on the streets of Palestine must be expected”. The files showed that the sentences were in fact reduced to life imprisonment.
A briefing note prepared for a meeting between the prime minister and the head of MI5, Peter Sillitoe, also listed precautionary measures to be taken to combat terrorism. Police would monitor Jewish groups in Britain and spy on “Jews known to have expressed sympathy with terrorist activity in Palestine, and who might be a point of contact for any terrorist arriving in this country. All applications for UK visas in the Middle East are scrutinised by local security authorities. Immigration officers at UK ports report to Home Office, Special Branch and MI5 the particulars of all Jews, including seamen, arriving from the Middle East.”
The fact that MI5 claimed it was keeping a close watch “through its own sources” on UK Zionist groups with sympathy for the terrorists suggests that they had informers working for them inside. Given the British propensity to use such groups for its own purposes to divide and rule, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that MI5 had agents provocateurs working within them.
While it has long been known that these Zionist groups carried out or planned to carry out assassinations, bombings and sabotage against British targets, these papers—released so long after the normal 30-year rule—are important for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the papers provide a timely reminder that the Zionists of all political colours used terrorist methods to achieve statehood—something that present-day Zionists seem to have forgotten when they talk about refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians whom they routinely refer to as “terrorists”.
It is not simply that Ariel Sharon and company are a bunch of hypocrites or political amnesiacs about the past. More importantly, the Irgun, led by Menahem Begin, the Stern Group and Lehi, its successor, went on to form the Herut party, forerunner of the Likud party, and the ultra right-wing Moledet party, which form the main coalition partners of the Sharon’s government. The gang of former generals, ultra-nationalists and religious bigots that run Israel today are the political heirs of terrorists who furthermore had close connections with the fascists. In this, they mirrored some of the Arab nationalists in Palestine, Egypt and Iraq who allied themselves with Germany in order to rid themselves of British imperialism. These alliances led to a virtual civil war between the various wings of the Zionist movement during World War II.
The political origins of the Zionist terrorist groups
The various Zionist terrorist groups emerged out of the far right wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement, an ultra-nationalist Zionist group. While all the Zionist groups sought to stifle the rising tide of class struggle in Palestine in the name of national unity, the Revisionists openly stated at the very beginning of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict, in opposition to the mainstream political Zionist movement, that the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine was impossible without violence and the forcible transfer of the indigenous population. The Zionist state could only be established “in blood and fire”. They opposed the division of Palestine in 1922 whereby Britain had ceded what is now Jordan to its client, the Hashemite emir Abdullah, as a reward for his support during World War I. While the Labour Zionists orientated towards the Western democracies, the Revisionists’ political ideology had more in common with the fascist dictators of Europe.
By the late 1930s, the British, who ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, began to reverse their previous and somewhat vague support for the establishment for “a homeland for the Jews” in Palestine. Menachem Begin, a leading member of the Betar, a far right Revisionist group, regarded military action against the British as both inevitable and necessary to secure a Jewish state in Palestine and the East Bank of the Jordan.
As the situation in Eastern Europe grew ever more desperate for the Jews, and the British sought to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to gain support from the Arabs in the coming war against Germany, Betar joined forces with the Irgun—the National Military Organisation, the Revisionists’ military wing. With no prospect of a Jewish state in sight, they argued that armed struggle against the British was the only way forward.
The Stern Group
In 1939, when war broke out between Britain and Germany, Avraham Stern, one of the leaders of the Irgun, who had studied in Italy and was an admirer of Mussolini, rejected any support for the British against Germany. He argued that the British were the main enemy. There was no difference between the Nazi-fascist states and the Western democracies, between communists and social democrats, between Hitler and Chamberlain, or between Dachau and Buchenwald and closing Palestine off to the Jews. When he failed to persuade the majority of the Irgun to support him, he broke with the Revisionist movement and his faction became known as the Stern Group.
While both the mainstream Zionists and the Revisionists supported the British against Germany and joined the British armed forces, the Stern Group opposed conscription of the Jews and went on to carry out armed robberies, murders, and terrorist attacks against both the British and the Arabs. It waged a campaign of terror aimed at driving out the British and establishing a Jewish state on the entire land of biblical Palestine, including Transjordan. With the Jews a minority in Palestine, such a state would necessarily mean expelling the Arab population to ensure its Jewish character.
In his support for the enemy of the British, Stern turned a blind eye to the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. The Stern Group’s policies and actions were opposed and condemned by the overwhelming majority of Jews in Palestine.
In return for help from first the Italians and later the Germans in driving the British out of Palestine, Stern promised that the new Jewish state would become a German client state while Jerusalem, with the exception of the Jewish holy places, would become a province of the Vatican. In other words, the establishment of a Jewish state took precedence over the safety of European Jewry. His group had meetings with the Nazi regime’s representatives and tried to recruit 40,000 Jews from occupied Europe to invade Palestine and defeat the British. But the Germans had no more wish to alienate the Arabs and lose the chance of gaining access to the region’s oil resources than the British and dismissed the offer.
The British shot and killed Stern in February 1942 and imprisoned his immediate coterie, including Yitzhak Shamir, the future prime minister.
As the war drew to a close, Stern’s followers, including Shamir on his release from jail, regrouped as the Lehi with similar aims, including Stern’s “Eighteen Principles of National Renewal” that proclaimed a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates. They adopted the methods of the IRA in its struggles against the British. Shamir even used Michael as his nom de guerre, after Michael Collins. The now embarrassing Nazi-fascist affiliation was dropped in favour of Britain’s latest enemy, the Soviet Union, although some advocated an alliance with the Arab national liberation movements that opposed the stooge regimes imposed by British imperialism.
Lehi denounced the Labour Zionists and the mainstream Revisionist movement for relying upon negotiations with the British. As far as Lehi was concerned, the British were the Gestapo and the Labour Zionists were akin to Vichy Europe, and Lehi were the resistance. Asked if it was possible to achieve national liberation through terrorism, Lehi’s response was, “The answer is no! If the question is, are terrorist activities useful for the progress of revolution and liberation, the answer is yes.”
Lehi’s most notorious action was the assassination of Lord Moyne, the British military commander in Egypt in 1944.
According to Shindler, a fellow in Israeli Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of The Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream, Lehi copied the methods of the IRA. Between September 1942 and July 1946, when Shamir was arrested and exiled to Eritrea, there were seven assassination attempts on the life of the British High Commissioner in Palestine and several more were planned, including Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary and members of British intelligence forces. It was Shamir who planned the assassination of Lord Moyne. Lehi also carried out 14 assassination attempts against Jews who worked or were believed to work for British intelligence. It was not averse to killing its own members if the need arose.
While Lehi was by far the smallest of the Zionist terrorist groups, the Stern/Lehi group carried out 71 percent of all political assassinations between 1940 and 1948. Nearly half of these were against fellow Jews.
Even after the establishment of the Zionist state, Lehi continued its murderous activities. Hazit Ha’Moledet, the Fatherland Front, a Lehi splinter group that later formed the Moledet party, carried out the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, a UN envoy seeking to arrange a peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs.
To be continued
Terrorism and the origins of Israel—Part 2
Jean Shaoul - 23 June 2003
This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Part one was posted on June 21.
In contrast to the Stern/Lehi group, the Irgun only took up the armed struggle against the British when the defeat of Germany became imminent. At the end of 1942, Menachem Begin returned to Palestine after his release from a Soviet labour camp in Poland. He took over as the military commander of the Irgun and led the armed struggle—the Revolt—to get rid of the British.
But the Irgun’s activities had nothing in common with a revolutionary struggle to overthrow imperialism in the region. They were also targeted against the Arabs. One of its pamphlets read, “We must fight the Arabs in order to subjugate them and weaken their demands. We must take them off the arena as a political factor. This struggle against the Arabs will encourage the diaspora and consolidate it. It will draw the attention of the nations of the world, which will be compelled to honour the people which struggles with its arms. And an ally will be found which will support the peoples’ army in its struggle.”
Begin, unlike the Stern group and Lehi, always rejected the label “terrorism”, claiming that the Irgun was an army fighting a war against another army. Using the same methods as these two terrorist groups, the Irgun’s most well known act against the British was the blowing up of the King David Hotel, the British military headquarters in Jerusalem in July 1946.
Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944—a close friend of Churchill with whom Weizman and Ben Gurion, the Labour Zionist leaders, had good relations—led them to crack down on both Lehi and the Irgun. “Every organised group must spew them out... refuge and shelter must be stringently denied these wild men... It is our hearts—not the heart of Britain—that the terrorist iron has entered. Our hands then, no others, must pluck it out.” [Cited by Colin Shindler in The Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream.]
The Zionist parties unite
It was the election of a Labour government in July 1945 under Clement Attlee, anxious to maintain control over the Middle East’s oil resources that was to lead instead to a troubled reconciliation between the Labour Zionists and the terrorist groups.
These groups had been for years the bitterest of political rivals. They had not even fought together in the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. What united them at this time was firstly the reversal by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin of the Labour party’s previous support for the establishment of a Jewish state. He now rejected the notion of two states—one for the Jews and one for the Arabs—and favoured an Arab stooge regime along the lines of those in Transjordan, Egypt and Iraq, where Jews would be guaranteed minority rights.
Secondly, and for similar reasons, the Labour government also opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine. Under conditions where neither Britain nor the US were prepared to open their doors to the hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust, the Jews would have had to remain in the displaced persons camp and in the countries of their persecution.
In November 1945, the Haganah (the Labour Zionists’ military wing and by far the largest of the three military groups), the Irgun and Lehi signed an agreement to establish the United Resistance Movement to drive the British out of Palestine. This was to last for less than a year—until the King David Hotel bombing—when Ben Gurion terminated the agreement calling the Irgun “the enemy of the Jewish people”. Despite this, the scale of the terrorist attacks increased tenfold.
Faced with increasing hostility and disruption in Palestine and rejection by both Arabs and Jews of a bi-national state, Britain referred the conflict to the United Nations, fully expecting the UN to hand Palestine back to Britain to deal with. But Britain’s hopes of resolving the conflict in Palestine on its own terms were to be thwarted. The major powers, including the US and the Soviet Union, actively supported the establishment of a Jewish state for their own purposes: they saw it as a way of blocking Britain’s position in the Middle East. This, plus the worldwide sympathy that the catastrophe that had befallen European Jewry evoked, led the UN in November 1947 to vote for the partition of Palestine. In May 1948, the British withdrew from Palestine and the Zionists immediately declared independence and the establishment of Israel. War broke out between Israel and the Palestinians, led by the Arab feudalists, for control of the land.
The Revisionist groups used all the training and methods they had developed and used against the British to terrorise and intimidate the Palestinians. The planned terrorist activities, carried out by the Irgun and Lehi, and sanctioned by the Labour Zionists, were to play a major role in driving the Palestinians from their homes. The massacre at Deir Yassin, where more than 200 men, women and children were slaughtered, is only the best-known example. Ben Gurion himself encouraged the Haganah, largely under the control of the Histadrut/Mapai Party and forerunner of the Israeli Defence Forces, to expel the Palestinians from their homes. The expulsion of the Palestinians, who were destined to become refugees in neighbouring countries and dispersed throughout the world, and the takeover of their land were the essential prerequisites for the founding of the state of Israel.
From underground terrorist groups to the political mainstream
Immediately after the end of the war, Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, transformed the Irgun into a political party, Herut, in opposition to the official Revisionists. Vehemently opposed to any concessions to the Arabs and an agreement with Abdullah that had absorbed the West Bank into his kingdom of Transjordan, now renamed Jordan, Begin glorified the Irgun’s underground terrorism and its role in driving out the British. His inflammatory language and style were more than a little reminiscent of the nationalist ethos of Eastern Europe and Pilsudksi’s military nationalism in Poland during the 1930s.
Committed to the recovery of Palestine, he and the Herut party denounced those who opposed such a perspective as the enemies of the Jewish people. Coming after the sinking of the Altalena, the Irgun arms ship, at the hands of the Labour Zionists and in which several members of the Irgun were killed, it was a virtual declaration of civil war against Ben Gurion. Not a few thought that the Herut might mount a putsch.
In the first elections, where nearly all the political parties claimed some affiliation to socialism, Begin’s Herut party was the largest non-socialist party, winning 11 percent of the vote and 14 out of the 120-member Knesset. The official Revisionists won no seats at all. Begin assumed the mantle of Revisionism and became the leader of the right-wing opposition to the Labour Zionists.
In the early years of the Zionist state, the Herut vote declined and Begin was to spend the next 30 years in the political wilderness, transforming and expanding the Herut party into the Gahal in 1965. He briefly joined the war coalition set up prior to the June 1967 war against the Arabs that took advantage of the situation provoked by the reckless opportunism of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, to significantly expand Israel’s borders.
The conquest of the West Bank and Gaza breathed new life into the far-right forces, leading to the formation of the Likud party in 1973, which went on to win the largest number of seats in the 1977 elections. The ultra-nationalist right wing political force, which had always been on the fringe, had now become the mainstream, displacing the old political establishment.
While the Lehi went on to form the Moledet party, an even more nationalist outfit than Likud, whose noxious policies include ethnic cleansing: the removal of the Palestinians from the territories occupied by Israel.
Shamir himself retired from active politics in the 1940s. When Ben Gurion lifted the ban on Lehi members taking up official positions, Isser Harel, the Mossad chief, immediately recruited Shamir and others. It was Shamir who planned the letter-bomb campaign against German scientists working for Nasser’s Egypt in the 1960s that brought him into conflict with Shimon Peres, then deputy Minister of Defence. He joined the Herut party as the only party that had not renounced the idea of an Israel that extended “from the Nile to the Euphrates” in 1970. Shamir cultivated the links with the anti-socialist minded Russian Jews that were seeking to leave the Soviet Union and brought them into the Likud party. He became prime minister in 1983 when Begin suddenly resigned—signifying an even further shift to the right in Israeli politics.
It is the political heirs of terrorists like Stern, Begin and Shamir that now form Israel’s political establishment and the Bush administration’s chief ally in the region. They are now able to put into practice the policies that their antecedents could only dream of. Their history also shows why Israeli politics have always been so fractious. The civil war that is never far beneath the surface has long standing basis.
While the establishment of the state of Israel was hailed at the time as a new and progressive entity dedicated to building a democratic and egalitarian society for the most cruelly oppressed people of Europe, the history of the origins and development of the Zionist state has shown that that was always a chimera. It is impossible to build a socially progressive society on the basis of a nationalist perspective. The Zionist perspective, be it the Labour Zionists or its ultra-reactionary variant, has played a poisonous role in strengthening imperialism and chauvinism, bolstering the power of the national bourgeoisie on the one hand and dividing the working class and rural poor on the other.
It is noteworthy that the publication of the British intelligence files attracted little attention from the press. Apart from reporting the contents, no political commentators sought to draw attention to either the methods used to spawn the Zionist state or the Israeli government’s political roots.
Within Israel itself, the liberal paper Ha’aretz merely carried a Reuters report under the headline “Document: UK feared influx of Zionist terrorists in post-WWII era”, as though Zionist terrorism was some aberration rather than an integral part of their perspective and programme. The article itself focused on the anti-Jewish measures put in place by the British authorities to combat Zionist terrorism. While explaining that the files were written in the aftermath of the bombing of the King David Hotel bombing, the article remained silent on the Irgun and Menachem Begin’s role in the bombing—even though it went on to note that Begin received a Nobel Peace Prize for his peace agreement with Egypt. Neither did it mention the plans to assassinate the foreign secretary and leading British political figures.
Such professional and political honesty would only have drawn attention to the terrorist origins and role of the Zionist political establishment on whom the political gangsters in the Bush administration use as a pawn to divide and rule the Middle East.