The Jewish insurgency and the Arab riots, equivalence?

Are the Jewish underground organizations from Pre-State Palestine, the Irgun Lehi and the Hagana, equal to the Arab riots at the time?
Does the “one terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” argument work in this context?

Here we look at:
1)The context of the actions of the Jewish organizations
2)The goal of these actions
3)The reaction of the Jewish main leadership to these actions

Disclaimer: I am not going to claim in any way that all the actions of these underground organizations were necessarily justified or moral, in this article I only analyze the historical context of the actions of the Jewish and Arab organizations

The Jewish insurgency

The Etzel (aka “the Irgun”) rose from within the Hagana, following the bloody riots of 1929. Avraham Tehomi, Hagana Commander in the Jerusalem District, resigned, together with a group of commanders, on April 10, 1931,

When the anti-Jewish riots began in April 1936 changes were taking place in the Irgun. Betar members swelled the ranks and became the main component of the organization. This enhanced the influence of the Revisionist party and of Jabotinsky personally, and reduced that of the public committee, which included representatives of the non socialist parties.

The Irgun and the Haganah operated in close co-operation in the defence of Jewish settlements against the Arab onslaughts. In Tel-Aviv, for example, the defence positions were divided by the municipality between the two organizations, and in Ramat-Gan a joint command was established. The Jewish Agency adopted a passive defence policy, based on ‘havlaga’ (restraint)

The Restraint was a strategic policy used by the Haganah members with regard to retribution taken against Arab groups who were attacking the Jewish settlements during the British Mandate of Palestine. Its core principles were fortification and abstention from taking revenge on Arabs by attacking innocent civilians. The political leadership and many leftwing Zionist groups supported the Havlagah policy. In the first six months of the Arab riots from April 1936, 80 Jews were killed and 340 injured. Apart from a few actions of individuals mainly from the Irgun, there was no Jewish counter-reaction against the Arab attackers.

The Arab campaign of murder, intimidation, and sabotage continued through 1937-1939, and on occasion, sparked isolated Jewish reprisals. According to the Report of the British government for 1938:

“During 1938 public security in Palestine, particularly during the seven months from June onwards, continued to cause the administration grave preoccupation. An intensified campaign of murder, intimidation and sabotage persisted on lines similar to those followed by Arab law breakers in 1937; and, as in 1937, there were isolated incidents of Jewish reprisals. The main difference between the course of events in 1938 and that in 1937 lay in the gradual development during 1938 of Arab gang warfare on organized and to a certain extent co-ordinated lines. By the end of the year, as the result of the arrival in the autumn of large military reinforcements, this gang organization was first dislocated and finally reduced to comparative impotence in the field. But in the towns terrorism persisted and the roads were still largely unsafe for normal traffic. In fact, the events of 1938 succeeded in seriously affecting the economic and social life of the country to an extent far greater than was the case in 1937.”

On November 9, 1937, five Jewish workers set out to work in the fields of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem. They were encircled by an Arab gang and after exchanges of fire, all five were killed and robbed of their rifles (Kibbutz Maaleh Hahamisha — The Hill of the Five — was named for them). The murder stunned the Jewish community in Jerusalem, but despite their pain and anger, the leaders of the Jewish Agency continued to call for restraint.

On the day of the murder, the British Mandatory government announced the establishment of military courts in Palestine. Official Order №20/37, which came into effect on November 18, 1937, detailed the crimes which would come under the jurisdiction of these courts:
a) Shooting of a firearm at any person is a capital crime;
b) The possession of weapons, bombs etc, is a capital crime.
c) Acts of sabotage and terror are a capital crime.
Within the Irgun, there was a growing call for reprisals against the Arabs, and the organization’s leaders asked Jabotinsky, who was then in Egypt, for his endorsement. After considerable hesitation, he approved retaliatory action.

On Sunday, November 14, 1937, Irgun units launched a widescale operation in various parts of the country. The order was given in Jerusalem, and the operation was led by David Raziel, who decided on a number of simultaneous attacks in order to impede police response. The hit unit was generally composed of three members: one to convey the weapons before the operation, one to fire the weapon or throw the grenade, and the third to remove the weapon after the operation. The main purpose of this division was to ensure that in the event of the assassin being caught, he would be unarmed.

November 14, also known as “Black Sunday” (the term was coined by Yitzhak Ben Zvi, then chairman of the Vaad Le’umi), went down in the history of the Irgun as the day on which the havlaga ended. It was not the first time that the Irgun had set out to attack Arabs in retaliation for attacks on Jews, but this time the operation was carried out on the initiative of the General Headquarters and with Jabotinsky’s endorsement. Raziel believed that these activities marked the transition from “passive” to “active” defence. He explained the two methods as follows:

[…] Defensive actions alone can never succeed. If the objective of the war is to break the will of the enemy — and this cannot be achieved without shattering their power — we clearly cannot be content with defensive action. Purely defensive tactics will never break the enemy’s strength…
Such a method of defence, which enables the enemy to attack as he sees fit and to retreat at will, to reorganize and to attack again — such defence is known as “passive defence” and ends in defeat and ruin…
All these calculations lead to one conclusion: he who does not wish to be defeated must attack. The same applies to the combatants, who have no intention of oppressing others but are fighting for their own freedom and honor. They too have but one possible path — attack. They must attack their enemy and break its strength and its will…”

The Irgun’s actions on November 14 took the Arabs completely by surprise and attacks on Jews ceased for some time. The British police responded by carrying out large-scale arrests among the Revisionist party activists. As a result of these arrests and of the law of making arms’ possession a capital offence, Rosenberg, the Irgun commander, ordered the suspension of Irgun activities until the situation calmed down. This decision aroused considerable resentment among members, and once again the outcome was unsanctioned individual initiative. The suspension of activity lasted eight months — until David Raziel was appointed Irgun commander in place of Rosenberg. [1]

The Arab markets of that time were often used to provide shelter and ammunition for the Arab gangs
For example, Ramla was a center of arms movement and weapons were openly sold in the market
“The Old City of Jerusalem has become a large market for all kinds of weapons and ammunition “-a Christian reporter who came to Palestine to visit the holy places — in his letter to the ”Palestine Post “ [2]

Weapons sold in a shoe shop in the Arab market

In an act of retaliation against Arab terror, Etzel attacked the Arab village, Bir Adas, on May 29th, 1939. Instructions emphasized that neither the elderly, women nor children would be injured. Nonetheless, ten Arabs were killed in the attack, and due to confusion, four women were among the victims.
When Jabotinsky heard the outcome of the incident, he reacted sharply, and in a special order on June 24th, he asserted clear conditions for future Etzel actions:
“It is better not to shoot at all than to endanger a woman; you must concede, where possible, places where women are accustomed to gathering; you are to broadcast and print a warning in Arabic to their public, because, in these days, it won’t be fitting that a man will send his wife to the market or a similar place; he will go himself; rules for a baby and the elderly — the same as for a woman.” [3]

During 1938–1939 the Irgun did attack markets and buses in retaliation for frequent Arab attacks, the most violent period was in July 1938, when 76 Arabs were killed in these operations. At the same time, 44 Jews and 12 members of the security forces were killed in Arab attacks. [4]

The debate on the question of restraint and reprisals became more fierce, and the Yishuv was split. During this period, the Haganah imposed strict discipline on its members to prevent any individual acts of reprisal or punitive action. The leaders of the Jewish Agency strongly condemned the Irgun and demanded that they cease activities against the Arabs immediately. [1]

The next and main period in which the Jewish undergrounds operated was in the years 1944–1947 against the British Mandate. In response to the White Paper that an independent Arab state would be created within ten years, and that Jewish immigration was to be limited to seventy-five thousand for the next five years, after which it was to cease altogether. It also forbade land sales to Jews in 95 percent of the territory of Palestine.

From 1945 to 1948, some 80,000 illegal immigrants attempted to enter Palestine. About 49 illegal immigrant ships were captured and 66,000 people were detained. Some 2,000 others drowned at sea. [5]

British Restrictions on Jewish Land Purchase, 1940

Between August 1945 and August 1947, a total of 141 British soldiers and police officers and 40 Insurgents died. Civilian fatalities during the same period were also remarkably low. Fewer than 44 Arab and 25 Jewish non-combatants died between August 1945 and August 1947. The overwhelming majority of these casualties (41 Arabs and 17 Jews) were inflicted in one incident alone — the Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel. [6]

When British troops seized the Jewish Agency compound on June 29, 1946, and confiscated large quantities of documents. At about the same time, more than 2,500 Jews from all over Palestine were placed under arrest. A week later, news of a massacre of forty Jews in a pogrom in Poland reminded the Jews of Palestine how Britain’s restrictive immigration policy had condemned thousands to death.
As a response to what it viewed as British provocations, and a desire to demonstrate that the Jews’ spirit could not be broken, the United Resistance Movement planned to target the King David Hotel, which housed the British military command and the Criminal Investigation Division in addition to hotel guests. The Haganah pulled out of the plot and left it to the Irgun to carry out the action.
Irgun leader Menachem Begin stressed his desire to avoid civilian casualties and the plan was to warn the British so they would evacuate the building before it was blown up. Three telephone calls were placed on July 22, 1946, one to the hotel, another to the French Consulate, and a third to the Palestine Post, warning that explosives in the King David Hotel would soon be detonated. The call into the hotel was apparently received and ignored. Begin quotes one British official who supposedly refused to evacuate the building, saying, “We don’t take orders from the Jews.” As a result, when the bombs exploded, the casualty toll was high: a total of 91 killed. [7]
In 1979, a member of the British Parliament introduced evidence that the Irgun had indeed issued the warning. He offered the testimony of a British officer who heard other officers in the King David Hotel [8]

A poster in Hebrew and Arabic by the Irgun that warns citizens to stay away from British offices

In contrast to Arab attacks against Jews, which were widely hailed by Arab leaders as heroic actions, the Jewish National Council denounced the bombing of the King David [9]

Lehi was caught unprepared when Britain announced its intention to withdraw and the United Nations approved the Partition of Palestine — both spiritually and practically. Lehi had no prepared plan because its members could not believe that the British would keep their word. Lehi still supported the “neutralization of the Middle East” philosophy, which saw all peoples seeking liberation as natural allies, including the Arabs. This is why Lehi did not respond to the Arab riots in Decemebr 1947, demanding only that order be restored. It even suggested to the Haganah that the combat division of Lehi was at its disposal. The Lehi central committee still believed that there would not be a Jewish-Arab war.

The lehi published Arabic-language pamphlets calling for peace, brotherhood, and a shared struggle against the imperialists victimizing both populations and forcing them into needless conflict. they believed that the Jewish-Arab fighting that had broken out following the publication of the UN partition plan would not escalate but would subside once the British fully withdrew from the country. they hadn’t counted on the British inciting and leading an invasion of neighboring Arab armies into Palestine following their withdrawal. [10]

“To the Arabs!
We of Lehi, known to you as the “Stern Gang,” warn you:
We have fought the British enemy for years, because we were convinced that they were the true foe and we overcame them… But prior to their leaving they have tried to turn the international front into a Jewish-Arab one. They have succeeded in doing so through the help of traitorous gangs led by mercenary leaders who have served British imperialism for years.
Instead of trying to find a way to understanding with the Jews in peace so as to improve this country jointly, we see how they are bringing havoc on this land in a despicable bloodletting. And now they attempt to exploit the ignorance of the masses and to draw them in on the one hand by frenzied propaganda and on the other by baseless jihad.
O Arabs! We warn you before its too late. We of Lehi will know no mercy. The explosion at Jaffa’s Saariya was the first warning. Those criminal leaders killed brought upon you these troubles, hid behind British skirts and the masses are left on their own.
Know o Arab community! If you continue to heed the advice of the hired traitors of the Higher Arab Committee, you will not establish anything nor will you save yourselves. Proof of this are in the thousands of refugees from Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem. If you continue you’ll find no asylum; all of you will be a target of attacks. We will bomb your towns and villages. Neither Jenin, Ramallah, B’er Sheva nor Sh’chem will serve you as shelter… Don’t follow blindly the talk of reinforcements from the Arab neighboring states for falsehood has overflowed.
Therefore know that Lehi will come to you at night and during the day and you will know no rest.
At this last moment we call to you for peace and solidarity. If you quit your treasonous leaders you will benefit from freedom and the blessing of this land. But if you follow the evil designs of the British and their hirelings, they will not save you.
Before you are life and death. The choice is yours.
We have given you the alternative and warned you.”

However, when Lehi was unsuccessful in convincing the Arabs to halt the killings, they realized that the English foe had been replaced by the Arab foe, who wanted take over the country and prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. Then, Lehi had the strategic aims of fighting the Arabs until their power centers were destroyed and their rioters punished. [11]

In response, The Jewish Agency condemned and clarified against the actions of the Irgun and the Lehi again:
“Day after day Arab snipers, taking cover chiefly behind the walls of the Great Mosque, continued to fire on the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Jewish passersby at Jaffa Gate were attacked and killed. Food convoys into the Old City were under fire. For many days after the initial outbreak no acts of retaliation occurred. The Jewish Community was waiting for a strong military and police reaction, which was not forthcoming. It was in these circumstances that a dissident Jewish terrorist group proceeded to commit bombing outrages against Arabs at Damascus and Jaffa Gates. The outrages were unreservedly condemned by the organized community. They were seized upon as an excuse by Arab bands to install their rule over the Old City to which the British authorities, to all apparent purposes, have quietly submitted.” [12]

Conclusions

It can be clearly seen that:
1) The actions of the Jewish underground were in response to Arab attacks and British decrees.
2) The goal was not to harm innocents but to cause attacks and decrees to stop.
3)The main Jewish leadership strongly and consistently condemned these actions.

The same cannot be said of the attacks of the Arab gangs and organizations, from then until today.

[1] Restrain and Retaliation
[2] ממנדאט למדינה מאת: יוסף קליר
[3]The Etzel and the Policy of Restraint
[4]Terror Out of Zion by John Bowyer Bell‏ pg 42
[5] מרדכי נאור, “ההעפלה, 1934–1948”, עמ’ 134–135 ו”ספר העליות” עמ’ 115; נורית גבזה-ברוורמן, “ההעפלה, 1934–1948”, עמ’ 1, 6
https://www.nli.org.il/he/newspapers/lmrv/1964/08/31/01/article/8/?e=-------he-20--1--img-txIN%7ctxTI--------------1
[6] David A. Charters (12 June 1989). The British Army and Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, 1945–47. Palgrave Macmillan UK. p. 205
[7] Menachem Begin, The Revolt (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), 224.
[8] Benjamin Netanyahu, ed., “International Terrorism: Challenge and Response,” Proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism, July 2–5, 1979, ( Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1980), 45.
[9]Anne Sinai and I. Robert Sinai, Israel and the Arabs: Prelude to the Jewish State (NY: Facts on File, 1972), 83.
[10] https://visionmag.org/story-natan-yellin-mor/
[11] https://lehi.org.il/may-1948-1947/
[12] MEMORANDUM SUBMITTED BY THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR PALESTINE TO THE UNITED NATIONS PALESTINE COMMISSION FEBRUARY 21, 1948

Israeli, IDF soldier and researcher of Israeli history and wars