From Defense to Offense
Bet-Zuri after his arrest in Cairo
The two Eliyahus at trial
Wilkin receiving a medal
Hakim after his arrest in Cairo
Eliyahu Hakim in his British Army uniform
Putting into effect the Lehi central committee’s attack plan had to be put off for a bit due to the severe crackdown by British authorities: gunfights, arrests, imprisonments and trials before the military court. However, with the waves of acclaim which greeted the courageous stand taken by the fighters during their trials, the time was ripe to put the plan into action and attack British authority figures, moving from defense to offense.
There were three attacks, one of which was committed abroad. The first targeted Sir Harold Alfred MacMichael, High Commissioner of Palestine; the second targeted Detective Superintendent Thomas James (Tom) Wilkin of the CID; the third targeted Walter Edward Guinness, First Baron Moyne, who was the British Minister of State in the Middle East.
Two years after the murder of Avraham “Yair” Stern, founder of Lehi, the fact that his blood had not been avenged gave Lehi members no rest. The direct killer, Morton, had fled Eretz Israel out of fear of the underground, but Lehi considered the true killer to be Lord MacMichael, High Commissioner of Palestine. His name and title made him target number one.
A strike against the High Commissioner would have political significance, attacking the symbol of British rule. No one was hated more by the Yishuv. Every evil, insult and injury was lain at his feet, from the White Paper to the deportation of the illegal immigrants, from the sinking of the MV Struma to the searches for weapons in the kibbutzim. But his original sin was enough for Lehi: being the symbol of His Majesty’s government. His tenure was extended until the autumn of 1944, but Lehi decided that MacMichael would never make it back to England alive.
They began tracking MacMichael over the following weeks and months. Seven times Lehi men had MacMichael in their sights, but every time he was saved by luck.
The failures only made the Lehi men more determined and more committed to their goal. Yehoshua Cohen, an experienced and dependable fighter was in charge of the mission, known for his dedication and deliberation.
The first attempt was based on the information that MacMichael prayed every Sunday in St. George’s Cathedral. One night, the fighters put a bomb in the sewage pipe of the cathedral. All the players were in place, but the bomb did not go off, and MacMichael was saved.
The second attempt was by the government printing house in the Bakaa neighborhood of Jerusalem. St. Andrew’s Church was chosen as the point of departure, but the nuns in the adjacent abbey kicked the men out of the area, apparently because they suspected something.
For the third attempt, a large yard was chosen, between the Jerusalem Railway Station and the David Brothers building. The fighters were disguised as surveyors. However, this plan was scuttled when the taxi necessary for the plan was discovered.
The next time, they planned to assassinate MacMichael in the Rex Cinema, where a war film was being presented, sponsored by the high commissioner. This plan was abandoned when one of the escapees from Latrun who was involved in the plan was arrested by the British.
An additional attempt was made at the government printing house, but this failed as well when British policemen, on a regular patrol, stopped next to the boys who were waiting for the high commissioner and asked them what they were doing. Luckily, the police went on their way without searching them, but they decided to delay the mission.
One day, Yehoshua Cohen found in one of the newspaper that in the Evelina de Rothschild School, a concert was to be sponsored by the high commissioner’s wife. The assumption was that her husband would come to attend the event. Yaakov Banai and David Shomron, who looked British, were chosen to carry out the mission, but MacMichael never showed up.
Would MacMichael avoid the underground’s assassination attempts and leave the land alive, contrary to the decision of the Lehi central committee?
Yehoshua Cohen refused to give up. He tried to gather every bit of information about the high commissioner’s movement. One day he read in one of the newspapers that the high commissioner would go to Jaffa on August 8th, for a farewell party in his honor.
Yehoshua wasted no time. He picked the place for the operation at the four-kilometer mark at the sharp turn to Lifta on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway. Once again, the boys dressed as government surveyors. The attackers were divided into three positions. The first was close to Givat Shaul; their job was to prevent the high commissioner and his entourage from escaping the fire from the other two positons. The second position, which Yehoshua was in charge of, would attack the high commissioner directly with submachine guns and grenades. The third position would attack the high commissioner if he managed to escape the others.
At 4:10 PM, after nine hours of waiting, the high commissioner’s caravan arrived. The signal was given. Smoke grenades were thrown, obscuring the road. From the positions, submachine gunfire and grenades were rained down at full force.
The main target was MacMichael’s car. After a few minutes, Yehoshua was certain that the mission had been accomplished, and he gave the order to retreat. But he was mistaken; the high commissioner had escaped once again. This was due to the cool reaction of his driver, a major who, in the rain of gunfire, steered the car into a “dead zone” in the shade of the mountains, where the bullets could not reach. MacMichael, who had flattened himself on the floor of the car, was only lightly wounded in his hand and thigh.
Though their target survived, the assassination attempt had global echoes. The political-propaganda effect was Lehi’s consolation prize for their disappointment at the high commissioner’s emerging unscathed despite all of the occupier’s crimes during his tenure.
Thomas James Wilkin was one of the most veteran foes of the Jews in general and the underground in particular serving in the CID in the 30’s and 40’s; he was the British authorities’ secret weapon.
He was very clever, a fluent Hebrew speaker, and he could infiltrate a group without anyone realizing he was an Englishman. He was responsible for the torture and murder of many underground members. He was personally involved in the murder of Lehi fighters at 30 Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, as well as the murder of Yair. Lehi had a blood debt to settle.
Wilkin was pursued tirelessly by Lehi throughout the land. But he was careful and always slipped away in time. Suddenly, he disappeared from the scene. The rumor spread that he had left Eretz Israel, but this was misdirection.
However, one day they learned that Wilkin lived in the officers’ quarters next to the Romanian Church on St. George Street in Jerusalem. Once this had been confirmed, they decided to launch an attack on September 29th, 1944.
After some days of tracking him, a group of fighters led by Yaakov Banai and David Shomron, who had an English appearance, set out to carry out the sentence. The two fighters were armed with revolvers and automatics, as well as grenades.
The sign was given! Wilkin came out of the dormitory and started towards the Russian Compound. He marched towards the two operatives, one hand in his pocket holding his pistol, surveying his surroundings with suspicion. The boys saw Wilkin coming towards them and let him pass unmolested. Then they suddenly turned around, drew their pistols and pumped eleven bullets into him. Wilkin tried to draw his own weapon, but he was too late.
He was fatally wounded, while the fighters returned to their base peacefully.
The news of Wilkin’s assassination made waves among all the underground members, particularly those who were in prisons and detention camps, causing them a feeling of relief and revenge for Wilkin’s sins against the Yishuv over many years.
For the CID, this was a serious blow.
Wilkin’s coffin and the temporary cross on his grave were made by Lehi members, working in the woodshop in the central prison in Jerusalem, who did their work with great joy.
Two import events happened soon afterward.
The first was that Yehoshua Cohen was apprehended by chance by a British policeman in a Jerusalem café. Cohen had no weapon, as the Lehi central committee had recently ordered. His arrest was a serious blow for the underground.
The second event was the deportation of 251 Jewish prisoners from Eretz Israel to Eritrea on October 19th, 1944 (Operation Snowball). Most of the deportees were Lehi and IZL members.
Lehi’s response was unequivocal: “They may set up gallows on every hilltop through the land; they may establish concentration camps and prisons in every city and every town; they may banish thousands by force from the homeland — but the battle will never cease!”
On November 6th, 1944, Walter Edward Guinness, First Baron Moyne, the British Minister of State in the Middle East, was assassinated in Cairo by two youths from Eretz Israel, Lehi members named Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri.
The idea was Yair’s, in the spring of 1941, after he learned of the intent of the British to appoint a British minister of state. Yair believed that Lehi’s war had to fight not just British rule in Eretz Israel but the British Empire as a whole, centered in London.
Lord Moyne was one of the pillars of the British Empire. From February 1941, he was Secretary of State for the Colonies and Leader of the House of Lords. He was responsible for the sinking of the MV Struma.
In the House of Lords in June 1942, he expressed his support for the White Paper and limitations on Jewish immigration. He found the Zionist vision narrow, advocating a solution of a federation of Arab lands.
When he came to serve as minister of state in Cairo, Lord Moyne launched extreme plans to strangle the Yishuv. He openly spoke of Palestine as an Arab land; Jews were a mixed race, and the Jews of Palestine could be relocated to another land in Africa.
When Joel Brand, a member of the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee, approached the British in April 1944 with a proposal from Adolf Eichmann to release up to one million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies, Moyne famously replied, “What shall I do with those million Jews?”
Moyne was also involved in the deportations of prisoners from Eretz Israel.
In June 1944, the Lehi central committee gave the order to Binyamin Gafner, the Lehi liaison with the British Army in Egypt to start following Moyne; when he left Egypt, his successor, Yosef Sitner, continued the job. As preparations accelerated, Eliyahu “Benny” Hakim and then Eliyahu “Zebulun” Bet-Zuri were sent to Egypt.
The former had been born in Beirut; he had a Mideastern appearance and spoke Arabic fluently. He enlisted in IZL, and when the schism came, he joined Yair. After Yair’s murder, he enlisted in the British Army, but he deserted it and dedicated himself to the underground, where he was indispensable as an expert sniper.
Eliyahu Bet-Zuri was a sabra with light hair and green eyes, with literary skills and a love of poetry, a student in the Hebrews University in Jerusalem. He joined IZL’s nationalist cells and later IZL itself. After the escape from Latrun, he joined Lehi. He was fluent in Arabic and English, and he was considered an audacious and clever fighter.
After much precise planning and tracking, they decided to attack Moyne at his home in Cairo’s Zamalek Quarter.
On November 6th, 1944, the two were waiting for Lord Moyne in his garden.
When his car arrived, Hakim approached to open the door. Moyne had, in his car, his driver, his aide and his secretary. Hakim shot three bullets into Moyne. Bet-Zuri covered him from the rear. The driver turned to Hakim suddenly, but Bet-Zuri hit him.
The two fled, as planned, on bicycles, but they happened to run into an Egyptian traffic cop on a motorcycle, who shot and hit Bet-Zuri. Hakim stopped without any hesitation in order to help his friend. The pursuers caught up with them, and they were brought in for questioning.
Only after their comrades had managed to cover up all the contact points in the city and the army did the young men tell the authorities that this was an official mission of the Freedom Fighters of Israel movement.
The trial of Hakim and Bet-Zuri began in Cairo on January 10th, 1945. The Egyptian authorities hired the best lawyers to defend the guilty. The Egyptian public — the youth and the intellectuals in particular — demonstrated a great deal of support for the men of the Eretz Israel underground, especially for their proud stance before the judges and the central claim of their defense: the Hebrew people were waging war against Britain because it was a foreign occupier.
“We are not fighting for the Balfour Declaration, nor are we fighting for a national home, in accordance with the Mandate or not in accordance with the Mandate; these ends do not interest us,” Bet-Zuri said in his speech. “We are fighting for the most essential principle: for freedom! We want our Land of Israel to be free and independent.”
He went on to say: “British propaganda has accustomed the world to see the question of the Land of Israel as an Arab-Jewish conflict, while the British are the judges and arbiters. But this is incorrect. Utterly incorrect! The question of the Land of Israel is a conflict between the Hebrew sons of the land, who are its owners, and a government which is wholly foreign to the land — the British government.”
This is what Eliyahu Hakim said: “I and my friends were raised on the Bible, with the commandment of ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ However, we had no choice and no other way to compel them to recognize our rights, which they had so mocked; so we decided to act, and we did this in the name of supreme justice… We accuse Lord Moyne and his government of killing hundreds and thousands of our brothers and sisters. We accuse him of stealing our homeland and raiding our property. Where was the law by which we might judge them for their crimes? To whom could we turn to receive justice? A law such as this exists in no law-book. We had no choice but to take justice into our own hands.”
Despite the great acclaim they received in Egypt and around the world, Britain put a tremendous amount of pressure on Egypt, and they were sentence to death by hanging.
They put on red clothing, the garb of the condemned. Hakim said, “This is the nicest suit I’ve ever worn.”
Eliyahu Bet-Zuri thanked the Egyptian authorities for their decent treatment in prison. The two Eliyahus also thanked their defenders. Bet-Zuri finished by saying: “And now I am ready. Hang me.”
The two Eliyahus went up to the gallows signing HaTikvah.
The Cairo trial put the question of the land of Israel and Zionism at the center of world attention.
It stoked the embers in Eretz Israel and the world into a roaring fire. It filled the Jews of the world with pride and inspired the Jews of Egypt.
The Cairo trial proved that Jews and Egyptians could work together, against the rule of Britain in the Middle East. It also intrigued Moscow, which started expressing the idea of a “new Zionism” which supported the removal of Britain from the Middle East. America’s interest was piqued, as it cast its gaze upon the oil reserves and strategic positions to be found between the Gulf of Suez and the Persian Gulf.