By Nechemia Ben-Tor
As the new Jewish year 5707 began, it was clear that the Jewish Resistance Movement was dead and gone. Lehi renewed its actions against the foreign occupiers. Soon, T.G. Martin, a CID sergeant, was executed; he had been responsible for the imprisonment of Yitzhak “Michael” Shamir and had identified Shaul “Arnon” Hagalili as an escapee from Latrun. This led to both of them being deported to Africa.
The attack occurred on September 9th, 1946, next to a tennis court in Haifa’s German Colony. Lehi members were dressed as tennis players. Martin identified the players as underground agents, but he was too late to stop them. He was killed on the spot.
The same day Martin was killed, Lehi units attacked the Food Control Office near the Jaffa-Tel Aviv border. Yaakov “Blond Dov” Granek was in command. The plan was for Avraham “Dill” Carolla, an experienced fighter, to overwhelm the sentries, but they noticed his team and opened fire. Dill, thinking that the operation had failed, ordered retreat. Dov, seeing what was happening, leapt forward, yelling: “Follow me! Go!” He led the fighters, who then placed the explosive devices beneath the building and blew them up. The building collapsed, and a number of British men were killed, including Major John Doran, Area Security Officer of Jaffa.
This was the opening salvo in the battle by Lehi (and IZL) against the British occupier until the end, even after the UN Resolution (United Nations General Assembly Resolution #181) of 29 November, 1947.
In the first weeks of October 1946, the attacks began on the transportation networks, including both roads and rails.
The British authorities had imposed a curfew on Tel Aviv, trying to thwart underground activities. Then it became a way to oppress the Yishuv and to force it to collaborate against the underground movements. Nevertheless, it remained a tool to limit the movements of underground members and prevent their attacks on army camps.
Lehi decided to take advantage of the situation: since there was a curfew on the Jews, all the cars had to be British. This allowed them the freedom to put roadside bombs of all sorts: some fake, some real, electronic bombs detonated from a distance, disguised as stones. Military vehicles were attacked by the dozens, and the enemy suffered hundreds of casualties, dead and wounded.
After six weeks of attacks on military vehicles by Lehi during the night hours, the authorities had no choice but to get rid of the curfew.
The railroad was used mainly for international travel: from Egypt, through Eretz Israel, to Lebanon and back. The railroads were an important artery for transporting arms, equipment and fuel.
After the curfew was ended, the Lehi turned to more centralized activities.
The first was getting a car bomb into the Sarafand military camp (now Tzrifin). The operation was given to Yaakov “Goel” Penso, who, as a demobilized soldier, had a position in the anti-malaria unit. He came up with the idea of a car bomb. On Decemebr 15th, Goel took a military vehicle from the camp, drove it to Gan Meir in Tel Aviv, where the technical unit of Lehi filled the truck with a half-ton of explosive material. From Tel Aviv, Goel returned to Sarafand and parked the truck next to the Southern Command headquarters.
Just as he was about to detonate the bomb, two trucks filled with Italian POWs pulled up. Goel convinced the Jewish drivers to get away, as he had no desire for innocent victims. Once they had driven away with the POWs, Goel detonated the car bomb, the shockwaves of which reached Tel Aviv. In the attack, many houses were destroyed, and dozens of British soldiers were killed or wounded.
The next operation was similar. The target this time was the Palestine Police and CID central headquarters in Haifa. Once again, Goel was chosen for the operation.
He stole a military vehicle once again, disguising it as a police car and forging the appropriate documents. In Binyamina Forest, the car was filled with half a ton of explosive material and shrapnel, covered with oranges.
Goel dressed in a Palestine Police uniform.
On January 12th, he drove the car to police headquarters, escorted by the fighters, parking it in an open spot. Suddenly, a British sergeant came out. He seemed suspicious of Goel, but the latter retained his composure. He shot the sergeant, lit the fuse, and escaped from the building using the tumult of the gunshots, reaching his comrades who were waiting outside.
When the bomb detonated, the building was destroyed, severely damaging the archives of the CID. Many policemen were killed or injured.
In Africa, Yitzhak “Michael” Shamir escaped twice, on August 23rd, 1946 and January 14th, 1947, together with Lehi members Arieh Ben-Eliezer, Reuven Franco, Rahamim Mizrahi and Yaakov Meridor. With Ben-Eliezer, he made it to the border of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and from there to Djibouti (then French Somaliland), where they were captured. Britain demanded their extradition from the French authorities, who refused. They were transferred, via warship, through the Suez Canal, all the way to France, where they received political asylum. Six days after the Declaration of Independence, Shamir returned to the Land of Israel.
In the meantime, the attacks on British targets continued. In February 1947, Lehi attacked the Jerusalem-Ramle telephone lines in fourteen places and shot up the British regional command post in Beit Hadar in Tel Aviv. In Haifa, a British shipping company and a Royal Navy office responsible for deportation were bombed; Barclays Bank, where the British forces’ payment office was located, was also attacked. The buildings were ruined, and British soldiers and officers were killed and wounded.
On March 1st, Goldsmith House Officers’ Club in Jerusalem was attacked by IZL, on King George Avenue. One person dismounted and placed a package in the building. At the same time, automatic fire was opened upon the sentries at Goldsmith House from the vicinity of the houses adjacent to the synagogue on King George Avenue. The sentries replied. A small explosion occurred at this time at the rear of the east side of Goldsmith House which set a tent on fire. During the exchange of shots, a number of persons dressed in khaki as British ORs jumped from the truck and ran away. A heavy explosion then occurred, causing extensive damage to Goldsmith House. Shortly before the explosion, a police vehicle proceeding along King George Avenue in the direction of Goldsmith House was caught in cross-fire.
This underscored the impotence of the British forces. Since they could not stop the underground, they targeted the Yishuv as a whole.
The reaction to the March 1st operations was swift. The same evening, an official announcement was broadcast, stating that the High Commissioner had decided to impose martial law on the Jewish quarters of northern Jerusalem and on the districts of Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and Petah Tikva. In Jerusalem, the operation was code-named “Hippo,” and in Tel Aviv, it was code-named “Elephant.” The operation had been planned meticulously several months before, and the High Commissioner had been empowered to put it into effect at his discretion. More than twenty thousand British troops took part.
There were two aims: to force the Yishuv to act against the “terrorists” and to capture the leaders of the underground. Lehi and IZL decided to retaliate, the former resolving to break through the siege maintained around the cities and to begin a series of bombings and other attacks throughout the country.
At that time, there were a total of one hundred thousand British police and military in the country. Most of them were busy imposing martial law in the streets of the Dan region and Jerusalem. Lehi and IZL attacked relentlessly there. Military vehicles were blown in to the sky, and military camps were attacked. The government assessment office in Haifa was attacked. Police vehicles and army posts were attacked in Jerusalem. Armored convoys were shot at on the treads. Soldiers were attacked in a cinema in Pardes Hannah. Rail cars with fuel were derailed and set ablaze. The railroad tracks were damage every evening, throughout the country.
Martial law failed utterly for the British, as their forces suffered great losses while the underground movements emerged almost unscathed.
Fifteen days after its imposition, martial law was lifted.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom analyzed the effects of martial law, and the opposition used it to criticize the government. Churchill called for a quick end to the Mandate.
The British press agreed, and on the 2nd of April, 1947, the British representative sent the following letter: “His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom requests the Secretary-General of the United Nations to place the question of Palestine on the agenda of the General Assembly at its next regular annual session… They therefore request the Secretary-General to summon, as soon as possible, a special session of the General Assembly for the purpose of constituting and instructing a special committee to prepare for the consideration, at the regular session of the Assembly, of the question…”
The Special Session of the General Assembly, held between 28 April and 15 May 1947, set up a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), vested with the widest powers, to ascertain and record facts, and to investigate all relevant questions and issues. The Committee was required to submit its report not later than the first of September, 1947. In the debate preceding the decision to establish it, many delegates, and especially the Soviet delegate, expressed their sympathies with the Jewish case. Until November 29th, this would continue to be a pressing issue for the United Nations.
In March of 1947, two ships made their way to the shores of Eretz Israel, the Theodor Herzl and the Moledet, filled with Ha’apala immigrants. The British decided to deport them, and despite massive protests, they used tear gas and violence to enforce this decision. Three of the immigrants were killed and fifteen wounded.
The next operation was an attack on the Haifa Oil Refinery, as a response to the deportation. The target was an Anglo-Iraqi company. Goel was once again in command, with two fighters assisting him: Tzefanya “Gilad” Shvili and Albert “Haim” Shemesh.
On March 30th, 1947, after surveying the area, the three set out, disguised as Arab railway workers, to Neve Shaanan. When it got dark, they slipped into the refinery, passing one roadblock after another. After getting through the third fence, Goel and Gilad made it to the tanks, where Goel set up the bombs and set their timers. As he finished his work, they withdrew without incident.
Exactly on time, the first detonation was heard, lighting up the sky. Then a second and third explosion followed. The tongues of flame licked and ignited other tanks, eleven in total, which burned for more than two weeks. The damage was massive. Eleven million gallons of oil were consumed. The British Empire had failed to protect its most precious resource, petroleum. Lehi’s reputation was enhanced by Britain’s failure, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The Activities Continue
Geula Cohen, newsreader of the Lehi radio station, was swept up in a CID raid on 3 HaShomer Street in Tel Aviv. Geula was tried and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in the women’s prison in Bethlehem. After an initial failed escape, she planned an escape from the government hospital in Jerusalem, with the assistance of a nurse who sympathized with Lehi and a group of Arabs from Abu Ghosh who collaborated with the underground.
On April 14th, 1947, Yosef Abu-Ghosh and a Yemenite girl who was a Lehi member came to visit a sick, old Arab woman in the hospital, and they hid Arab women’s clothing in the bathroom.
At the appropriate time, the nurse took Geula out to the bathroom, where she changed clothing into an Arab dress. Now, in order to attract the attention of the British policeman, Yosef’s cousins orchestrated a quarrel in the corridor. Geula came out of the bathroom dressed like an Arab woman, left the hospital and got straight into the car waiting for her and left. Shortly afterwards, Geula began broadcasting from the Lehi radio station again.
Lehi was urged on by Britain’s letter to the UN secretary-general; it felt the need to prove to the world that the wheel could not be turned back.
The next Lehi target was the police fortress for the Tel Aviv region in Sharona. The attack was based on sneaking into the camp disguised as postal and telephone company employees, as suggested by Shimon “Gideon” Karbinsky, who was the director of the underground cable division. Two experienced fighters were chosen for the mission, and they dressed as maintenance workers. They insinuated themselves into the work detail, one of them dressed as an Arab, in order for the guards to get used to their presence. On April 25th, 1947, a large roll of cable was filled with 250 kilograms of explosive material; it was transported in a mail truck to the camp and parked next to the offices of the commander. After the timer had been set, the two left under the pretext of investigating a problem with the cables outside. They immediately got into a car waiting for them, and when they were far away, they heard the explosion, which shook Tel Aviv.
An officer and three policemen were killed. The switchboard, wireless machine and communications rooms were destroyed.
The next day, it was Goel’s turn once again. Assistant Superintendent of Police Albert Conquest, CID head for the Haifa district, an effective and dangerous detective, was chosen as the target.
He was tracked by Goel and Avner “Yoav” Gruchov, who followed his car to the Spins store. When Conquest left the store, the two attacked him with a submachine gun. Conquest was immediately killed. During the retreat, Goel was injured by shrapnel from the gunfire. They abandoned the car. Goel simply washed his bloodstained shirt in one of the houses and managed to make it through the military roadblock with his customary coolness and escape. He quickly recovered from his injuries.
On May 6th, Alexander Rubowitz, one of the Lehi youth, was abducted. He went to post bills for the underground in the evening. Special undercover British units lay in wait. These squads were commanded by Major Roy Farran, who directed the abduction personally. Rubowitz struggled, but he was overpowered and forced into a car which then drove off. He was never seen alive again.
Farran was identified by his hat, which had fallen off during the altercation, and he was imprisoned by the British authorities, but he was smuggled out and fled to Syria. Lehi killed a number of British soldiers in response. Ultimately, public pressure forced the authorities to bring Farran back to Eretz Israel, where he was put on a show trial and acquitted.
Farran returned to Britain. Twenty years later, historian Giora Goodman found a secret affidavit sworn by Farran’s immediate superior, Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, in which he testified that Farran had confessed to him that he had killed the youth after torturing him to reveal the secrets of the underground. Rubowitz’s corpse was incinerated in an open area near the Jerusalem-Jericho highway.
Lehi never forgot the murder. At Farran’s house one day, a package arrived: a mail bomb. His brother opened it and was killed, while Alexander Rubowitz’s murderer escaped. Farran left Britain for Canada, where he served in public roles. He died at 85 and took the secrets of the matter with him to his grave.
On May 5th, disguised as British troops and with apparently the correct documents such as movement orders and identity papers, IZL blasted their way into Acre Prison. Jewish inmates knew ahead of time as they then collaborated in the attack and escape. The plan had first been hatched by Lehi members, inspired by Mattie Shmuelevitz, who was serving a life sentence. After 31 IZL men were arrested in the sands of Bat-Yam, Lehi and IZL reached an agreement to work together to tunnel out, but ultimately the decision was made to breach the walls. They agreed on the number of escapees.
During holiday visits, civilian clothing was smuggled in, along with explosives, fuses and detonators. Then, at 4:20 PM on May 4th, a large boom was heard from the Jewish prisoners’ section. The walls were breached, and when the prisoners heard this, they used their own explosives to blast through their cells. They jumped over the wall and fled through the alleys of Haifa to the vans waiting for them.
The first group of escapees boarded a van and drove off, but the driver mistakenly drove towards Haifa, instead of Mount Napoleon. On the shore, a group of British soldiers who had been bathing in the sea opened fire on them. The driver tried to turn back, but hit the wall of the cemetery and the van overturned. The escapees ran towards a gas station, the soldiers pursuing them. When the firing stopped, five of the first group of 13 escapees were dead, six injured and only two were unscathed. The survivors were returned to jail.
The blocking unit, consisting of Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Yaakov Weiss, also suffered a mishap. They did not hear the bugle signal to withdraw and stayed put when the other units had already left Acre. After a protracted battle with British soldiers, they were caught and arrested. All three went to the gallows.
The remaining escapees and members of the strike force in the truck and the second van escaped safely. They reached Kibbutz Dalia, abandoned their vehicles, and made their way on foot to Binyamina. There they were given refuge in the Nahlat Jabotinsky quarter and the following morning were dispersed throughout the country to pre-designated hiding places.
Haim Appelbaum of Lehi, wounded during the retreat, succeeded in boarding the last van, but died soon after. His body was left in the vehicle, and members of Kibbutz Dalia conveyed it to the burial society in Haifa the following day.
To conclude, 27 inmates succeeded in escaping (20 from the Irgun and seven from Lehi). Nine fighters were killed in clashes with the British army; six escapees and three members of the Fighting Force. Eight escapees, some of them injured, were caught and returned to jail. Also arrested were five of the attackers who did not make it back to base. The Arab prisoners took advantage of the commotion, and 182 of them escaped as well.
This was regarded as a masterstroke of planning, one of the greatest prison breaks in history, a sign of the high cost for Britain of continuing the occupation. The Yishuv, as usual, condemned the action.
In June, UNSCOP arrived and appealed to all parties to agree to a ceasefire so the UN could examine the situation.
Lehi counteroffered that the British occupiers cease their fire, halt the deportations of illegal immigrants, stop the hanging and banishment of resistance fighters, and put an end to the manhunts in the cities and the weapons searches in the kibbutzim. Naturally, this was rejected.
Lehi proposed that the sole solution was to create “Eretz Israel in its historic borders, a free and independent state, a common site for all Jews who want to live, sovereign, in their homeland, allied with the nations of an independent, free and democratic Middle East, free of all political or military influence of foreign actors.”
With their ceasefire proposal rejected, Lehi renewed its attacks on British military targets, making the lives of the British soldiers and police unbearable, leaving them no safe place to go or stay.
This was when the drama of the Exodus occurred. The ship, carrying 4, 500 refugees, arrived while UNSCOP was in Eretz Israel. The ship was escorted by a British destroyer and airplane, and the Haganah was prepared. The immigrants had no intention of letting the British on the ship, so the British opened fire, killing and wounding dozens. Eventually, the British took over the ship, and in order to halt the immigration movement, they were returned to their port of departure in France, where those who consented were allowed to stay. Those who refused to disembark were taken to the Port of Hamburg. Half of them ended up making it to Eretz Israel before the establishment of the state, while the other half arrived in late 1948.
The Haganah received a green light to respond, but this was their swan song. These last attacks against the British deportation apparatus were to be the final ones until the establishment of the state.
However, the Haganah did renew its attacks on the underground movements, under British pressure and the decision of the national council and the Jewish Agency. In 1947-48, the abductions and interrogations were renewed, and it was known as the little saison. During this period, about 30 IZL members and 4 Lehi members were abducted. Unlike the great saison, this time IZL and Lehi had no problem responding violently to the Haganah. Nevertheless, the period passed without murder or civil war.
In May 1948, four Lehi men were kidnapped in Haifa and brought to Kibbutz Beit-Oren. In response, Lehi kidnapped senior Haganah men. Ultimately, an agreement was reached and all were freed.
The little saison continued, on the back burner, until the underground movements were dismantled and the State of Israel established.
Despite the little saison, the attacks against the foreign occupier continued, though they were lessened with Britain’s announcement on September 17th that it would evacuate from Eretz Israel by May 15th of 1948. Still, British soldiers were attacked, wounded and killed; a train was blown up near Haifa; railroad tracks and tanker cars were damaged, and military vehicles hit mines.
In late summer 1947, two Lehi members broke out of prison, Dov “Uzi the Ginger” Berman and Anschel Spielmann.
Uzi, who had been recruited to Lehi from HaShomer HaTzair, was part of the Barclays Bank heist in Tel Aviv. His neighbor identified him in the street during the operation and informed on him. He was arrested and sent to Latrun, but he only stayed there two days. On September 28th, he cut through the barbed-wire fence and went free. The next day, he already stood before his commanders.
Anschel Spielmann was sentenced to ten years on weapons charges. On October 22nd, he broke out of the central prison in Jerusalem, disguised as a cleaner. He hid in the house of Rabbi Shlomo Goren (later Chief Rabbi of Israel), who smuggled him to Tel Aviv dressed as a groom for his wedding.
On November 11th, due to informers, British military and police units raided a house in the south of Raanan, where a Lehi youth course in weapons training was being conducted. The young men did not shoot, but the British opened fire anyway, killing five and wounding five more, who were arrested.
The next day, Lehi carried out a reprisal, attacking the Astoria Café in Haifa, killing many. Over the next few days, seven more were killed and dozens were injured. The informers, from an Arab family in the area, were also executed.
On November 29th, the UNSCOP recommendations were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, with two-thirds of the votes. Palestine would be partitioned into two sates, one Jewish and one Arab, with Jerusalem being an international city under UN control. The British Mandate would come to an end. Among others, both the United States and the Soviet Union supported this, but the Arab countries rejected it.
Ben-Gurion declared: “Judea reborn will take its place among the United Nations as a force for peace, development and progress in the Holy Land, in the Near East and in the world as a whole.”
Lehi let it be known that the removal of the foreign occupier was a defeat for British imperialism brought about by the determined fight of the Jewish underground which had undermined its rule. However, it declared. “The Jewish people has not and will not ever recognize the partition of its homeland, and the Freedom Fighters of Israel will continue to fight for the unity of the land with the proper tactics for each time and place, and the concentration of the Jewish people within it, integrating it with the struggle, allied with the peoples of the Middle East, to liberate ourselves from the yoke of imperialism.”
The situation was complex, but one thing was clear: Lehi would accept the authority and institutions of the new Jewish state as the realization of Hebrew nationalism.
Lehi Activities Abroad
A unique part of Lehi’s struggle was its activities in Europe. This would create the basis for an independent Hebrew foreign policy to pursue the interest of Lehi directly and indirectly. This was a reflection of Yair’s 18 Principles of Rebirth, which promoted pursuing alliances with any interest nation. From the summer of 1946, this was pursued publicly, as Lehi was interested in breaking away from British influence, and the Empire wanted to eradicate Zionism and prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.
A key element was “Soviet orientation.” Lehi believed that after World War II, the Soviet Union was a natural ally. Soviet opposition to Zionism, they believed had been due to the Jewish youth abandoning Communism for Zionism, so that the latter had been seen as an instrument of British imperialism, which the Soviets opposed in Asia. Lehi believed that since this was no longer true after the war, the conflicting interests between the two empires made the Soviets their natural allies.
Another idea was the “neutralization of the Middle East.” The concept was based on the idea, concretized in the Lehi central committee in the summer of 1946, that imperialists had to be removed from the Middle East for the good of the natives, who had been victimized and oppressed economically and politically. This was received well in French political circles. Lehi saw support for this idea as very important, a breakthrough in international relations.
This motivated Lehi to send emissaries abroad to set up branches in various countries, constructing an infrastructure for operations against British targets, fundraising and recruiting, buying weapons, propaganda and diplomatic relations with bodies and individuals who supported common interests. Paris was the center for underground activities throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic. Lehi’s emissaries brought materials in many languages to destinations throughout Europe and the United States.
In Eastern Europe, the situation was different. There were no British targets, nor was there a need to encourage aliyah. The aim was to present the underground and the Yishuv’s struggle as a whole as a war of national liberation. The nations of the Eastern Bloc could transmit the message to Moscow, hopefully leading to support from the Kremlin for the battle against British imperialism. The anti-British and anti-imperialist struggle was an integral element of recasting the cause as one which Moscow could get behind, motivating Mother Russia to change its conservative attitude and vote for an independent Jewish state in the United Nations.
These are the Lehi branches abroad which operated until the establishment of the State of Israel:
Lehi’s Egypt branch was the first set up abroad. Binyamin Gafner, who was a British soldier, assembled a group of Jewish soldiers with a past in the underground. They concentrated on intelligence, propaganda and arms smuggling. Gafner was succeeded by Yosef Sitner, an RAF veteran, during whose time Lord Moyne was assassinated. Afterward, they had to cease operations temporarily, until Yaacov “Yashke” Eliav arrived in Egypt in 1946. Yashke set up cells in three major cities, recruiting local youth and training them in the underground life. They carried out a number of military operations, including blowing up the main British army headquarters in the Middle East and attacking the British destroyer HMS Chevron, but these actions were not successful. After Yashke left, others attempted to carry on the work, but the administration was opposed to a Jewish state, so their activities were limited. The branch was taken apart after the establishment of State of Israel, to which most of them immigrated.
The second branch in the Middle East was in Iraq, established in late 1945 by David “Dan” Blau, one of the underground veterans, who was accompanied by Iraqi-born Albert Shemesh. Their aims were to recruit people and teach them Lehi philosophy, while training them for paramilitary activates, aimed mainly at the oil reserves which were so important to the British Empire. They faced a problem, as many Jews were afraid of the pogroms similar to those from the days of Rashid Ali’s revolution during World War II. Nevertheless, they managed to create a number of cells of youths who were trained, along with groups of supporters providing various services. In addition, Dan made friend with a number of young Iraqi revolutionaries who would later lead the country; collaboration against the British seemed possible. However, the Iraqi authorities caught wind of this, and Dan had no choice but to flee, retreating to Eretz Israel in early 1946. The Iraqi mission was not renewed, but many of their trainees made it to Eretz Israel eventually.
Lehi’s Italian mission began with a Lehi veteran who had broken out of Latrun, Herzl Amikam, in 1945. He was smuggled into Italy as a Jewish Brigade soldier. He established his base in Rome. The first aim was to recruit the members of the IZL cells from Poland who had ended up in the city after the war. Quite rapidly, they had a flourishing organization, distributing leaflets in multiple languages, bringing Lehi’s message to the survivors and to the wider public, with the following message: Lehi will fight Britain on European soil! In postwar Italy, there was much ant-British sentiment, and Lehi capitalized on it, gaining the support of the Italian public and press. Links were forged with Italian socialist and communist parties. The Jews of Italy were also recruited, and they gave much support in creating ties with influential politicians. Avraham Blass, a Lehi veteran, became the leader of Ort in Italy, and this solved the monetary issues of the branch for supporting underground activities. Many branches were established in the major cities as well as the DP camps. In late 1946, Yashke Eliav came from Paris in order to give weapons training to the underground commanders in Italy.
In late 1947, the central committee of Lehi sent Yaakov “Blond Dov” Granek to Italy; he was meant to head an operational unit which would carry out attacks in the heart of the British Empire, London. Unfortunately, the Italian Police caught him giving an arms-training course to local commanders. After he was freed, he had to return to Eretz Israel.
After the resolution of 29 November, Lehi in Italy concentrated on aliyah and arms purchases. Lehi members were told to insinuate themselves among the Haganah and IZL men and immigrate with them to Eretz Israel. Before the Declaration of Independent, two massive weapons shipments were organized. The first, to the Lehi central committee, was forwarded to Jerusalem, while the second was handed over to the IDF. Lehi in Italy ceased operations with the establishment of the State of Israel.
Lehi’s activities in France began in late 1946, with Yashke’s arrival, along with Yaacov Eliav. The two came from Egypt to Paris to set up the underground base for all of Europe. After the war, France had strong opposition to Britain, particularly because the latter had taken Syria and Lebanon from the former. This had distinct propaganda advantages for Lehi.
From the beginning, young intellectual circles were set up, headed by Betty Knut-Lazarus. She wrote for the local press, and she was a former partisan, member of the Maquis. Other Maquis members joined, and they helped acquire pistols, submachine guns, explosive materials and materials for bomb making. Another important resource cultivated was rich donors; these wealthy Jews provided the funds for Lehi to act in Europe and acquire arms for the underground in Eretz Israel.
Simultaneously, they made connections with many supporters: Christian intellectuals, scholars, scientists; the most famous of these brilliant minds was J.P. Sartre. There were two special divisions set up: one dealt with propaganda and public relations, the other with diplomacy. A magazine called Independance was published and widely distributed. Betty Knut, whose mother was Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov’s cousin, met with him in Paris to enlist the support of the Soviet Union.
One of the pillars of Lehi support in France was Alexander Aaronson, a Nili member. A former British Intelligence officer, he donated a great deal of money and information to the cause, allowing many actions against British targets.
The French press was supportive as well, and they wrote glowingly about what was going on in Eretz Israel. There was also a serious negotiation between the French authorities and an underground group who came from Eretz Israel, seeking cooperation in the Middle East, all the way to Algeria.
The close connections with the French security forces allowed Lehi to operate unfettered, as long as they operated outside of France. Using the armories of the French Army, they were able to acquire many supplies. In March 1947, Jacques Martinsky, a Lehi member, was sent to commit acts of terror against the British War Office in London. The mail bomb exploded and caused much damage. In April, Betty Knut hid a bomb in the Colonial Office in London, but it was discovered. A number of letter bombs were sent from France to England, terrifying the authorities. At the same time, Robert Mizrahi managed to smuggle in a coat stuffed with explosives into the Colonial Office, causing death and injury, as well as severe damage to the building. In the middle of 1947, there were attempts against the British Embassy and a British destroyer, but these failed because Yashke and Betty Knut had been arrested. The attempt against Herbert Morrison, Leader of the House of Commons, in a train station on the French Riviera, failed as well.
Early in 1948, diplomatic contact was made with the Soviet Embassy and with Yugoslav and Basque representatives, and an assassination was planned of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. With the establishment of the state, though, the French office of Lehi was closed, after many achievements which had made Lehi an important player in the war against Britain.
The Bulgarian mission was centered on Yitzhak Merkin, a farmer from Moshav Segula in the Sharon region. Merkin was enamored with Lehi’s ideas, and he dedicated all his resources to them. His house was used to train fighters in the use of weapons, to provide financial aid, as a refuge for fugitives, and more. He was also a close personal friend of Georgi Dimitrov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria and General Secretary of its Communist Party. In 1933, Dimitrov had been charged with setting the Reichstag on fire, and he easily could have been executed, but Merkin saved him. Now, Lehi was convinced that he could bring Dimitrov to their cause, and Dimitrov had Stalin’s ear.
Sent to Sofia, Merkin was warmly received, and Dimitrov set up a meeting with Stalin. Stalin met with Merkin for a number of days, and Merkin explained Lehi’s aims and tactics. He wanted logistical support for training fighters in partisan fighting. Dimitrov told Merkin that Stalin was quite impressed, and he was sure that a Jewish state would arise, even though it might not be large (as the United Nations ultimately agreed, with Soviet support). As for a source of weaponry Merkin was directed to Czechoslovakia.
As regarded aliyah, Dimitrov was quite sympathetic. He declared that any Bulgarian Jew who wanted to immigrate to Eretz Israel was welcome to do so and to take all his possessions with him.
The first links with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia began in the middle of 1947, when Lehi emissary Yehuda “Boaz” Gur, one of the Latrun escapees, arrived. He had also been active in Hungary. Boaz dedicated a great deal of energy to acquiring arms from the Skoda Company, which would go on to heavily arm both the Jewish Agency and the Haganah.
In early 1948, David “Dan” Blau arrived in Prague. He had been in Iraq. He was arrested upon his return, but he was freed for health reasons and then sent to Czechoslovakia. He had press credentials and personal recommendations from pro-Soviet Frenchmen who referred him to men of power and prestige in the Czechoslovakian government.
With these letters of recommendation, Lehi had good public relations and a narrative that the official channels approved of: fighting British rule for the sake of the Yishuv. Soon more Lehi emissaries came.
In Prague, Lehi was welcomed. A biweekly in Czech was published by the thousands, given to ministers, parliamentarians, Communist Party members and the editorial staff of the local newspapers. Dan gathered young people, concentration camp survivors, and prepared them for aliyah.
For a year the branch operated, to be closed only in late 1948, when it became clear that the Soviet Union had changed its views of Israel; the latter had no intention of becoming another satellite. Dan was arrested, then freed and told to leave Czechoslovakia.
The Lehi branch in Budapest operated from mid-1947 until after the establishment of the State, led by Yehuda “Boaz” Gur. It had three main aims:
- Producing propaganda aimed at enlisting supporters for the underground movement, mainly through a newspaper distributed by the thousands through the mail
- Organizing cells to train as a paramilitary anti-British force, as long as it controlled Eretz Israel
- Forming an independent escape route to Eretz Israel, by which many Jews could make aliyah, including most of the branch’s members and supporters.
After the establishment of the state, Lehi went to the deep underground, operating covertly. However, the strong opposition to the movement forced it to close down and immigrate to Israel.
Until late 1947, England was the most inhospitable place imaginable for Lehi. Targets in the United Kingdom had been attacked from France, led by Yashke. However, Yaakov Heruti, a law student at the University of London, led a group of three Lehi members to England to lay the groundwork for a local chapter. Hopes for it were buoyed by the Resolution of 29 November. However, it remained extremely difficult to acquire funds and arms. Small amounts of explosive came from America via the mail. Two pistols were acquired from abroad.
The first contact with British Jewry came through the Beitar movement, and some more came afterwards, as they identified with the underground movement and the idea of the Jewish state.
The main aims in England were assassinating high-value targets like Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, General Evelyn Barker and Major Roy Farran. But the attempts failed: the attack on the first was cancelled by the central committee, the mail bomb for Barker was discovered and dismantled and the mail bomb for Farran killed his brother instead. Even the plan to “bomb” London with Lehi pamphlets failed as the pilot betrayed them.
The branch ceased operation with the establishment of the State.
Lehi activities in America were based on political activity, beginning in the middle of 1947, with Binyamin Gafner’s arrival after he was released from detention in Africa. Later, others joined him.
Gafner began recruiting from Beitar, religious groups, left-wing youth groups, Bohemians and others. After a few months, two organizations were established:
- American Friends of the Freedom Fighters of Israel dealt with propaganda and public relations.
- The Artza youth organization, which spread these materials and trained youngsters in the use of weapons and the philosophy of Lehi’s struggle.
In New York, Jerusalem Calling, a Lehi magazine, was published. At the same time, connections were made with Jewish media of the first rank. In addition, Lehi members contacted representatives of European revolutionary movements, such as the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Eventually, they had a number of important meeting with Henry Wallace, former vice-president of the United States and the Progressive Party nominee for president in 1948. He was swayed by the “neutralization of the middle East” philosophy. Due to Wallace, Lehi managed to get to a number of Jews, members of his party, who would prove skilled and effective in helping Lehi become established, especially in Chicago.
The American branch directly helped the branches in France and England, sent financial aid to Lehi in Eretz Israel to buy arms and supported underground activities in Eastern Europe.
This branch lasted beyond the establishment of the State, until the underground was dismantled and most of its members joined the IDF.
Lehi between the UN Resolution and the Declaration of Independence
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.
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.
In December 1947, Lehi attacked many Arab targets. Houses were blown up; vehicles were bombed. In early January 1948, the former Ottoman government offices, Saraya, which had become the command center for the Mufti’s gangs, were blown up, with ten Arabs kills and a hundred injured. Part of the building was destroyed, and great damage was caused. In January, there were a number of attacks on Arab positons in the Menshiya neighborhood of Jaffa.
After the explosion on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, which also involved British soldiers, Lehi responded with a number of attacks inside and outside Jerusalem against British targets, including bombing a military vehicle near Rehovot, killing fifty British soldiers and policemen.
Lehi suggested to the Haganah an alliance against the British, but the latter rejected this offer.
At the height of the riots, on February 12th, 1948, Moshe Rosner of Lehi and Baruch Weiner of IZL broke out of Latrun; on the 20th, seven Lehi prisoners and four from IZL escaped from the central prison in Jerusalem by digging a tunnel from cell twenty-three, taking them to the prison’s septic tank six meters away. On the day of the scape, a group of fighters showed up in maintenance uniforms to clean the sewage system, and they handed fresh uniforms to the escapees so they could disguise themselves as sewage workers too. When they came out of the tank, they smelled so bad that the sentries at the gate hurried them out. Outside, underground members were waiting to take them to safe houses. The escapees were headed by Mattie Shmuelevitz, Moshe Savorai and Yosef Dor.
In February 1948, Lehi established a special squad for carrying out strikes against Arab villages in the Sharon and Samaria. On March 1st, they attacked Qanir, killing a few and wounding dozens. On March 4th, they attacked Biyar ‘Adas, which served as a base to attack Magdiel and the area. The houses were demolished. At this point, Lehi called on the Arabs to stop the destruction and choose the path of peace; otherwise, “the Freedom Fighters of Israel will come upon you in blackest night and brightest day, and you will know no rest.” However, the Mufti’s men would have none of it.
In early March, Lehi decided to set up an Arab division in Central Israel to gather intelligence on Arab movements and plan counterattacks. One plan was to send a car bomb to the command center of the Arab gangs in Nablus, driven by Elisha “Shmuel” Avizov, who had taken part in the Saraya operation in Jaffa. However, the Arab collaborator betrayed them, and Shmuel was arrested and condemned to die by the gangs in Tayibe. In order to defuse the bomb, the Arabs summoned two British bomb experts who had been involved in the attack on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, George White and William Alfred Harrison. They failed, and the bomb went off, killing them and a number of Arab residents. A few days later, it became known that Shmuel was held captive. In order to save him, Lehi abducted four prominent hostages from the village of Sheikh Munis, but when Shmuel’s execution became known, they were freed. A few days later, Lehi took over Sheikh Munis, turning it into its central base in the Tel Aviv area. Shmuel’s body was returned to the homeland after the battles ceased, due to Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s efforts.
With the British evacuation imminent, there were fewer underground operations; the focus was on prison breaks and confiscation operation, from the British or those insured by them. In April 1948, the following Lehi members escaped from the detention camp in Atlit: Yoram Sion, Zeev Fuchs, Asher Ratzon, Shimon Sinuani, Jacques Alkalai, Haim Ahishar, Peter Partush, Malka Hafner and Haim Ben-Israel. Female prisoners being transferred from Bethlehem to the Petah Tikva police were also freed and transported to Tel Aviv: Yehudit Yehezkel, Esther Bachmann and Frieda Werkstatt.
Barclays Bank, with its central branch in Tel Aviv, was a favorite Lehi target, hit four times. The first attempt failed because the safecracker couldn’t do his job, but in the second, Lehi acquired 14,000 lira. The next two attempts were even more successful: 45,000 lira and 200,000 lira respectively, the last just before the Declaration of Independence and led by Blond Dov, who ordered the bank manager and chief teller to cooperate.
After the Resolution of November 29th, 1947, Jerusalem became an international city. The Lehi branch there was reorganized under Yehoshua Zatler, who had broken out from Acre Prison with IZL. It shortly became a well-trained fighting force, seizing strategic points for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, while fighting the remaining British forces.
Lehi forces quickly captured Romema and cleared it of Arabs. This operation inspired the Jewish forces to attack and capture additional neighborhoods. Lehi members spread through the city and scared off the British policemen. Some soldiers and police were killed or injured, and their weapons were seized. Military vehicles were attacked; mines were detonated beneath armored cars. Dozens of police and military personnel were killed or injured, while the battle against the Arabs continued. Lehi forces invaded Malha and Sheikh Badr. Upper Lifta was attacked, and Bayt Tannus was blown up—it had been a central post for the gangs—as were houses in Katamon. In the places left by the Arabs, Lehi set up three camps: Eldad, Yoav and Dror. From these, they attacked Arab villages in the Jerusalem area.
With the difficult situation in the city and its internationalization, there were negotiations between the three underground groups, but these fell apart. Despite this, Lehi and IZL decide to fight together, and the next target was Der Yassin, in the northeast of the city. On April 9th, forty Lehi and eighty IZL fighters invaded, killing 110 Arabs, including women and children, who had not evacuated despite warnings. This battle proved to be fateful. Tens of thousands of Arabs fled from their villages, eventually leading hundreds of thousands of Arabs to flee from their homes to the neighboring countries.
On May 13th, the Old City was evacuated by the British, leading Lehi to propose an attack before the Arab Legion could seize it. This was rejected by the Haganah, due to the provisional government’s orders. The next day, a Lehi unit captured the Notre Dame building and began attacking the walls of the Old City. However, they were outnumbered, and no forces came to aid them, so the opportunity was lost. On that day, at 4:00 PM, independence was declared.
Lehi’s Preparations to Leave the Underground
Lehi’s central committee was suspicious of Britain’s true intuitions; moreover, they were not sure that the Yishuv would have the courage to establish a Jewish state. With this uncertainty, Lehi had to consider what its next steps would be. When the British evacuated the Dan region in January 1948, it seemed clear that the Empire was indeed retreating, which required a dedication to the political aspects of the struggle for freedom. The first was publishing an evening newspaper, HaMivrak, which Gera and Eldad wrote regularly for. The second was turning to Dr. Moshe Sneh, whom they saw as potential ally, accepting the basic principles of Lehi: anti-imperialism and a commitment to social justice in Eretz Israel. In 1948, Lehi’s politics had a distinct left-wing tenor. Lehi’s socialist development was deeply influenced by the war of liberation, in which they believed the enemy was imperialism, which asserted itself not only through national oppression but through social oppression, taking advantage of the weak. However, Sneh rejected the proposal.
Alongside the political preparations, the Lehi central committee was also preparing to dismantle the underground and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. As they debated how to do this, negotiations took place between Israel Eldad (Lehi) and Levi Eshkol and Yisrael Galili, who represented the recruitment committee and the Ministry of Defense, to address the central question: how and when would Lehi merge with the IDF?
During these negotiations, Eldad met with Yitzhak Sadeh, founder of the Palmah, as well. Sadeh had great affection for Lehi because of its partisan nature, which had more of the commando nature which Sadeh intended to inculcate in the 8th Armored Brigade. Sadeh, in particular, said: “Give me Blond Dov!” The debate was whether Lehi members should join individually or collectively. Sadeh settled the matter when Sadeh created the armored assault brigade, which would be made of special units, inducing Palmah and Lehi men. In light of this proposal, the decision was made that Lehi would become “A” company of the new 8th Armored Bridge. However, there were hundreds of Lehi members who joined the other IDF units, including the navy and air force.
Finally, on May 14th, 1948, at 4:00 PM, David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel, which would come into effect on the termination of the British Mandate at midnight that day. He made the formal Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in Dizengoff House, while intense fighting raged throughout the country. At the same moment, the Union Jack over the Port of Haifa was lowered, and the High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Alan Cunningham, left the country.
On the night of 15 May, 1948, the British Colonial Office and Foreign Office issued a statement about the end of the mandate.
His Majesty’s Government had now striven for twenty-seven years without success to reconcile Jews and Arabs and to prepare the people of Palestine for self-government. The policy adopted by the United Nations had aroused the determined resistance of the Arabs, while the States supporting this policy were themselves not prepared to enforce it. 84,000 troops, who received no cooperation from the Jewish community, had proved insufficient to maintain law and order in the face of a campaign of terrorism waged by highly organized Jewish forces equipped with all the weapons of the modern infantryman. Since the war, 338 British subjects had been killed in Palestine, while the military forces there had cost the British taxpayer 100 million pounds. The renewal of Arab violence on the announcement of the United Nations decision to partition Palestine and the declared intentions of Jewish extremists showed that the loss of further British lives was inevitable. It was equally clear that, in view of His Majesty’s Government’s decision not to enforce the partition of Palestine against the declared wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, the continued presence there of British troops and officials could no longer be justified.
In these circumstances His Majesty’s Government decided to bring to an end their Mandate and to prepare for the earliest possible withdrawal from Palestine of all British forces.
After the Declaration of Independence, the Lehi central committee made its own response to the establishment of the State of Israeli:
The Freedom Fighters of Israel recognize Jewish sovereignty in the areas of the homeland which have been freed from foreign occupation. The greater the dominion of Jewish sovereignty grows, the greater the national cohesion of all our people will become. The Freedom Fighters of Israel will fulfill all of their civic duties to the State of Israel, both towards the country and towards its armed forces. The Freedom Fighters of Israel will continue to strive towards the liberation of all parts of the homeland from foreign occupation and towards their unification with the State of Israel, whose eternal capital and center will always be Jerusalem.
The Arab armies invaded the territory of the newborn State of Israel. Tel Aviv was bombed. The war for the freedom of the nascent Jewish state had begun. On May 22nd, 1948, Kol (the Voice of) Lohamei Herut Israel notified the public that the Lehi fighters would join the Israel Defense Forces, which the State of Israel was about to announce.
On May 29th, the combat division of Lehi assembled one last time before leaving for the IDF base. They were then concentrated in the Arab village of Sheikh Munis.
We must never forget that our fighters did not spill their blood for a constricted country. They marched in the light of the sun of a vision, that of a war for the freedom of the homeland in its entirety, with Jerusalem as its capital. This was not a delusion of grandeur, neither fantasy nor hallucination. It is and remains within the realm of the possible. This vision will brook no replacement, until it is fulfilled. It is the reason that we arose and became the Freedom Fighters of Israel…
After this historic ceremony in Sheikh Munis, the company of Lehi fighters set out for Induction Camp #1 in Kiryat Meir, in order to enlist in the IDF.