Irgun and Stern Gang orchestrated the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 to drive out Palestinians of what became Israel and created a new generation of fighters who turned to some of the methods including bombings and anarchist strategy that Zionists used for Israel’s creation
On October 7, 2023, hundreds of Hamas fighters broke through walls separating the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip and the Israeli territory to launch a surprise attack. The coordinated land, air, and sea attack overcame electronic intercepts, sensors, and human informants and included a barrage of missiles. The assault challenged Israeli deterrence and overwhelmed its advanced Iron Dome missile defense system in a stunning failure of Israel’s overrated intelligence.
The attack revived the association of the term terrorism in popular Western discourse with the Middle East and Palestine. The association in part explains the West’s unqualified support of the indiscriminate retaliatory Israeli bombing that has also targeted refugee camps, hospitals, places of worship, and educational institutions.
The West’s support has egged it on even as Israel has killed over 10,000 people in Gaza so far. The United States (US) rushed arms and moved its Mediterranean Sea warships in Israel’s support ignoring desperate calls for a ceasefire despite the United Nations (UN) pleas citing clear evidence of war crimes. UN chief Antonio Guterres has called Gaza a ‘graveyard for children’ with over 4,100 of them killed.
The West has turned a deaf ear to the calls for ending the bombing in the name of fighting terror, conveniently forgetting the conflict itself is a product of terrorism. David A Charters, the head of the Centre for Conflict Studies at Canada’s University of New Brunswick, has argued that Jewish terrorism in the 1940s played a significant role in forcing Britain to withdraw from Palestine. The withdrawal facilitated Israel’s foundation as a Jewish state with the expulsion of Palestinians and triggered the ongoing conflict.
The socialist Zionists created the Haganah to defend their settlements as well as carry out limited offensive operations against Palestinians as the persecution of Jews in Europe encouraged Jewish migration to Palestine and revived the Zionist resolve to create a Jewish state. In the late 1930s, British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald described Haganah as ‘a Jewish army’ designed to secure ‘eventual Jewish military supremacy in Palestine’. Haganah numbers included Yigal Allon, who became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1969, Itzhak Shamir, who held the post from 1986-1992, and Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defence minister from 1967 to 1974.
The Revisionist Zionist faction opposed Haganah’s approach and created the National Military Organization (Irgun Zvai Leumi) to carry out terrorist attacks. Haganah and Irgun’s willingness to cooperate with Britain in the Second World War divided the Zionists further. A section of the Revisionists regarded this as a betrayal since the colonial power then proposed to create only an Arab state in Palestine.
The Revisionists created Lochmei Herut Israel or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (LHI) under Abraham Stern. LHI attacked the British forces in Palestine and came to be known as the Stern Gang. A newspaper known as Hamaas, which means ‘Resistance’ in both Arabic and Hebrew, was LHI’s mouthpiece.
Irgun and Stern Gang attacked Deir Yassin village near Jerusalem on April 9, 1948, weeks before Israel’s creation, and killed at least 107 Palestinians. Women, children, and the elderly were among the people either tied to trees and burnt to death or lined up and shot dead. The atrocities triggered the exodus of some 700,000 Palestinians. Stern Gang member Menachem Begin, who also became Israeli Prime Minister (1977-1983), orchestrated the massacre. The idea was to terrorize the Palestinians to force them out of their homes. It has since been key to Israeli policies.
David A Charters writes the largely leaderless and ill-prepared Palestinians were driven out of what became Israeli territory by attacks such as the joint Irgun and Stern assault that resulted in the Deir Yassin massacre. He adds unsurprisingly this gave birth to a new generation of Palestinian insurgents, who later turned to the same methods that Zionists used.
Jewish Resistance Movement or Tenuat Hameri Ha’ivri coordinated activities of Haganah, Irgun, and Stern Gang with the blessings of the Jewish Agency of Israel’s first and second Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Charters, who has authored the book The British Army and Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, writes the almost total destruction of European Jewry earlier reinforced the moral case for a Jewish state. But the prospect of actually doing so seemed to be slipping away as the Jews the Zionists counted on to populate and build the new state were systematically exterminated.
Charters writes rescuing the Holocaust survivors helped shape a new ‘culture of survival’ against existential threats to Jewry. A ‘militarized’ Zionism embodied in the phrase ‘Never Again’ would confront the British in October 1945 with a series of coordinated attacks against the railways, oil refineries, and police. Charters argues the Haganah used violence to force the British to change their policy on Jewish immigration into Palestine. It attacked coastal radar stations and police boats to frustrate anti-immigration efforts besides sabotaging the railway to exert economic pressure on the British.
The Irgun and Stern Gang opted for all-out terrorism as they doubted the British would give Palestine to the Jews. Charters writes the two groups were determined to force the British out of Palestine by trying to increase the human and political costs of staying there. Irgun and Stern Gang attacked the British troops, bases and police stations, oil refineries, trains, bridges, and banks.
They carried out 78 attacks from October 1945 to July 1946 when 21 top civil servants were among the 92 people killed as Irgun blew up the British administration headquarters at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Charters writes the Irgun and the Stern Gang rapidly escalated the levels of violence nearly four-fold and carried out 286 attacks over the next 12 months with casualties exceeding 1,000. He notes on the tactical front, innovative terrorism techniques were used to make Palestine ungovernable.
Charters writes that Irgun applied the classic anarchist strategy ‘propaganda of the deed’ designed to defeat Britain on both the tactical/control and strategic/political fronts. Stern Gang resorted to economic warfare and anarchist-style direct action, especially against the police.
The Zionist groups also used Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) disguised as mile-stone markers to blow up vehicles besides placing bombs in abandoned vehicles. Charters writes that British military personnel and civilians were abducted and held for ransom when convicted terrorists were sentenced to death. Booby-trapped bodies of two Intelligence Corps sergeants were hung in an orange grove. Two imprisoned Irgun members facing the death penalty blew themselves up in prison with a smuggled grenade as part of a ‘martyrdom operation’.
Railway traffic was disrupted from October 1946 to August 1947 as Zionist attacks damaged or derailed over 20 trains. The Stern Gang destroyed 16,000 tons of petroleum products at Haifa’s Shell Oil refinery in March 1947. Charters writes the strategies of chaos worked by eroding British control of Palestine to the point where it was ungovernable. Terrorism was one of the major factors that influenced the British decision in September 1947 to abandon the region.
Front groups, meanwhile, promoted the Zionist cause outside Palestine. America’s politically active Jewish community used its influence as a major creditor to Britain to influence British policies as they faced an economic crisis as a result of the Second World War. The Zionist propaganda allowed them to maintain pressure on the US and to prevent it from cooperating with Britain for a negotiated solution to the Palestine issue.
Charters writes hysterical newspaper stories of faceless, ruthless terrorists haunting the streets of London may have produced the desired psychological effect after the Irgun claimed a suitcase bomb blast set off at Rome’s British embassy in October 1946. This marked the opening of a new front and to bring home the terrorist threat to Britain.
Labour Zionists, who became politically dominant after Israel’s creation, tended to downplay the role and impact of the Irgun and Stern Gang. It claimed Haganah’s role in illegal immigration, was an essential non-violent activity. The role of revisionists began to be acknowledged in the 1970s when the Herut party derived from Revisionism gained ascendancy in Israel’s politics.
Israeli governments were loathe to acknowledge the tactics some of their founders resorted to as it would hurt their efforts to delegitimize Palestinian resistance. In the September 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books, Tel Aviv University professor Assaf Sharon wrote that the Irgun and Lehi were dismantled after Israel’s creation but their philosophy continues to be an active force in Israel. Begin became prime minister in 1977 and Shamir in 1983.
Sharon wrote that Begin and Shamir’s disciples and descendants occupied and still occupy central positions in Israeli public life. He added that militant nationalism and religious zeal continue to motivate Jewish extremists and inspire Jewish terrorism. Sharon wrote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father was a revisionist ideologue, an Islamophobe who supported pre-state terrorism and opposed any agreement with Arabs. He added Netanyahu, whose fanatical government has been blamed for making bloodshed inevitable by ruling out any political process in Palestine and asserting an exclusive and inalienable right of the Jews to all parts of ‘the Land of Israel’, shares many of his father’s views.
Sharon argued the Likud has under Netanyahu’s leadership shed the last remnants of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s liberal commitments and became a party willing to exploit racist contempt for Arabs. Netanyahu allowed the grabbing of Palestinian lands, expanded illegal settlements, and promised the reconstruction of the biblical Temple in Jerusalem disregarding Muslim sentiments about their third holiest site—Al-Aqsa Mosque—besides sidelining the secular Palestinian leadership to effectively strengthen Hamas.