In the last week of October 1945, I arrived in Palestine, a lieutenant in the British 6th Airborne. The Division had just fought a great war of national deliverance. then moved to Palestine as part of the Middle East Strategic Reserve to fight whatever wars III right erupt thereabouts – proper wars. that is. between uniformed bodies of men. No soldier took the local terrorist threat at all seriously. The antics of a handful offanatics, Jewish or Arab. were not going to bother us.
My battalion was stationed in Sarona, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. which also housed the Palestine Police Mobile Force. created to counter insurgency. The Police were responsible for law and order but could call on the Army for back-up as necessary. On the evening of the 31st, I was called on, with a section of paratroopers, to support a routine mobile pol ice patrol in its tour of the Tel Aviv area. It just happened that this was the date chosen by the united Jewish Resistance Movement to open their offensive.
Everywhere we looked that night there were bombs. Grenades tucked between rails, set to explode if picked up; plastic explosives with fuses that had not been lit properly; mortar bombs converted to booby-traps; and here and there, evidence of an explosion. By good fortune, I’d been trained to disarm complex German mines and was able to cope with my patrol ‘s share of the relatively straightforward Jewish devices.
I discovered later that 153 breaches had been blown in railroad lines throughout the length and breadth of Palestine. plus damage to police launches, the Lydda railway station and the Haifa oil refinery. It occurred to me that if these insurgents improved their skills. they might turn out to be more than just a nuisance. And so it was.
When British troops wrested Palestine from Turkish rule in 1917, the country contained 600,000 Arabs and 55,000 Jews. Over the subsequent years Arab and Jew fought each other, and the occupying British, for control of the land and the racial composition of its population. Britain’s role was mandated by the League of Nations, along with a qualified commitment to establish a National Home for the Jews. An important milestone was reached in 1948. After the UN divided the land of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, the British departed and the State of Israel came into existence. However, the struggle did not end, then or now, and this uncertainty lends a poignancy to the celebration of Israel’s 50th birthday. For not on ly is further conflict possible, it will likely take the form that a liberal democracy finds particularly hard to counter – terrorism.
It was Arab terrorism prior to WW II that set the deadly top spinning. The Mufti (senior judge) of Jerusalem, Mohammed Am in al- Husseini, directed a ruthless campaign designed initially to destroy the middle ground between Jewish settlers and their Arab neighbours. Assassination squads controlled by master terrorist Emile Ghori systematically slit the throats of prominent A rabs who favoured a I ive- and-let-live relationship with the Zionists. Fear silenced others. Then the Mufti turned his violence against the Jews and British. It was a long and ruthless struggle, but by 1938 the police and military brought Ghori’s terrorists under control.
The threat from the Arab world remained, however, and on the eve of World War II the British calculated that an assured supply of Arabian oi I mattered more at that time than their commitment to a National Home for the Jews. They restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 over the next five years, after which there would be no more without the consent of the Arabs -which meant no more whatever. Terrorism, even the threat of terrorism, had been proven effective.
The political outcome was obviously unacceptable to the Zionists. but the leaders of the Jewish community appreciated that defeating the Nazis was Priority #1 and supported the Allied war effort. Not so for a handful of extremists. First the Stern Gang and then the Irgun Zvai Leumi broke ranks and launched terrorist attacks against British targets. The mainstream opposed the “dissidents”, going so far as leaking membership lists to the Palestine Police. But once Nazism had been defeated in Europe, the Jewish leadership authorized an offensive by a united Jewish Resistance Movement composed of the “dissident” terror gangs together with the much stronger embryo Israeli army, Haganah.
As part of the united resistance campaign, Haganah mounted a night attack on Sarona. The police saw the attackers off, killing five. I mentioned this incident when I visited the Israeli Defense Force many years later. My host, commander of the paratroops, explained how, at age sixteen, he had been among the attackers. He told me this in his office in Sarona, now the ID F headquarters.
The united front was exposed by the British and soon broke up. Thereafter, Haganah concentrated on promoting “illegal” immigration and preparing to defend the future Jewish state against Arab attack, while Stern and Irgun returned to terror designed to force Britain to abandon the Mandate. Under shrewd leadership, these men and women created a new form of warfare that combined violent acts with sophisticated propaganda in a way that undermined the credibility and, ultimately, the legitimacy of authority. Dangerous in all circumstances, modern terrorism poses its greatest threat to the liberal democracy, because it repeatedly forces the government and security forces to choose between the restraint that humiliates and the harsh action that brings international condemnation. All the safeguards of the law are available to the insurgents, even while their propaganda describes a reign of government terror.
As soon as we stepped off the troopships, the Zionist press likened us Airborne soldiers to Gestapo, and this was soon repeated by sympathetic journalists in the United States. Later, Zionists composed a song – “Kalanyot” – Hebrew for the red poppies that matched our berets, with their black centres representing our cruel hearts. This contributed to the demonizing of soldiers before Jewish audiences, so that murder might be seen as a heroic act of resistance. In turn, the murders of soldiers tended to demonize Jews in British eyes – precisely what the terrorists wanted, but a tragic consequence for the Jewish leadership and the non-violent majority.
Irgun and Stern invented or developed the now familiar car and truck bomb, the electrically detonated roadside mine, sophisticated anti- handling devices, use of security force uniforms and vehicles, and for special operations like the attack on the Haifa police station, made-to- measure bomb delivery systems. Their advantage came from surprise, good planning, and careful choice of targets to support the ideology of the struggle. Although daring and often successful, these groups were not invincible. In every instance where troops fought terrorists on equal terms, the soldiers came out on top. That said, the Jewish Underground in the Palestine of the late 1940s gets my vote as the most intelligent and proficient terrorists or freedom fighters (actually both) the British Army has encountered.
The Palestine Police could not cope with the rising tide of violence and increasingly turned to the Army for help. Massive search operations were mounted, but often the arms that were found and the suspects who were arrested were from Haganah, while the smaller, more agile “dissident” groups escaped. At no time did the authorities commit the Army to a full-scale counter-insurgency campaign. We never left our barracks to permanently establ ish “contact”, dominate territory, and generate tactical intelligence. However, as the UK government had no coherent policy on Palestine, no military strategy worth the name could follow. In these frustrating circumstances, doing the least to frustrate the politically irresistible was probably the nearest Britain came to a rational policy. It was, however, one that betrayed the Palestinian Arabs, which old soldiers like me will forever regret.
Although armed to the teeth by the Soviet Union, the Arab Armies have repeatedly failed to defeat the IDF and destroy Israel. The paramount threat today is Arab terrorism, of which we have seen much since the early 1970s. The tradition reaches back to Emile Ghori, embracing religion, sacrifice and martyrdom as well as the flip side of the Zionist preoccupation with the Land. Whereas the Jewish campaign against the British had relied on a continuous series of relatively minor attacks designed to undermine political will in London, the Arab attack on Israel aims at nothing less than the physical destruction of the Jewish State and its people. They have numbers on their side: 86 million Arabs facing 6 million Israelis. They can afford martyrs.
Between 1945 and 1948, 223 British servicemen died in Palestine. On one day in October 1983,241 American servicemen were killed in Lebanon when a solitary Arab drove a truck loaded with explosives into a Marine Corps barracks. Terrible though the human bomb and bus attacks in Israeli cities have been, it is prudent to assume that, but for efficient security measures the scale of the onslaught would have matched the Lebanon atrocity. This gloomy outlook is haunted by the potential multiplier effects of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Would that I could turn the clock back to noon on the 31 st of October, 1945, and magically dissolve the differences that divided the two nations of Palestine and their temporary guardians, the British.