Why did Jewish armed resistance against the British begin?

In the summer of 1945, a general election was held in Britain. The Labor Party pledged that if they were returned to power, they would revoke the 1939 White Paper and permit Holocaust survivors to immigrate to Eretz Israel without delay. They also promised to act for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Eretz Israel, which would gradually evolve into an independent state. Labor won the election but then turned away from these promises.

Despite American, Jewish, and international pressure and the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the new Labour Party government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee and his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, continued to enforce the policy articulated in the White Paper of 1939.

British adamancy on immigration radicalized the Yishuv. Under Ben-Gurion’s direction, the Jewish Agency decided in October 1945 to unite with Jewish dissident groups in a combined rebellion against the British administration in Palestine (the United Resistance Movement). The combined Jewish resistance movement organized illegal immigration and kidnapping of British officials in Palestine and sabotaged the British infrastructure in Palestine.

In November 1, 1945, the three organizations conducted their first joint attack, the “Night of the Trains”. That night, Haganah units sabotaged some 153 spots along railway tracks throughout the country, and blew up patrol launches in Jaffa and Haifa ports, while a joint Irgun-Lehi unit, commanded by Eitan Livni, attacked the main railway station at Lydda.

In response Bevin ordered a crackdown on the Haganah and arrested many of its leaders. While the British concentrated their efforts on the Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi carried out terrorist attacks against British forces, the most spectacular of which was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946.

On June 17, 1946 the Haganah staged an attack in which 10 of the 11 bridges connecting Palestine with its neighbors were destroyed. On Saturday, June 29, 1946, the British began a two week dragnet searching for Jews suspected of anti-British activities. A countrywide curfew was proclaimed, and 17,000 soldiers entered institutions and settlements in order to confiscate weapons and documents, and to arrest leaders of the Yishuv and Haganah activists. Some 2,700 people were arrested throughout the country and taken to an internment camp. The sweep failed to net any of the major underground commanders or unearth significant arms caches, but the Jews nevertheless called the event “Black Sabbath.”

Then, on July 22, 1946, the resistance struck at the King David Hotel, the south wing of which housed the British military command and the Mandatory government secretariat. Although a warning was given one-half hour before the explosion, 91 people were killed: 28 Britons, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews and 5 others.

The traumatic events, such as the Black Sabbath and the bombing of the King David Hotel. showed Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership that violence of the sort pursued by the United Resistance Movement was no longer viable and that it was urgent to forge a political link between Zionism, the United States, and the Holocaust survivors in the struggle for a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion severed his relationship with the Irgun and Lehi.

By 1947 Palestine was a major trouble spot in the British Empire, requiring some 100,000 troops and a huge maintenance budget.

One thought on “Why did Jewish armed resistance against the British begin?”

  1. Weren’t some modern-day Israeli politicians – Sharon, Begin, Peres, Meir, etc.- members of the various Resistance groups such as Haganah, Irgun, and the Stern Gang? And weren’t they responsible for the deaths of hundreds of British soldiers and civilians?

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