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Irgun terrorists strike at the British by bombing Jerusalem’s King David Hotel

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion on Monday, 30 January 2012

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This edited article about Palestine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 619 published on 24 November 1973.

It is the most important hotel in the city. It gleams in the sun, palatial, a fitting home for the most distinguished of visitors. Yet, part of it was once a bomb-blasted ruin in which desks were splintered, files were engulfed in flames and men and women lay dead.

It is the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and in 1946 it was the scene of one of the most notorious terrorist outrages in the Middle East.

When the Second World War had ended, nations had been horrified by the revelation of the mass slaughter of Jews in German gas chambers.

To the Jews who had settled in Palestine, members of the Zionist movement, this was, nevertheless, the moment for which they had waited.

Surely the world would now permit the scattered survivors of the German concentration camps to leave the countries which had become graveyards for so many of their race, and settle in peace in Palestine? Surely they deserved that much?

They were soon to find that other considerations weighed more than suffering with the nation to which they turned for help. That nation was Britain.

Since 1923, Britain had been entrusted with the government of Palestine. It was a difficult trust to discharge because, in 1917, a British statesman had promised the Jews a home of their own there, while other politicians had developed strong links with the Arabs.

While the Zionists urged Britain to honour the obligations contained in the promise of 1917, the Foreign Office was all too aware how much oil flowed through the pipelines of Arab countries and how necessary their friendship was. Thus until the war, the British administration in Palestine leaned at one time towards the Jews and at another towards the Arabs, thus postponing the time of decision.

During the Second World War, the Labour Party in Britain pledged that if it won power in peacetime it would honour the promise made to the Jews. It did win power; but when a delegation of Zionists came immediately to press its claim, it was received coolly and told that matters must remain unchanged for the time being. “Matters” included the problem of immigration.

The British Government insisted that only 1,500 immigrants should be allowed into Palestine each month, although many hundreds of thousands were desperate to go there.

Britain’s attitude was bitterly criticized elsewhere in the world, particularly in America. This only strengthened Britain’s resolve. So some of the Jews, who had survived the hatred of the Russians, of the Poles and of the Germans, decided to take matters into their own hands.

They acted swiftly. They were no longer the passive people who had been herded into the gas ovens in Germany.

Terrorists acts which had begun before the war were now resumed. There were four military groups at work. First there was the Haganah, in which every Jew did a form of national service. The best recruits were sent to Palmach, a full-time commando organization. Then there was the Irgun, a more ruthless and violent guerrilla group. And, finally, the remnants of the Stern Gang, a section of the Irgun which had refused to refrain from terrorism during the war.

In July 1946, the Irgun decided that it needed to make a daring and dramatic assault on the British. It chose as its target the east wing of the King David Hotel, which housed the British administration.

The place was fortified in every way known to the occupying forces. Approaches to it were hedged with barbed wire and lined with sentries. Wire-netting prevented bombs from being tossed through the windows. A series of steel-lined, electrically-controlled doors had to be opened; and patrols scoured the open ground and roof.

True, the east wing was as secure as it could be. But the west wing, which still functioned as a hotel, was virtually unguarded.

The Irgun decided that it needed the help of the Palmach to get into the hotel but the Palmach would not co-operate. It agreed, however, that if the attack were carried out at night, when few people would be on duty and if proper warnings were given to evacuate the building, then it would not interfere. It claimed later that the Irgun had agreed to these terms. But the Irgun told a different story.

Just after mid-day on July 22, a milk-lorry carrying Irgun raiders, disguised as Arabs pulled up at the kitchen entrance to the hotel. Unchallenged, they unloaded churns and took them down into the hotel basement. They met no guards and made their way along a basement corridor which brought them under the east wing. There they held up the kitchen staff and shot an officer who surprised them.

The sound of the shot alerted hotel staff, who tried to persuade sentries to investigate. The guards, however, were reluctant to leave their posts, and when they did, it was only to see the lorry and its Arab crew driving away. At last a general search was ordered but it was too late.

At about half-past twelve, telephone calls to the hotel and to the “Palestine Post” announced that the east wing had been mined. There was barely time to sound the warning-bell before a huge explosion shook the city, the hotel’s east wing collapsed and nearly a hundred Britons, Jews and Arabs were crushed to death under the falling masonry.

The Irgun claimed later that it had given its warning earlier, but the statement was not widely believed. The Haganah and the Palmach bitterly attacked the guerrillas for the outrage and so did many Jews in the city and at large.

Public opinion swung heavily against the terrorists. Had the British administration been sensitive to public opinion, the worsening relations between Jews and the administration might have been avoided.

Instead, the commander of the British troops was accused of committing an act of folly which was so incomprehensible that many people, Jews and Britons alike, believed that it could not really have happened.

He was alleged to have sent a letter to the troops under his command in which he attacked the whole of Palestinian Jewry for supposedly aiding and abetting the terrorists. He declared, so his accusers said, that they were accomplices to the crime.

He was said to have told his men: “They shall . . . be aware of the contempt and loathing with which we regard their conduct.”

And he was reported to have ended by putting all Jewish public and private places out of bounds to his troops, and to have added that it would be “punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes more than any other, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt for them.”

The story is that attempts were made to suppress the letter, but that the Irgun quickly got hold of it and plastered copies of it all over Jerusalem.

These copies re-opened all the wounds of anti-Semitism which had scarcely begun to heal. And they hindered any hope of a reasonable settlement between the British and the Jews.

In February 1947, Britain submitted the Palestinian question to the United Nations. A special committee decided that Palestine should be partitioned and its decision was ratified in November. In May 1948, the British left Palestine.

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