Before the Second World War had come to an end, the Irgun and Lehi stepped up activity against the British rulers of Palestine, focusing their attacks primarily on civilian targets. From May 1945 they also directed their efforts against the British army. To safeguard government and military installations, Britain was forced to augment its forces in Palestine to such an extent that by the end of the year there were 100,000 British troops and policemen in the country. Maintaining this force placed a heavy burden on the British government. Exhausted from the protracted war against Nazi Germany, troops that had looked forward to demobilization were instead being dispatched to Palestine. British public opinion was highly sensitive to British casualties there and to any perceived undermining of the Mandate government by the activities of the underground.
The British press reported extensively on deaths of Mandate officials and questions were regularly asked in the House of Commons. As the underground campaign grew fiercer, and the number of British casualties increased, pressure was exerted on the government to withdraw from Palestine. The mothers of soldiers serving in Palestine were particularly active, bombarding the Colonial and the Foreign Secretary with letters demanding that their sons be brought home. These letters found their way to the House of Commons, where MPs quoted them to embarrass the government.
In addition to their problems with the Jewish underground, the British were facing severe economic troubles. The Second World War had severely undermined the economic infrastructure of the country and the government lacked the means to rehabilitate it. Soldiers returned home to austerity and unemployment, to food and clothing rationing. There was not enough fuel to meet consumer needs in electricity and transportation. To add to these difficulties, the winter of 1947 was of unprecedented severity. The cold and snow brought life to a standstill in town and countryside. There was no coal to heat homes and supply electricity. Factories were closed down and rail services drastically reduced. Beer production was halted and cigarette manufacture curtailed. Britain, with its vast coal reserves, was forced to pay out its limited foreign currency to import coal from the United States. Churchill, then leader of the opposition, declared in his speeches in the House that post-war Britain was too weak to bear the burden of fighting the underground movements in Palestine. He argued that Britain's interests in Palestine were not so vital as to justify maintaining one hundred thousand soldiers and policemen, a heavy load on the taxpayer. He demanded that the British withdraw without delay.
On February 19, 1947, the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, announced that he was about to hand over the Palestine problem to the United Nations. In mid May, a meeting of the General Assembly decided to appoint a United Nations Special Commission for Palestine to examine the problem and offer recommendations for its solution. The first session of UNSCOP was held in Palestine on June 16, 1947, the day on which the death sentence was pronounced on Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nackar and Yaakov Weiss, who had been caught in the raid on Acre goal. After the sentence was passed, the members of the Commission joined many leaders and public personalities in Palestine and throughout the world in appealing to the Mandate authorities to pardon the condemned men, but to no avail. The British, determined to demonstrate their strength and to suppress the Jewish uprising by force, hanged the three men a month later in Acre goal.
At the conclusion of UNSCOP's enquiry, it recommended to the UN Assembly that Palestine be partitioned into two states: Jewish and Arab, with Jerusalem under international jurisdiction.
The UN Assembly debated these recommendations on September 16 at Lake Success in New York State. At that time, I was in Jerusalem devoting all my time and efforts to the underground movement. A shortage of Irgun officers occasioned by their arrest and kidnapping by the Haganah meant that I was put in charge of two platoons and was given direct command of a unit of girl soldiers. My first meeting with the girls was held one Saturday afternoon, in a deserted thicket behind the Schneller camp. Tehia (Adina Hai), the previous commanding officer, arranged the girls in a line and handed over command to me. It was not easy for them to bid farewell to their well-loved officer, but there was no time for ceremonies. The meeting was brief, since I feared unwanted intrusion, and it was agreed that future meetings would be held under cover of dark. I spoke to them at length, clarifying the Irgun's stand on events at the UN and on plans if the UN decided to adopt the recommendations of the Commission. The Irgun was opposed to the partitioning of Palestine, and had expressed its views on various occasions, but inside the movement it had been made unquestionably clear that if a Jewish state were established, even if only in part of Palestine, the Irgun would lay down its arms within the territory of the state. In Jerusalem, however, which was to be an international protectorate under UN supervision, the Irgun would carry on the fight until the city became an organic part of the new state. Since many facts were still vague, we did not go into detail on the nature of the Irgun's activities in Jerusalem if and when the city became an international area. Meanwhile, we had a much more urgent problem: to prepare for imminent war with the Arabs.
One evening I assembled the girls in a deserted field near Sanhedria to discuss the situation. It was a clear moonlit night, and the soil was redolent with the aroma of autumn. As we sat talking, a British armored car with a strong searchlight in its turret suddenly appeared at the end of the field. I ordered the girls to lie flat so as not to be caught in its beam. Suddenly, Nurit (Rachel Brandwein) scrambled up and began to walk deeper into the field. I was angry with her for disobeying my order, and feared that her action would give away the entire group. Fortunately, the British did not notice her and left a few minutes later. Silence fell again and Nurit returned to the group. She apologized and explained that she had acted instinctively, since she was still suffering from the trauma of hearing that her good friend Smadar (Esther Benziman) had been arrested that day. I cut the meeting short and escorted Nurit home.
Nurit stood out from the rest of the group. Tall, slim, attractive and intelligent, vivacious and charming, she was totally dedicated to the Irgun and carried out all assignments precisely and efficiently. Fluent in English, she was appointed liaison to foreign journalists, handing over written material to them and passing on their requests. Nurit was only 16, but wore silk stockings, and lipstick to make herself look older.
One evening I gave her some material for a journalist named Heffner, correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune, and to my surprise she asked me to come with her. The request seemed strange since I tried to avoid encountering journalists. She was insistent and finally confessed that at their previous meeting Heffner had plied her with alcohol and made a pass at her. She had fled and told nobody. I agreed to join her at the meeting. Heffner, an intelligent and quick journalist, was well acquainted with the complexities of the Palestine dispute. We talked at length and I took advantage of Nurit's good English to explain our stand. I made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that before he sent any material off for publication, he should show it to us for approval. Unfortunately, the long and thorough article he finally wrote on the views and the plans of the Irgun was not approved for publication.
On November 29, 1947, the UN Assembly convened again to vote on the partition scheme as prepared by the sub-committee appointed for this purpose. A two-thirds majority was required to ratify the proposal. After a dramatic roll call, which had millions throughout the world pinned to their radio sets, the partition proposal was passed by 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions. The resolution created a strange hybrid: a Jewish state composed of three tenuously linked parts (eastern Galilee, the coastal plain to Ashdod, and the Negev), and an Arab state also consisting of three tenuously linked sections (western Galilee, Judea and Samaria, and Gaza, which was connected to part of the Negev) (see diagram). The Jewish state included neither Jaffa (which was supposed to be part of the Arab state) nor Jerusalem, which according to the resolution, was to be under international trusteeship.
The vote at the UN Assembly was taken at midnight on Saturday, Palestine time. That same weekend I was visiting my parents in Ramat Gan, and after the broadcast, two thoughts troubled me: the first that war would break out; the second that we were not prepared for it. While the decision to go to war was not in our hands, there was something we could do about our state of preparedness. I was assigned the task of training fighters and preparing a cadre of officers capable of absorbing the new volunteers who were expected to flock to our ranks.
I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders and did not join the crowds celebrating on the streets. I took leave of my parents and hastened back to Jerusalem to work, since time was short and the task pressing. When I reached the city, I made my way to the Aviv Hotel on Jaffa Street, location of the office of Aviel (Eliyahu Levi), my commanding officer. The hotel-owner was an Irgun sympathizer and allocated us as many rooms as we needed. As soon as I arrived, they asked me where Nurit was, since she was due to read the radio broadcast that evening. No one had any idea. The tension mounted as the hour of the broadcast approached. At the very last moment, she arrived at the home of Mrs. Dost, in whose Jerusalem home the mobile Irgun broadcasting station was located. Only after the broadcast did I hear her story: on Saturday night, Nurit had been at home with her father, Levi Yitzhak Brandwein, (known as 'Gandhi'), listening to the broadcast of the UN vote. After midnight, when the resolution had been passed, the two of them went out into the street and began shouting: 'Get up everyone, we have a state.' A British armored car halted beside them and to their great surprise, the soldiers climbed down, shook their hands and congratulated them on the partition resolution. Meanwhile, men and women were flocking onto the street and moving towards the courtyard of the Jewish Agency buildings. On the way, another armored car stopped and offered them a lift to their destination. As they drove along King George Street, Gandhi asked the driver to stop and told Nurit to run home and bring the national flag. Thus they continued their journey with the national flag flying from the turret of the armored British car.
A large crowd had gathered in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building, and there was singing and dancing. Golda Meir made an emotional speech, and towards morning the crowd dispersed to their homes. On Sunday morning Nurit had left for Tel Aviv with friends - on a motorbike - hence her late arrival at the Dost home that evening.
Whereas the Arab states rejected the UN resolution outright, and threatened to destroy the fledgling Jewish state, the Jewish Agency welcomed it, believing that the compromise agreement could be implemented without bloodshed. The Irgun, on the other hand, issued two statements the day after the resolution was passed. The first, directed at the Yishuv, said in part:1
The bisecting of the homeland is illegal. It will never be accepted. The signatures of institutions and individuals on the agreement are invalid. It is not binding on the Jewish people. Jerusalem has always been and will continue to be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the Jewish people.
A second proclamation, an 'order of the day' addressed to the commanders and soldiers of the Irgun, read: 2
The state for which we have striven since our youth, the state, which will grant the people their liberty and safeguard the future of their sons, this state remains our objective. It will not be easy to attain it. Much blood will yet be shed for its sake.
The day after the UN resolution, the first Jewish victims fell. Seven Jews were killed on November 30, four of them passengers in buses attacked by Arabs en route to Jerusalem.
The Supreme Arab Committee proclaimed a three-day general strike. We knew from past experience that such a strike would be accompanied by mass demonstrations, which would end in attacks on Jews. The Haganah declared partial mobilization in order to prepare for all eventualities, but the mobilized force was too small to check the attacks. As anticipated, a large crowd of demonstrating Arabs set out on December 2 from Jaffa and Nablus Gates in Jerusalem. The crowd moved towards the New City, attacked Jewish stores in Princess Mary Street and from there surged on to Jewish-owned stores in the commercial center. The demonstrators looted and plundered, setting fire to stores and garages. Jews fled in panic and appealed to the police and the Haganah for aid; the Haganah force was too small to check the looters, and the British did nothing to defend them. The riot continued for hours, leaving devastation in its wake. Finally, to restore calm, the British imposed a curfew on the Arab quarters and the riot died down.
The destruction of the commercial center stunned the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The spontaneous outburst of joy at the news of the UN resolution, gave way to concern and apprehension. Anger was directed at the British who had watched passively as the Arabs rioted. Worse still, when armed young Jews had arrived, they were arrested by the British and their weapons confiscated. There was also disappointment that the Haganah forces had not succeeded in forestalling the attack on Jews.
The Arabs, encouraged by their success in the commercial center, moved on to attacks on Jewish transport in Jerusalem. Arabs attacked a Jewish bus, on its way from Talpiot to town, from the Baka quarter; another bus, on its way to the Jewish quarter of the Old City, was attacked at the entrance to Jaffa Gate. From urban attacks, the Arabs progressed to raids on inter-urban traffic. Arabs in the Arab town of Ramleh set upon a bus, which set out from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The route to Jerusalem became dangerous - the initiative always in Arab hands.
And what was the Jewish reaction to these murderous attacks? The official leadership opted for a policy of self-restraint, since the assumption was that the acts of hostility were intended to thwart the UN resolution of November 29, 1947. Restraint, the leaders of the Yishuv believed, would calm things down and prevent the armed struggle from gathering momentum. The Irgun believed otherwise and, subsequent to the bloody scenes in Jerusalem, broadcast the following statement on Kol Zion Halohemet (the Irgun radio station):
[...] Not only were Jews injured and thousands of pounds worth of damage done to Jewish property in Jerusalem. Our national pride was injured as well. Once again we became 'protected Jews' as British troops pretended to defend us...
Several days later, an Irgun leaflet was distributed in Arab settlements. It explained that we were not seeking war and that our hand was extended in peace. However, the leaflet contained a grave warning that if the Arabs did not cease their acts of hostility, retaliation would follow swiftly.
The controversy between the Irgun and the Haganah on the fitting reaction of the Yishuv to Arab aggression was not new. Back in the 1930s (1936-39), when the Arabs rioted against the Jews, the leaders of the Jewish Agency had claimed that the Jews should exercise restraint and confine themselves to defensive activities. The Irgun believed then too that forceful reaction was called for, and that attack was the best form of defense. Ultimately, the Haganah abandoned the self-restraint policy and adopted the Irgun's policy of retaliation.
The Arabs did not heed the Irgun warnings, and continued to launch onslaughts on inter-urban traffic and isolated Jewish settlements. While the Haganah added escorts and guards, the Irgun launched acts of retaliation.
The Arab acts of hostility did not cease; in December 1947 alone, some 184 Jews were killed throughout the country.
1. Begin, In The Underground, 4, p.79
2. Begin, In The Underground, 4, p.83