Feverish discussions were held at the Irgun headquarters in Jerusalem on its role in the imminent war. Since we were now totally cut off from the coastal plain, all the decisions taken were at the local level. HQ was faced with two central problems: the serious lack of weapons, and the fact that Irgun training was not adapted to conventional warfare. Whereas the equipment problem was dealt with at the national level, the question of training was under regional jurisdiction. It should be recalled that since we were still operating under clandestine conditions, we were basically equipped with revolvers and submachine-guns. It was very difficult to use rifles in Jerusalem, and machine-gun training was usually carried out in Irgun units on the coastal plain.
I was given two assignments: to organize courses where both officers and troops would learn to use rifles and Bren guns (seized from the British), and to prepare a cadre of officers able to train the many volunteers who would flock to the Irgun. I had to find suitable locations in which to hold rifle-training sessions without attracting the attention of the British and to find ways of transporting and concealing the weapons. My most worrying problem, however, was my right arm. Since my injury in April 1946, my arm had improved considerably, but I still could not pull the spring of the Bren gun. I was determined to make a supreme effort to overcome this impediment and practiced for hours on one of only two Brens in Jerusalem. I was often reduced to despair, but finally my persistence paid off. I immediately began organizing the courses, firstly for commanders and then for the rank-and-file. We tried holding the training sessions in our meeting rooms, but when they proved too small, I gave the boys the task of finding a better place. One of them came up with the idea of using the synagogue in the Bukharin quarter, which was empty from the end of morning prayers till the afternoon service. We obtained the keys, brought in the weapons and held a series of training sessions from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon. Throughout the sessions we left guards outside the synagogue to warn us of approaching danger. One day, the guard came running to say that someone insisted on entering the synagogue. We hid the rifles in the Holy Ark and pretended to be studying. The person came in and explained that it was a family memorial day, and that he wanted to light a candle in the synagogue. Before he left I told him who we were and swore him to secrecy. He wished us well and left.
On Saturdays we had to find an alternative meeting place. One of the commanders, Shlomo Shvebel (Zvi), worked in a bakery owned by his father and suggested we meet there. The bakery was spacious and the heat from the oven made it a pleasant haven on cold Jerusalem days. Training that first Saturday we heard knocking at the door. We rushed to hide the guns under sacks of flour before opening the door to a group of women who said they had come to collect the Sabbath cholent (stew), which had been put in the oven on Friday. I explained that I was the watchman, and they left with their cooking pots. When the danger had passed, our friend Zvi arrived and apologized for having forgotten to inform us of this minor detail.
The task of organizing officers' courses was more complicated. I had to find a place where a group of 16 people could spend the entire day for a period of some six weeks. Again Shlomo Shvebel provided the solution. He told me that his friend, Carmeli Baron, had an apartment in Kiryat Shmuel, which he was willing to place at our disposal. The story seemed somewhat unlikely, and I went with Zvi to meet him. Carmeli told me that he was about to leave Jerusalem, and had decided to hand the apartment over to us. When I asked to whom it belonged, he explained that the entire building belonged to his father, and the apartment on the ground floor had been given to him as a gift. The story sounded convincing and I was relieved to have found a place. Only later did I discover that not only had Carmeli's father not given his approval, but that he in fact knew nothing about the arrangement. Carmeli had given us the apartment to get back at his father after an argument. Be that as it may, we settled into the little apartment, which we called the villa, moved the furniture onto the balcony and set to work.
Throughout this period I continued to live in the home of Chaya and Yaakov Hoffman, who had gradually come to realize that I had nothing to do with the Hebrew University. I got up early and returned home late, tried hard not to disturb them and would rarely eat at home. Realizing this, Chaya would often wait for me to go to the bathroom and would then place a steaming cup of coffee and several slices of cake on my table. She was back in bed before I could thank her.
Once we started using the villa in Kiryat Shmuel, I used my own room less. There were two rooms in the villa, one large and the other small. During the day activities were conducted in the larger room, and at night we split up as follows: the 12 boys spread blankets on the floor of the large room while the four girls slept in the smaller room. Since there was no room left for me in the boys' room, it was unanimously decided that I would sleep with the girls. Not without its obvious attractions, this arrangement had one significant drawback: I was repeatedly being asked to avert my eyes whilst the girls dressed and undressed. The morning routine was particularly complicated, since seventeen people had to make do with one small toilet in the bathroom. I introduced a very strict arrangement, according to which everyone was allocated just five minutes. We got up at 5:00, and by 6:45 everyone was standing in line ready for the morning run. Classes began at 8:00 and lasted until late in the evening. Since we lacked suitable cooking facilities, we ate sandwiches three times a day. On Saturdays, the trainees were given leave and could finally get a hot meal.
One day the guard outside the villa informed me that he had noticed a suspicious movement on the second floor of the house opposite. The next day one of the trainees told me that he had the feeling that someone in the house opposite was watching us, and asked permission to go check. Three trainees went over and returned triumphantly half an hour later: a woman lived there alone, but they had found a suspicious Armenian from the Old City there too. They confiscated his revolver and cautioned him against returning to the apartment. We added the revolver to our collection, and I went to town for a meeting at the regional headquarters. When I returned, I was shocked to see the villa surrounded by Haganah people, who were allowing nobody to enter or leave. I asked to see their commanding officer, and was directed to Zeev Shickler. I introduced myself and Shickler explained that the Armenian was in fact a Haganah informer and that we had no right to confiscate his revolver. I explained that my boys had been acting under orders, and that if he lifted the siege, I would sort the matter out. We began negotiating what should come first - the return of the revolver or the lifting of the siege. Finally Shickler called his men off, and I went into the apartment and gave back the revolver. But that was not the end of the affair. Shickler returned shortly afterwards and told me that the woman had been deeply insulted by the search and would only be placated by a personal apology. We subsequently went up to her apartment together and expressed sufficient remorse for her to feel considerably better.
The high point of the course was the target practice, which we conducted at the abandoned Arab village of Sheikh Bader (where the Knesset building now stands). We fired live ammunition from all the firearms in our possession, which included rifles, submachine-guns and revolvers. We were so excited finally to be practicing that we used up far too much of our supply, leaving precious little in the event of attack. After completing the practice, we marched through Rehavia singing and cheered on by residents.
When we reached Kiryat Shmuel, a military truck drove by with five armed British soldiers on board. I immediately ordered my group to halt and to remain as calm as possible (we could not attack since we did not have enough ammunition). The only thing to do was to stand still and await developments. I guessed that the British would think we had plenty of ammunition, and since we outnumbered them (seventeen to 5), would refrain from attack. We stood there for several long minutes until the British finally decided to continue their journey.
When the course ended, we had a pleasant surprise. One of the trainees, Yona (Moshe Lerman) was friendly with the Feferberg family, who owned the well-known restaurant of that name. Yona told one of the Feferberg sons about the sandwiches we had been eating throughout the course, and how we had not had a hot meal for more than a month. (It should be recalled that the siege of Jerusalem had begun and food was in short supply). Shlomo Feferberg took pity on us and at the end of the course invited the whole group to his home for a lavish meal.
Years later, when I was married to Nurit and our eldest son was three, we were looking for a suitable kindergarten for him. One of our acquaintances highly recommended 'Chaya's kindergarten' in Kiryat Shmuel, not far from our home. When we went to register him, we were taken aback to discover that the kindergarten was located in the villa. We had come full circle: little Rami was studying in the building where his parents had trained for the War of Independence.
In March, the District Command announced the expansion of recruitment into the ranks of the Irgun, and we began setting up new bases for the recruits. Until these were ready, Irgun members lived at home, and were summoned through a pre-arranged network. At the bases they underwent intensive training and were always ready for action.
The Achilles heel of the Irgun was the grave shortage of weapons. In April 1948 the organization had no more than two Bren guns, several dozen rifles and several dozen submachine-guns of various types. Revolvers, effective weapons during the underground period, were useless in conventional warfare. In other words, the Irgun in Jerusalem was able to equip no more than two companies - a gloomy situation, and totally disproportionate to the large number of fighters who were ready to go into battle. After the British departure, when Irgun fighters were deployed in the front line, the Haganah supplied us with the required weapons.
As will be recalled, the Irgun was strongly opposed to the partition scheme approved by the UN Assembly on November 29, 1947. It objected in particular to the non-inclusion of Jerusalem within the Jewish state and to the resolution to place the city under UN trusteeship. In a leaflet issued the following day, the Irgun declared: 1
[...] Jerusalem has always been and will always be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the Jewish people... partition will not guarantee peace in this country... in the coming war, we will stand-alone... it will be a war for our very survival. And in this war, all the Jewish forces will be united...
This leaflet contains two important elements: on the one hand strong resistance to the partition of Palestine and the exclusion of Jerusalem from the Jewish state, and on the other hand a call for the amalgamation of all Jewish forces in preparation for the war which would soon break out on the initiative of the Arabs. The Irgun had declared on various occasions that the moment a sovereign Jewish state was established, even if only in part of Palestine, it would disband within those borders. If Jerusalem remained outside the borders of the Jewish state, as the UN had decided, the Irgun would continue to exist and would fight the new government until Jerusalem became an inseparable part of the Jewish state.
In the two weeks following on the UN resolution, the Irgun initiated negotiations with the Haganah for an agreement on operative cooperation during the transition period before the British left the country. Since the Mapai (Labor party) leaders were opposed to any agreement with the Irgun, negotiations were protracted. Under pressure of public opinion and due to the efforts of several of the leaders of the Yishuv, particularly the General Zionists (Liberal Democrats) and the Mizrahi (religious Zionists), who were part of the Jewish Agency coalition, the draft proposal of the agreement with the Irgun was submitted to the Jewish Agency Executive for approval on March 11, 1948. This came at the height of a difficult period for the Yishuv in Palestine, when the Arabs had the upper hand and were seriously harassing the Jews.
Despite this, the Mapai members voted against the proposal, but found themselves in a minority, and the Jewish Agency Executive ratified the agreement by a majority (the General Zionists and Mizrahi voting in favor). Some members of the Executive were not in the country at the time, and Ben-Gurion, the Chairman, asked that the signing of the agreement be postponed until the views of the absentees were canvassed. About a month later, on April 7, the Executive Committee of the Agency convened to decide the issue. During their week-long deliberations, Irgun and Lehi forces captured the Arab village of Deir Yassin. Mapai leaders tried to exploit allegations that the occupiers had slaughtered villagers in order to tip the balance against the agreement. However, they again found themselves in the minority, and on April 12 1948 the Executive approved the agreement.
Under the signed agreement, there was to be immediate operative collaboration between the Irgun and the Haganah. As long as the British remained in Palestine, the Irgun would maintain organizational independence, but all its activities would be co-coordinated in advance with the authorized Haganah commanders. The moment the British left and a Jewish government was set up, the Irgun would disarm. Its representatives announced unilaterally that the Irgun would not continue to maintain an armed underground movement under Jewish rule.
1. Begin, In The Underground, 4, p.80