Hotel explosion in Jerusalem

On Monday, 22 July 1946, 225 kg of explosives were set off in the basement of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The blast and collapse of an entire wing (seven stories) of the hotel killed 91 people. The bombers were members of the Jewish underground guerilla organization Irgun,1 a group headed by Menahem Begin (1913-1992) who would later serve as Israel's sixth prime minister, starting in 1977.

The 200 room luxury hotel opened in 1931 and was host to numerous foreign dignitaries and heads of state at one time or another. In 1938, the British Mandatory government set up the southern wing of the hotel as its military command and housed the government secretariat and Criminal Investigation Division there. A communications center was also located in the basement. It became the main center of British rule in Palestine.

The Irgun had been committing armed reprisals against Arabs for some time. It began directing its "operations" (which included bombings, sabotage, and acts of violence) at the British Mandatory government. This followed the infamous "White Paper" (also known as the MacDonald White Paper).2 The paper was a statement of official British policy on the region. Among other things, it proposed limitation of Jewish immigration and after five years no immigration without Arab consent. This angered and outraged Zionists who were, in essence, being told that they would not have a fully Jewish state that they felt they had been promised and to which they felt they were obligated (with the restrictions, there could be no clear Jewish majority population).3

Declaration of war
In December 1943, Menahem Begin was chosen to head the Irgun. At its first meeting under him, it was decided that they were, essentially, at war with Britain. Two months later, posters with their official statements concerning the state of things were plastered around Palestine. In it, it said the "British administration of Eretz Israel" was "betraying our brethren to Hitler" and that they were "[implementing] their aim: the liquidation of sovereign Zionism. That had "[drawn] the necessary conclusions without wavering," that there could be no "truce" between them and the administration. From then on, "Our nation will fight this regime, fight to the end." It ended with the statement:

Our fighting youth will not be deterred by victims, blood and suffering. They will not surrender, will not rest until they restore our past glory, until they ensure our people of a homeland, freedom, honor, bread, justice and law.

One of the self-imposed restrictions that was decided on was that there would be an "avoidance of individual terror as a method" (emphasis, mine). Shortly after, they began their attacks (mostly bombings) on British offices and installations. The attacks were not limited to military targets, the first two being the immigration offices (largely a symbolic act) and the income tax offices (an act that was likely not to be condemned even by those not supportive of the Irgun). Shortly after, they had their first casualty in a bombing raid on British intelligence offices (a British soldier was also killed).

Their actions and the similar actions of the Lehi4 angered the Jewish Agency (the official representative authority as outlined in the Mandate). It was felt that any group should come under the authority of the official agency and any "national institutions should be democratically elected." There was also concern that they were going to create a civil war and take power (which Begin adamantly denied). The Haganah (another underground organization that had been established for Jewish defense) also condemned the actions and worked to shut down the groups. This relationship would later change.

It came to a head when Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, a British minister, in Cairo (he was largely responsible for implementation of the White Paper and was viewed as the one who was halting Jewish immigration to Palestine). Both groups were branded "terrorists," "perpetrators of terror," "traitors," that the "The incorrigible despoilers must be isolated and abandoned, until they are spewed out of the ranks of the Yishuv, until terror ceases and its organization is eradicated." It was recommended anyone with information on the groups to go to the British police. The Irgun called for nonretaliation on all sides, asserting and demanding that "there will be no fraternal strife in this country."

Bombing
Following the Second World War, it was clear that England was not going to change its policies toward immigration and the Mandate. In 1945, the United Resistance (also known as the Jewish Resistance Movement and the Hebrew Resistance Movement) was created, uniting Irgun, Lehi, and Haganah (it broke up after the hotel bombing).

In June 1946, the British went into the Jewish Agency and confiscated thousands of documents and began a two week operation, arresting suspected Jews of anti-British activities (it was referred to as "Black Sabbath").5 Many of the documents were taken to the King David Hotel. Shortly after Black Sabbath, Begin was sent a letter from chief of Haganah headquarters instructing him to detonate a bomb at the hotel.

There were some delays due to preparations and other things but the plan was set for 22 July. The members met at a seminary in Jerusalem, each arriving alone and having to give a password for entrance. At the time they were unaware of what the target was or the exact nature of the operation. Once assembled, they were informed what was to transpire.

Two squads were dispatched. The first, disguised as Arab porters, were to stand by the side entrance of the hotel to assist in unloading the bombs (concealed in seven 50 kg milk churns). The second group rode in a van with the explosives, also dressed as Arabs (the leader was disguised as a Sudanese waiter). Once there, they quickly dispensed with two suspicious British (an officer in the military and a policeman—they were both shot, though allegedly unarmed). They brought the explosives to the basement through the Hotel's kitchen and attached them to the buildings support pillars on thirty minute timers. Some of the hotel staff had been rounded up in the kitchen at gunpoint and were told to leave ten minutes after the Irgun did. As they made to escape, a firefight erupted, during which two members of the team were wounded (one later died).

In order to avoid excessive casualties, three phone calls were placed shortly after the escape. One was to the hotel operator, one to the French Consulate (the building was next door and they were warned to open their windows before the blast), and another to the Palestine Post. The message reportedly was

I am speaking on behalf of the Hebrew underground:
We have placed an explosive device in the hotel.
Evacuate it at once—you have been warned."

When the bomb detonated and the wing of the hotel came crashing down, it trapped dozens of victims. The British Engineering Corps was brought in and spent ten days clearing the wreckage. Some 2000 truckloads were hauled away. Six survivors were rescued from the debris, the last one about 24 hours following the blast (he later died from shock). The death toll was 91 people (45 were injured). There were 28 British, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews, and five others.6

What happened?
It is difficult to determine what happened in the few minutes before the bomb went of and exactly why there was no rapid evacuation. For years, the British maintained there had been no phone call placed, though evidence later showed this position to be untenable. It appears to be a number of things (though speculation is inevitable). The British were possibly unwilling to believe that the bomb had actually been placed there, despite the shoot out (which may have given them the belief that the attempt had been foiled). Certainly twenty minutes or less was little time to locate an explosive or identify if one had been placed at all.

There was also (apparently) a feeling of not wanting to be ordered and have terms dictated by a terror group. Begin claimed that a British official said "we don't take orders from Jews." A member of parliament alleged in 1979 that he knew of an officer who had heard other officers joking about the threat in the hotel bar. That officer supposedly left immediately and survived.

It is clear that there was some kind of breakdown in communication and the chain of command. A warning signal apparently had been sounded but then, just prior to the explosion, an all clear was sent out.

Even if all this is true (and it may be), it is usually used to gloss over the fact that an act of terror took place. Even though the damage was confined to the one wing, there were people in other parts of the hotel and regardless of warning calls, every person in the hotel was placed in danger by the actions of the Irgun. It is usually referred to as a strictly military target and while its intention was that, innocent lives were certainly put in jeopardy (some died). In some cases, the victims are actually blamed for dying (see below), the claim being all casualties were the fault of the British for not evacuating promptly.

While it may be difficult for a British apologist to escape the (shared) culpability, it is disingenuous and self-serving to pretend the Irgun doesn't have considerable blood on its hands for what remains one of the most deadly bombings in the Middle East to date.

Aftermath
The bombing was condemned around the world, even from Jewish sources. The Jewish Agency leveled harsh criticism at the Irgun, calling the incident a "base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals." Even David Ben-Gurion called the Irgun an "enemy of the Jewish people."

The Haganah (recall who gave the original order) made the Irgun put out a statement on the bombing. In it, they accepted "responsibility" for the bombing, yet included statements such as "responsibility for loss of life among civilians rests solely with [the British]." They also denied that it was done on the part of the United Resistance (the Haganah's attempt to distance itself from the attack). They also stated that "We mourn the Jewish victims; they too are the tragic victims of the tragic and noble Hebrew war of liberation."

A year later, after the United Resistance had broken up, the Irgun issued another statement, claiming its purpose was to "reveal the truth" about the incident. In the statement, it revealed that the order did, indeed, come from the headquarters of the United Resistance. The statement also says that there are

no longer valid reasons why we should maintain our silence concerning the assault against the center of Nazi-British rule—one of the mightiest attacks ever carried out by a militant underground.

Then the Irgun urged to "let the people see—and judge."

Addendum
The whole incident brought about another embarrassment for the British. This one was entirely their fault and actually distracted from the bombing in regional and world opinion. Several hours following the bombing, the British army commander in Palestine issued orders to the effect that "all the Jewish places of entertainment, restaurants, shops and Jewish homes" were to be "out of bounds for all British officers and soldiers."

While it might seem like a security matter following the attack, it was something punitive and for reasons other than military or foreign policy. The orders ended with "the aim of these orders is to punish the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, namely by sticking it at their pockets." The idea of economic sanctions is valid in some cases (it would seem an unwise and poor choice of action in this case), but this is not quite the same thing. It was a way to "stick it" to the Jews in a way that everyone knows it can be done—because Jews are moneygrubbing Shylocks and greedy hoarders of wealth.

This rather shameless bit of anti-Semitic thinking was exposed by the Irgun intelligence as soon as it became aware of it. Back in Britain, this caused embarrassment, concern, and outrage. It was brought before the House of Commons and the London Daily Herald wrote that if the commander actually wrote the order (with the commentary), then he was proving that he had no business holding the power and position he did in Palestine.

The order was rescinded two weeks after it had been issued.

When the United Resistance broke up, both the Irgun and Lehi continued their "armed resistance."

1Full name: Irgun Zeva'i Le'umi (National Military Organization), also known as IZL or Etzel (from the initials).

2There were three White Papers issued in 1922, 1930, and 1939.

3A further problem was the timing. It was the eve of World War II, and many Jews hoped to leave Europe where the early signs of what the Nazis had in store were becoming apparent. It was felt, especially as the war continued, that this was a very serious matter, leaving many Jews in danger, unable to escape. It should also be noted that England was hardly alone in limitations of Jewish immigration, among others the US severely restricted entrance to refugees from Europe during the war.

4In 1940, there was a split in the Irgun and Avraham Stern established the Irgun Zvai Le'umi Be'yisrael (National Military Organization in Israel) which was later changed to Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters or Lehi). It was sometimes referred to as the "Stern Gang" (the group sometimes resorted to crime, such as robbing banks, to fund its operations). It was dedicated to a "Hebrew kingdom from the Euphrates to the Nile" (www.us-israel.org).

5This was not without a precipitating event. Twelve days earlier, the Haganah had blown up eleven of the twelve bridges that connected Palestine with neighboring areas.

6The source doesn't explain who those "others" were.

(Sources: many pages were consulted and used from the sites www.etzel.org.il/english and www.us-israel.org, all quotes from the former unless otherwise stated; www.britains-smallwars.com/Palestine/Kingdavid)

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