Mandatory Machinations

Before the British Mandate ended, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Mandate's police force began destroying its archive. Fortunately, not the entire archive was destroyed.

Not long before the British left Palestine, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Mandate's police force began preparations to destroy its archive. Initially, the CID (known popularly in Hebrew as the boleshet, or secret service ) had pursued thieves, murderers, rapists and all manner of other lawbreakers. Over time, its targets became terrorists, both Jews and Arabs, and it developed an apparatus of intelligence and sleuthing that included assessments relating to the subjects' political activities.

Fortunately, the British did not destroy the entire CID archive; a large part of it ended up in the hands of the Shin Bet, Israel's security service, after the state's establishment. Years later, part of the archive, though not all of it, was transferred to the archive of the Haganah - the pre-1948 Jewish underground militia. Military historian Eldad Harouvi was given access to the files. Harouvi, director of the archive of the Palmach, the Haganah's strike force, has produced a riveting, groundbreaking book, in Hebrew, "Haboleshet Hokeret" (Porat, 2011).

British Army guards in Palestine, 1947.
British Army guards in Palestine, 1947. Getty Images.

The Haganah, Palmach and two right-wing pre-state underground organizations, Etzel (also known as the Irgun ) and Lehi (aka the Stern Gang ), are all mentioned in the British archive's documents - not only as intelligence targets, but also as sources of information.

"For reasons of privacy and because I do not wish to hurt family members living among us," Harouvi writes, "I have omitted the names of the informers and the names of the people who were allegedly involved in acts of betrayal or informing. History will be their judge." He does mention some of the people who betrayed their organizations, but even without many names, the heart of the book is this: Every one of these groups had its traitors. Some were driven by ideological motives, others did it for money or were blackmailed.

In the most prominent of these cases, dubbed the "Saison" (or the "hunting season" ), the left-wing organizations handed over members of right-wing groups, particularly Etzel, to the British, in 1944-45. They were encouraged to do so by the Jewish Agency Executive, the de-facto government of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. However, the CID documents reveal that Etzel conducted its own hunting season, handing over to the British members of the rival organization, Lehi.

Harouvi writes that political as well as operational information reached the CID from the very heart of the Agency. The CID knew immediately what was said at small, secret meetings - held, in some cases, in the private homes of the heads of the Agency Executive, including David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. Either British agents planted microphones at the meeting venues or one of the participants betrayed his colleagues. In this way, the British learned about the close ties between the Jewish Agency Executive and the terrorist organizations. Harouvi says he does not know who the traitor was in this instance.

The general impression is, however, that everyone knew - or at least could have known - almost everything about everyone else. The Mandatory administration also had its own moles. Ben-Gurion often notes in his diaries that "he has learned" about secret moves undertaken by the British, not least from documents that came from the desk of the high commissioner. The Agency Executive apparently had advance knowledge of the British plan to raid its offices and arrest its senior officials.

Against this background, the limits of the ability of British intelligence take on added interest. Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion's biographer, quoted intelligence reports (not of the CID ), that contained speeches that were never delivered and detailed reports of Ben-Gurion's meetings with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and with Prime Minister Clement Attlee. This was a year before the first meeting between Ben-Gurion and Bevin; Ben-Gurion never met Attlee.

British intelligence had no prior knowledge of the 1929 disturbances or of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Furthermore, the No. 1 man on the British wanted list, Menachem Begin, lived as a free man, albeit under assumed identities, and the British were unable to find him. Nor were they able to prevent a series of showcase terrorist attacks, including the "Night of the Bridges" and the explosion of a section of the King David Hotel, both in the summer of 1946. From this point of view, Harouvi's book reinforces the thesis that the British succeeded primarily in everything they did to advance the Zionist project in Palestine, and failed in most of their attempts to curtail it, particularly during the last 10 years of their rule.