In its battle against Palestinian terror Israel repeatedly faces a contemptible phenomenon: Weapons and explosives are smuggled in ambulances, hidden in schools, in kindergartens and in holy places. It happened in the second intifada. In the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah concealed rockets in mosques. In the war in Gaza in 2008-2009, the Hamas fighters took refuge in Gaza mosques.
This out-of-bounds and cynical use of such places is widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments. Israel depicts such misuse as violating international law, the rules of warfare and every accepted moral norm, so Israeli security forces are able to justify striking mosques and exercising a heavy hand at checkpoints - to the point of preventing the movement of sick Palestinians in ambulances.
Israel's claims and condemnations are justified. Even terror organizations should obey the basic rules of right and wrong. However, Israel is not coming to the discussion with clean hands. Its prestate undergrounds - Hashomer, Haganah, Etzel (the Irgun ) and Lehi (the Stern Gang ) - which operated against the British government and the Arabs in Palestine, used similar tactics, as shown in a new book by Rephael Kitron, "Eretz Yisrael Hanisteret: Sippuram Shel Ha'slikim Ve'toldotehem" ("The Hidden Land of Israel: The Story and History of the Secret Weapons Caches" ). Kitron retired from the defense establishment, having left his official service in 1999, and he asked that his past organizational affiliation not be revealed. His book is based on research for his doctorate under Prof. Shimon Dar in Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.
The word "slick" (from a Hebrew root meaning "to remove" ) was apparently taken from a course of the Palmach (the prestate elite commandos ). The slicks, or caches, were used mainly to hide weapons and ammunition (but also communication gear and archives ) of the fighting organizations from 1918 to 1948, the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. Although the British armed the Yishuv (the prestate Jewish community ) from time to time - for example, during the Arab Revolt, 1936-1939, and even mobilized policemen and fighters from the Jewish community during World War II, the Mandate's overall policy was that both the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine should be disarmed.
Kitron interviewed veterans of the fighting organizations and those who had lived in the communities in which the caches were built and used existing documentation such as the books of the Haganah (the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces ), and the right-wing Etzel and Lehi, as well as British government papers that have been released for publication.
He found that toward the end of the British Mandate in Palestine, there were more 1,500 weapons caches here, in kibbutzim, moshavim, cities and towns. The book demonstrates the wide variety of caches, which were constructed with a great deal of ingenuity, both above and below ground, and even at the bottom of reservoirs.
Over time the caches became a battlefield among the various undergrounds. The Haganah tried to uncover the slicks of Etzel and Lehi and to confiscate their weapons, whereas the renegade organizations tried to take over the Haganah storehouses by force. Etzel members robbed three Haganah caches in Herzliya, which contained three rifles, semi-automatic weapons, grenades and ammunition. Only after threats of a retaliatory operation did Etzel members admit to the theft, and their commander, David Raziel, ordered the weapons returned to the Haganah. Several of these clashes ended with casualties. Etzel members cleared out their weapons storehouses in Haifa, which had been under surveillance by the Haganah, and left them booby-trapped. When Haganah men tried to break the locks on a storehouse there in May 1947, explosives killed one of them.
Kitron also compares the hidden caches of the Jewish Yishuv and those of the Arab community. He says that "the weapons in the Jewish Yishuv were common property, and those responsible for them operated as public emissaries who did their work with a sense of mission." The effort was organizational and individual. The Arab community "was split and divided into ethnic groups, clans and regions." Even when military frameworks were set up and relatively large purchases were made, in exceptional cases, the weapons were stored for a short time only in order to distribute them.
The study says that we should not make light of the Arabs' ability to conceal weapons from the British. A Haganah report of October 1947 describes the weapons storehouse near the Lions' Gate in Jerusalem's Old City: "From the large tent that is used ... ostensibly to sell secondhand items, you descend the slope where garbage accumulates and enter via a low dome from which an underground passageway leads to the Cave of Zedekiah, after a few meters you enter a small dome one meter in height, with a thick door.... After opening the door, you reach an excavation with various types of weapons."
Even after the founding of the state, the various organizations continued to conceal weapons from the authorities in the original caches. Weapons and bombs from the Lehi storehouses in Jerusalem were used by attorney Yaakov Heruti in concealing a bomb at the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv and by Amos Keinan to blow up the Tel Aviv home of Transportation Minister David-Zvi Pinkas. The leftist socialist Mapam party kept weapons in the caches of the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim as part of Operation Leviathan, preparation for the possibility of seizing power and fomenting a socialist revolution in Israel. To this day, caches are being discovered in kibbutzim that were simply forgotten, or it happened that those in charge took their oath of secrecy with them to the grave.
"The point of departure for those in the Jewish Yishuv who hatched the idea of building weapons caches in places such as synagogues, women's rooms, children's houses," explains Kitron, "was that British officers and troops were gentlemen who wouldn't dare to search in such places."