Undermining the Underground

When hundreds of reels of undeveloped film found in a Shin Bet storeroom were finally processed, they turned out to contain thousands of documents from the British Mandatory secret service - which had moles in the Jewish paramilitary movements

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

An odd smell hit an employee of the Shin Bet security service in the early 1990s when he entered a storeroom in the Jerusalem office. He searched for the source of the stench and found it in several old cardboard boxes. When he opened them he found reels of film that were on the verge of decomposition. The bad smell, apparently, was coming from the material that had covered the celluloid, as it evaporated.

The storeroom manager reported this to his superiors and they called in Israel Haran, a Shin Bet retiree who in his final years at the agency headed the division responsible for counter-espionage and political subversion. Haran decided to send the celluloid for analysis and restoration at the technological unit of the Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence branch. There it was determined that each of the 400 disintegrating reels contained the photographs of some 1,000 pages of documentation. The reels were developed, with funds from the Defense Ministry, and yielded 400,000 pages.

Arrests in Tel Aviv Yemenite Quarter, 1947.Credit: Haaretz Archive

They were top-secret documents from the Criminal Investigation Department of the British Mandate's Palestine police. The CID, which members of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish population ) called the boleshet (secret police ), was the spearhead of the British rulers' struggle against the Jewish underground groups - the Haganah, Etzel (also known as the Irgun ) and Lehi (the Stern Gang). It also had a unit that collected intelligence about the Palestinian Communist Party and Arab militant organizations, in particular the Arab Higher Committee headed by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

After the reels were developed, the highly valuable historical material was sent to the Haganah archives in Tel Aviv, where it was cataloged and then made available to researchers. One of the latter was Dr. Eldad Harouvi, who today heads the Beit Hapalmach center (the Palmach was the Haganah's elite strike force). The material served as subject matter for his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote at the University of Haifa, and which was the basis of his recently published book "The Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestine Police Force, 1920-1948" (published by the University of Haifa).

"The British managed to penetrate deep into the [underground] organizations in an astonishing manner," says Harouvi. "They knew a lot about the happenings in the underground movements."

A CID officer named Richard Catling headed the intelligence unit. In the latter half of the 1990s, while he was still poring over the material, Harouvi and Haran went to Britain to meet with Catling, then living in a village in East Anglia. Catling was surprised to learn that the documents had survived. "I thought an order was given that not even one paper should be left in Palestine," he said.

He told his guests he had received extensive material about the Jewish underground organizations from five sources in the Yishuv. But when his Israeli guests expressed an interest in the identity of those sources, Catling would not reveal names.

All the documents the CID collected until October 1947 were copied at the Palace Building in Jerusalem, copied and sent to Britain. The originals were destroyed. Shmuel Yosef Schweig, who was also the private photographer of the British high commissioner in Palestine, was responsible for photographing the documents. Neri Avneri who was manager of the Haganah archives, says that the photographed documents might have been returned to Israel along with the land registry records that had been taken to Britain, or that agents of the Haganah's intelligence unit (called Shai ) might have managed to steal them when the British left Palestine.

Dinner for 10

After reading thousands of documents, hearing testimony from police officers and Mandatory officials and perusing additional documents at the Imperial War Museum in London, Eldad Harouvi concluded that the CID had a senior and very reliable agent in the top echelons of the Haganah and various national Zionist institutions. This agent provided reports about secret meetings at the Haganah's highest level, in which David Ben-Gurion, Jewish Agency political department head Moshe Sharett and others participated. One of the reports, by that senior agent, concerned meetings at the home of Dr. Chaim Weizmann (later Israel's first president ) in Rehovot with some 10 of the Yishuv's leaders.

The documents do not give the agents' names, but rather refer to them by nicknames or code names like Y21 or P85. Dr. Harouvi said that because of the scarcity of information that would help identify those people it is difficult to assume who might have been the top agent who penetrated the Haganah.

The book contains a few documents and testimonies about the explosion of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 by the Etzel, and about the escape of Etzel and Lehi prisoners from the prison in Acre. The Etzel people had blown up the King David, which housed the British Mandate administration in one of its wings. On July 22, they hid explosives in milk containers delivered to the hotel's kitchen. Ninety-one people - British, Jews and Arabs - were killed in the blast; the attack is considered a historic event.

According to Harouvi's book, an Irgun agent provided the CID with reliable information about the organization's intention to blow up the hotel using milk containers.

About six months before the attack, the Palestine police commander, Brig. John Murray Rymer-Jones, met John Shaw, the chief secretary of the British government in Palestine, commander of the British forces, Gen. Evelyn Barker, and the high commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, and demanded increased security around the hotel. The three ignored his warnings, telling Rymer-Jones that life in the country was in any event dangerous.

Rymer-Jones left his post and returned home some two months before the Irgun attack.

About a year after part of the King David was destroyed in the blast, the Irgun's intelligence and operations specialists organized a daring escape operation of prisoners from a British jail in Acre. A report about the plans for a jailbreak reached one of the wardens in November 1946. As an Irgun prisoner walked one morning in the prison yard, a piece of paper fell from his pocket. On it were drawings depicting a planned escape route to be dug under the prison walls. The warden forwarded the drawing to his superiors and it was then passed to the CID, which stepped up security in and around the jail for a few weeks. When nothing happened, they returned to the regular routine.

The documents show that in the 1940s there were contacts between the Irgun and the CID that led to an understanding and even a "cease-fire." One of the liaisons between the two organizations was David Rosenthal, a Tel Aviv customs broker who in the 1960s published his own book, "Besherut Hamahteret" ("In the Service of the Underground" ). Catling himself initiated a few of the meetings. He even met, twice, with Ya'akov Meridor, who became commander of the Irgun after David Raziel joined the British Army and was killed in Iraq, in 1941.

In one of those meetings, in September 1943, Meridor asked Catling: "Why do you arrest Etzel people who are not operating against you?"

Catling answered: "Why do you kidnap rich Jews, rob and extort them? If you stop, I shall see to it that your people [detained in the British facility in Latrun] will be released," referring to the Irgun practice of financing its operations by committing robberies.

In 1944 Meridor himself was arrested and sent, along with hundreds of other Irgun people, to a detention camp in Eritrea in 1945. That followed the announcement by Menachem Begin, Meridor's successor as commander, in February 1944, of a "revolt" against the British authorities. At the end of 1945 the British offered to release the Irgun leaders in Eritrea if the organization would agree to end its terror attacks. The talks, which were secretly taped, were mainly held with Ya'akov Meridor and attorney Eliyahu Meridor (no relation; later a member of Knesset, and the father of Minister Dan Meridor ). In his book "Aruka Haderekh Leherut" ("Long Is the Path to Freedom" ), Ya'akov Meridor boasted of his ability to remain tight-lipped during his interrogation. According to the documents, however, Meridor answered most of the questions almost without protest.

While talking to Etzel, the CID continued to operate agents in the organization. Two of them, "Yanai" (Heinrich Reinhold) and Yaacov Chilevich, were the subjects of books and many articles. Both fled the country with British help after their deeds were exposed. Chilevich handed over to the British dozens of members of the Irgun, including such senior figures as Eliyahu Meridor, Aryeh Ben-Eliezer and Shimshon Unichman. Harouvi discloses in his book that Chilevich was also given the assignments of tracking down Menachem Begin.

"From the British perspective, says Harouvi, "Begin was a mystery. They never detained him, never interrogated him, and did not have his fingerprints. Even the picture they attached to an announcement declaring him a wanted person did not quite look like him. The operational compartmentalization in the Etzel was quite high, especially with everything that had to do with Begin. That was the biggest failure of British intelligence."

Chilevich did manage to get the address of Begin's hideout in Jerusalem, at 23 Alfasi Street, as well as an old photograph of him. These he obtained when he went to congratulate Begin on the birth of his son Benny.

The CID managed to recruit agent-informers in the Lehi underground too. One of the documents talks of an agent code-named "Levine." In 1940 the Lehi (an acronym for Lohamei Herut Yisrael - Israel Freedom Fighters ), in contrast with the Haganah and the Irgun, continued to consider the British the greatest enemy. The British declared a battle to the end against the Stern Gang, as they referred to the organization. In October 1940, agent "Levine" turned over 40 of his comrades, including all of the organization's top echelon excepting leader Avraham (Yair ) Stern. The people who drafted the document ordered the interrogators to free one of the detainees if he presented himself as "Levine."

In many studies of that period, and especially in the memoirs of the Irgun and Lehi people, there is a widespread assumption that the Haganah turned in members of the other underground organizations to the British. In his book, Harouvi says it was the Irgun that handed over many Lehi people - in part because Yair Stern had broken away from the Irgun and created a separate organization. "The Haganah did not turn in Lehi members," he stresses.

One of the most important and most fascinating items published by Eldad Harouvi is something called "The Jerusalem Agreement." This is a document composed by Stern, and dated September 15, 1940, describing a sort of friendship accord with fascist Italy. With 22 clauses, the agreement was to be signed between the "official representative" of side A - that is, the Italian government - and the "Temporary Hebrew government, "hereafter side B," which was the Lehi.

The full text of the agreement appears in a comprehensive study from 1967 by Irgun historian, David Niv, entitled "Ma'arkhot Ha'irgun Hatzva'i Haleumi" ("The Etzel's Campaigns" ). In a parenthetical clause in his research, Niv noted that Yair's agreement was reached with the help of "the agent" or "the mediator." Dr. Harouvi discloses that person's identity: Moshe Rothstein, an agent who worked with the British but also helped the Irgun.

The agreement, it should be noted, was no fabrication. It was designed to reach representatives of the Italian government, and accurately reflected the sentiments of Stern, who sought understandings with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in keeping with the concept that "My enemy's enemies are my friends." The Irgun's intelligence division got its hands on the agreement and turned Rothstein into a kind of agent provocateur and persuaded Stern that he was representing Italy.

What was fabricated in the agreement was the supposed Italian side. "My argument," says Eldad Harouvi, "is that Moshe Rothstein was managed by the Irgun people for the purpose of slandering Avraham Stern and presenting him and his group as a fifth column and quislings. That is how they were referred to by both the British and the Irgun. It was only more than a year after the operation was launched that a British report, in a secret internal account, said that they were partners to it, that actually it was all fictitious."

A representative of the Irgun's intelligence division, Yitzhak Berman, who was later a minister in Menachem Begin's government and a speaker of the Knesset, was in on the sting operation.

Several years ago Harouvi and Haran invited Berman to visit the Haganah archives. When they showed Berman the British report about the Jerusalem Agreement he smiled and said, "That was me."

When Lehi found out that the Irgun had trapped them, they retaliated with vengeance. Some three years later, in September 1943, at midday, in a Tel Aviv street, they fired dozens of submachine-gun bullets at Israel Pritzker, one of the Irgun's intelligence commanders, and killed him.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism