Israeli Arab Party Raps Knesset for Praising Pre-state Militia

The legislature is celebrating the Irgun, which has been criticized for attacking civilians.

Balad MKs Jamal Zahalka, left, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi in the Knesset, February 2016.
Emil Salman

Lawmakers from the Israeli Arab Balad party faction have harshly criticized the Knesset’s marking of the 85th anniversary of the forming of the Irgun pre-state underground militia led by Menachem Begin.

A special session was held Tuesday to celebrate the anniversary of the Irgun, also known as the Etzel. The three MKs of Balad, one of four factions in the Joint List of Arab parties, boycotted the session.

“Marking Irgun Day in the Knesset is support for terror and the provocation of Arab citizens and MKs,” Balad chief Jamal Zahalka wrote on Twitter. “The Etzel was responsible for the Deir Yassin massacre and other atrocities.”

At least 100 and possibly as many as 250 residents of Deir Yassin, an Arab village outside Jerusalem, were killed on April 9, 1948. The right-wing Irgun and the Lehi militias took part, with the consent of the Haganah, the underground pre-independence Jewish army.

In a letter, Balad MK Haneen Zoabi asked Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein not to hold similar events in the future and echoed Zahalka’s remarks.

“The massacre at Deir Yassin and explosive devices in markets, like the reprisal actions in villages, were key acts in the ethnic-cleansing project of the Etzel, Lehi and Haganah,” she said, referring to attacks by Jewish militias around the time of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948.

“There is no doubt that the reckless activities of the Etzel eroded the government's authority and accelerated the decision to end the [British] Mandate. No one knows what would have happened without that slice of time at the end of World War II.”

In his remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed former Irgun members in the Knesset's guest section.

“Your statesmanlike responsibility guaranteed our reawakening, and I also think paved the way for Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister,” he said, referring to Likud’s victory in 1977. “The electoral upset also gave new life to the Etzel as the downplaying of its role in achieving our independence gave way to open pride.”

Edelstein said Israel had to remain strong.

“Even today, the indiscriminate terror that we face, alongside members of the free world, requires us to defend ourselves using any means necessary, because in our rough neighborhood any hesitation is interpreted as weakness,” he said.

“But we do not for a moment, even at the height of the unending battle for our security, forget that this is not a goal but a way station, and that the goal is the aspiration for peace  – even though, as the Roman saying goes, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’”