Assassinations, Terror Attacks and Even Castration – the Hidden Actions of Israel's Pre-state Militia

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the forerunner of the Israeli army. While the Haganah boasts of its heroic acts and looks down on similar right-wing groups, its history also includes dark operations it would prefer not to mention

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
the Semiramis Hotel bombing in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood by the Haganah’s Moriah battalion, January 1948.
The Semiramis Hotel bombing in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood by the Haganah’s Moriah battalion, January 1948.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“The memory of what was done in Lubya, like the memory of all the other abominable acts that preceded it, will forever disgrace its destructive perpetrators.”

These scathing words were published in the Labor movement daily Davar 81 years ago. A few weeks earlier, in the summer of 1939, members of the Haganah – the underground, pre-independence army of Mandatory Palestine’s Jews, founded by the movement’s members – had murdered two men and a woman, and injured a young girl and a toddler. All of them were innocent Arabs from the village of Lubya in the Lower Galilee, shot dead at home in the dead of night.

The murders, described as a revenge attack for the killing of a Jew by villagers in Lubya, was carried out by members of the Haganah’s special ops unit. Each man who took part in the mission has a place of honor in the local history books: The most senior was Yigal Allon, who later headed the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite strike force), and became an Israel Defense Forces general and education and foreign minister.

The operation’s organizer was Nahum Shadmi, a senior Haganah member and a future IDF colonel and president of a military appeals tribunal, as well as a Mapai Party activist (Mapai was the forerunner of the Labor Party). His son Issachar was commander of the Border Police brigade whose members committed the 1956 massacre in the Arab town of Kafr Qasem.

This month marks the centenary since the founding of the Haganah. Its pre-1948 actions included assisting with illegal Jewish migration to British Mandatory Palestine; covert overnight construction of new settlements (the “Tower and Stockade” operations); dispatching operatives – such as Hannah Szenes – into Nazi-occupied Europe or commandos to Vichy-controlled Lebanon; as well as other heroic feats that have become part of this country’s legacy.

But there is another aspect to the Haganah that will not feature prominently in the centenary celebrations, and which is not well known to the public or part of the high school curriculum. This aspect has been excluded from museums, parades, and the official and state-sanctioned history books. It shows that the hallowed “purity of arms” concept was interpreted very loosely by the organization that gave birth to the IDF.

The bombing of the British ship Patria on November 25, 1940.
The bombing of the British ship Patria on November 25, 1940.

“Now, after 100 years, it’s time to talk about these chapters as well,” says Peleg Levy, a documentarian who has interviewed hundreds of veterans over the last decade – including members of right-wing and left-wing underground organizations – as part of a project documenting Israel’s history. They told him about assassinations, reprisals and terror attacks attributed to the Haganah. Among the wider public, such operations are normally only associated with the right-wing Irgun and Lehi organizations. Any mention of those names evokes the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem in 1946 and the Deir Yassin massacre two years later.

“If there’s a Lehi conference in which they don’t talk about the assassination of Folke Bernadotte [the Swedish diplomat murdered by Lehi members in 1948], people will complain. If the Irgun holds one in which they don’t talk about the King David Hotel operation, people will jump on them. So why do they allow the Haganah to write its history without talking about similar things their people perpetrated?” Levy asks.

Later in our conversation, he notes that the Labor movement called members of these two underground groups “terrorists,” while taking pride in the “purity” of the Haganah organization’s actions and stressing that their methods were different.

Despite this, the Haganah has a list of blemishes to its name, ones that former members would be only too happy to expunge from memory. They never took responsibility for most of these operations, making do with some general condemnation or blaming rogue elements in the organization. This is how the murder in Lubya was described in Davar. The paper said, without noting the identity of the perpetrators, that this act was “a horrific murder, attesting to the perpetrators’ loss of any ability to distinguish [innocents] and their lack of any human sensitivity. These shots, which killed elderly people, women and a baby, show that we are on a dark slope, sliding toward an abyss.”

‘Nest of killers’

Nine years later, in January 1948, Haganah members were involved in an operation that, over 70 years on, appears never to have been thoroughly investigated.

Young recruits at a Haganah training camp in the 1940s.
Young recruits at a Haganah training camp in the 1940s.Credit: From the Haganah archive

It’s unlikely that most people reading this will have heard of the Semiramis Hotel bombing in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood by the Haganah’s Moriah battalion. This may be due to the fact that it occurred at the height of the War of Independence, which was marked by many violent acts. However, it’s probable that the writers of Haganah history deliberately chose to minimize any mention of this incident – as many right-wingers believe.

The blast was meant to hit the headquarters of Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, commander of the Arab militias fighting Jewish forces in the Jerusalem area. A squad of Haganah soldiers gained entrance to the hotel’s basement and placed explosives there before detonating them. Husayni was not in the building, but dozens of Arab civilians were. The exact number of dead and injured is unknown to this day. According to one report, 26 people were killed and a further 60 injured.

Most of the dead were from the Christian Abu Suawan family, including women and children, as well as the Spanish vice-consul to Jerusalem, who was living in the hotel. Davar reported the incident the next day and, like before, did not provide its readers with the full picture. “The Haganah blew up Arab militia headquarters in Jerusalem,” the headline read. “This was one of the nests of killers in Jerusalem,” the paper declared.

Another building was blown up by the Haganah some two years earlier, in February 1946. This was part of a Palmach operation targeting British police stations across the country. Three British women and a child were killed in the explosion. “Over the years, Haganah leaders and the pre-state Jewish community accused us of being irresponsible in carrying out such attacks and yet here, Haganah members were the first to hit British women,” wrote Natan Yellin-Mor, a Lehi leader who later became a peace activist.

A popular song among Palmach members in those days talked about “castrating Mohammed.” This referred to an Arab from the town of Beisan – now Beit She’an – who was suspected of trying to rape a kibbutz member. Due to a rise in the number of Jewish women being raped by Arabs at the time, “the Palmach decided to retaliate according to the biblical injunction to chop off a thief’s hand – or, in this case, the organ used to commit the crime; in other words, to castrate him,” Mossad member Gamliel Cohen wrote years later, in a book describing the first undercover operations in which Jews dressed up as Arabs.

The official website of the Palmach describes the castration incident as one of “the exceptions, an extremely cruel one,” committed by its members in those years. This operation was initiated by Allon and carried out by Yohai Ben-Nun (a future naval commander), Amos Horev (a future IDF general and president of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) and Yaakov Cohen (later a member of all three intelligence agencies). “The instructions were that the castrated man should remain alive, walking around with his injuries in order to deter others,” the Palmach website explains. The team was briefed by a doctor in Afula on how to perform this “operation.”

Yitzhak Sadeh, left, the founder of the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite strike force), is seen in this file photo taken in 1948 next to Yigal Allon, who later headed the Palmach, and became an Israel Defense Forces general.
Yitzhak Sadeh, left, the founder of the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite strike force), is seen in this file photo taken in 1948 next to Yigal Allon, who later headed the Palmach.Credit: Teqoah

“From the perspective of the people who had decided on this, the preparations reflected the intention to implement it while applying a humane approach,” the Palmach website stresses. The three men found the suspect at home, dragged him to an open area and castrated him. “This operation had a riveting effect, resonating throughout the Beit She’an Valley and terrorizing the local Arabs,” writes Cohen in a book published by the Defense Ministry.

Sacrifices in the name of immigration

The 80th anniversary of one of the most lethal events in the history of the Zionist movement will be marked in six months’ time: the bombing of the British ship Patria on November 25, 1940 – an incident that also failed to lead to any expressions of remorse by the Haganah, even though its members were the perpetrators. The plan was to prevent the expulsion of some 2,000 illegal immigrants, who the British were deporting from Haifa to a detention camp in Mauritius. However, the damage wrought by the blast was so immense that the ship sank along with some 250 passengers.

Instead of relating to the affair as a tragedy that warranted the investigation of its perpetrators, the Labor movement insisted on turning it into a symbol, its victims turned into martyrs sacrificed on the altar of defending the homeland, with no note of who was actually responsible for their deaths.

Berl Katznelson, the ideological leader of the labor movement, wrote the next day to Shaul Avigur, one of the Haganah’s leaders: “Know that the day of the Patria sinking is for us like the day of [the 1920 fall of] Tel-Hai,” thus trying to assign to the event foundational national status. He added that the Patria operation was “the biggest Zionist action in recent times.” Yitzhak Tabenkin, among the leaders of the Kibbutz Movement, called the victims “heroic unknown soldiers.”

Eliyahu Golomb, the undeclared head of the Haganah, also spoke about the incident in the same vein. “For me, the day of the Patria is not a black day, nor the blackest day,” he said. “These were sacrifices made in the name of immigration, for our right to immigrate. These victims were not without meaning.”

Young Haganah recruits training at the beach in 1941.
Young Haganah recruits training at the beach in 1941.Credit: From the Haganah archive

The massacre committed by members of the Palmach’s Third Battalion in the village of Ein al-Zeitun, near Safed, was also ultimately glossed over. Today, every history buff in Israel knows about the April 1948 massacre in Deir Yassin, carried out by right-wing underground members. But few have heard about the one a month later by underground members of a left-wing organization. They conquered the village and imprisoned dozens of Arab combatants. Two days later, on May 1, they executed them with their hands bound.

Historian Yoav Gelber writes in his book about the 1948 war that the eagerness of the left to hurl accusations at Irgun and Lehi members while highlighting the Deir Yassin affair stems from their uneasiness over the participation of Palmach commanders and soldiers in similar actions, such as the murder of dozens of prisoners in Ein al-Zeitun.

In 1939, the Jewish Agency’s political department issued a “Thou shall not murder” decree, signed by the most senior spiritual leaders of the age, in which they warned against Jews killing Jews. The decree was aimed at the Irgun organization, which had murdered Jews it deemed “traitors.” But these leaders ignored the fact that the Haganah also executed Jews and non-Jews who it identified as traitors and informants, says Gili Haskin, a tour guide who wrote a Ph.D. thesis about the “purity of arms” concept in those days.

Haskin wrote in an article that the executions carried out by the Irgun and Lehi groups were overt and publicized, whereas the ones carried out by the Haganah were surreptitious, performed by special ops teams.

'No clean hands'

The first Jew to be executed by the Haganah was Baruch Weinschell, who was accused of giving the British information about illegal immigration. He was killed in October 1940, in Haifa. Oscar Opler, a kibbutznik from the Lower Galilee, was also executed. He was a British informant who had revealed the location of hidden weapons and was subsequently condemned to death by the Haganah. Moshe Savtani was exposed as an informant and shot in the stairwell of his house by the Haganah. He died of his wounds in hospital. Yitzhak Sharansky from Tel Aviv, Baruch Manfeld from Haifa and Walter Strauss and others also fell victim to internal assassinations by Haganah members.

Young Haganah recruits performing combat training in the 1940s. The organization's belief in "purity of arms" wasn't always so squeaky-clean.
Young Haganah recruits performing combat training in the 1940s. The organization's belief in "purity of arms" wasn't always so squeaky-clean. Credit: From the Haganah archive

Such operations continued right up to the establishment of the state. At the end of March 1947, Mordechai Berger, who worked in the Mandatory police’s traffic division, was murdered in the street after being suspected of divulging information about the Haganah to the British. “The assailants gagged him and hit him over the head with clubs. Berger fell bleeding,” wrote Prof. Yehuda Lapidot, an Irgun member who later researched the history of Mandatory Palestine.

“None of the organizations emerges with clean hands from this dark matter,” Haskin wrote. He added that the fingers of right-wing organization members were lighter on the trigger, but emphasized the role of Haganah members in assassinating Jews.

In this context, one cannot ignore the first political murder of a Jew in Mandatory Palestine. The victim was Jacob de Haan, a strange character and proud poet who became ultra-Orthodox and an anti-Zionist, talking with Arabs about the possibility of revoking the Balfour Declaration. Haganah member Avraham Tehomi and other associates were believed to be behind de Haan’s assassination on a Jerusalem street in June 1924.

British officials were also targeted by the Haganah, although most assassinations of Mandate officials were perpetrated by Irgun and Lehi members. The most famous was the assassination of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East. He was shot to death in Cairo by Lehi members in November 1944. The Haganah, meanwhile, killed British officer William Bruce, who was shot in Jerusalem at the end of Simchat Torah, in October 1946. “A British inspector was murdered last night while walking alone in Jerusalem, wearing civilian clothes,” Haaretz reported the next day.

Exceptionally for those days, the perpetrators were members of the Palmach: the Haganah’s commando force had been set up in 1941, cooperating with the British in its early years. The murder was in response to Bruce’s abuse of Palmach prisoners in a British prison a few months earlier.

Peleg Levy’s documentary project included an interview from 2010 with the commander of that operation, Aharon Spector. He told Modi Snir and Levy that he had followed Bruce with the intent of punishing him. “I waited for him, he sensed he was a target,” he recounted. The assassination was preceded by a trial by a special Palmach court, which sentenced Bruce to death. According to Spector, the order came from Yigal Allon.

“Privately, people didn’t worry about telling these stories, while the collective they belonged to did not relish talking about it,” Levy says.

Yisrael Medad from the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem investigated the incident as part of a lecture series he holds on the “purity of arms” topic. “This incident is amusing,” he says, referring to a flyer the Palmach published after the murder. “They needed to explain that they were unlike those terrorists from Irgun and Lehi – but that in practice they needed to do the same thing,” he says.