The Student Sent to Help Kill the Mufti

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Ya'akov Shafrir, photographed in his Tel Aviv home, October 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In January 1948, months prior to Israel’s independence, Ya’akov Shafrir was sent on a special mission. An economics student at the Hebrew University who supported himself as a photographer and served in the prestate Haganah underground army, Shafrir was asked to gather intelligence for a planned assassination of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.

“There was a rumor he had returned to his house in Sheikh Jarrah,” Shafrir said, referring to the East Jerusalem neighborhood. “My commander, ‘Mush’ [Moshe Zilberschmidt], who was later killed, told me they wanted to blow up the mufti, together with his house,” recalls Shafrir, who will soon be 90, at his Tel Aviv home.

The mufti was back in the headlines recently when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed it was actually Husseini who had convinced Adolf Hitler to undertake the extermination of European Jewry, in late 1941. While Hitler and Husseini were meeting in Berlin, Shafrir, who had just recently immigrated from Romania, planned on enlisting in the British army “to fight the Nazis,” as he puts it. In 1942, he began his military service as a driver, service that was to send him places that were ultimately the stuff of history books.

He took part in the fighting in Italy, Libya and El Alamein in Egypt, and was saved in May 1943 when the ship he was on – the SS Erinpura – was shelled and sunk by the German Air Force. More than 800 people were killed in the attack, including 140 Jewish soldiers. In 1946, on the day that members of the Irgun prestate underground blew up British administrative offices at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Shafrir returned home to Mandatory Palestine.

Ill-fated meeting

In 1948, he recounts, he was sent to photograph the path leading to the mufti’s Jerusalem home, in preparation for Husseini’s assassination. “I knew that the mufti was one of the heads of the Palestinian opposition movement, ‘the’ leader,” Shafrir says.

Hana Zuta, photographed in 1948.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum (reproduction)

Just before commencing the operation, Shafrir spent time at a workers restaurant in Jerusalem. When he’d had enough to eat, he met with a 25-year-old female university student, Hana Zuta, whose grandfather was a pioneer of Hebrew education in Russia and Israel.

Zuta had served as a driver in the women’s corps of the British army, leading a truck through the streets of Cairo and Gaza. After her release from the army, she began working as a teacher at the Reali School in Haifa and then decided to broaden her education at university. After dinner, the couple spent the evening together.

“I told her about the order I had received and she said, ‘I’m coming with you,’” Shafrir recalls. Before they set out, he managed to get a picture of her as a memento. It’s still in one of his albums, along with photos of a considerable number of beautiful young women.

The two devised a plan to pretend that Shafrir was innocently taking pictures of Zuta, the couple a pair of lovers strolling through city neighborhoods. He planned to give the pictures to his commanders so they could get a lay of the land around the mufti’s house before setting out to kill him.

When they got to the site, though, the two were shot at by snipers. One of the bullets hit and killed Hana. Another struck Shafrir while he was holding Hana. “The whole issue of blowing up the house did not work out,” says Shafrir now.

In the now-defunct Hebrew newspaper Davar, it was reported the next day, January 8, that Jerusalem had been a battlefield. “Three Jews were killed in attacks by gangs, 15 Arabs in an Irgun attack at the Jaffa Gate, one British soldier was murdered,” stated the paper.

An undated photograph of Shafrir as a young man.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum (reproduction)

Zuta’s death haunted Shafrir for the rest of his life, filling him with regret that he had allowed her to join him on the operation. “I caused her death,” he says, nearly 70 years on. A week after her death, on January 15, 1948, Shafrir had been due to take part in another military operation. Ironically, his wounds, which confined him to Hadassah hospital, saved his life, because his entire platoon was killed in battle on its way to besieged Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. “Because of Hana’s death, I remained alive. Because of my wound, I didn’t go into battle,” he reflects.

A month and a half after she was killed, a poem in Zuta’s memory was published in the Al Hamishmar newspaper, written by a 13-year-old girl. “A bullet hit her heart,” it read in part. Shafrir kept the circumstances of Zuta’s death to himself for decades. But then, two years ago, when his health declined, he decided the time had come to speak out. He contacted Hana’s younger sister, who rushed to his house to hear the story. “She said Hana would not have survived the war for long, because she was always looking to take part in the most dangerous operations and did the most extreme things,” he recalls.

On a page devoted to Zuta on a Defense Ministry memorial website, there is no mention of the fact that she lost her life because of a plan to assassinate the mufti. “Hana and another colleague volunteered to photograph enemy positions,” the website states. “An Arab sniper’s bullet struck and killed her.” Shafrir was not informed at the time of Zuta’s death about the fate of the plan to kill the mufti.

Ultimately, Shafrir (who later changed his surname to Shapira) was transformed from an ardent Zionist who took part in a plan to kill a Muslim leader to a pessimistic leftist. “From the beginning, Zionism was a colonialist and racist movement,” he states. “After all, we didn’t come here to an empty country. If I had known the truth, I wouldn’t have come,” he admits, adding, “The only group who can save the Zionist enterprise is the Palestinians. Only an alliance with them can save the situation. We will right an injustice and return the country to the Palestinians. There’s no alternative.”

Suicide mission in Gaza

There are other recorded accounts of attempts to assassinate the pro-Nazi mufti, both in the country and abroad.

Five years ago, journalist Yizhar Be’er published information on one of them. In the middle of the War of Independence, David Karon – an intelligence official and later member of Israel’s Mossad espionage agency – recruited two former Irgun members who lived in Jerusalem and sent them to Gaza, equipped with guns and disguised as Arabs. Their mission was to infiltrate and then shoot the mufti at the mosque at which he attended Friday prayers.

One of the men, David Ya’akobi, told Be’er: “They asked us to volunteer for the mission, despite the fact that the chances of escape were negligible. We had two Steyr revolvers and several hundred bullets. On the day we were due to set out, we had to get to the Ashkelon area to receive donkeys and Arab dress, and to enter Gaza with the flow of [Arab] refugees. We understood it was really a suicide mission.”

His partner, Nissim Ben-David, added, “We had to get to the main mosque in Gaza where the mufti prayed on a Friday and assassinate him from up close during the prayers.” Ultimately, though, that plan was also scrapped.

Although the mufti was not responsible for the extermination of European Jewry, it seems he certainly did support and encourage the Final Solution when it came to Jews in Israel. The Haaretz archives contain a series of articles from 1970 by journalist Haviv Kna’an, who conducted research in Germany on the mufti. “The mufti planned crematoria for Jews in Dotan Valley” and “The mufti’s plan to exterminate Israel’s Jews” read the headlines from two of Kna’an’s reports.

The mufti never managed to execute his plans, and the Haganah, Irgun and Israel Defense Forces never managed to execute him. He died in 1974 in Beirut, Lebanon.

As for Shafrir, he worked at the Finance Ministry and, later, as a financial adviser. He now has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He splits his time between the Beit Halohem veterans center and exercising his mind by playing bridge online with others worldwide. There are players who refuse to play with him when they see he is from Israel, he notes with a bitter smile.

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