This Day in Jewish History / Irgun Blows Up British Headquarters at King David Hotel

The Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin, tried to warn the British to evacuate the King David in advance. But nobody listened, and 91 people died.

The destruction after the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
Wikimedia Commons

On July 22, 1946, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed, destroying the center of the British Mandatory administration. The attack by the Irgun pre-state Jewish underground killed 91 and wounded 46. Among the dead were British employees, both civilian and military, members of the hotel staff, both Jewish and Arab, and other bystanders.

The act of terror shocked the British, and helped accelerate their decision to withdraw from Palestine two years later. It also led to a split within the Jewish community in the Land of Israel: the mainstream Jewish Agency and Haganah attempted to dissociate themselves from the operation - though it had in fact been carried out at their behest.

An unfortunate mistake

The King David bombing took place less than a month following Operation Agatha, a British round-up of some 2,700 officials of both the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, carried out on June 29, 1946. When the British police occupied Jewish Agency headquarters that day, they also confiscated large numbers of sensitive files.

The Haganah leadership was under the impression – mistaken, it turned out – that the files had been taken to the King David Hotel, where both the British civilian government and its military leadership in Palestine were headquartered.

British offices took up about two thirds of the area of the lavish six-story hotel. At the same time, the hotel, which had opened in 1931, continued hosting guests, functioning as a neutral space in the city’s center where people of different backgrounds and loyalties could meet.

The proposal to blow up the hotel -- specifically its southern section – came from Menachem Begin, later Israel's prime minister but then, head of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), also known by its Hebrew acronomyn, Etzel. [But approval for the operation came from top officials of the Haganah – Moshe Sneh, the chief of general headquarters, and Yitzhak Sadeh, commander of the Palmach, the militia’s elite commando unit.

Begin however is the one who insisted that a warning be given before the blast, so that the hotel could be evacuated, though there was concern within the Haganah that too much warning might allow the British to remove the incriminating documents the attack was intended to destroy.

'Enemy of the Jewish people'?

The decision to conduct the attack on July 22 was made after two earlier plans were vetoed by the Haganah.

At the last minute, the Haganah and the Irgun also argued over the exact timing of the blast. At that point, Begin decided to go ahead with the operation unilaterally.

Possibly this lack of coordination may have allowed the mainstream leadership to try and deny any involvement in the attack. Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion, for example, responded to the explosion by declaring the Irgun to be “the enemy of the Jewish people.” 

There is no doubt that Irgun gave a warning of the impending explosion, but it’s also clear that the warning did not reach anyone “in an official position with any power to take action,” as a British inquiry later concluded.

An initial call to the hotel switchboard, about 15 minutes before the blast, was ignored. Ten minutes later, the French consulate, on the hotel’s northern side, received a call, alerting it to open its windows, so as to reduce damage from the impending blast.

Oddly, the warning that finally elicited a reaction within the hotel came to it by way of the Palestine Post (predecessor to today’s Jerusalem Post), which received a call at 12:32 P.M. The paper’s operator passed on that message to both the hotel and the police.

British guards rushed to the hotel’s basement, where they found six milk cans holding a total of 350 kilograms of explosives, but it was too late for significant action, as the timer detonated the bombs at 12:37.

Rescue and salvage workers took three days to comb through the wreckage, and 2,000 truckloads of rubble needed to be removed from the site.

To this day, Revisionists and Labor-Zionist sympathizers still argue about the propriety of the attack – and even whether it was an act of “terrorism” – as well as responsibility for the large toll in human life.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen