Bombing of King David Hotel

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The hotel after the bombing

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Zionist leaders arrested in Operation Agatha. Left to right: David Remez, Moshe Sharett, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, Dov Yosef, Shenkarsky, David Hacohen, Halperin.

Located in central Jerusalem, the King David Hotel has long been one of Israel’s premier establishments. As the prestate period was winding down, the British made the hotel an important symbol of its presence in Palestine. Because the hotel housed several British administrative offices and some military personnel, it was considered a legitimate target by Jewish resistance groups. At first both the HAGANAH and the IRGUN ZVAI LEUMI cooperated in planning to bomb the hotel. The Haganah, however, withdrew its cooperation because its more moderate leadership believed that destroying the hotel would invite extremely harsh retribution.

The Irgun was convinced of the opposite. It felt that the British public was already weary of the seemingly never-ending fighting and was growing more and more convinced that Britain would only sacrifice more lives in a meaningless effort to keep the peace in Palestine. Bombing the hotel would, in its opinion, hasten the British departure and the arrival of an independent Jewish state.

On July 22, 1946, an Irgun team, dressed as waiters, rolled seven milk churns full of dynamite and TNT into the empty Regency Grill of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At 12:37 P. M., the TNT in the milk cans exploded, creating pressure so great that it burst the hearts, lungs, and livers of the clerks working on the floors above.

Thurston Clarke gives a gruesome description of the fate of the people in the King David Hotel at that time:

In that split second after 12:37, thirteen of those who had been alive at 12:36 disappeared without a trace. The clothes, bracelets, cufflinks, and wallets which might have identified them exploded into dust and smoke. Others were turned to charcoal, melted into chairs and desks or exploded into countless fragments. The face of a Jewish typist was ripped from her skull, blown out of a window, and smeared onto the pavement below. Miraculously it was recognizable, a two-foot-long distorted death mask topped with tufts of hair.

Blocks of stones, tables and desks crushed heads and snapped necks. Coat racks became deadly arrows that flew across rooms, piercing chests. Filing cabinets pinned people to walls, suffocating them. Chandeliers and ceiling fans crashed to the floor, impaling and decapitating those underneath.

Ninety-one people died in that bomb blast. Of these, 28 were British, 41 were Arabs, and 17 were Jewish. Another 46 were injured.

The person who commanded this attack stated bluntly:

There is no longer any armistice between the Jewish people and the British administration of Eretz Israel which hands our brothers over to Hitler. Our people are at war with this regime-war to the end.

While many in Britain wanted revenge, the Irgun may have been correct in its assessment. The British government began seeking a way to exit and more and more sought assistance from the United States and the United Nations. Less than two years later it ended its mandate and evacuated its personnel from Palestine. It is interesting to note that the leader in this attack, the man responsible for the destruction of 91 lives, was MENACHEM BEGIN, who later served during 1977- 1983 as prime minister of ISRAEL. The Irgun fighter who acted to destroy the hotel is the same man who, working with President Carter of the United States and President Anwar Sadat of EGYPT, made significant efforts to move Israel on the road to peace with its Arab neighbors, signing the famous Camp David Accords, bringing a measure of peace between Israel and Egypt, breaking the cycle of violence between Israel and at least one of its neighbors. This incident illustrates how difficult the line between “patriot” and “terrorist” is to maintain clearly. Individual acts may be “terrorism”; individuals need not be unilaterally “terrorists.” Thus, to define terrorism may be possible, but to define terrorists may not.

Irgun Zvai Leumi

The Irgun was established during the 1930s and remained active during the prestate years in Palestine. It competed with and was often condemned by the mainstream Jewish community political structure as well as the HAGANAH, the Jewish self-defense organization. The Irgun was also an ideological rival in the sense that it believed the Jewish people must not be hesitant to protect their security regardless of whether the methods for doing so are respectful of international law. The Irgun’s leaders and membership were convinced that Jews would continue to be victimized.

For nearly all of its history, the Irgun was led by MENACHEM BEGIN (1913-92), later prime minister of Israel (1977-83). Begin was a disciple of Zev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), who warned European Jews of the emerging holocaust that was about to befall them. The Holocaust during World War II convinced the Irgun of the necessity to apply strong measures to secure an independent Jewish state. The Irgun leadership consistently denied that the organization was a terrorist group though it was condemned as one by the British Mandate authorities. It was responsible for blowing up the KING DAVID HOTEL in Jerusalem in 1947. The Irgun argued that the hotel was a legitimate military target because it housed high-ranking British military officers. However, numerous British, Jewish, and Arab civilians who were also employed in the hotel lost their lives.

The Irgun is a somewhat unusual terrorist organization in that it quickly transformed itself into a viable political party, the current-day Likud, that scrupulously adhered to electoral rules and eventually took power in 1977 after nearly three decades of opposition. It was also fortunate in the sense that the British apparently did not employ all of the power at their disposal in Palestine to eradicate it. However, the official Israeli authority that succeeded the British refused to accept the Irgun’s status as a military organization and successfully ordered it to be dissolved.

References: Bell, J. Bowyer. Terror out of Zion: Irgun Zvai Leumi, LEHI, and the Palestine Underground, 1929- 1949 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), pp. 168- 175; Clarke, Thurston. By Blood and Fire: The Attack on the King David Hotel (New York: Putnam, 1981); Metzer, Milton. The Terrorists (New York: Harper & Row, 1983). Begin, Menachem. The Revolt, rev. ed. (New York: Dell, 1977).

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