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irgun and lehi

Written by Sarmad Ishfaq 7:30 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The Irgun and Lehi: Israel’s Pre-independence Terrorist Groups

Israel’s true nature, stained by countless crimes against the Palestinians, cannot be concealed. Whether through the killing of innocent Gazans or the proliferation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the state of Israel and its defense forces, the IDF, have a long-standing history of terrorism deeply rooted in the actions and ideologies of Jewish pre-independence extremist groups, namely the Irgun and Lehi. Sarmad Ishfaq delves into the origins of these organizations, shedding light on their gruesome acts of terror in Palestine, and ultimately emphasizes how their extremist legacy continues to shape the actions of the modern state of Israel.
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About the Author(s)
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Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, The Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.

The Birth of Irgun and Lehi

Initially, the Haganah, a terrorist group established between 1920 and 1948 to protect Jews from Arab attacks and rioting, operated with relative moderation and cooperation with British security forces. However, discontent within the group led to splintering and the formation of more violent factions like the Irgun (or Etzel) and Lehi (or Stern Gang).

The Irgun, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a leader of revisionist Zionism, underwent internal ideological conflicts, oscillating between self-restraint and advocating for active attacks on Arabs and the British. During the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, which erupted due to dissatisfaction with British governance, Zionist land acquisitions, dispossession, and debt, Irgun’s self-restraint policy gradually eroded.

In July 1937, even Jabotinsky, who had initially opposed retaliatory actions, succumbed to the mounting pressure to attack Arabs. The Irgun launched a massive indiscriminate campaign known as Black Sunday on November 14, 1937, resulting in the deaths of numerous Arabs.

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The British White Paper in 1939, which restricted Jewish migration to Palestine, further fueled the Irgun’s animosity towards the British. World War II provided an opportunity for the Irgun to intensify its attacks against the British administration, with increased access to weaponry. However, disagreements within the organization led to another split, resulting in the formation of the Lehi in 1940.

Though smaller in numbers, Lehi’s assassinations and terrorist attacks had a significant impact in Palestine and garnered international attention.

Terrorist Activities of the Irgun and Lehi

The group employed a range of tactics, including assassinations, attacks on transportation routes, shootings, and the use of explosive devices. Among their most notorious actions was the infamous attack known as Black Sunday, in which the Irgun units around Jerusalem killed 10 Arabs and left many others wounded. The Irgun boldly proclaimed this day as “the Day of the Breaking of the Havlagah,” commemorating it with audacious pride.

The Irgun conducted over 60 attacks on Arabs during the Arab Revolt. In Haifa, an Irgun bomb detonated in a crowded Arab marketplace on June 19, 1938, causing the deaths of 18 Arabs, including women and children, and injuring 24 others. Another tragic incident occurred in July 1938, when a mine planted by the Irgun in a Haifa market claimed the lives of over 70 Arab individuals.

As the Irgun shifted its focus towards the British authorities in 1939, bombings targeting British installations and personnel became more frequent. In December 1945, a bombing at a British CID headquarters in Jerusalem resulted in the deaths of three British policemen and four Sotho soldiers.

One of the most infamous acts of terrorism committed by the Irgun was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the central office of the British Mandatory authority. The bomb, planted in the basement by Irgun members, killed over a hundred people, including civilians of Arab, British, and Jewish descent. Similarly, the Lehi engaged in reprehensible attacks.

In November 1944, they assassinated Mr. Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East, as a symbolic representation of Britain’s uncompromising stance. On January 4, 1948, the Lehi introduced the world to a new form of terror: the car bomb. Their attack on the Saraya building in Jaffa resulted in the deaths of 28 Arabs, including civilians, and injured hundreds more. The use of car bombs became prevalent not only in pre-independence Israel against Palestinians but also among other militant groups in the Middle East.

The most heinous act of terrorism perpetrated by the Irgun and Lehi was the Deir Yassin Massacre. In April 1948, approximately 120 fighters from both groups, along with cooperation from the Haganah, attacked the village of Deir Yassin, massacring hundreds of Arab civilians, including women and children. While the condemnation of this atrocity was widespread, no one was ever held accountable for the tragedy, highlighting a lack of justice.

There were several other such incidents where villages were massacred such as in Saliha (70-80 killed), Lod (250 killed), and Abu Shusha (70 killed). Benny Morris stated that Ben Gurion silenced these controversies and he protected all people involved.

Legacy of Terrorism

Labeling the Irgun and Lehi as terrorist organizations is not a controversial or exaggerated assertion. British leaders, the Jewish Agency, prominent individuals like Albert Einstein, and, most importantly, the Palestinian Arabs viewed the members of these groups as nothing less than terrorists. Israel’s gravest mistake lies in allowing these terrorists to transition seamlessly into soldiers of the new IDF and enabling the leaders of the Irgun and Lehi to venture into politics without being held accountable for their past actions.

Menachem Begin, an Irgun leader in 1944, went on to found the Likud party and become Israel’s 6th Prime Minister. Yitzhak Shamir, leader of Lehi in 1943, served in the Mossad and became Israel’s 7th Prime Minister. Another Lehi member, Yaakov Heruti, known for pioneering car bombings, later founded right-wing political parties and played a role in facilitating settler activity in the occupied territories. This lack of accountability allowed the terrorist proclivities of the Irgun and Lehi to permeate Israel’s political and security establishments.

This extremist legacy is evident in Israel’s continuous perpetration of war crimes and human rights abuses against Palestinians. In the past four conflicts in Gaza, from 2008 to May 2021, Palestinian casualties far outnumber Israeli casualties, with Palestinians constituting 92% of the total casualties – around 18,992.

Recent incidents, such as the deliberate killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the IDF on May 11, 2022, further exemplify Israel’s perpetuation of violence. Despite Israel’s denial, independent investigations by organizations such as CNN and Forensic Architecture indicate otherwise, suggesting that Shireen was intentionally targeted for execution.

Violence in the occupied West Bank has also escalated, with Israel conducting near-daily raids and causing hundreds of Palestinian deaths over the past year. The recent Huwara riots, where Jewish settlers in the West Bank wreaked havoc by torching buildings and cars, resulting in the death of a Palestinian and numerous injuries, shocked the world. Criticism has been directed towards the settlers, the IDF for its inaction, and ministers who advocated for the destruction of Huwara.

In conclusion, the Irgun and Lehi’s history of terrorism cannot be ignored or downplayed. Their actions have had a lasting impact on Israel’s political and security landscape, contributing to the country’s ongoing disregard for international law and human rights. The cycle of violence and oppression against Palestinians continues, perpetuating a tragic legacy that must be acknowledged and addressed for the sake of peace and justice.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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