THE STRUGGLE FOR ISRAEL, 1917-1947 by Bruce Hoffman

(Future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem as leader of the Irgun.  According to the British during and after World War II, Begin led this terrorist organization)

This past week’s news cycle has been dominated by the Iran nuclear talks and the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister, two stories that are interrelated due to the politics of the Middle East.  Both situations have been parlayed by politicians to reinforce their own ideological agendas.  The results have been extremely negative with Republicans in Congress grand standing about a deal that has not been concluded, and PM Netanyahu’s somewhat racist comments about Arab voting, and his diplomatic dance surrounding his support or non-support of a two state solution in negotiations with the Palestinians.  The relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu have never been strong, and now have become even more dysfunctional.  The consequences of these events for the region are extremely important since the Arab-Israeli Conflict has produced four major wars, and a series of lesser wars since 1948.  It would be useful to revisit the history of the pre-1948 War and try to understand the background of the conflict that may never be settled.  All one has to do is think about the situation in Gaza last summer as Israel and Hamas exchanged missile strikes resulting in the destruction of a major part of the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip.  In addition, the Palestinian community is split between the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and Hamas that governs the Gaza Strip.  Currently, the diplomatic game is at a standstill so Bruce Hoffman’s THE STRUGGLE FOR ISRAEL, 1917-1947 is both timely and important.

Mr. Hoffman, the Director of Security Studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Center raises the important question, “does terrorism work?  According to Hoffman “campaigns of terrorism depend on rational choice.”  It results from a group’s decision to oppose a government and is seen “as a logical means to advance desired ends.”(x)  Today in the Middle East there are a number of groups whose choice of terror fits this description; Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ISIS, and al-Qaeda’s many derivations.  Hoffman has chosen to concentrate on three groups that have been credited with convincing the British government to relinquish its League of Nations mandate over Palestine in 1947 that led to the creation of the state of Israel.  The book explores these three groups; the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi and determines that it was the Irgun that should be given most of the credit for forcing the British withdrawal.  If this is an accurate assumption, then according to Hoffman, terror, in this particular instance worked.

The title of the book is derived from a poem written by Abraham Stern, a messianic Zionist who implored Jews to fight for the creation of their own state; “We are the anonymous soldiers without uniform, Surrounded by fear and the shadow of death.  We have all been conscripted for life; from these ranks, only death will free us.” (96) The strategy embodied in the concept of anonymous soldiers was extended by the Irgun leader following World War II, and future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.  Begin believed that Israeli freedom fighters (as opposed to terrorists) could blend into the general population and hide in its battle against the British.  He believed that all Jews who lived in the Yishuv were fighters for the creation of the Jewish state, a concept that the British accepted and as explained by the author based their counter-terrorism policy arguing that since the Jewish terrorists hid among and were assisted by the general population, they were just as culpable for terrorist attacks as the actual perpetrators.

Hoffman’s premise, whether terrorism works, is an important one, but at times it becomes lost in the minutiae of each terrorist attack that he presents.  The book is a comprehensive recounting of the role of terror played in Palestine from World War I through the declaration of Israeli statehood on May 15, 1948. It encompasses major decision making by the British as they tried to carry out their mandate over Palestine, the reactions of the Arab community, particularly before World War II, and the Jewish responses throughout the period.  All the major and lesser personalities involved are examined, including Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin, Clement Atlee, General Bernard Montgomery and High Commissioner Alan Cunningham on the British side to, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Abraham Stern representing the Jews, and Hajj Amin-al Husseini, and Izz al-Din Abd al-Qadir al Qassam, who embodied the Arab cause.  Along with the personalities involved the author described in detail what seems to be every important terror attack that took place within the scope of his topic.  The book appears to be broken down into three parts.  The first major delineation occurs in 1929 as Arab riots against Jewish immigration and land purchases led to British quotas regulating Jewish immigration to Palestine.  As the riots led to a pogrom in Hebron, the Yishuv leadership realized it could not rely on the British for protection.  The reorganization and centralization of the underground Jewish army, the Haganah resulted, and Jewish revisionists like Vladimir Jabotinsky set up their own autonomous group that would fight Arab terror with Jewish terror.  The next turning point would be the Arab rebellion that lasted from 1936 to 1939 that eventually would produce the 1939 British White Paper that limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 1500 per month for five years and declined to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state.  Issued as Jews were trying to escape Nazi Germany it would have a profound impact on the plight of the Jews and British policy that did not want to aggravate its relations with the Arabs as the war approached.   Obviously the end of the war is another watershed as Jewish terror increased against the British evolving into a situation of all-out war that only ended with British withdrawal from Palestine.

(The King David Hotel, Jerusalm that was bombed by the Irgun on July 22, 1946)

The most important part of the book is Hoffman’s description and analysis of what appears to be each terrorist attack that took place particularly after World War II.  It seems that the author did not find an attack that he didn’t feel the need to describe in minute detail.  For the student of the period it is valuable, but the general reader will become bogged down in what seems at times to be a daily description of the terrorist and counter-terrorist activity that takes place.  The author reports on all major attacks, describing their explosive power, and casualties from what seems to be every angle.  The reader learns the details of the bombing of the King David Hotel that housed Britain’s governmental agencies for Palestine by the Irgun, assassinations of major figures, i.e.; Lord Moyne, kidnappings, hangings, as well as the overall terrorist dance that the Irgun and its allies engaged in with the British military and the Palestine Police Force (PPF).  What is most interesting is Hoffman’s analysis of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy.  His observation that the British applied tactics that worked between 1936 and 1939 dealing with a rural insurrection, to an urban terrorist strategy employed by the Irgun between 1945 and 1948 reinforced the objectives sought by Begin and his cohorts in Lehi.  Further, once the British decided to employ 100,000 troops in Palestine after the PPF was not able to bring the terrorist threat under control, Palestine became a garrison state.  The actions of the police and military became confused and this segmented the police away from any source of actionable intelligence, the people themselves.  The British intelligence structure in Palestine was severely criticized as the political leadership in London could not make up its mind, and to make matters worse the intelligence agency (CID) in Palestine was poorly trained, under manned, and underfunded.  The result was that American intelligence (OSS) was much more reliable than that of the British and in many cases the British played right into the hands of Ben-Gurion and Begin.  The Irgun leader’s strategy was designed to counter British tactics.  His goal was to undermine the British government’s prestige and control of Palestine by striking at symbols of British rule.  The Irgun and its junior partner, Lehi targeted immigration, land registry, tax and finance offices, and made the price the British would have to pay to remain in Palestine much too high in light of England’s overall economic condition during the winter of 1947.

(The Arab Revolt in Palestine designed to stop Jewish immigration)

Apart from events Hoffman does a superb job explaining the ideological development of the major characters and the strategies they hoped to employ.  Though long winded at times the reader will emerge with a firm understanding of the beliefs of Begin, Ben-Gurion, al-Husseini, Qassam and many others.  The political machinations and battles that contributed to Britain’s inability to accomplish their goals is always present.  A discussion of the hatred between English Generals Bernard Montgomery and Evelyn Barker, and Montgomery and High Commissioner Alan Cunningham disrupted British decision-making repeatedly as did disagreement within the English cabinet in London.  The growing rift between the Atlee government and the Truman administration over a solution to the Palestine problem is present for all to see.  The divisive conflict within the Jewish leadership is detailed and is extremely important as Ben-Gurion and Begin did not enjoy the best relationship as they agreed and disagreed over the use of terror throughout their war against the British.  What was shocking to me was the degree of overt anti-Semitism that was evident on the part of many of the major British players.  As more and more British soldiers and civilians were victims of the violence perpetrated by the Irgun and Lehi, British frustration and anger manifested itself with a virulent type of anti-Jewish behavior.  One must ask, did British anti-Semitism inhibit their ability to solve the Palestinian problem?

Hoffman is a very skillful writer, and though he is somewhat repetitious, his integration of so much detail at times is very engrossing, but at other times it can be overwhelming.  He raises the issue that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter and the partisan debate over such issues will find supportive evidence for each position throughout the book.  In addition, some might argue that there is no difference between the Irgun approach to statehood and that of Hamas and others today.  Hoffman argues that the Irgun and Lehi focused on British military and governmental targets.  Civilians were killed, but not targeted.  For Hoffman, Palestinian terrorists have often been indiscriminate and at times targeted civilians directly.  No matter the reader’s point of view, there is a great deal of history presented that could be debated, in addition to contemporary strategies that can be argued.  Overall, Hoffman has written a very important book that provides many insights as to why the problem remains so intractable.

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