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This essay was commissioned almost fifteen years ago by the London Review of Books. When I completed it six months later, they rejected it for reasons never explained. I’ve repeatedly brought it up to date over the years and publish it now here.
In May 2009, Yehoshua Zettler, the Israeli terrorist who orchestrated the 1948 assassination of Count Folke von Bernadotte under orders from Yitzhak Shamir, died. It is one of many dark ironies of this tragedy that a member of the Swedish royal family, head of the Swedish Red Cross, rescuer of 11,000 Jews during the Holocaust, and UN peace mediator—was gunned down by a Lehi operative who spent the rest of his life running a gas station. That a man of peace was cut down in the prime of life as he tried to resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts–while his murderer died in his bed at the ripe old age of 91–seemed a terrible injustice.
Assassination, both in ancient Judea, the pre-State era, and more recently by the IDF against alleged Palestinian militants, has a deep and dark history. Such killing has always disturbed me and been one of the subjects I often address here. As I contemplated Bernadotte’s killing, it seemed that political violence played a formative role in the Zionist movement and the State itself. What follows is a study of major pre-1948 political assassinations and the role they played in later Zionist history and Israeli state policy toward the Palestinians.
Most of us know something of the history of Israeli assassinations of its enemies. Lately, that includes Iranian nuclear scientists. Over recent decades it includes scores, if not hundreds of Palestinian militant leaders. Ronen Bergman, in his profile of the Mossad’s killing operations, estimates that it has killed nearly 3,000 victims in its entire history. These murders have occurred in Palestine and on several continents.
But much less well known, is that even Jews were victims of assassinations, and that such killing operations go all the way back to the earliest days of the First Aliyah. In fact, Jews were the first targets of Zionist assassins (more on this later), even before they began targeting Palestinians.
Israelite Historical Antecedents
The most prominent and formative of the ancient Judean groups employing what we would today call terror tactics against its Jewish rivals and enemies, was the Sicarii. They were zealots who played an instrumental role in provoking the first Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. One of the primary tactics used to sow fear and advance their political aims was the assassination of those Jewish who “collaborated” with, or benefited from close relations with Greek or Roman imperial figures. Their most sensational act was the killing of the former High Priest Hanania, and the burning of his Jerusalem home.
This brutal murder almost single-handedly divided Jews into radical and moderate camps, and eventually led to the rebellion against Rome. Thereafter, anyone viewed as a collaborator was fair game. The Sicarii, using knives hidden in their cloaks, mingled with the massive crowds of pilgrims around the Temple during religious festivals, picked off their quarry, and escaped into the crush. Their exploits struck fear in the hearts of Romans and Jews alike. The very audacity of their terror dramatically set the political tone and agenda for the era.
Some of Sicarii conquered a former royal fortress at Masada and held it until a Roman legion finally vanquished them, ending the Revolt in 73 C.E. The leader of this group was Elazar Ben-Yair who, according to Flavius Josephus, committed suicide with 900 of his followers, rather than surrender to the besieging Roman legions. One of the most famous leaders of the pre-State Jewish underground, Avraham Stern, adopted the nom de guerre Ben-Yair in honor of his famous predecessor. Like the historical Ben Yair, Stern was himself assassinated by British Mandatory forces.
The Roman era was the last time Jews lived independently in their own homeland. Thus Zionists, in their effort to create a new Jewish state looked specifically to this era for historical examples and inspiration. In this as in many other things, the historical model of Jewish resistance to Roman colonial tyranny had a formative impact on the pre-State Zionist movement.
Jacob Israel DeHaan
The victim of one of the first successful acts of political assassination in the Zionist era was Jacob Israel DeHaan. He was a Dutch Jew who became a socialist-Zionist and made aliyah around 1909. Sometime after he arrived in Israel he became ultra-Orthodox and an ardent foe of the secular Zionist movement. In Holland, he had trained as a lawyer, and his sharp mind and polemical writing skills raised his profile. He soon became a confidant of the rabbinic spiritual leader of the Haredi anti-Zionist camp, becoming its political spokesperson. He met with British officials who were less than keen on establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He also advocated in the British press for a negotiated solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
DeHaan’s personal life was quite extraordinary for the era, considering his political and religious affiliations. In Holland, he’d written two novels celebrating homosexual life. He wrote poetry extolling his love of boys. There are rumors that he continued such activity with local Arab children after his arrival in Palestine.
It’s baffling to account for the contradiction between DeHaan’s Orthodox beliefs, which viewed homosexuality as a very grave sin, and his personal predilections. Even though today we’re used to closeted men who at least publicly deny their homosexual impulses, DeHaan serves as the ultimate example of this. And all this happened in a much earlier era, when the contradictions would’ve been more glaring.
For all the reasons outlined above, the secular Zionist leadership viewed DeHaan as a dangerous enemy who sowed division and endangered their political plans. They warned him repeatedly to leave Palestine. He refused. One night in 1924, after leaving evening prayers at the chapel of Shaarei Zedek hospital, a Haganah gunman, Avraham Tehomi, approached and killed him.
For many decades, the identity of his killer and those who sent him were unknown. But in 1985, a book revealed that the inspiration for the murder came from none other than Yitzhak Ben Zvi–the man who would become Israel’s second president–and his wife, Rachel.
In fact, Tehomi later told Israeli TV:
“I have done what the Haganah decided had to be done. And nothing was done without the order of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. I have no regrets because he [DeHaan] wanted to destroy our whole idea of Zionism.”
He was rewarded for this act of political murder with a senior command in the Haganah.
Thus, this first instance of a Zionist assassination originates not in the militant Revisionist movement (who were responsible for the vast majority of later political assassinations), but rather within the socialist-Labor movement. The fact that the order was given by someone in the highest echelon of this movement, someone who would go on to in fact lead the country, also indicates the Zionist movement was prepared to go to ultimate lengths to impose heterodoxy on the Jews of Palestine.
Two important factors that would’ve motivated DeHaan’s killers to act: first, at this early stage of the Zionist movement there was a clash between the indigenous religious Jews who had lived in Palestine for generations and who had no particular interest in, or understanding of this new secular political movement called Zionism. In effect, the authors of this political crime were claiming dominance, proving they were prepared to go to the most extreme ends to accomplish their nationalist goal. This first instance of successful political murder succeeded in its goal. It assured the ascendancy of political Zionism, which became the lingua franca of Palestinian Jewry. The ultra-Orthodox never again challenged for supremacy.
The second factor may have been DeHaan’s homosexuality, which may have made him fair-game and allowed his killers to overcome the norms of civilized political discourse. Indeed, after his murder the Zionists spread the homophobic rumor that one of his jealous lovers had murdered him.
Equally sensational and mysterious in the history of the Zionist movement, was the 1933 assassination of Chaim Arlosoroff on a Tel Aviv beach, as he walked with his wife. To this day, no one knows for sure who murdered him and why. Arlosoroff was one the most senior leaders of Mapai, the dominant socialist wing of the Zionist movement. Before making aliyah, he had led a colorful life in Europe where, among other things, he had an affair with a woman who would become Josef Goebbels lover and wife. There are stories, never fully substantiated, that Arlosoroff, on discovering the affair, brandished a gun and even fired it at his inamorata, causing her to end the relationship with him.
Interestingly and perhaps coincidentally, two days before his murder, the Zionist leader had returned from Germany after negotiating the Haavara Agreement, which saved the lives of 50,000 German Jews and allowed them to emigrate to Palestine. Part of the agreement allowed the Nazis to confiscate the Jews’ assets. In turn, the value of the assets was transferred to Palestine in the form of credits for the purchase of German goods.
All of this intrigue allows historians to speculate in any one of several directions what happened. Some claim that Goebbels arranged for his murder using either local German agents or Arab street criminals to execute the deed. Others claim that right-wing Revisionists, one of whom had specifically threatened his life, perpetrated the assassination. Certainly, many Palestinian Jews would have been troubled by the notion of negotiating with the Nazis and aiding the latter’s struggling economy, thus strengthening an enemy of the Jewish people. In fact, Revisionists were furious at Mapai’s consorting with the Nazi enemy. The incitement was so intense that Leah Rabin has noted similarities to the assassination of her own husband who, before he was murdered, was featured dressed in SS regalia and called a Nazi by Israel’s latter-day Revisionists, the Likud. Arlosoroff’s wife identified several right-wing Zionists as the killers, and they were tried for the crime. One was convicted, but it was overturned on appeal. It is one of the few political killings in Zionist history which has never been resolved.
Walter Guinness (Lord Moyne) was a member of the Anglo-Irish nobility, great-great-grandson of the founder of the Guinness brewing firm, and long-serving Conservative MP, where he was a close ally of Winston Churchill. He was a decorated war hero having served in the Boer War and World War I (at Gallipoli, among other battles) with distinction. In 1942, he came to Cairo and eventually became resident minister, overseeing the British Empire in Persia, the Middle East and Africa.
Avraham Stern, founder of one of the most violent and extreme Zionist militias, saw Moyne as chiefly responsible for British policy in Palestine. He rebelled against the moderation even of his fellow Revisionist comrades, breaking away to form Lehi. One method of dramatizing his political aims was terror: inflicting the maximum pain on his British colonial enemy. That is how he hatched the first right-wing Zionist assassination plots.
Though Lord Moyne moderated his views later in life, Stern would have considered him a hated enemy. Especially for views like these:
Their [Zionist] leaders demand that an already overcrowded Palestine should be trebled in its population by the admixture of another three million Jews immediately after the war. Now it is not a matter of putting a quart into a pint pot, it is a matter of putting exactly three pints into a pint pot. Successive inquiries have shown that immigration on this scale would be a disastrous mistake, and is indeed an impracticable dream. A far smaller measure of immigration led to the Palestine disturbances which lasted from 1936 to 1939, and showed that the Arabs, who have lived and buried their dead for fifty generations in Palestine, will not willingly surrender their land and self-government to the Jews.
During the war, as desperation mounted about the fate of millions of European Jews, the British instituted a strict policy that severely restricted immigration to Mandatory Palestine. This was viewed by Jews as a death warrant for those who remained in Europe.
Within the British diplomatic community, there was a historic rift between the Arabists (like Lawrence of Arabia) and the philo-Zionists (like Lord Balfour). Moyne was viewed by Lehi as in the camp of the former and an anti-Zionist though, in fact he supported Partition and a Jewish state. Thus it would be logical for a group like this to seek to strike a blow against British tyranny and on behalf of the suffering Jewish people.
In November 1944, Lehi dispatched two assassins to Cairo to execute a well-orchestrated and rehearsed plan of assassination. Riding on bicycles, they ambushed Moyne’s car and shot him and his driver. Moyne was taken to hospital where he died later that day. His driver died as well.
An Egyptian policeman gave chase and wounded one of the assailants, while an angry crowd cornered the other. The subsequent trial featured legal representation of the accused by prominent Egyptian nationalist leaders. Their lawyers argued in the killers’ defense (perhaps ironically considering subsequent history) for clemency, saying their actions were motivated by Britain’s unforgiving approach toward the Zionist endeavor in Palestine. They went further in implying that both the Egyptian and Jewish national movements, in pursuit of freedom from British domination, were natural allies.
Eventually, the killers were convicted of their crime, sentenced to death and, in an unusual circumstance for such crimes in Zionist history, executed. Prime Minister Churchill is reputed to have intervened in order to ensure the carrying out of the sentence, because of his close friendship with Moyne.
Interestingly, Churchill had been viewed as a friend of Zionism up to this time. Because of his political and personal relationship with the victim, he was forced to distance himself from the movement and temper his sympathies. A British cabinet proposal for Partition was immediately shelved and never revived. In fact, several Jewish historians of the period posited that the possibility of a Jewish state immediately after the war had been, till Moyne’s death, a distinct possibility.
In this sense, Lehi’s goal of striking a blow for Jewish freedom proved to be a strategic failure, though it did put the group on the political map within Palestine and made it a force to be reckoned with. In that sense, the assassination was a bold stroke of political propaganda by the rightist militia.
Count Folke Bernadotte
Count Folke Bernadotte, grandson of a Swedish king and WWII diplomat who saved the lives of over 10,000 Jews, was appointed in 1947 by the Allies to be the UN mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. After Israel declared independence and war commenced, it was Bernadotte who succeeded in negotiating a truce. In dealing with the Palestinian refugees displaced by the conflict, he laid the groundwork for establishing the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
In June 1948, he presented a peace proposal that Palestine be established as a “union” with two separate parts, one Jewish, one Arab. This was dismissed. His second proposal abandoned a union and called for two separate states. This version also failed when Pres. Truman embraced a more pro-Zionist position, causing Bernadotte’s plan to lose support at the UN.
Lehi viewed Bernadotte as a puppet of the British and his peace proposal as a betrayal of Zionist aims, since it proposed that Jerusalem be a UN protectorate and allowed Arab refugees to return to their homes inside what would become the state of Israel. Alarmed at the prospect that Ben Gurion might accept such terms, they viewed the elimination of the UN official as a sure means of destroying his plan. Unfortunately, the Lehi leadership which approved and organized the assassination (including future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir), was not aware that the Israeli leader had resolved to reject the offer.
No one was ever charged with the crime, though Prime Minister Ben Gurion forcibly dismantled the terrorist group. Conveniently, the conspiracy was only exposed in 1977 after the statute of limitations had expired.
The Bernadotte killing was particularly tragic as it was based on faulty political intelligence, resulted in the execution of a gifted international diplomat, and the elimination of Lehi itself. The fact that Ben Gurion never aggressively pursued an investigation of the crime, indicates a level of tacit approval or understanding of the act itself by the Zionist leadership.
Easily the most consequential and ‘successful’ act of political assassination in Zionist history, was that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultranationalist extremist, Yigal Amir. The killing indicated the desperation of the extreme Israeli right to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories. Both were under consideration during negotiations between Yasir Arafat, Bill Clinton and Rabin in that period.
The murder was successful in its goal: peace negotiations ultimately failed. Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres failed to pursue them vigorously and the Palestinians responded with a spate of Palestinian terrorist bombings, This ensured Peres’ defeat in the next election and brought Bibi Netanyahu to power for the first time.
Netanyahu himself incited Rabin’s murder in an infamous speech before 10,000 rabid rightist Israeli Jews. From a balcony in Jerusalem’s main square he railed against Rabin in fiery, almost blood-thirsty terms. In this sense, Netanyahu, whose father was the personal secretary of Revisionist founder Zeev Jabotinsky, continued a far-right tradition of incitement and even violence against rival Zionist leaders in order to advance a political agenda.
Prof. Nachman Ben Yehudah argues that Rabin, whose political popularity was plummeting at the time, would’ve failed anyway without the killing. In that sense, the murder was another senseless attempt to force the political future in a direction it might have taken anyway.
The murder was the first time in Zionist history that a Jew murdered a fellow Jew who was the nation’s leader. In that sense, it broke a taboo, since the killing of one Jew by another is considered a deep violation of religious and societal norms. Even more so the murder of an elected prime minister. Though his killer was convicted and serves a life sentence, the far-right settler movement which either authored or served as accessory to the murder, never paid a price and has ruled Israeli politics ever since.
In earlier Zionist history, one might argue that assassins acted out of powerlessness, since they did not yet have a way to adjudicate intra-communal political conflict. In fact, after the establishment of the state of Israel, such violence did cease (with a few notable exceptions). But the Rabin killing upsets this notion. It indicates that the radical Israeli right was, and is willing to violate societal norms and refuse to accept the democratic trappings of the state, taking matters into their own hands.
Among the Israeli right, sympathy for Amir and his goals remains deep. In that sense, Israel is a nation conflicted within itself about the path of State policy. Such sympathy indicates a people who have not, and likely will never renounce political violence.
Palestinian Political Assassination
Interestingly, the Palestinian national movement saw a similar spate of political assassinations of key leaders in the 1970s and 80s. Perhaps Palestinians looked to the Zionist example, and adopted this tactic as a means to settle political scores and impose ideological heterodoxy. Unlike Zionist history though, it was the Palestinian far-left which turned to political executions of moderate Fatah leaders like Said Hamami, Issam Sartawi and Abu Iyad, as a means of settling scores. Abu Nidal and other radical Palestinian leaders sought to impose their harder political line on the movement as a whole by eliminating accommodationists, who were too cozy with the Zionist enemy.
In 2006, after Bush administration diplomat and future felon, Elliot Cohen, encouraged Fatah to mount a coup against Hamas, wihch had just won the first Palestinian national elections. Amid the subsequent mass violence, Fatah leaders in Gaza and Hamas leaders in the West Bank were murdered. This is the last serious bout of intra-Palestinian political murders.
Israeli Assassinations of Palestinians
After the 1973 Munich massacre, Israel embarked on a plan to eliminate those who planned and executed the murders. But this narrowly targeted operation quickly devolved into a set of killings of a wide variety of Palestinian leaders, who had little or nothing to do with Munich. Among the most noted of those killed over the years in Israeli attempts to weaken the Palestinian movement were Abu Jihad, Ghassan Kanafani, Fathi Shikaki, Sheikh Ahmed Yassine, Salah Shehadeh and Ahmed Jabari.
One of the noted counter-insurgency tactics of the Mossad has been targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants. It targeted not just those engaged in specific acts of terror, but purely political leaders (like Khaled Meshal and those listed above) as well. Such acts, though clearly extrajudicial and therefore a violation of international law, are variously defended by Israel as stopping a “ticking bomb,” mowing the grass,” or “cutting off the head” of the terrorist beast. The rationale is always presented as saving Israeli lives, though the tit-for-tat response by the other side proves that the policy is a perpetual-motion machine of endless violence.
The pre-state acceptance of the act of political assassination arguably set the stage for Israel’s embrace targeted assassinations. In that sense, the Zionist pursuit of political goals by lethal means has a deep, unforeseen, and long-term impact.
Ironically, Zionism has always boasted of being a movement based on liberal democracy, one of whose prime tenets is the rule of law. Thus, from its inception up to today, Zionism has shown itself to be a sham. It professes values of western nations it seeks to emulate, while engaging in acts of criminality.
Despite protestations to the contrary, Zionism has always relied on violence to attain its ends. When political discourse could not resolve internal ideological disputes, Zionists of both the left and right proved more than willing to resort to violence to determine who would be the ideological victor and set the political agenda.
While a number of the assassinations reviewed here may have achieved their aim, targeted killings of Palestinians guarantee the continuation, and even escalation of the conflict. In pre-state assassinations, there may have been no state legal or political apparatus that could balance competing claims and provide a political outlet for resolution of conflict. But in the current era of targeted assassination, it is the state that takes upon itself the right to murder without trial both foot soldiers and senior political leaders in Iran, Palestine and throughout the world. This is not only a fearsome escalation of the conflict, but an indication of the moral bankruptcy of Israeli policy.
The ICC has begun a process to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to investigate Israel for war crimes. Human rights groups are monitoring such killings, keeping records, and developing cases against specific IDF senior officials. In order to honor international law, Israel must pay the piper. The world must hold Israel accountable for its crimes.
I am indebted to Nachman Ben Yehuda’s Political Assassinations by Jews (SUNY Press, 1993 for his groundbreaking research on this general subject.
5] The Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, Fifth Series, Volume CXXIII, columns 195-201.