Secret files released by MI5 in December give a fascinating new insight into a bombing campaign which terrorised London in the years following the Second World War. This was carried out by some of the Zionist groups fighting to seize control of Palestine from the British government who took their campaign of bloodshed to Britain. They targeted government offices and sent letter bombs to ministers, including future Prime Minister Anthony Eden, post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, Chancellor Stafford Cripps and wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
According to the files, Eden apparently carried the unopened letter bomb around for a whole day in a book before being informed about the plot. Most of the bombs were intercepted, although some, like Eden’s, reached their targets but failed to explode.
The bombs were sent by Lehi, also known to the British authorities as the Stern Gang, after its founder Avraham Stern. The most right-wing of the armed Zionist groups then active in Palestine, Lehi was a splinter group from the Irgun, whose leader in the late 1940s was Menachem Begin. He went on to become Israel’s Prime Minister and invade Lebanon in 1982, killing more than 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian people; the infamous Sabra and Shatilla massacre took place on his watch.
Lehi was so fanatically right-wing that at one point it even approached Hitler’s Nazi Germany in order to reach some sort of agreement, and to fight for Hitler against the British in Palestine. One of Lehi’s leaders, Yitzhak Shamir, would also later become Israeli Prime Minister, sharing power in various governments in the 1980s with the supposedly “left-wing dove” Shimon Peres.
It was Lehi and Irgun which led the notorious massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, where they murdered more than 100 Palestinian civilians. Deir Yassin has become a byword for Zionist massacres of Palestinian civilians, but what is less well known is that it was only one of many by Zionist groups during the 1948 Nakba, or Catastrophe, during which 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their country at gunpoint. Many more massacres took place in later years as well.
Another fact that tends to be neglected by history is that the supposedly left-wing, labour-oriented armed Zionist groups also participated in the Deir Yassin massacre, by providing artillery support. Deir Yassin and the Nakba itself were by no means aberrations; they were planned deliberately as a long thought-out strategy to “empty the land” of its people. How else could a “Jewish state” be formed in Palestine, a land which did not have a Jewish majority?
However, the war waged by the armed Zionist groups against the British was not one which originated in fundamental disagreements. The British Empire never had any qualms about expelling indigenous peoples from the lands it conquered, such as Palestine, nor, indeed, was it queasy about the Zionist project to establish the state of Israel on colonised land.
Churchill himself – in one of his most notorious racist rants in the 1930s — said of the Palestinian people, “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time… I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
From the Balfour Declaration onwards, the British Empire was fundamentally warm toward the Zionist project of colonisation in Palestine, seeing in it a potential future ally. The Empire and Zionism fell out, though, with the latter coming to see the former as insufficiently enthusiastic. The right-wing groups, especially Lehi, wanted to go into open conflict with Britain, even during the Second World War. When the war in Europe and the Middle East ended, the Zionist movement in Palestine turned its guns against the British as well as the Palestinian people. Lehi and Irgun could no longer be restrained, and attacked British officers and administrators, culminating in the infamous King David Hotel bombing, which killed 91 people in 1946.
The lesser-known London bombing campaign was able to be kept partly secret because it mostly failed, but reading the newly-released files it is striking how the most extreme Zionist terrorists got off so lightly. One of the files is a press clipping of an interview with one of the Lehi bombers; Betty Knouth was sentenced by the Belgians to just one year in prison, despite being caught red-handed with letter bombs addressed to British officials.
It’s also striking how Lehi used the word “terrorist” openly to describe itself, appearing to see it as a badge of honour. According to Calder Walton, a historian and author who has written about the newly-released files, Lehi “is thought to be the world’s last terrorist group to describe itself publicly as terrorist.”
In Knouth’s interview during a Tel Aviv press conference in 1948, she expressed regret only that her bombing plot had been foiled by the Belgian police. “I’m sorry none of them was delivered,” she said of the letter bombs. “My terrorist days are over and done with now.”
The nascent State of Israel’s, though, were just beginning.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.