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Would pre-state Zionist militias be terrorists by today's standards?

A Zionist Union MK gets heat for saying not all Palestinians who use violence against Israeli soldiers are terrorists. Can attacks against uniformed soldiers be considered terrorism?

By Tomer Persico

Irgun fighters training in 1947. (photo: Archive of Jabotinsky Institute in Israel/CC BY 2.5)

Etzel fighters training in 1947. (photo: Archive of Jabotinsky Institute in Israel/CC BY 2.5)

Labor MK Zohair Bahloul in recent days raised the ire of Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum, including members of his own party, for his unwillingness to label Palestinians who attack Israeli soldiers “terrorists.”

Explaining why he opposes applying the word terrorist to all Palestinians who employ violence, Bahloul brought up the example of the pre-state militias that took up arms against the British Mandate government.

“The Etzel (Irgun), the Lehi, the Haganah – all of these Jewish organizations went out to the streets to fight against the British mandate and its soldiers, to make your state – which has become an incredible state – a reality. Why can’t the Palestinians do the same?” Bahloul said on Saturday.

Using those Zionist militias as a short case study, here are a few ways to distinguish between acts of terror and guerrilla warfare:

– In July 1938, members of the Etzel (also known as “Irgun”), a right-wing Zionist militant group, tossed a bomb into a vegetable market in Haifa. Eighteen Arabs were killed, 38 were wounded. That same month, a bomb was planted in the Arab market in Jerusalem, killing 10 and wounding 31. After that came the bombing of the Arab market in Haifa — 27 were killed, 46 were wounded. Men, women, and children.

– On May 9, 1939, seven Etzel members entered Jerusalem’s Rex Theater during a screening of Tarzan. They detonated a mine, killing five Arabs and wounding 18 others. The attackers managed to flee. In December of that year, Etzel members tossed a bomb into an Arab cafe in Jaffa. Six were killed.

– In July 1939, Jewish militants placed bombs at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, killing five Arabs and wounding 14. That same month, a donkey mounted with explosives killed 21 Arabs and wounded 24 in the Haifa vegetable market.

– In May 1947, Etzel militants broke into Acre Prison and freed 28 incarcerated Irgun and Lehi members. During the operation, three Etzel members were caught. In order to prevent them from being hanged, the Etzel abducted two British sergeants. In July 1947, the three Etzel members were executed. The following day, the Etzel hanged the two sergeants.

The events described in the first three paragraphs were all terror operations. The event described in the final paragraph is a guerrilla operation. In guerrilla warfare, a small group of combatants — which are not part of an organized army — carry out violent attacks against an established military. This is nothing new, it’s a matter of common wisdom. It is also a matter of morality. Attacks against an army are not on par with random attacks against civilians.

Consider this a public service announcement to members of the Labor Party, whose attempts to ingratiate themselves with the public made them forget history, accepted terminology, and basic loyalty among friends.

Dr. Tomer Persico is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Elyachar Center in Ben Gurion University. He also teaches at the department for Comparative Religion in Tel-Aviv University and at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

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    1. Kate

      Labor MK Zohair Bahloul raises a legitimate question that needs to be asked. Why was it alright for Israeli freedom fighters to use violence, but not ok for the Palestinians? Why we Jews around the world understand the pain of anti-semitism and bigotry, yet Israel does the same to Palestinians? These are questions I have been asking for 30 years. Usually these questions are met with anger and comments about my being a Jewish anti-semite. Until recently no one has seemed interested in asking the questions that need to be asked. Mr. Bahloul is headed in the right direction and I hope people serious about finding peace support him and try to find answers. Shalom <3

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        Simple answer to your quesiton: The British were foreign occupiers in the Palestine Mandate. Israel is NOT a “foreign occupier” in the West Bank.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Gingy Schwedi

      Thank Jahve there are still SOME people in Israel who still remember what the word Shalom really means.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Farragut

      Did the pre-state Zionist militias have the goal of liberating all _Britain_ from British rule?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Did the pre-state Zionist militias have the goal of liberating all _Britain_ from British rule? No. Do the post-state Palestinian militias have the goal of liberating all Eastern Europe from Eastern European rule? No. Do the post-state Zionist occupiers have the goal of liberating all Palestine from Palestinian rule? Some do some don’t. Do the stateless Palestinians have the goal of liberating all of Palestine from Israeli rule? Some do some don’t. Is a reasonable and durable 2SS or 1SS therefore advisable for both sides? Yes. Can it be achieved? Yes, but Israel holds all the cards and shows no sign of wanting peace except the ‘peace’ of entrenching Israeli rule from the river to the sea. Did Nelson Mandela have the goal of liberating all of South Africa from apartheid rule? Yes. Did Mandela use violent means at one point in the struggle and then switch to nonviolent tactics? Yes. Did South Africa push the Boers into the sea and back to Holland? No. Did it establish a peaceful truth and reconciliation committee? Yes. Is South Africa planning to invade the Netherlands? No. Did Israel supply Apartheid South Africa via international arms sales? Yes. Does Israel today quietly promote terrorism by supplying South Sudan with arms and profiting from this deadly trade all the while complaining loudly about Iran supplying Hezbollah? Yes. Anything else?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Baladi Akka 1948

      Comparing Zionist militia in pre-1948 Palestine with the present Palestinian resistance in a joke.
      The Palestinian resistance (now and then) are natives of the land fighting against a colonial rule, the Zionists were foreigners fighting other foreigners in Palestine, which was not their land.
      One has to have been through a lot of brain-washing to even think the two are comparable.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Farragut

      The Arab colonial narrative and its racialist denial of the Jewish peoples’ indigeneity runs strong here. Say “Khazars”, you know you want to!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        No thanks, but I will say “troll.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, Right

        “The Arab colonial narrative and its racialist denial of the Jewish peoples’ indigeneity runs strong here.”

        So all Jews are “indigenous” to…. well, to what, exactly?

        “Say “Khazars”, you know you want to!”

        No, I don’t, because I don’t care.

        But I do want to ask a more general question about converting to Judaism.

        Because someone who isn’t Jewish can, of course, convert to Judaism.

        I assume (correct me if I am wrong) that upon that conversion this person will be regarded as a Jew, whereupon he/she would be counted thereafter as one of the “Jewish peoples”.

        Q: Has that conversion to Judaism also converted that person’s “indigeneity”?

        I am genuinely curious to hear your answer, because (and I’m being perfectly honest here) I have no idea what your answer will be, and I suspect that you don’t either.

        Reply to Comment