LONDON — At 11:45 a.m. on July 22, 1946, a stolen vehicle holding four Jewish fighters from the Irgun paramilitary organization pulled up to the basement entrance of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The men unloaded seven large milk containers, each containing 100 pounds of deadly explosives.
At 12:37 the bombs detonated, ripping the entire building apart and killing 91 people, the majority of them civilians, including 17 Jews.
In Westminster, British prime minister Clement Atlee described the attack as “an insane act of terrorism” and labeled its mastermind Menachem Begin, a Jewish terrorist. (Begin later went on to form the Likud political party, and served as the sixth prime minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983.)
In his recently published book “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle For Israel 1917-1947,” author Bruce Hoffman — a terrorism analyst, who was once a scholar-in-residence for counterterrorism at the CIA — claims that the bombing of the King David Hotel, even 69 years later, remains one of the most infamous acts of terrorism the world has ever seen.
Hoffman says that even though the Irgun gave warnings regarding the impending explosion, this ultimately cannot absolve Begin and his organization from responsibility for the massive loss of life.
“The hotel was occupied by British military personnel,” says the 61-year-old in conversation with The Times of Israel from his home in Washington, DC’s historic Georgetown neighborhood.
“So it was a military target. But even if the intention was not to cause casualties, that was the tragic result. And there have been many lies told to absolve the Irgun — and Begin especially — of responsibility. There is documentary evidence that clearly points to this.”
“Calls were certainly received by the hotel switchboard. The problem was they were never communicated to the British authorities. Nor did they arrive in the timely fashion that the Irgun and others claim they did.”
Hoffman’s latest tome is a bulky affair. Coming in at just under 500 pages, it’s a meticulously researched work of scholarship. And for nearly every point he makes in the book, he presents two or three credible sources.
Much of this information he gleaned from the Public Record Office of the National Archives in Kew, London. He also scoured numerous other archives, in both Israel and the United States, and conducted several primary interviews with past members of the Irgun and Lehi, another militant group. Additionally, he spoke with former British statesmen, soldiers and police, who were all involved in governing or crafting British policy for Palestine during the British Mandate.
In his book, Hoffman hypothesizes that the political violence that plagued Palestine when ruled by Britain presents an ideal case by which to examine and assess contemporary terrorism’s power to influence government policy and decision-making.
Some background: Before 1948, the land that eventually became the Jewish State of Israel was administered by Britain under the terms of the mandate awarded it in 1922 by the League of Nations. During the 1920s and 1930s, both Arab rioting and anti-Jewish violence dominated Palestine. By the early 1940s, however, two Jewish militant organizations emerged: the Irgun and Lehi.
Both of them strategically challenged Britain’s rule over Palestine with tactical violence that aimed to gain sympathy from the international community. And it worked, very effectively.
“The Irgun and Lehi were the first postmodern terrorist movements,” says Hoffman. “Especially the Irgun, primarily because of Begin’s strategy. Like all good underground leaders, Begin understood, even in an era long before 24/7 news, the power of appealing to a global audience with extreme and dramatic acts of violence.”
Hoffman’s narrative asks the reader to suspend emotion for a moment, and to think about violence, objectively, as a political weapon. With this in mind, it appears that he’s asking how one could use this knowledge and apply it to numerous multifaceted, complex political conflicts that violently rage across the globe today.
His argument includes questions like: Does terrorism work? And what exactly is the definition of a terrorist?
States use the word ‘terrorist’ as a form of insult and to help hold the balance of power when certain dissident actors threaten their legitimacy
Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell negotiated with the IRA for nearly a decade under Tony Blair’s New Labour Government to bring about the Good Friday Agreement and peace to Northern Ireland. Hoffman cites Powell’s book, “Talking To Terrorists,” three times in his new work.
In conversation a year ago, Powell admitted that powerful Western governments throughout the 20th century — particularly the British — operated with appalling hypocrisy by initially claiming that men like Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuinness, and Menachem Begin were terrorists, then, in the blink of an eye, portraying these men as honorable statesmen and forgetting about past atrocities.
Crucially, Powell admitted, states use the word “terrorist” as a form of insult and to help hold the balance of power when certain dissident actors threaten their legitimacy. And if so-called terrorists are using violence for purposes governments like, well, they tend to skip over that, Powell said.
In recalling this conversation to Hoffman, he nods his head in agreement.
“Look, that is absolutely right,” he says. “Terrorism is resorted to for practical reasons because there is no other tool available. And those who use terrorism, and then subsequently become the targets of terrorism, understand its power and how difficult it is to counter it. Not just militarily. But especially in terms of international perception. And that’s where Begin really was a master strategist.”
Hoffman, like Powell, says he is not championing terrorism. But as a realist, he claims the point of his book is not to get bound up by moral judgments when speaking about the subject.
Given that Israeli politicians fundamentally understand how Jewish terrorism played such an effective role in helping bring about the State of Israel, is it naïve to think they might have more of a sympathetic understanding of why Palestinians currently use terrorism to try to achieve their political objectives?
“Well it’s far more simple than that,” Hoffman replies. “No country that is created where terrorism has played some role wants to admit it, for fear of that weapon being used against them. And that’s what is really at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Hoffman says, however, the nature of terrorism has changed globally in the last decade, especially in the Middle East.
Had Fatah, the party led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, continued at the helm over all Palestinians, instead of Hamas — which currently rules in Gaza after ousting Fatah in a bloody coup in 2006-7 — would the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have evolved to a point where peace, and a two-state solution, might at least have been considered an option?
“Yes,” he replies with absolute conviction.
“The PLO was stridently secular, Marxist, and a socialist movement. And had it remained a secular struggle from the Arab side, things would be very different today. If you look at the PLO, during the 1970s and the 1980s, they continually cited the Zionist movement [by Begin and others] as their role model. And they were often even quoted as saying they were consciously emulating it. ”
“But what we eventually saw in the conflict — from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side — was an overall transformation, where religious politics became much more powerful,” says Hoffman.
Shia Islam became a much more powerful political force following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Add in the settlement movement after the 1967 Six Day War from the Israelis, and what you see developing is a lethal cocktail of religion and politics which ultimately changed the course of Middle Eastern history.
Hamas’s role should not be overlooked, says Hoffman.
After the First Intifada in 1987, Hamas’s popularity eventually began to overtake both Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine. But it was really after 1991, when it was taken under the wing of Hezbollah, Hoffman says, that Hamas catapulted into greater political prominence, using religion as an ideological weapon to win Palestinian hearts and minds on a mass scale.
Hoffman points out that it wasn’t until 1994, for example, that suicide terrorism became a chief strategy of Palestinian policy.
“Suicide bombing became highly personalized. Especially during the Second Intifada,” he says. “This was when any considerable progress between Israeli and Palestinian relations was really undermined. And religion played a profound part in that.”
In a world where the difference between a violent terrorist and an honorary statesman often comes down to a simple ability to be able to iron out a political agreement and sign a piece of paper, can one draw a clear line between secular terrorist groups with firm political aims and mandates (the provisional IRA, ETA, and Fatah) and fundamental Jihadi groups, who use divine intervention as their ultimate guide such as ISIS and Al-Qaida?
“I think you can,” says Hoffman. “There is a huge difference. Secular terrorist groups who have an ideology and a political platform, use terrorism as a leverage, or means to get power. But religious terrorists justify their violence on religious grounds. And the latter group strikes a very visceral chord with people.
“The events we are now seeing globally— whether it is in Paris, Iraq, Syria or Libya— has shown that religion is the glue that holds it together,” says Hoffman.