Israel’s pre-state Haganah military force spied on the meetings of Britain’s Peel Commission in a Jerusalem hotel in 1936-7, and rushed to establish dozens of new Jewish settlements in what was then British Mandatory Palestine in part because they realized the commission would otherwise offer the Jews sovereignty in only a very small section of the Holy Land, a TV report revealed on Saturday night.
The Commission headed by Lord William Peel, which was set up to investigate the causes of unrest in Palestine and wound up recommending the partition of the Holy Land, was headquartered from late 1936 to mid-1937 in what was then the Palace Hotel near the Old City of Jerusalem. The hotel was built by the then mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a fierce opponent of Jewish statehood who would later collaborate with Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The Haganah planted listening devices in chandeliers in the hotel, the TV report said, exploiting the expertise of two of its officers who had been involved in the building’s construction — an engineer named Baruch Katinka and and a telephone communications expert named Yeshayahu Finesod.
Relatives of the two men and other academics detailed the story to Channel 10 news Saturday night — in a report that coincided with the reopening this month of the Palace, which has been rebuilt at a cost of $150 million and is now renamed as Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Listening in on the commission’s deliberations, pre-state Jewish leaders increasingly internalized that they were likely to be offered only relatively small areas of the contested territory. They therefore despatched Jewish pioneers to take physical control of territory that had already been purchased by the Jewish National Fund in 52 locations in what was known as the “Tower and Stockade” campaign.
The guiding philosophy was that wherever the Jews had established a physical presence, they would be more likely to be given sovereignty under the eventual partition of the British mandatory territory, as proved to be the case with the 1947 UN-backed partition plan.
The report did not specify the content of the overheard conversations, and the relatives of the two named Haganah officers did not offer many details of the eavesdropping operations.
They also said that they had been sworn to secrecy for many years.
The report did highlight the irony that the hotel that was the Zionism-loathing mufti’s pride and joy would prove vulnerable to pre-state espionage activities that helped cement the Jewish presence in the Holy Land.