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Irgun

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Irgun poster showing their view of the Land of Israel
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Irgun poster showing their view of the Land of Israel
Irgun (ארגון), shorthand for Irgun Tsvai Leumi (ארגון צבאי לאומי, also spelled Irgun Zvai Leumi), Hebrew for "National Military Organization", was a paramilitary Zionist group that operated in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1931 to 1948. In Israel, this group is consistently referred to as Etzel (אצ"ל), a contraction of the Hebrew initials. It was classified by British authorities as a "terrorist organization" but many regarded it to be a "liberation movement". Its political association with Revisionist Zionism rendered it a predecessor movement to modern Israel's "right-wing" Likud party/coalition.
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Founding, development and key events

The group was an offshoot of the Haganah in protest both against its policy of restraint and socialist leanings. Based on the premises formulated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky that "every Jew had the right to enter Palestine; only active retaliation would deter the Arabs; only Jewish armed force would ensure the Jewish state," (Howard Sachar: A History of the State of Israel, pps 265-266) the group made retaliation against Arab attacks a central part of their initial efforts. The Jewish Agency denounced the existence, strategy, and tactics of the group from the very outset, leading to a full-fledged confrontation in 1948 that led to the dissolution of the group.

Irgun was founded in 1931 by Avraham Tehomi, following a largely political and ideological split with the Haganah after he had assumed leadership over the district of Jerusalem. Irgun differentiated itself from the Haganah by disassociating from the socialist ideology and the prevalent strategy of Havlagah, or restraint. Throughout its history Irgun advocated a more decisive use of force in the defense of Jews in Mandate Palestine and in advancing the formation of a Jewish state.

While the strategy, tactics, and operational methods of the organization changed through the years, its primary goals were to:

  • Provide a non-Socialist alternative to the leading Zionist organizations;
  • Eliminate or reduce the threat of Arab attacks on Jewish targets by assured and harsh retaliation for such attacks;
  • Bring to an end the British mandatory rule, which they considered in violation of international law

From its inception, the group went through several phases in its short lifespan.

  • From 1931 to 1937 it was a small, renegade group that undertook scattered attacks against Arab targets. This phase ended when the group itself split, with some of its leaders, including the original founder, Tehomi, returning to the Haganah; and the group formally identifying itself as "Etzel" (Irgun).
  • During the Great Uprising (1936-1939), in which about 400 Jews were killed in Arab attacks, Irgun resumed its reprisal attacks against Arabs. Following the killing of five Jews at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim on November 9, 1937, Irgun launched a series of attacks which lasted until the beginning of World War II, in which more than 250 Arab civilians were killed.
  • These attacks coincided roughly with Irgun's campaign of facilitating immigration of European Jews who faced discrimination, murder and pogroms in Europe. The first vessel arrived on April 13, 1937, and the last on February 13, 1940. All told, about 18,000 Jews escaped genocide in Europe in this way.
  • Upon the publication of the White Paper in May of 1939, Irgun concentrated all its efforts against the British, whose restrictions on Jewish settlements, they felt, were leading to avoidable deaths by the hands of the Nazis.
  • From 1940 through 1943, Irgun declared a truce against the British, and supported Allied efforts against Nazi forces and Arab allies in the area by enlisting its members in British forces and the Jewish Brigade. A small group group lead by Avraham Stern, who insisted on continuing to fight the British, broke off and formed and independent group (see Lehi). In 1941, the Irgun leader, David Raziel volunteered for a dangerous mission in Iraq to assassinate Amin al-Husayni, but was killed by a German bomber before the operation could be finished.
  • In February of 1944, under the new leadership of Menachem Begin, Irgun resumed hostilities against the British authorities. The purpose of these attacks was to bring public attention to the cost and ineffectiveness of the British mandatory rule. It included attacks on prominent symbols of the British administration, including British military, police, and civil headquarters at the King David Hotel and the British prison in Acre. Although these attacks were largely successful, several Irgun operatives were captured, convicted, and hanged. Refusing to accept the jurisdiction of the British courts, those accused refused to defend themselves. The Irgun leadership ultimately responded to these executions by hanging two British sergeants, which effectively brought the executions to an end.
  • Following the murder of Lord Moyne by Lehi, the Yishuv and Jewish Agency initiated "The Hunting Season" on Irgun and the Lehi group, facilitating the arrest of some 1000 members of those organizations who were interned in British camps. The British deported 251 of them to camps in Africa.
  • From about October of 1945 until July 1946 Irgun was in an alliance with the Haganah and Lehi called the Jewish Resistance Movement, organized to fight British restrictions on Jewish immigration. This alliance ended when Irgun bombed British military, police, and civil headquarters at the King David Hotel as a retaliation for Operation Agatha.
  • From July 1946 until June 1948, Irgun fought as irregulars against the British mandate and Arab forces, informally in coordination with Haganah forces. Their participation in alleged "war crimes" at Deir Yassin has been widely discussed and documented. Their largest single operation was a successful assault on Jaffa (an Arab enclave according to the UN partition plan) starting on May 25.
  • In 1948, the group was formally dissolved and its members integrated into the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces. This integration largely coincided with the sinking of the Altalena, a ship with fighters Irgun had recruited and arms Irgun had acquired for Israeli forces.

Legacy of Irgun

Leaders within the mainstream Jewish Agency, Haganah, and Histadrut, as well as British authorities, routinely condemned Irgun operations as "terrorist" and branded it as an "illegal organization". In their defense, former Irgun leaders assert that:

  • The premises for their founding and strategy were vindicated by subsequent events. Arab violence against Jews in the mandate of Palestine could only be deterred through retaliation; the British authorities only ended their restrictions on Jewish immigration when pressured by force; and unrestricted Jewish immigration was a matter of saving lives, both during the Shoah and during post-World War II pogroms in Poland and Ukraine.
  • Operations that are usually characterized as "terrorist" had another character. The King David Hotel attack was considered a legitimate military target, being the British military headquarters; the attack on Deir Yassin was part of a campaign to control the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; the attack on the Acre prison was to release prisoners the British intended to hang.
  • At least one of the attacks plainly made against civilians was unauthorized by the Irgun.

See also

External links

de:Irgun es:Irgn he:ארגון צבאי לאומי nl:Irgun fi:Irgun

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