Anonymous soldiers: When 'terrorists' won the war



If someone told you that Osama bin Laden masterminded 9/11 after reading a seminal text about militant Zionism - written by a former Israeli Prime Minister - would you believe them? The story may sound far-fetched, but it's true.

When US military forces invaded Afghanistan back in 2001,they found, in a well-stocked library that Al-Qaeda maintained, several books written about the Jewish terror struggle that helped bring about the state of Israel in 1948.

In fact, almost everything bin Laden learned about murdering and maiming civilians, he gleaned while reading The Revolt, a book first published in English in 1951, by Menachem Begin: the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, and founder of the political party, Likud. Before Begin became a respectable statesman, however, he was - in the eyes of the British government at least- regarded as a Jewish terrorist.

The evidence connecting Begin and bin Laden doesn't come from some far-left, militant Hamas-supporter but from Bruce Hoffman, a US terrorism analyst with more than 40 years' experience researching and working in this field.

"We now know that Osama bin Laden was intensely studying the Irgun and Menachem Begin, to see how a terrorist group can use violence first, and then try and transform itself into a political partner," says 61-year-old Dr Hoffman, who is currently the Director of the Security Studies Programme at George- town University in Washington DC.

Hoffman and I are discussing Jewish terrorism because he's recently published an excellent book about the subject, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947.

Backed up by research he has accumulated after visiting numerous archives in the UK, US, and Israel- and from scrupulously looking through various private papers and highly classified documents - Hoffman's text attempts to understand the following question: why did Britain decide in 1947 to surrender the mandate, and to suddenly pack up and leave Palestine, after a tumultuous three decades in charge there?

The main argument Hoffman presents is that the Jewish terrorist campaign, primarily led by Begin and the Irgun - although Avraham Stern, Yitzhak Shamir and others also played their part- was the first post-Second World War conflict of national liberation to clearly recognise the strategic value of terrorism.

"Menachem Begin [who led the Irgun] recognised that there was immense propaganda value that came with terrorist violence," says Hoffman. "He was trying to convince a global audience that Palestine [with the British in charge] was an armed state."

It certainly appeared so. During the early 1940s, shortly before the British government left Palestine for good, there were approximately 100,000 British soldiers for every six adult Jews. But as Hoffman reiterates, there were never more than 5,000 committed military activists in the Irgun.

"Part of Begin's strategy was this notion of psychological warfare," says Hoffman.

"He was trying to depict, to a global audience, the oppression being imposed on the Jews by the British in Palestine, who were closing the gates to hundreds of thousands of displaced persons languishing across Europe.

"Back then, these Jewish groups - such as The Irgun and Lehi - were called terrorists by the Jews in Palestine, by the British, and by the press.

The difference today, I guess," says Hoffman "is that the word 'terrorism' has far more pejorative connotations." The Irgun may have had Begin at the helm of the organisation, as both a master strategist, and an expert in the art of propaganda, but Hoffman admits that the tactics used by the former Israeli Prime Minister were still what we would today refer to, in popular media discourse at least, as terrorism.

Take the decision by the Irgun to blow up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, where 91 people were killed, Hoffman says.

"The bombing of the King David Hotel was certainly a military target. And even if the intention was not to cause casualties, that was the tragic result.

"And, as I depict in the book, there were many lies told to absolve the Irgun, and Begin especially, of responsibility. And there is documentary evidence pointing to this."

Throughout his analytical career, Hoffman says he hasn't seen terrorism as a pejorative word in the way others might see it.

"In this book, I am not making a moral judgment," he makes clear. "Terrorism may have had different connotations back then. But still, that doesn't mean that it wasn't terrorism."

As someone with a wealth of knowledge behind him about how so-called terrorist groups operate, Hoffman doesn't get bogged down in moralising. And he eschews pious and hypocritical judgments you might hear from government minsters, or say, heads of state, when speaking about how certain paramilitary groups have used violence in the past to successfully implement change.

He speaks in the direct language of Realpolitik. And understands that the cliché is true: history is written by the victors.

"What drew me to write this book was the fact that history is rarely monocausal," says Hoffman.

"What I'm trying to do is to focus specifically on the role terrorism played in creating the state of Israel. And one reason I did this was because I have spent the past 40 years working as a terrorism analyst."

"Most of the terrorist groups that have existed over the last two millennia haven't succeeded. However, those who have, played a significant role in changing the course of history," Hoffman says with stern conviction.

The rise of the of Israel, Hoffman argues in his latest book, was a mixture of a number of powerful factors. But, in the final analysis, he says, the Irgun's enormous success ultimately displays that terrorism - in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics- does work successfully for those militant organisations who have specific political aims and goals.

So would it be an exaggeration to say that, without Jewish terrorist groups like the Irgun and Lehi the state of Israel wouldn't exist today?

"Terrorism was by no means the main factor, but it was enormously important in accelerating the process," says Hoffman.

Hoffman concludes by quoting Arthur Creech Jones: who was Colonial Secretary of State in Britain at the time.

In a letter dated October 23 1947, addressed to Elizabeth Monroe, who was then Director of the Middle East Division of the British Ministry of Information, Arthur Creech Jones wrote that, largely [because of the actions of the Irgun in particular]: "with accelerating speed, the cabinet was pushed to the conclusion that they could no longer support the Mandate."

"Look, Britain would have preferred a resolution of the Palestine problem," says Hoffman.

"But they eventually realised that, despite their interests in maintaining Palestine strategically, it just wasn't going to work. Because they didn't have the resources to maintain that imperial presence. And Jewish terrorism played a huge part in that process."

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