Newly declassified documents reveal how British police in Mandate Palestine sought to cover up the “cold-blooded killing” of Jewish resistance activists, Israeli researchers have said.
More than 5,000 papers recently released by the Israeli State Archives include hitherto unseen reports of lethal raids by British forces that describe the killings as “acts of self-defence” or “accidents”.
Among the files are Ra’anana Police records which show the British point of view of the famous shooting of the “Lehi children”.
On 12 November 1947, British police were told that members of the resistance group Lehi (‘Freedom of Israel’, better known in Britain as the Stern Gang) were undergoing military training in a local house — and they decided to raid the building.
During the confrontation, three girls, aged 15 to 18, were shot dead: Yehudit Cohen, Sarah Belski and Leah Gintzler. A boy, Shalom Makharovsky, only 16, and their instructor, Yitzhak Moskowitz, 19, were also killed. Others were wounded.
According to Israeli researcher and filmmaker Peleg Levi, who made a documentary about the raid based on eyewitness accounts, there was “no doubt” that the children were running away from the building when they were shot and were “not a threat” at that moment.
This view is underlined by “the fact that no British soldier was wounded in the incident”, said Mr Levi.
The police report does record that the Lehi members “jumped out from all directions of the house and started fleeing in several different directions”, but fails to mention at what point police opened fire, adding that “the commander saw his forces in immediate danger and gave the order to shoot”.
Included in the British report was a long list of the weapons that were seized in the raid, as well as the claim that “the operation received support from London”.
According to Dr Saul Zadka, the author of Blood in Zion, a history of the Jewish armed struggle in Palestine: “It was a calculated retaliation a few days after Lehi attacked army bases in the region.”
Another document records the case of 18-year-old Asher Tartner, who was shot in his leg by British soldiers while distributing Lehi leaflets.
The police reported that although he died later in hospital, he “received first aid treatment”.
However, Dr Zadka said, “despite his injury he was taken to the local CID centre where he was brutally interrogated while heavily bleeding”.
Two other files, relating to the deaths of innocent bystanders Meir Plaskovsky and his son Reuven, on 17 September 1947, in Moshav Karkur, reveal another cover-up by British forces, according to Dr Zadka.
Plaskowski and his son were riding a motorcycle from Hadera to Pardes Hanna when they were struck and killed by a British armoured car.
In the British report on the incident, the soldier driving the armoured car said that he took off his sunglasses, lost control of the vehicle and smashed into a roadside tree, unaware that he had run them over.
However, another file details a testimony from Shneur Zalman Gonik, a Jewish man from Tel Aviv, who was driving that day to Pardes Hanna and saw the armoured car swerve intentionally into a motorcycle.
“The motorcycle was 15 metres ahead of me,” Gonik said. “In front of both of us was a military armoured car. Suddenly, I saw it swerve and hit the motorcycle. A cloud of dust rose up and after it dissipated, I saw the driver of the armoured car probably losing control and zigzagging along the road. About five metres ahead of me, he gained control of the vehicles, moved to the other side of the road, hit a fence, then a tree and stopped. I did not see any other car behind or in front of us. There was nobody on the road except the armoured vehicle, the motorcycle and my car.”
Dr Zadka said the attack was a randomly targeted “retaliation” after the Irgun had hanged two British sergeants outside Netanya.
He added: “The investigator wanted to prosecute the driver, but he fled to Britain and the file was closed.”
Dr Zadka said: “These are only just a few examples of the British conduct in Palestine, mostly in the last four years of the Mandate. The killing sprees were not only acts of individuals. They were part of a pattern that consisted of lying and cover-ups. They intensified towards the end of the British rule in Palestine.
“Hitting civilians became more common as the British were losing the war against the Hebrew underground groups fighting for independence.”