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Irgun Tz'va'i Le'umi (Etzel): Background & Overview

(1931 - 1948)

Avraham Stern

The Irgun was a Jewish underground organization, founded in 1931 by a group of Haganah commanders, who left the Haganah in protest against its defense charter. The Irgun rejected the “restraint” policy of the Haganah and carried out armed reprisals against Arabs, which were condemned by the Jewish Agency. Many of its members were arrested by the British authorities; one of them, Shlomo Ben Yosef, was hanged for shooting an Arab bus.

Avraham Stern viewed the British, more than the Arabs, as the primary enemy of the Jews and the principal obstacle to Jewish independence. He advocated an armed struggle against the British. With David Raziel, he compiled a manual on the use of the revolver, the first of its kind in Hebrew. In 1933, he wrote the poem “Anonymous Soldiers,” which became the anthem of the Irgun (and, later of Lehi). 

In 1934, Stern was sent by the Irgun on missions to Poland and other European countries to purchase weapons and arrange for their shipment to Eretz Israel. In 1935, he obtained the first two Finnish submachine guns, shipping them in double-sided boilers. Other weapons were transported in suitcases and crates belonging to immigrants. Stern concluded an agreement with the Polish government in 1938, and arms acquisitions were accelerated. The weapons were transferred under Polish army supervision to Irgun warehouses in Warsaw and then shipped to Eretz Israel.

David Raziel

Stern was responsible for recruiting manpower and acquiring money. He also assisted at times in the landing of immigrants on the shores of Eretz Israel. 

In April 1937, during the Arab riots, the organization split—about half its members returned to the Haganah. The rest formed a new Irgun Zeva'i Le'umi (abbr. Etzel), which was ideologically linked with the Revisionist Movement and accepted the authority of its leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky.

On March 15, 1939, the Irgun radio network Kol Tzion HaLokhemet (“Voice of Fighting Zion”) began broadcasting news and messages to the people the organization wanted to disseminate.

Menachem Begin

Following the issuance of the British White Paper in May 1939, the Irgun entered a new phase with a series of attacks against British military installations and personnel and members of the police force.

On September 5, 1939, Raziel was arrested by the British along with Stern and members of the Irgun high command. Raziel was released in October and issued a proclamation of ceasefire and intention to cooperate with the British for the duration of the war in August 1940. Stern vehemently opposed tempering the resistance and formed a radical splinter group that came to be known as Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi).

In 1943, Menachem Begin became the leader of the Irgun. In February 1944, the group declared war against the British administration. It attacked and blew up government offices, military installations, and police stations. The Jewish Agency and the Haganah moved against the Irgun in a campaign referred to as the  “Hunting Season.” The Irgun joined the Jewish Resistance Movement and, after its disintegration in August 1946, the group continued attacks on British military and government objectives.

After British troops invaded the Jewish Agency on June 29, 1946 (Black Sabbath), the Irgun decided to target the King David Hotel where the British military command and the British Criminal Investigation Division (CID) were based. Ignoring warnings to evacuate the building, 91 people were killed and 45 injured when the bombs planted by the Irgun exploded on July 22. Fifteen Jews were among the dead.

In April 1947, four members of the organization were hanged in Acre prison. On May 4, 1947, the Irgun broke into the prison and freed 41 prisoners. In July 1947, when three Irgun members were executed, the group kidnapped and hanged (on July 30) two British sergeants.

British Sergeants Hung by the Irgun

Irgun radio broadcasts ceased the day Israel declared its independence (May 14, 1948).

In August 1948, the newly formed Israeli cabinet voted to issue an ultimatum telling the Irgun to join the IDF (thereby losing their own organizational identity) or force would be used against them. The Irgun high command offered to disband the organization and integrate its members into the army of the new Jewish state.

Prior to that, however, the Irgun attempted to land a ship laden with arms on the beach in Tel Aviv. David Ben-Gurion was afraid the Irgun would be a threat to the new government and ordered the cargo to be confiscated. When Begin objected, Ben-Gurion ordered the ship, the Altalena, to be taken by force. Begin used the Irgun radio to urge his fighters not to resist after Ben-Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena. In the course of shelling, the ship caught fire and the Irgunists were forced to abandon the ship. Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed in the confrontation with the army, which lost three soldiers.

Afterward, Ben-Gurion ordered the arrest of 200 Irgun fighters. Most of them were released several weeks later, with the exception of five senior commanders (Moshe Hason, Eliyahu Lankin, Yaakov Meridor, Bezalel Amitzur and Hillel Kook), who were detained for more than two months. Following a public campaign on their behalf, they were released on August 27, 1948. Shortly thereafter, the Irgun was fully integrated into the IDF.

SourcesIsrael State Archives.
The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente.
Menachem Begin, The Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), p. 224.
J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin's Press), p. 172.
Anne Sinai and I. Robert Sinai, Israel and the Arabs: Prelude to the Jewish State, (NY: Facts on File, 1972), p. 83.
Irgun Radio Begins Broadcasting, Center for Israel Education.

Photos: Irgun logo - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Hanging - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.