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British Palestine Mandate: The British Prison
for Women in Bethlehem

At the beginning of the Mandate period, Jewish and Arab women, including members of the Haganah, Lehi (Stern Gang) and Irgun (Etzel), were arrested and imprisoned in regional detention centers and the central prison in Jerusalem. In 1930, the Palestine Police converted a building in Bethlehem to be used as a separate prison for women. In 1943, a house in the center of the city belonging to the Khandal family was converted to incarcerate female members of the underground.

Women were openly recruited by the Haganah; however, the Irgun and Lehi were more careful because of the ideological nature of the groups. Women as young as 16 joined the underground, many of whom were from traditional backgrounds who had to cope with a clandestine existence that was very different from their family life.

Women served in a number of capacities, from secretarial jobs to command and management positions. Women in the Haganah and Palmach had separate training courses for command positions. Few women were given command positions in the Irgun or Lehi. Many women served in the headquarters of the Haganah, primarily in secretarial and administrative positions, while the other organizations had few women in their headquarters.

Women were trained in arms and self-defense, but also communications, medicine and surveillance. Training for the Irgun and Lehi usually took place with commanders in hideouts. These sessions were also used to indoctrinate women in the groups’ ideology.

About 180 female fighters were held in the Bethlehem prison. Some had family members who were imprisoned elsewhere by the British. There were several prisoners who were mothers. They had started their underground activities before having children and were now separated from them. One of the mothers did not want to be visited in prison, but the others were permitted to see their children within the prison walls.

In 1944, following a legal dispute, the underground movement detainees were transferred to a nearby building, “Salem Villa.” At the end of December 1947, they were transferred to the detention camp in Atlit. When the Mandate ended on May 14, 1948, the prisoners were released. Most joined the IDF and took part in the War of Independence.

Source: Underground Prisoners Museum