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Will Hamas reject terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist? That is the critical question yet to be answered following the recent Palestinian election.Technorati Tag: Israel and Palestine and Hamas.
Some analysts suggest Hamas will, drawing a parallel between it and the Stern Gang, a clandestine Jewish group that terrorized the British in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel.
I found those analyses fanciful, similar to the claim made by apologists for Palestinian terrorism that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. But they made me wonder how former Sternists would feel about the comparison to Hamas, and so, looking for answers, I sought them out. To a person, the old fighters I interviewed were outraged at the Hamas comparison.
The Stern Gang, derisively named by the British for its founder, Abraham Stern, adhered to his philosophy of personal terror in pursuit of its goal: the creation of an independent Jewish state. Its members carried on a campaign of bombings and assassinations that were strongly condemned by the mainstream Jewish community.
They called themselves LEHI, the Hebrew acronym for the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. But with the founding of Israel, they put down their arms, some entered politics, and one of their underground leaders, Yitzhak Shamir, went on to become Israel's Prime Minister.
LEHI maintained a strict secrecy policy, operating in small cells, its members known to each other only by code names, in order to frustrate the unrelenting British effort to track them down and destroy their organization. Because privacy remains important to the individuals with whom I spoke, I have referred to them by fictitious names.
Amos, decorated by the British as a war hero for his service behind German lines, was one of the more than 25,000 Jewish Palestinians who served in the British Armed Forces in World War Il. In 1943 he was granted a leave from service in Cairo and returned to Palestine.
Now 92 years old, wearing a green cotton sweat suit and sporting two days of gray stubble on his cheeks and chin and a full head of hair, Amos described in perfect English his role in one of LEHI's most infamous operations, the assassination in Cairo in 1944 of Lord Moyne, then the highest ranking British civilian in the Middle-East. Shamir, LEHI's Director of Operations, ordered Amos, who would return to Egypt after his leave, to establish an organization capable of killing Moyne.
I asked him what he thought of the notion that one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. A pensive Amos hesitated and then responded, "I agree there is a subjective element in the way you look at these things." But he added with emphasis, "killing men and women drinking coffee, it is not possible to compare."
Admitting that when he ran LEHI's postwar operation in America, he had sent dynamite from Chicago to a colleague in London who used it in a LEHI letter bomb assassination, he told me: "We didn't blow up cinemas in London. We could have, but we didn't want innocents to die. We never willingly killed the innocent."
Irit is a friend and admirer of Amos. She is the daughter of a talmudic scholar, still effervescent, attractive and stylish at age 76. Initially, she did not mention her rather tangential involvement in the assassination in 1948 of Count Bernadotte, a United Nations peace negotiator. It was only when I pressed her for information about her most dangerous underground activity that she reluctantly gave me a scintilla of information about it.
But she was eager to discuss the Hamas question, and did so with passion:
"All along they compared us to suicide bombers. The most important thing to remember is that we never hit innocent people. We never touched the families of high officers and we knew exactly where they were. It simply never entered our minds. it was important to hit only those who continued British policies, stopping us from establishing our nation. We were acting against a foreign occupier."
To my suggestion that Irit's last comment sounded like a Hamas claim, I got answers from two other LEHI members, Shoshi and Eyal.
Shoshi, whose first husband was killed in the famous Acre Prison escape in 1947, had been given every possible LEHI assignment, including assassination.
She claimed: "Our longing was to build a Jewish state. We were fighting for land described in the Bible as being for the children of Israel. It was never any kind of independent country for the Palestinians. They never seriously claimed that before we got here. When we came here the Arabs didn't call themselves Palestinians."
I responded that It still seemed like a claim to land being made by the occupied to the occupier.
Her retort: "Even our enemies knew it was ours. I remember in Germany in 1933 the cries — 'Jews to Palestine' — all the Christian World knew it was our state. I heard it in Belgium too. The whole world said go to your own country."
She continued: "Yes we used terrorism. But our terrorism is far away from nowadays terrorism and we had a moral barrier. We planned an operation so as not to involve the innocent. There are always surprises, but if it happened, it was unplanned. I am lucky I didn't have to kill. I was sent to assassinate a soldier but he was with a friend and I didn't shoot. Unlike the Germans, our orders were that we had the authority not to follow orders if that was right thing to do. There is no comparison, what they do now is not human and it is cruel."
Eyal is a gigantic man, 83 years old. Conversation with him is made difficult by his hearing loss, suffered when the bomb he was working on for LEHI exploded.
He echoed Shoshi, insisting that many LEHI operations were canceled when there was a risk to innocent civilians. He added that because each LEHI fighter had a duty to think for himself, a fighter suffered no punishment for aborting an operation under those circumstances.
Like Shoshi, he told me: "This is the most essential difference, they fight for God and we fought for the land."
I challenged him: I see no difference. Your claim to the land stems from the Bible and that sounds like to me fighting for God.
His response: "I was born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Germany. For 11 years I thought I was a German, then Hitler came and they told me you are a Jew, you can't be a German. If this is not my country, where can I find a country. I am a patriot, not religious. This is not a country for God, It is for the Jewish people and that is why I fought. It is my home."
Yasmine gave me insight into the LEHI perspective on martyrdom. When I first arranged to meet her for coffee in a Jerusalem mall, I asked how I would recognize her. She told me she was a "fat, old Jewish lady." The person I met was a full of life seventy-eight year old, with a twinkle in her eye and a fiery spirit.
She recounted that by age 17, she had pasted forbidden LEHI posters on Jerusalem billboards, smuggled arms past British sentries, traced the movement of His Majesty's soldiers through Jerusalem streets, and ridden troop trains throughout Mandate Palestine, recording their timing and movements in an effort to assist the Stern Gang's sabotage campaign against the railroads.
But she wanted to do more, she wanted to be a real fighter. Finally, when her superiors recognized her fearlessness and zeal, she got her wish. They asked her to assassinate General Barker, the British Commanding General in Palestine.
And so Yasmine staked out Barker. On a daily basis, she walked back and forth in front of his residence dressed as a nurse pushing a baby carriage containing a blanket covered doll. The plan was to work out the timing so that Yasmine could escape after detonating a bomb, substituted for the doll, that would kill Barker. To Yasmine's disappointment, the plan was abandoned when she could not satisfy her handlers that she could carry out the operation without herself being killed. LEHI, she asserted, would never have engaged in an operation that put their fighters or civilians at risk, and the idea of a suicide mission was beyond their comprehension.
I tried to understand how this charming woman had been willing to kill. Yasmine explained she had no qualms about killing a British soldier or police officer if that would have caused mothers in England to demand that the government bring their sons home and help to get the British out of Palestine.
But on the killing of women and children and the Hamas comparison, she was adamant. "We didn't kill even one child," she told me. She opined that LEHI could have saved its members sent to the British gallows for carrying illegal weapons by kidnapping British women and children to use as hostages for prisoner exchanges. But harming children, "never, never, never-it is so brutal."
That LEHI's central goal was the creation of an independent Jewish State in Palestine is clear. Beyond that, the story of LEHI is complex and controversial.
The vast majority of the Jewish population in pre-state Israel condemned LEHI's tactics, though certainly not its ultimate goal. And there is no agreement among historians about the significance of LEHI 's contribution to the establishment of Israel. Nor is there agreement about what occurred in the 1948 attack on Deir Yassin, an Arab village near Jerusalem, carried out by LEHI and another Jewish underground organization, where innocent civilians were killed, although even LEHI's harshest objective critics accept that Deir Yassin was a military operation gone bad.
I do not know how Hamas would have responded to my inquiry. But I know what Hamas continues to say in its charter: "Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it — there is no solution to the Palestinian question except through Jihad." And I know what it has done — it has carried out dozens of bus and restaurant bombings right here in Jerusalem and dozens more all over Israel, targeting not soldiers and policemen, but families out to dinner or kids going home from school.
While aspects of LEHI's record continue to be debated by historians, the old Sternists' insistence that the perceived parallel between them and Hamas ignores the most critical and morally significant distinction between the two groups is compelling: Only Hamas uses indiscriminate terror against women, children and other innocents as a regular instrument of its war, and encourages its followers to commit acts of martyrdom in aid of its cause.
Murray Richtel was a district court judge in Boulder from 1977 to 1996. He holds dual citizenship in the United States and Israel.