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King David Hotel bombing
On July 22, 1946, members of the Jewish underground military organization Irgun Tsvai-Leumi in the British Mandate of Palestine exploded a bomb at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel was the base for the British Secretariat, the military command and a branch of the Criminal Investigation Division (police). 91 people were killed, most of them civilians: 28 British, 41 Arab, 17 Jewish, and 5 other. Around 45 people were injured.
The attack was initially ordered by David Ben Gurion, who was in the United States, but he later changed his mind and ordered the bombing to be cancelled. But Menachem Begin, the head of Irgun, went ahead anyway. Both Ben Gurion and Begin would later become Israeli Prime Ministers. The attack was commanded by Yosef Avni and Yisrael Levi .
The attack on the hotel was the largest attack against the British in the history of the Mandate. Some claim this act should be considered in light of the escalating violence in the region, and the continuing conflict between the three main forces in the region: British, Jewish, and Arab. In particular, the attack was made in retaliation for the British Operation Agatha.
Moshe Sneh , the chief of the Haganah General Headquarters, sent a letter to Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, with instructions. Text in (bracketed italics) has been inserted to clarify some of the references. The original letter can be found in the Jabotinsky Institute Archives (k-4 1/11/5).
- At the earliest possible opportunity, you are to carry out the operation at the "chick" (code for the King David Hotel) and at the house of "your servant and messiah" (code for the David Brothers building). Inform me of the date. Preferably at the same time. Do not reveal the identity of the implementing body - either by announcing it explicitly or by hinting.
- We too are preparing something - will inform you of details in good time.
- Exclude TA (Tel Aviv) from any plan of action. We are all interested in preserving TA - as the center of Yishuv life and the center of our own activities. If, as the result of any action, TA is immobilized (i.e., curfew, arrests), this will paralyse us and our plans as well. And the important objects of the other side are not focused here. Hence, TA is 'out of bounds' for the forces of Israel. 1.7.46. M. (Moshe Sneh)."
Despite its initial approval, repeated delays of the operation were requested by the Haganah in response to the changing political situation. Finally, the Irgun went ahead on its own without approval.
A warning message was delivered to the telephone operator of the King David Hotel before the attack, and also delivered to the French consulate and the Palestine Post newspaper. According to Irgun sources, the message read "I am speaking on behalf of the Hebrew underground. We have placed an explosive device in the hotel. Evacuate it at once - you have been warned."
Irgun representatives have always claimed that the warning was given well in advance so that adequate time was available to evacuate the hotel. The British authorities denied for many years that there had been a warning at all, but the leaking of the secret police report on the bombing during the 1970s proved that a warning had indeed been received. However, the report claimed that the warning was only just being delivered to the British officer in charge as the bomb went off.
Responses to the attack
The British House of Commons responded:
- "On July 22 1946, one of the most dastardly and cowardly crimes in recorded history took place. We refer to the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Ninety-two persons lost their lives in that stealthy attack, 45 were injured, among whom there were many high officials, junior officers and office personnel, both men and women. The King David Hotel was used as an office housing the Secretariat of the Palestine Government and British Army Headquarters. The attack was made on 22 July at about 12 o'clock noon when offices are usually in full swing. The attackers, disguised as Arabs, carried the explosives in milk containers, placed them in the basement of the Hotel and ran away.
The Chief Secretary for the Government of Palestine, Sir John Shaw , declared in a broadcast:
- "As head of the Secretariat, the majority of the dead and wounded were my own staff, many of whom I have known personally for eleven years. They are more than official colleagues. British, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians; senior officers, police, my orderly, my chauffeur, messengers, guards, men and women - young and old - they were my friends."
The Jewish leadership publicly condemned these attacks. The Jewish agency expressed "their feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals". In fact, the Irgun was acting in response to direct instructions from the United Resistance , as described in the letter from Moshe Sneh cited above.
The Irgun issued an initial statement accepting responsibility for the attack, blaming the British for the deaths due to failure to respond to the warning, and mourning the Jewish victims. A year later, on July 22 1947, they issued a new statement saying that they were acting on instructions from "a letter from the headquarters of the United Resistance, demanding that we carry out an attack on the center of government at the King David Hotel as soon as possible".
The British army commander in Palestine, General Sir Evelyn Barker , in an order written only a few minutes after the bombing, commanded that Jewish property be "out of bounds for all British officers and soldiers". He stated that: "The aim of these orders are to punish the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, namely by striking at their pockets." The order was rescinded two weeks later after much outrage at its anti-semitic nature.
The King David Hotel
The King David Hotel, built with locally quarried pink sandstone, was opened in 1931. It once hosted three monarchs who fled their countries: King Alfonso XIII of Spain (1931), Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1936) and King George II of Greece (1942).
After the bombing, this hotel became a British fortress until May 4, 1948, when the Union Jack flag was lowered. It then became an Israeli fortress. At the end of the War of Independence, the hotel found itself on the border that separated Israel and Jordan. This hotel was reopened in 1967, after the Six-Day War, when Israel regained Jerusalem. Today it is a well-known 5-star hotel.
- T. Clarke, By Blood and Fire, (see review)
- Bethel, The Palestine Triangle.
- Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970), p. 172.
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