It didn’t seem that way, but this day – April 26 – exactly 65 years ago was pivotal in yet-to-be-born Israel’s history. Its little-celebrated and hardly remembered events remain central for debunking the lies about the circumstances of the Jewish state’s inception. Its trials and tribulations tell a unique story of individual courage and defiant daring quite literally against all odds.
Yet shamefully too few – even among us – are at all aware of it. As time goes by, the numbers only dwindle.
April 26, 1948 was shaping up to be quite a dismal day. The single exception was the fact that on that day the IZL (Irgun Zvai Leumi) and the large Labor-led Hagana signed a cooperation agreement whereby the Irgun undertook to carry out only missions beforehand authorized by the Hagana, as well as to assume whatever operational roles the Hagana would assign it.
The evening of April 26 was particularly wretched for Menachem Begin. In his role as IZL commander he had decided to halt the Irgun’s attack on Jaffa’s Manshiyeh quarter, then already in its second ill-fated day.
Mounting casualties and bleak assessments had outweighed the Hagana’s green light to continue the offensive. A grim Begin explained to his men:
“Were it not for the British tanks and armored vehicles, we could have achieved our objectives. But the tanks are there, and we cannot ignore their presence… We will hold on to the line we had reached and leave a strong advance guard there for days to come. The other units will be withdrawn… This is no failure. The combined power of the enemy is many times greater than ours… I don’t think we should continue bashing our heads against strongholds reinforced by British tanks.”
It was less than three weeks before David Ben-Gurion would proclaim Israel independent but the Arabs were already plotting their invasion of the yet-to-be-born state. On that April 26 Transjordan’s King Abdullah announced belligerently that “The only way left for us is war. I will have the pleasure and honor to save Palestine.”
“Saving Palestine” was the euphemistic code phrase for annihilating the Jews of embryonic Israel. Others were more explicit. Five days after Abdullah’s crowing, Arab League Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman Azzam Pasha declared: “If the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.”
Lest any doubt linger, Azzam reiterated his message two weeks later, just as seven Arab armies began assaulting day-old Israel: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
Azzam’s bluster was intended to instill fear but, by any objective criteria, there indeed was plenty to fear.
The Arabs had vehemently rejected the November 29, 1947 UN Partition Resolution that would have created Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine side-by-side in this country. They weren’t interested in a Palestinian state. They wanted to destroy the projected Jewish state, although it was granted only disjointed and quite untenable territorial mini-shreds.
Even stunted and inherently unsustainable Jewish statehood couldn’t be tolerated by those who now portray themselves as Israel’s hapless victims. From pre-dawn on November 30, they instigated a relentless bloodletting throughout the land. They also began urging local Arabs to flee temporarily to make way for the invading Arab armies.
Haifa became a focal point for this plan. In the wake of unremitting carnage by Arab snipers, saboteurs and marauders, the Hagana took control of the city on April 22 – after barely 24 hours of warfare. The Arab flight had begun.
On April 26 the US Consul General in Haifa, Aubrey Lippincott, reported to the State Department that “Local Mufti-dominated leaders were urging all Arabs to leave the city.” He was referring to Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini, the infamous Nazi-collaborator and fomenter of anti-Jewish atrocities since 1920.
Also on the very same April 26 Haifa District Headquarters of the British Palestine Police informed Police HQ in Jerusalem that “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.”
But it was all to no avail and about to be replicated in Jaffa, although on April 26 no one in neighboring Tel Aviv dared hope that the Manshiyeh menace would soon disappear.
As in Haifa, Tel-Avivians suffered nonstop aggression following the adoption of the UN Partition Resolution. Worst of all was the indiscriminate sniping from Jaffa’s Turkish-constructed Hassan Bek mosque in the Manshiyeh Quarter that bordered on Tel Aviv.
Anyone who moved in the nearby streets of Tel Aviv was in the marksmen’s sights and there was no telling when and where the next shot would claim a victim. Just crossing the street for the most mundane of reasons entailed a life and death risk.
The mosque’s minaret, it needs to be stressed, was used to take potshots at Tel Avivian passersby before Israeli sovereignty could be blamed for a Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe – The Arab moniker for Israel’s establishment) and before Israel could be internationally demonized as ruthless occupier.
My mother often recalled the mortal peril entailed in venturing out to the corner grocery. She herself was almost injured by rifle fire on her way to the dentist.
A couple of afternoons after that dental appointment, her landlord, Mr. Braun, buttonholed my mother at the entrance to his apartment house on 7 Aharonson Street. Standing in the doorway he lectured her sternly about the foolhardiness of her sorties outdoors. Just then a bullet whistled by. Mr. Braun fell dead at my mother’s feet.
It’s more than likely that opinion-molders the world over don’t know about Mr. Braun, who was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany. But the truth is that Hassan Bek’s gunmen didn’t care about the identity of their numerous random victims. It helps their progeny’s predatory propaganda not to mention that and to keep pretending that Jaffa didn’t continuously attack Tel Aviv, that peaceable Jaffans were dispossessed arbitrarily in villainous circumstances devoid of context.
The context is that Tel Aviv bled profusely. About 1200 “hits” were reported in less than five months, among them over 160 fatalities.
In addition, with the Arab invasion in the offing, it was clear that the Egyptian army would proceed directly along the coastline from Gaza to Jaffa. Jaffa Port could have become a vital Egyptian beachhead. Vanguard Iraqi combatants had already arrived and were embedded in Jaffa.
The IZL planned to cut off Manshiyeh in order to thereby end the sharpshooting and preempt the invaders. Preparations were underway throughout April, most significantly via intrepid Irgun raids on British camps and weapons transports in which guns and munitions were commandeered.
Then 600 Irgun fighters assembled in Ramat Gan, crossed Tel Aviv westward to the Manshiyeh boundary and launched their incursion in the wee hours of April 25.
But Jaffa’s strength was underestimated. Contrary to fraudulent Arab narratives of nonviolent Jaffans overwhelmed by mighty Jewish ogres, the truth was that the Irgun detachments were puny in comparison to the far superior well-armed Arab forces and that bitter fighting ensued. The two Irgun companies sent into Manshiyeh had to retreat under heavy fire.
Political foes couldn’t contain their gloating and merciless backbiting. Ha’aretz accused the Irgun of trying to garner prestige by emulating the Hagana feat in Haifa. The Labor daily Davar derided the “Jaffa joke,” while the Marxist al-Hamishmar decried “the great provocation and shame.”
The next day, April 26, started out even worse. Sappers were sent out to blow up key strategic structures but their success was partial and the infantry units couldn’t hold on to these sites. They were greeted by machine guns, British armored vehicles and British anti-tank shelling. For the first time since November, the British were actively intervening in actual combat.
It was then that Begin decided to essentially call it quits. He thought it the only prudent move, one that would save lives. But what he didn’t expect was sweeping and uncompromising grassroots opposition.
The fighters, who had lost comrades and were themselves directly in harm’s way, refused to pull back and demanded “another chance.” It came close to a mutiny and Begin couldn’t overcome the defiance of his own troops. The high regard for him notwithstanding, he failed to impose his considered ruling, which the men on the frontline saw as an admission of defeat.
The looming insubordination in the ranks on April 26 forced Begin to rethink and approve new tactics for April 27.
Luckily for him his chief operations officer, Amichai “Gidi” Paglin, was endowed with rare resourcefulness – evident in the masterminding of such exploits as the bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel and the Acre Prison break.
Paglin reckoned that progress through the narrow streets was impossible, so he suggested advancing inside Manshiyeh’s buildings – many of which were attached in long rows – by demolishing interior connecting walls. Wherever movement through open terrain couldn’t be avoided, sandbag barriers would be quickly erected.
In the dead of April 26’s night, thousands of sandbags were filled and moved to the front as were sledgehammers, crowbars, pickaxes and any conceivable masonry-busting implements. The actual attack began next day, in mid-afternoon. This time it worked and Arab fortifications crumbled, despite unstinting British assistance. By early daylight on April 28 Israel’s flag was hoisted over the terrifying Hassan Bek Mosque. Manshiyeh was in Irgun hands.
At that point the foremost lesson of April 26 became self-evident: willpower can conquer all odds.
No matter how discouraging things look, no matter how much bellicosity boastful enemies bellow, no matter how much cynical deceit is disseminated, no matter how much media pundits jeer, one single episode of dogged determination can overturn all gloomy forecasts and literally change the course of history.
We are incomparably better off today than the Irgun fighters were on that fateful April 26 when their battle seemed lost, but we still sorely need their gritty never-say-die resolve.