Begin, Menachem

(1913–92)
   Etzel commander and Israel political leader. Whatever the moral and political questions it raised, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization) under Begin’s command was on the operational level one of the most effective and audacious underground groups in modern times. The organization was generally known as Etzel, from the Hebrew initials of its name, or simply as the Irgun.
   Begin grew up in Brest-Litovsk in Russia and took a law degree at the University of Warsaw. In pre-war Poland he emerged as one of the militant leaders of the Revisionist movement founded by JABOTINSKY, and commanded the Betar (Brit Trumpeldor), the movement’s youth organization. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, he escaped to Vilna, then occupied by the Soviet Union, but was arrested and sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labour camp. He was released at the end of 1941, and reached Palestine in 1943 as a member of the Free Polish forces. In December of that year, he was appointed commander of the Etzel, which resumed armed resistance against British rule in Palestine. The bitter and violent struggle was to continue until the end of the mandate in May 1948. Except for a period of co-operation in 1945–6, Etzel was also, like a smaller dissident group, Lehi, in conflict with the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, the main defence organization of the yishuv. The Irgun had several thousand members and operated in small groups, relying on careful planning and surprise. Like the Haganah, it maintained a secret radio transmitter. Its attacks were directed against British installations such as government offices, police posts and army camps. It was also connected with Aliyah Bet (illegal immigration) though that was mainly the concern of the Mosad, set up by the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. The Irgun’s political aim and its belief in force were illustrated by its emblem - a rifle held in a clenched fist against a map of the Mandatory area, including Transjordan, with the slogan Rak Kach (‘Only Thus’). The British security services arrested and jailed a number of its members, and in October 1944, 251 Etzel and Lehi men were deported to a detention camp in Eritrea in East Africa.
   British counter-terror measures became tougher as the fight intensified against Ernest BEVIN’S anti-Zionist Palestine policy. There was a price of ten thousand pounds on the head of Begin. In July 1946 Etzel blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that housed the British military headquarters and the secretariat of the administration. Ninety-one persons were killed and forty-five injured. The casualties included British, Arab and Jewish officials and staff. Etzel maintained that a half-hour warning had been disregarded by the British. After one Etzel prisoner had been flogged, this form of punishment was stopped when British officers were seized and flogged in retaliation. In the spring of 1947 four Etzel members were condemned to death and hanged in Acre jail. Two more condemned men committed suicide in their cell. In May, forty-one prisoners were released in a daring raid on the Acre jail. When three more condemned men were executed, Etzel hanged two British sergeants whom they were holding as hostages - an act that caused a wave of anger in Britain. During this period, a publicity and fund-raising campaign was carried on in the United States by Etzel’s supporters, under the name of The Hebrew Committee for National Liberation.
   The United Nations partition decision on 29 November 1948 was followed by a series of Arab attacks against the Jewish community in Palestine. In the months of confused local fighting before the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, Etzel played an active part, sometimes in conjunction with the Haganah command and sometimes in defiance of it. On 10 April 1948, Etzel carried out one of its most controversial actions. Together with Lehi, it attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem, killing 241 of its inhabitants. The attack was condemned by the Jewish Agency. The propaganda use of this episode by the Arab leadership stimulated the exodus of the Arabs. After Israel came into existence on 14 May 1948, Begin declared that the Irgun would be willing to disband itself and let its members join the armed forces of the state. However, Irgun units continued to operate independently for some while, especially in Jerusalem, which was cut off from the rest of the country. In June, during the first truce, there was a showdown between the Irgun and the Provisional Government, since BENGURION, the prime minister and minister of defence, was determined to put an end to separate armed groups. The Altalena, a small freighter carrying Etzel arms, ammunition and volunteers, was beached off the shore at Tel Aviv. Ben-Gurion’s demand for the surrender of the arms to the government was rejected by Etzel, unless a fifth of the weapons and ammunition were handed over to it. The situation was further complicated by the fact that bringing in the arms was a breach of the UN truce. When the parleys broke down, Ben-Gurion ordered the Israel soldiers on the shore to open fire on the boat, and it went up in flames. In September Etzel finally disbanded. In 1948 Begin founded and led an Israel political party called Herut (‘Freedom’). It became the largest single opposition faction in the Knesset. In the first five Knesset elections, Herut averaged about 12 per cent of the votes. In economic and social policy, it was regarded as right-wing, opposed to the Labour parties and the Histadrut. Externally, it was expansionist, and maintained the aim of including all of the historic Land of Israel in the borders of the state. In 1965, Herut joined forces with the old General Zionist section of the Liberal Party to form the Gahal bloc, that gained 21 per cent of the seats in the elections of that year.
   On the eve of the Six-Day War in June 1967, Gahal joined the Government of National Unity, formed by Levi ESHKOL. It was given several Cabinet seats with Begin named minister without portfolio. This national front broke up three years later, when Golda MEIR’S government accepted an American initiative for a renewed cease-fire and Israel-Egyptian talks for a settlement that would include Israel withdrawal in the Sinai desert. Begin resumed his role as the main opposition leader.
   In 1977, as leader of the Likud party, he succeeded in forming a coalition and became Prime Minister. He was reelected in 1981. During the period of his premiership, he signed a peace accord with President SADAT of Egypt for which both men were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. The treaty specified that Egypt would guarantee Israel’s right to exist and would provide guarantees for her southern border. In return Israel would hand over Sinai. In 1982 however Israel launched an attack against the Palestinian bases in Southern Lebanon and world public opinion was dismayed by the killing of Muslim refugees by Christian Falangist Arabs in the Sabra and Shatilla camps which were under Israeli control. The invasion with its heavy Israeli casualties provoked a political crisis and Begin resigned in 1984.
   His books include Ha-Mered (1950; English The Revolt, 1964), the story of the Etzel; and Be-Leilot Levanim (1953; English White Nights, 1957), about his experiences as a Russian prisoner in Siberia.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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