LEHI - Fighters for the Independence of Israel

Emblem of LEH"I

Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (known as LEH"I - lochamei cherut yishrael לח״י - לוחמי חרות ישראל) was a Jewish underground organization operating against the British Mandate from 1940 until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. LEH"I was declared a terrorist organization by the Mandatory Government, and after the establishment of the state and following the murder of Bernadotte, even by the Provisional Government. This underground was established by dissident members of the National Military Organization (ETZE"L) who opposed ending the struggle against the British Mandate during the Second World War.

LEH"I members carried out attacks against senior British and British government officials by assassinations and the sabotage of strategic facilities. In 1940, the organization tried to sign a deal with the Nazi Regime in Germany to try and save the majority of European Jews from extermination and secure their immigration to Palestine. In return, the LEH"I promised to fight to force the British Empire out of the land of Israel.

In 1980, the State of Israel recognized the contribution of LEH"I as a fighting body that helped to establish the state.

Table of Contents

The Split from ETZE"L

With the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939, most of the leaders of ETZE"L were in a British prisons after they were arrested four days after the publication of the White Paper of 1939. The Yishuv leadership called for cooperation with the British in their war against Germany, and many members of the Yishuv enlisted in the British army to aid the British war effort. The leader of the Revisionist Movement also took part in the war against the Nazis, and in September 1939 David Raziel sent orders from prison for ETZE"L to cease offensive operations against the British so as not to interfere in the war against Germany and to devote the maximum number of troops to aid England and its allies.

Raziel's declaration led to an internal struggle within ETZE"L over the future direction of the organization. At the head of those who disagreed with Raziel was Avraham Stern (Yair), and after Raziel was released from prison in Octeber 1939, the other members were released in June 1940 leading to an open confrontation between Raziel and Stern that signaled a split within ETZE"L. In this way, a splinter faction was established which at first adopted the name 'The National Military Organization of Israel' unlike the 'National Military Organization in Eretz Israel' from which they resigned and it was only later in 1943 after the death of Avraham (Yair) Stern that the name was changed to 'Fighters for the Freedom of Israel'.

The Organization and Its Members

Avraham Stern was the head of the underground until he was caught and killed in his hiding place in Tel Aviv on 12 February 1942 by British Intelligence officer Jeffrey Morton. After his death, a leadership committee was formed with Yitzhak Shamir (then Yitzhak Yazernitzky, nicknamed Michael) and Israel Shavev (Eldad), Nathan Friedman-Yellin (Gra) and Gershon Schatz (Goga). Other well-known members were Yehoshua Zetler, Yitzhak Hasson, Ya'akov Eliav, Ya'akov Granak, Geula Cohen, Yehoshua Cohen, Boaz Evron and Amos Keinan. In 1942 immediately after the death of Stern, Yehoshua Cohen served as head (though not officially) of the underground for a period of about six months and held together the remnants of the organization since the leadership that would eventually arise after the death were still in British prisons while Yehoshua hid with the aid of his wife, Nechama (Necha), in the orchards of Kfar Saba staying there until Yitzhak Shamir escaped from prison and took command.

LEH"I was a small organization with only a few hundred people but it carried out daring actions against British rule, including the use of mines against British policemen and attacks on British targets. The British called the organization "The Stern Gang" (or in Arabic "Jam'at Stern") to express their loathing for him and to belittle them as a fighting organization. In order to finance its activities, the organization would sometimes engage in bank robbery. The organiztion distributed a weekly magazine called Ma'as, and operated an underground radio station, the Voice of the Hebrew Underground, whose announcer was Geula Cohen. The primary announcer was Marfish Natan-Gad and the radio technician was Ya'akov Yitzhaki (Alex). Many members came to LEH"I through the religious youth movement Brit Ha'cHashmonaim.

Following the creation of LEH"I, the LEH"I Religious Department was set up in Jerusalem for the Haredi and religious citizens who wished to join the ranks of the LEH"I which was headed by Yitzhak Gvirtz who also served as the shochet שוחט (religious slaughterer) for the LEH"I in Jerusalem.

Memebers of the Haganah considered LEH"I to be a part of ETZE"L which operated in violation of the instructions of the National Institution. However, during the Saison (Hunting Season), ETZE"L refrained from attacking LEH"I. After the end of world War II on 1 November 1945, the LEH"I joined the Jewish Resistance Movement that united all of the armed groups in the Mandate. However, both ETZE"L and LEH"I continued the armed struggle even after the Haganah had ceased to do so, and the LEH"I also expanded their activities outside the borders of the Land of Israel. During the War of Independence, the LEH"I fought as an independent organization in the area of Jerusalem. After the murder of Folke Bernadotte in which LEH"I was implicated, the Israeli government ordered that the organization be dismantled.

Members of the organization competed in the elections for the Constituent Assembly under the name "Fighter's Party" and won one seat.

The rules of conduct in the underground as conveyed to the members of the organization[1]:


Like ETZE"L, LEH"I was also politically close to the Revisionist Movement. The organization's platform was set out in "The Eighteen Principles of the Revival," written by Avraham Stern in which he defined the mission of the movement:

The key sentence in the principles of the Resurection is: "There is no revival of the kingdom without the redemption of the land, and there is no revival of the nation without the rise of the kingdom."

The first four sections address the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their right to the place of their birth which is the land of Israel from the Euphrates River to the river of Egypt as well as the overall purpose of the movement. The next six sections discuss the role of the organization:

The rest of the sections discuss the role of the movement after the liberation of the country from British rule:

LEH"I held an anti-imperialist ideology. According to it, British rule in Palestine was considered an illegal occupation, and therefore LEH"I concentrated its attacks on British targets (as opposed to Haganah and ETZE"L, who were concerned mainly with fighting Arabs). LEH"I prisoners refused to defend themselves in their trials held by the British, and usually would only read a statement that the court, representing an occupying power, lacked authority to appoint judges and that it was not legal. For the same reason, LEH"I prisoners refused to request a pardon, even in cases where such a request would have saved them from the death penalty. One of the LEH"I prisoners, Moshe Barazani, committed suicide in prison (together with the ETZE"L fighter Meir Feinstein) to prevent the British from being able to execute them by hanging.

The ideology was put into action through guerilla operations and by assassination of the representative of the British Government such as soldiers and policemen, and against guard stations and the British Army. The organization operated primarily in the main centers of the Yishuv in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Although some of their influence spread into the countryside, the organization did not establish any settlements in the country.

The LEH"I anthem "Unknown Soldiers" was written by Avraham Stern, founder and commander of the LEH"I (before the LEH"I was created, this anthem was used by ETZE"L).

The Right to the Land

The LEH"I leaders believed in the absolute ownership of the Land of Israel by the Jewish people ("Adenot"), was a natural and eternal right which must be exercised on its own and not as a response to the plight of Jews in exile or to "solve the Jewsih question" as Theodor Herzl put it. They believed in conquering the land by force ("a land conquered by blood") and not through purchase with money, or achieving it through political means and as favors from rulers and superpowers, for weapons are the natural and accepted way for the realization of national goals and a not a last resort of self-defense.

The Attitude Toward the Arabs

The main dispute between the various streams of thought in the LEH"I was about how to view the Arab inhabitants of the Land of Israel. While one faction, which included Israel Eldad (Shaeb), who regarded the Arab residents of the country as foreigners whose problem could only be solved through mass population relocation, while the other faction, led by Natan Yellin-Mor-Friedman and Eliahu Beit Tzuri, was influenced by the Canaanites who were in favor of integration into the "Semitic Space." This group (whose members included Amos Kenan) believed that the similarities between Israeli "Sabra" and Arab residents was greater than those between the sabra and the Jews of the Disapora.

Since the main aim of LEH"I was the struggle with the British, who they regarded as a "foreign occupier", there were groups in both factions that did not rule out the possibility of an alliance with the Arabs against the British. However in practice, there were many violent acts carried out against the Arabs.

Overtures to Fascist and Nazi Regimes

In September 1940, LEH"I was negotiating an agreement with Fascist Italy known as the "Jerusalem Agreement of 1940" which was never signed. The agreement was the result of the actions of Moshe Rothstein, who also belonged ETZE"L and even came to the attention of the British secret police, and while the Italian side was fictitious as was the agreement, Stern laid bare his ambitions in the negotiations and his intention to join with the Axis Powers in their war against the British. This was because Stern admired the Italian Fascists and that both considered the British to be an enemy. Even though a final version of the agreement was written it was never signed. Haviv Canaan, an historian of the Yishuv, wrote that the reason for this was that when the agreement was at the stage that it was worthwhile to sign it, Rothstein demanded that Stern meet with a representative of the Italian Government to formally sign it. Stern was ready to go but his friends opposed the trip to sign the agreement and negotiations ended. Joseph Heller, an historian of the LEH"I, explained that at the end of 1940, after Italy's defeat in the invasion of Greece and their campaign in the Western Desert, Stern apparently lost any hope of implementing the agreement and then pivoted from Italy to the more successful Nazi Germany for an agreement.

At the end of 1940, a LEH"I representative, Naftali Lubinchik, was sent to Beirut where he met with a representative of the Nazi regime, Werner Otto von Huntig, and made a proposal in the name of LEH"I that LEH"I would take an active part in the war alongside Germany in exchange for German assistance in bringing European Jews to Palestine. Von Hentig passed the letter to the German Embassy in Ankara but there is no known official German response to the letter. LEH"I members tried to contact the Germans again in December 1941 but again without success. The goal was to fight the British, who did not allow Jews to enter Palestine, in exchange for German help with the immigration of Jews to Palestine. They saw it as necessary to first fight the British in order to open the gates of the Land of Israel to Jewish refugees.

After the failure of Lubinchik's mission, the LEH"I did not give up and tried again to contact Nazi Germany. After vitory in the war in Syria and Lebanon, in July 1941 the Allies controlled Syria and it was then possible to reach the border of neutral Turkey where a German Embassy was located. In December 1941, Natan Yellin-Mor went to Syria to work on the fortifications in northern Syria built by a Jewish contractor from Palestine, and then go from there to Turkey to contact the Germans to persuade them to help LEH"I in fighting their common British enemy. Yellin-Mor made contact with smugglers and was about to leave for Turkey. British Intelligence learned of this and in January 1942 arrested Yellin-Mor and sent him to a detention camp in Israel.

The Organization's Activity and the Fight Against It

LEH"I's activities were mainly directed at the British during the period of the Mandate. There were no known instances where the organization attacked British citizens who were not a part of the government with the exception of the bomb that killed Roy Farran's brother. (NB: A revenge attack for the alleged murder of 17-year old Alexander Rubovitch, a LEH"I supporter, in Jerusalem in 1947.) In order to finance their activities, LEH"I engaged in numerous robberies which they called "confiscations." These actions were carried out against bank branches (both local and foreign), gold and diamond dealers, a clerk at the Hamashbir Center and a mail truck.

Actions Led by Avraham Stern (Yair)

At the beginning of December 1941, the British Police raided an apartment near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station; many key member of the underground (including Yitzhak Shamir and Yehoshua Zattler) were found and arrested, which led Stern to conlude that it was time to strike back at the British police detectives. It was a difficult period for the underground, they were almost out of money and its people were driven to unsuccessful attempts at robbery. Many were being thrown into prison because of informants and no allies were in sight. The Yishuv also showed hostility toward the Undergound which was viewed as being too extreme and even injured Jewish officers.

Among the actions initiated by Stern against the British police was the assassination on 8 Ya'el Street. The goal, some claimed, was to kill the British officer, Jeffrey Morton, who led the activities against LEH"I. The plan was to plant a trap in a room at 8 Ya'el Street in Tel Aviv. A LEH"I operative detonated a small explosive device and scattered blood (from an animal) in the room and on the stairs, causing a panic among the neighbors who then called the police. Jeffrey Morton was busy at the time and asked officer Shlomo Schiff, who was the commander of the Tel Aviv district, to go and investigate. Schiff and the other officers who accompanied him, entered the room in the attic and a second charge, which had been planted in advance, was detonated by a LEH"I man from a nearby building. Schiff was killed on the spot, as was Nachum Goldmann, another officer from the Jewish community who served in the British police, and British Office Turon who died the next day. This caused a great outrage in the Jewish community and the Hebrew press condemned the murders. Two leaflets were published after the operation by 'The National Military Organization in Israel' and the 'National Military Organization' (codenames for LEH"I in those days) expressing support and justification for the action and the attacks on Schiff and Goldman, who served in the British police with support from Haganah to help it and the struggle of the Jewish community. Thus, for example, the LEH"I statement read:

"Officers Schiff and Goldman were sentenced to death by the supreme court of the organization. This ruling was confirmed by the leader and commander of the IZL in Israel, and executed on Monday 20/01/1943 at 9:20 AM in Tel Aviv ... the police must refrain from interfering with the activities of the members of the organization in the performance of their national duty. This warning is also directed at the quislings of the Jewish Agency and the Revisionist Party."[2]
Another leaflet published by LEH"I and dated 26/01/1942, explains why the the killing of Schiff and Goldman was permitted and stated:
"The lesson: Jewish officers and policemen as well as every man in the Yishuv are required to fulfill their national duty and stand on our right for the revival of the Hebrew monarchy in Zion. We warn all informers, foreign government officials and their servants because if they do not immediately stop helping them (the British) we will continue our fight with them until their complete destruction. Our hands will reach them wherever they are, and no force can save them from their crimes."

The position of LEH"I became even worse. On 27 January 1942, detectives from the CID (NB: Criminal Investigative Department) broke into and apartment on 30 Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv where they found four LEH"I members. They opened fire and severely injured them. Abraham Amper and Zelig Jacques later died of their wounds. The other two, Ya'akov Levstein and Moshe Svoray, were were captured and put in prison. This was a heavy blow to LEH"I.

The Death of Yair

In 1942, the British Mandatory Authorities had reached their limit with the activities of LEH"I and decided to bring it to an end. They promised a reward of 1,000 pounds (a fortune at the time) for the commander. Following a tip from an informer (though some claim it was a just good intelligence) the British managed to trace Avraham Stern to the apartment of Tova and Moshe Svoray in Tel Aviv. On 12 February 1942, after he was taken from his hiding place in the apartment and officially arrested, the British Intelligence officer, Jeffrey Morton, took out his gun and shot Yair at close range. Yair died immediately.

This was the low point for LEH"I. The British succeeded in arresting most of the remaining leaders. Memebers of the leadership, Hanoch Kalai and Binyamin Zeroni, surrendered to the British. The person who continued the activities of the Underground was Yehoshua Cohen, who hid in the orchards of Ra'anana. Yitzhak Shamir, who succeeded in escaping from the Mizra Detention Camp, began rebuilding LEH"I.

The policy of always carrying weapons proved to be an obstacle for the Underground. After the killing of Yerachmiel Aharonson (Yehoshua) and the death sentence of Matti Shmuelevitz for carrying a weapon, the policy was changed.

After Yair's Death

In November 1943, twenty LEH"I members escaped from the Latrun Detention Camp through a long tunnel that they had dug for many months using garden tools they had been given.

From February to September of 1944 LEH"I members attacked the British in the streets, planted bombs in their cars, shot at them as they chased LEH"I members and blew up the police building in Jerusalem. In these acts, a large number of British policemen and officers were either killed or injured (as well as a number of Jews who served in the British Mandate police). A number of LEH"I members were killed while others were arrested and brought before military courts. LEH"I defendants used the courts as a platform for their propaganda as the defendants became accusers and denied the legality of the British occupation. Much effort was expended in attempts to assassinate the heads of the British security forces and senior figures who symbolized British rule in Palestine. Most of the plans were not implemented or failed.

On 19 October 1944, the British Mandate government removed hundreds of ETZE"L and LEH"I prisoners to detention camps in Africa. The prisoners made numerous attempts to escape but only a few succeeded. The detainees were released and allowed to return to Israel only after the establishment of the state on 12 July 1948.

LEH"I members executed those they considered to be traitors. So in the years 1943-1948, they executed Joseph Davidescu, a veteran of the NIL"I Underground; Israel Pritzker, a member of SHA"I (NB: The Haganah Intelligence Service); the LEH"I members Yehuda Aryeh Levi and Avraham Vilenchik, Vera Duke and Chaya Seidenberg, the young Ernst Michael and others. Among their victims were foreign nationals one of whom was Mikhail Kliszczuk (Zydec), a Polish Christian who was the director of a refugee club who murdered in January 1948 because of suspicions he had been in contact with Arab gangs.

(NB: This is by no means a complete listing of all of the British casualties for they suffered over 200 killed. See http://www.britishforcesinpalestine.org/index.html)

The Jewish Resistance Movement

In the 1944-1945 period, the Haganah operated an "anti-terror operation" (the Saison) and LEH"I was forced to cease operations for several months. The months of the lull were used by LEH"I to form a 'combat brigade' and prepare for new combat operations. The also began to develop the capability to produce their own weapons (primarily submachine guns - the Sten) and explosives. LEH"I also used the time to develop their intelligence service and tools.

When the end of World War II finally came, the Haganah agreed with ETZE"L and LEH"I to establish the "Jewish Resistance Movement" (October 1945). The primary joint operations between LEH"I and ETZE"L were from November 1945 to June 1946:

LEH"I simultaneously carried out a series of "purchase operations", ie attacks to obtain weapons outside of their arrangement with the resistance movement.

The largest LEH"I action as part of the 'resistance movement' organization was the attack on the railway workshops in Haifa bay that caused heavy damage to locomotives, cranes, machines and warehouses.

The first operation after the breakup of the Resistance Movement was the explosion of the police building in Jaffa (09 September 1946). This ushered in the start of a 15-month campaign of constant harrassment and attrition of the British. Operations were carried out both simultaneously and independently by LEH"I and ETZE"L with only limited coordination between them and early notifications sent to prevent interference. During this period LEH"I mounted hundreds of attacks on members of the British administration and security forces. Bullets and grenades hit soldiers and police. Roads and rail lines were mined, cars and trains were blown up. Government facilities and the telephone and telegraph networks were sabotaged, police stations and military outposts were assaulted. The number of casualties suffered by the British was in the hundreds.

In order to protect their citizens from these attacks, in the summer of 1946 the British began to move offices and residences into special security zones. These zones were established in the three major cities (NB: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem). During the span of 1946-1947, LEH"I fighters planted car bombs at the headquarters of the military base at Tzrifin, the courtyard of the police station in Haifa and the Police Mobile Force in Sharona.

There was also a shooting and grenade attack at a movie theater that was close to the army camps near Pardes Hanna. In addition, 11 fuel tanks in Haifa Bay were set fire. One must mention the smuggling with the aid of Arab supporters of LEH"I of Geula Cohen, "The Voice of the Hebrew Underground" who had been sentenced to seven years in prison. In addition, there were the deaths of LEH"I member Moshe Barazani and ETZE"L member Meir Feinstein, who were both sentenced to death but committed suicide in the Jerusalem prison. The two had planned to kill themselves along with their British executioners using grenades assembled by a LEH"I prisoner but they could not get the rabbi to abandon his intention to be present during their hanging and abandoned the plan, instead blowing themselves up a few hours before they were to be sent to the gallows. Before they set off the grenades that had been smuggled in with oranges, Moshe and Meir took care that the British guard guarding them would not be harmed. A message with a farewell message to the guard is in a museum in Jerusalem next to the cell where they were held. In the message they wrote to the guard, Moshe and Meir thanked him for the humane treatment he had shown them.

At the Establishment of the State

With Israel's declaration of independence in may 1948, the LEH"I became part of the IDF. A group of them became part of the 8th Brigade under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. Only in Jerusalem did they continue to operate as an independent organization and cooperated with ETZ"L on, among other things, the attack on the village of Deir Yassin. When UN mediator Count Bernadotte was killed in Jerusalem is was presumed that LEH"I was behind it. After the assassination, the Provisional Government declared LEH"I to be a terrorist organization [4][5], and ordered it to be broken up, many members were arrested and the LEH"I leaders were sentenced to prison (but later released in a general pardon).

Like many ETZE"L members, many LEH"I members joined the Herut Movement, but others formed the "Fighter's Party" whose votes saw Natan Yellin-Mor become a member of the First Knesset.

It was not until 1980 that the State of Israel recognized the LEH"I contribution of their fighters to the creation of the state. In that same year, the "LEH"I signal" was given to members of the Underground, a red, black, gray blue and white service ribbon they could wear.

The Association for the Preservation of the Organization's History counted 125 fallen soldiers from the LEH"I ranks. On the 25th of Shevat, the day of Yair's death, the day is also a memorial day to honor the LEH'I fallen. Every year the organization has a ceremony at Yair's grave in the Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery in Tel Aviv.

On 11 September 2005, a LEH"I memorial was inaugurated in the LEH"I forest near Mishmar Ayalon. The monument by sculptor Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky commemorates 127 LEH"I martyrs.[6]

In 1985 the LEH"I Heritage Museum was created in the house in which Yair was killed in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

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