The Bombing of the King David Hotel: James Barker Considers the Role of Terrorism in the Establishment of Israel, on the 60th Anniversary of the Attack on the British Military Headquarters in Jerusalem

Article excerpt

SHORTLY AFTER NOON ON MONDAY July 22nd, 1946, a battered delivery truck was driven into the side entrance of the King David Hotel, just west of the old city of Jerusalem and headquarters of both Palestine's civil administration and the British army in Palestine and Transjordan. Eight armed men dressed as Arab workers then forced their way into the hotel's service bay. After overpowering and locking up the chief delivery clerk and the kitchen staff, they unloaded seven milk churns packed with 350 kilograms of TNT and gelignite from the truck and dragged them one by one along a long and narrow corridor to La Regence, the hotel's basement bar directly underneath the civilian and the military headquarters in the south wing. As they did so, they were challenged by a British army officer, whom they shot and fatally injured. While some of the fake Arab workers acted as lookouts, others placed the milk churns next to two supporting columns in the basement bar and ignited their thirty-minute fuses.

As they made their getaway, the attackers attracted the attention of British army sentries alerted by the unusual commotion in the basement. A gun battle ensued, in which two of the intruders were wounded, one of them seriously. Hearing shots, people peering out of the hotel windows caught glimpses of men they thought were Arabs running away. Shortly afterwards, a bomb exploded in the street outside the hotel, wounding the passengers in a passing Arab bus. The shooting and now the bombing encouraged people inside the hotel to stay where they were. Although a woman claiming to speaking on behalf of the Hebrew Underground had telephoned a warning to The Palestine Post newspaper and the French Consulate about a bomb in the King David, very few people there realized the danger they now faced.

At 12.37pm, a massive explosion tore apart the hotel's south wing, hurling big fragments of steel, concrete, sandstone masonry and human body parts into nearby buildings. The lethal shower of debris also engulfed policemen and onlookers who had gathered at the scene of the earlier bombing, killing and injuring scores more people. Working frantically in blazing heat over the next seventy-two hours, rescue workers managed to pull six badly injured survivors from the wreckage but ninety-one people--Britons, Arabs and Jews--had perished in the blast.

The bombing of the King David Hotel was as shocking to contemporaries in 1946 as the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. British prime minister Clement Attlee declared in the House of Commons, 'On July 22nd, one of the most dastardly and cowardly crimes in recorded history took place'. The Jewish Agency, the body officially recognized by the British as representing Palestine's 450,000 Jews, expressed its 'feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals'.

The 'gang of criminals' responsible for bombing the King David Hotel was a Jewish underground group known as 'The National Military Organisation' or, in Hebrew, Irgun Zwei Leumi. Its leader was a thirty-three-year-old Polish Jew called Menachem Begin, for whose capture the British had posted a 2,000 [pounds sterling] reward, dead or alive. Just as Osama bin Laden is a hero for fundamentalists Islamists today, Begin was seen by many Jews in Palestine and in the Jewish Diaspora as a fearless freedom fighter combating an alien tyranny. In his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004) Israeli author Amos Oz remembered him as his childhood idol:

 
   In my mind, I saw his form swatched in 
   clouds of biblical glory. I imagined 
   him in his secret headquarters in the 
   wild ravines of the Judaean Desert, 
   barefoot, with leather girdle, 
   flashing sparks like the prophet Elijah 
   among the rocks of Mount Carmel. 

In reality, Begin, living under an assumed name in a poor suburb of Tel-Aviv, led a hunted existence. …