Death in the Sun: Terror and Decolonisation


At the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, favouring ‘the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People’, land designated by the Roman name of Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, with which Britain was at war. The Ottoman Empire, and Kemal Atatürk’s regime that superseded it, had sought to draw closer to European civilisation. One measure of this was how religious minorities were treated within an Islamic tradition that traditionally accorded non-Muslims dhimmitude or submissive status. This was not quite what it sounds. Throughout urban centres, Jews could become members of parliament, hold government posts and, after 1909, be recruited into the military. Following on from this late and poignant flourishing of Islamic modernism, Atatürk abolished sharia law in 1924, while in Egypt this applied only in the private realm. All of which is to say that Islam was contained by the nation state rather than the other way around.

The Jewish community in Palestine was known as the settlement or Yishuv, and consisted of about eighty-five thousand people; some had been there for half a century or more, others were recent emigrants. There were three-quarters of a million Arabs. The League of Nations accorded Britain mandatory authority over Palestine in 1919. In welcoming Zionist settlers, the British were in step with educated Arab opinion in the Middle East. The editor of Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote: ‘The Zionists are necessary for this region. The money they bring in, their intelligence and the diligence which is one of their characteristics will, without doubt, bring new life to the country.’1 The Zionists colonised desolate lands where absentee Arab landlordism was rife, although tenant graziers did not regard this as creating entitlement.2 Zionists felt that development would register a moral claim, irrespective of conflicting Arab and Jewish versions of the venerability of their respective presences in the region. Israel Zangwill’s 1901 dictum, ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, indicated that some Zionists apparently did not notice the Arab inhabitants. Theoretically, in the minds of both the British and some Zionists, Jewish settlement could be achieved without prejudice to the indigenous Arab inhabitants, for everyone would benefit from improved irrigation, medicine and sanitation.

Zionist immigrants regarded themselves not as colonial subjects, but as fellow colonists alongside the British. Their intention was to create a durable Jewish state under the temporary aegis of the imperial Mandate. They were diligent and purposeful state-builders pursuing a secularised messianic ideal. Long before the European Holocaust, Zionists argued that, as the Arab nation disposed of a million square miles of territory, the Jews were morally entitled to a tiny polity roughly the size of Scotland and with much the same sporadic population density. By contrast, the Palestinians were more reactive, divided by allegiances to clan or tribe, and dependent upon the British for a state infrastructure. Only their religious leaders were more politically engaged than those of the Jews.3

Among some contemporary Israelis the British Mandate has come to be viewed nostalgically. Although Palestine did not have the elephants, maharajahs and tigers of the Indian Raj, the same culture of Highland reels, polo and pink gins in the King David hotel flourished. So did an incorruptible civil service, possibly a novelty in the region.4 Under this aegis, the Jews of the Yishuv determinedly elaborated proto-national institutions, including a Jewish Agency, while immigrants - many of them idealistic Zionist socialist kibbutzim - set about bringing life to stony ground rich in associations among people who had never seen it except in their mind’s eye. An ancillary Zionist objective was to confound the anti-Semitic claim that Jews had no ‘racial’ aptitude for farming or manual labour, a notion hard to square with the orderly citrus trees, vegetables and vines that appeared in the new Jewish settlements. Entirely new cities, like Tel Aviv, arose beside Arab Jaffa, essential elements in the Zionist equivalent of the Whig view of history, but based on exchanging the dark and cold of eastern Europe for a light-filled modernist seaside setting.5 It is salutary to recall that, below the antagonisms of Arab and Jewish notables, on a local level ordinary Jews and Arabs co-operated with one another. They shopped in each other’s stores, worked alongside one another in bakeries, petroleum and salt plants, transport, post and telegraphy, and from time to time went on strike together to protest against some arbitrary decision of their Mandatory employer. Moreover, as late as 1933, the Egyptian government gladly allowed a thousand Jewish emigrants to disembark at Port Said en route to Palestine.6

Jewish immigration, and the eviction of Arab tenants from land the Jews bought from absentee landlords based in Beirut or Damascus, triggered Arab unrest in 1920-1 and 1929, which acquired focus in Haj-Amin al-Husseini. A gangling teacher with a ginger beard and a red fez, Husseini was the scion of a notable Palestinian family. Despite having been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in absentia for orchestrating mob violence in 1920, the British pardoned him a year later and rigged his election as grand mufti of Jerusalem, to balance the appointment to the city’s mayoralty of a man from the rival Nashashibi clan. As a pupil of the Wahhabist Rashid Rida, the mufti’s primary objection to the Jews was that they were symptomatic of a threatening Western modernity: ‘They have also spread here their customs and usages that are opposed to our religion and to our whole way of life. Above all, our youth is being morally shattered. The Jewish girls who run around in shorts demoralise our youth by their mere presence.’ Careful to wipe his fingerprints from Arab urban violence, the mufti was mainly responsible for inciting it.7

Anti-Jewish violence led to the creation in 1921 of an underground Jewish defence force, the Haganah, designed to protect remote Jewish settlements when the British authorities wouldn’t or couldn’t. Weapons were smuggled in from Europe hidden in beehives and steamrollers. Such self-consciously tough Jews would confound common anti-Semitic stereotypes about the Jews being averse to a fight. In 1924 the Haganah assassinated the Orthodox Jewish leader Israel de Haan who was endeavouring to have the British exclude his co-religionists from rule by secular Zionists. Not for the last time, the British sought to appease Arab sentiment - at least as expressed by notables like the mufti - by limiting Jewish immigration to what the country’s economy could satisfactorily absorb, a policy that took little notice of the evil currents abroad in Europe which were pushing Jews in Poland or the Ukraine to emigrate.

With the exception of those like Winston Churchill who had keen Zionist sympathies, British officials imbued with nostalgic memories of colonel T. E. Lawrence were keen not to do anything to unsettle the sixty million Muslims in India on behalf of Jews in Palestine or Britain itself, towards whom some members of the British Establishment (and opposition Labour movement) harboured old-fashioned prejudices. In one of its slippery retreats from the airy grandiosity of the Balfour Declaration, in 1928 the British cabinet rejected Chaim Weizmann’s request for a substantial loan designed to buy further Arab land to build more Jewish settlements and thenceforth tried to restrain immigration.8

The following year, the mufti incited attacks on Jewish worshippers at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, claiming that they planned to demolish the Al-Aqsa mosque, events that led to the deaths of sixty Jews in the Old City. Even as he pretended to calm the mobs, the mufti was actually egging them on. These casualties were some of the 133 Jews killed that year by Arab violence throughout Palestine. Such murderous riots had an international dimension, as Arabs in Syria, Transjordan and Iraq threatened military involvement if Jewish immigration to Palestine was not halted. One consequence of the riots was that a number of Haganah’s military commanders led by Avraham Tahomi, its chief in Jerusalem, seceded from the parent body, forming a National Military Organisation (Irgun Zvai Leumi or Etzel for short after its Hebrew acronym), arguing that Haganah itself was too close to one political party, a notion they felt did not apply to themselves.

Arab unrest at the prospect of Jewish hegemony led the British to carry out two investigations, in 1929-30, which concluded that Jewish immigration had allegedly exceeded the absorptive capacity of the economy in Palestine, although the country would sustain a much larger population in future. They were shocked by the extent of pauperisation among the Arab population, which either eked out a miserable existence on the land or tried its luck as a proletariat in the cities, but they did little to alleviate it through aid or investment. In and around the shanty districts of the port of Haifa, ironically one of the towns where Arabs and Jews lived in conspicuous amity, some of these people joined the guerrilla army formed by a charismatic Syrian Wahhabist preacher, Izz al-Din al-Qassam, who for two years from 1933 launched attacks on the Jews and British policemen until the latter killed him and three associates in 1935. He is commemorated in the name of present-day teams of Palestinian suicide bombers, since his was the first armed Palestinian nationalist grouping.

Broadly speaking, the Zionist Establishment was either socialist or Marxist, a characteristic evidenced by the fact that it was not until 1977 that the state of Israel elected a right-wing government. While the majority of Zionists in the Yishuv supported its left-leaning and pro-British leadership, a right-wing minority were adherents of a Polish-based Revisionist Zionism that followed the charismatic Zeev Jabotinsky. Although Jabotinsky subscribed to an expansive version of otherwise thoroughly Zionist objectives, namely to return all Jews to a predominantly Jewish ‘Eretz Israel’ on both sides of the Jordan, which would act as a ‘laboratory’ for a ‘model Jewish citizen’, the means were heavily permeated with the political culture of inter-war Poland. This is almost impossible for anyone brought up in a stable liberal Western democracy to comprehend, but it would probably resonate with historically minded Italians. Jabotinsky was much taken with the nineteenth-century revolutionary Garibaldi’s legion, which had played such a major role in the creation of Italian statehood. This had served as a model for the Polish Legion of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, which had made itself sufficiently indispensable to the Allies in the Great War for them to favour the restoration of Polish independence after an interval of more than a century of partition.9 Other features typical of the 1920s and 1930s included the creation of a youth movement, called Betar, with its red-brown uniforms and anti-Marxist middle-class intellectual membership. The model for this was the Ballila youth movement of Italian Fascism. Unsurprisingly, the Marxist-Zionist leadership of the Yishuv referred to these Betarim as Fascists, although only the most implacable of them had active flirtations with Mussolini and Hitler. In 1929 the British banned Jabotinsky from Palestine while his Arab antipode, the grand mufti, fled abroad; two years later Jabotinsky withdrew from the World Zionist Organisation.

In Palestine, frustration among Jabotinsky’s followers with the cautious land reclamation and settlement policy of the Yishuv’s socialist-Zionist leadership led to the formation of a virulently anti-Marxist nationalist movement called the Bironyim, which roughly translates as ‘Zealots’. They hoped that a Jewish state could be created quickly through terrorist violence against the British Mandatory authorities. The extent to which they were swimming in dangerous waters can be gauged from the fact that the journalist Aba Achimeir, who had been seared by experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote a Hebrew column called ‘From a Fascist Notebook’. ‘We need a Mussolini,’ he argued, although he would also have settled for something like Sinn Fein/IRA, the model for how to achieve independence from the British through armed insurrection. These ideologues inspired what became the main radical-right Zionist terrorist cum guerrilla organisation, called Irgun here for short.

On 16 June 1933 one of Achimeir’s proteges, Avraham Stavsky, shot dead Chaim Arlosoroff, head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, as he walked with his wife along the beachfront at Tel Aviv. The pretext for this assassination was that Arlosoroff was negotiating with Hitler’s Germany to transfer the assets of persecuted Jews to Palestine. This assassination poisoned relations between the socialist Zionists and the Revisionists, which descended into mutual slurs. The parents of the boy Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel seventy years later, who favoured Arlosoroff’s killers, were reminded of the culture of public denunciation they had experienced in Bolshevik Russia as they were ostracised by the leftist community of their neighbours. Charges of anti-Semitism were hurled back and forth with the usual tedious abandon. Jabotinsky himself weighed in with an article entitled ‘Blood Libel’ arguing that his opponents were using the tactics of medieval Christian anti-Semites to smear not only Stavsky but the Revisionist movement as a whole. Stavsky was acquitted of murder, but Achimeir was arrested and jailed.

Although in 1933 Avraham Tahomi abandoned Irgun to return to the bosom of Haganah, some of its supporters, notably Avraham Stern, decided to colonise the youthful Betarim - much like aggressive African bees taking over a relatively placid hive - with a view to fighting the perfidious British Mandatory authority. Stern may have been romanticised subsequently by his Israeli admirers, but there is no doubt that he was a terrorist.

The right-wing and anti-Semitic colonels who ruled Poland actively connived at Irgun establishment of training facilities in Poland, while weapons were shipped to Palestine from Gdansk. The worsening climate for Jews in Europe led to an acceleration of emigration and corresponding Arab fears of inundation, as the Jewish population of Palestine surged from 20 to 30 per cent in the three years 1933-6 alone. Because unemployed Jewish immigrants would confirm British beliefs that the country had reached the population density it could absorb, the Zionists consciously adopted the policy of ‘Hebrew labour’ which discriminated against Christian or Muslim Arabs. Both the death of Izz al-Din al-Qassam and the discovery of ammunition in barrels of ‘cement’ landed at Jaffa and intended for the Haganah prompted Arab leaders into more radical action, as they abandoned urban rioting for guerrilla activity in the countryside.

In 1936 the mufti’s Higher Committee declared a general strike, with follow-up mass demonstrations, that were forcibly suppressed by the British. The strike meant that Arab peasants lost the urban seasonal work on which many depended, one of the main reasons why some were available for guerrilla fighting. Arabs attacked Jewish-owned stores and cut down or uprooted orchards. Twenty-one Jews were killed, the British shot dead 140 Arabs, and thirty-three British soldiers were killed in clashes with Arab gunmen. The British despatched the Peel Commission, which recommended the absorption of most of Palestine into Transjordan, continued British control of such strategic points as Haifa and Lydda, and a small Jewish state. While David Ben-Gurion, Labour Party leader, accepted partition as the basis for future negotiations, radical Arab leaders including the exiled mufti’s nephew decided upon violence, telling the British to choose ‘between our friendship and the Jews’. At this point the Nazis became interested in resisting the creation of a Jewish state, using their short-wave radio transmitter at Zeesen outside Berlin to beam a mixture of Arabic music, Koranic quotations and their own brand of racial anti-Semitism to the Arab world. The Nazi contribution, as mediated by the mufti in his various writings, was to transform Muslim disdain for Jews - whom the Muslims had ruled for centuries - into Muslim fear of Jews as powerful global conspirators with a money-smoothed line to the ears of the world’s most powerful rulers.

In the remoter countryside the British were confronted by armed bands, often fifty to seventy strong, which ambushed trucks, cut telegraph wires and blew up railway track with discarded First World War artillery shells wired up as improvised explosive devices. One four-man team blew up the railway from Lydda to Haifa. Its leader was Hassan Salameh, a barefoot peasant boy from Kulleh who by early adulthood had a reputation as a tough guy, as symbolised by his nickname ‘the Cut-throat’. Although his three cousins were killed in the gunfight that ensued after the railway attack, Salameh lived to fight another day, forming his own guerrilla band under the patronage of Aref Abd-el-Razek. The legend of his escape led to his being dubbed ‘Sheikh’. Sheikh Hassan’s army was a motley crew, clad in white robes with criss-crossed ammunition belts and colourful keffiyeh headdresses, bearing an assortment of British, German, Italian and Turkish rifles. These bands menaced isolated Jewish settlements, while practising robbery and extortion against fellow Arabs. Their ranks were made up of villagers, some of them part-time fighters who returned home each day, others full-timers armed and paid by the Higher Arab Committee, with the occasional contribution from Mussolini who was keen to cause trouble for the British to distract from his war in Abyssinia. This composition gave the fighting a seasonal character as it waxed and waned according to whether the fighters were needed to bring in the harvest. Wider Arab nationalism was evident as two hundred Iraqis, Jordanians and Syrians arrived to aid the armed uprising under a former Ottoman Iraqi officer Fawzi al-Qawuqji. These were effective fighters since they were capable of waging a six-hour battle with British troops who eventually called in RAF support. They even managed to shoot down one of the British aircraft. By the autumn of 1937 most of the uplands of Palestine were in rebel hands. In September Arab terrorists killed the district commissioner for Galilee who had shepherded the Peel commissioners around Palestine.10

The British response to this Arab Revolt was brutal and based on techniques imported from the Indian North West Frontier and Sudan.11 Between 1937 and 1939 British military courts executed a hundred Arabs and imposed many life sentences, while captured rebels were detained in special camps. An identity-card system was introduced to impede rebel movement on the country’s roads. When Arab guerrillas briefly occupied Jerusalem’s Old City, the British used Arab human shields to wrest back control. They constructed roads to penetrate remote mountainous regions. They used aircraft to bomb and strafe concentrations of guerrillas, although the RAF unaccountably broke off a raid on a guerrilla general assembly at Dir Assana. British troops routinely demolished houses and orange groves wherever they were fired upon, applying the doctrine of collective reprisals that was commonplace in other colonies. To prevent attacks on trains, male relatives of local guerrilla commanders were placed on inspection trolleys attached to the front of each train, a tactic that proved an effective deterrent. Suspected terrorists were so roughly handled that the local Anglican clergy was moved to protest at practices that were christened ‘duffing up’ after an especially robust police officer called Douglas Duff. In addition to giving the British its intelligence on these Arab bands, the Haganah undertook its own patrols, based on the maxim that the best defence was attack. The chiliastic Christian soldier captain Orde Wingate advised and led Special Night Squads of Haganah troops in Lower Galilee, whose ranks included such future military eminences as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon.

There was much about the Arab rebels that was brutal too, a fact often overlooked in literatures that excoriate the Irgun and the Stern Gang on the other side, perhaps as a reaction to the air of Jewish moralism which claims that Zionist forces always fought the good fight. The Arab insurgents set up a Court of the Revolt to hand out summary justice to those who did not get the message, including informers, Arabs who sold land to Jews, political moderates and policemen. The punishments were floggings and execution. Capture sometimes involved being dropped into pits filled with scorpions and snakes, or one’s corpse left lying in the road with a shoe in the mouth as a symbol of disgrace. Financial levies on ordinary villagers by these bands gave way to outright extortion. As moderate Arab leaders learned to go about with bodyguards, village sheikhs formed their own defensive groups to ward off these Arab nationalist bands, a few of which were covertly operated by the British to discredit the wider enemy in the eyes of the local population. The guerrillas also made use of the British by informing on opponents in order to have the British liquidate them. Sometimes the sheikhs even asked their Jewish neighbours for advice and support as fellow victims of these depredations. With British help, moderate Arab leaders paid one of the rebel leaders to defect and to lead so-called ‘peace bands’ which fought the nationalist guerrillas in a war that began to assume an intra-Arab character. Out of six thousand Arab casualties of the Revolt, only fifteen hundred were slain by the British or the Haganah; the rest were done in by fellow Arabs. The Revolt petered out amid endless blood feuds and vendettas.12

The Peel Commission and the Arab Revolt also divided the Zionists. While the Jewish Agency and the socialist Zionists wanted to work with the British and condemned Jewish terrorism against Arabs, the Revisionists rejected attempts to renege on promises to the Jewish people. Their extreme supporters in Palestine decided to meet Arab terror with terror, meaning the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. Parallel with the Arab Revolt against the British, Arab and Jewish terrorists targeted each other’s civilian populations. Throughout the summer of 1938 there were vicious killings by Arab and Jewish extremists, including the murder of Arabs who worked for Jews. On 29 June an Arab terrorist threw a bomb into a Jewish wedding in Tiberias; on 25 July thirty-nine Arabs were killed when a Jewish terrorist bomb exploded in Haifa’s melon market. It should be carefully noted that both the Jewish Agency and the Hisradut trades union were explicit in their condemnation of the ‘miserable (Jewish) cowards’ who executed these attacks.

At a time when the major and minor powers, led by the United States, were doing their best to impede the flight of European Jews from Nazism at the 1938 Evian Conference, the 1939 British ‘Black Paper’ (the sinister name for a class of policy documents that were routinely white in colour) proposed drastic cuts to the number of legal Jewish emigrants to Palestine - effectively to twenty-five thousand a year - while promising to institute Arab majority rule. There were also to be restrictions on Jewish purchases of land beyond existing settlements. The British calculation was that with war looming in Europe, the Jews would have no alternative other than to back the Western Allies, while Arab loyalties might be biddable to the Rome-Berlin Axis, into whose camp the exiled mufti (as a dedicated anti-Semite) steadily drifted. He fled French-controlled Syria for Iraqi Baghdad, where he was joined by Hassan Salameh, whose wife gave birth there to a son named Ali Hassan Salameh, the future leader of Black September. Since Jewish illegal immigration continued unabated - with the added urgency of the extension of Hitler’s sway - the British retaliated by halting all legal immigration to Palestine. Illegal immigrants who did reach its shores were interned, with a view to repatriating them after the duration, while mean-minded efforts were made by the Foreign Office to prevent Jews seeking access to Greek or Turkish merchant shipping if they reached the mouth of the Danube. The Haganah established an intelligence arm called Mossad le-Aliyah Bet to facilitate transport of illegal immigrants by sea.

The outbreak of war between Britain and Nazi Germany saw some curious reversals of allegiance. The mufti was forced to flee first Iraq and then Persia, as British forces invaded. After a spell hiding in the Japanese embassy in Teheran, Italian agents spirited him to Rome, where the Duce installed him in the Villa Colonna and promised to liberate Palestine. A written plea for aid submitted to the Nazi Führer led to his translation to Berlin and a new home in the splendid Bellevue Palace. In November 1940 he had an agreeable meeting with Hitler, who promised to make him a German Lawrence of Arabia. The Nazi leader evidently admired his guest in the red fez: ‘He looks like a peaceful angel, but under his robe hides a real bull!’ Not forgetting his friends, the mufti had the Germans fly Hassan Salameh from Aleppo to Berlin, where he and others received military training. In the absence of volunteers, however, no large Arab Legion materialised, although the mufti helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim SS division to fight in the Balkans. Only when in 1944 the British formed the Jewish Brigade did Hitler decide to facilitate the mufti’s scaled-down schemes. In November that year Hassan Salameh and Abdul Latif were dropped with three German agents from a Heinkel-111 in the vicinity of Jericho. Along with bags of banknotes and gold coins, their equipment included ten cylinders of poison, the intention being to contaminate the water supplying Tel Aviv, thereby killing or forcing out its inhabitants. Latif and the Germans were captured; Salameh limped off injured to fight another day.

By contrast, the mainstream Yishuv rallied to the Allied cause. The Haganah was quietly refashioned from a local defence force into a model army, with crop-dusting light aircraft standing in for an air force. Elite Palmach commandos took part in Allied operations against the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria. It was on one such operation that the young soldier Moshe Dayan lost an eye. In total, some twenty-seven thousand Jews served with the British armed forces, some in the famous Jewish Brigade, while the corresponding figure for Arab Palestinians was twelve thousand. This disparity in military experience would prove decisive in future. While supporting the British war effort, the Haganah simultaneously tried to circumvent British restrictions on Jewish immigration. This resulted in the tragedy of the Patria.

This was a French liner which the British intended to use to ship to Mauritius illegal migrants who had arrived off Haifa in the Milos and Pacific in November 1940. The Haganah determined to disable the Patria in Haifa harbour, but used too large a consignment of explosives. The ship sank in fifteen minutes, drowning two hundred and fifty refugees. While the British decided on compassionate grounds to allow the nineteen hundred survivors of the Patria to remain in Palestine - against, it has to be noted, the vehement protests of general Wavell - they resolved to deport a further seventeen hundred refugees newly arrived on a ship called the Atlantic. Only Churchill’s personal intervention saved the day for those on the Patria.

Although the leaders of the Yishuv and Haganah - and indeed Jabotinsky until his sudden death in New York in 1940 - supported the British war effort, this was not true of the outright terrorist groups. The poet-gunman and romantic elitist Avraham Stern - who adopted the name Yair in honour of the leader of the ancient uprising against the Romans at Masada - believed that ‘alliances will be formed with anyone who is interested in helping Eretz Israel’. Strategic realities and romantic fervour inclined him to strange alliances. With Italian and then German forces advancing through Egypt, an Axis victory seemed certain. To this end, Stern tried to contact Mussolini, in the hope that Italian conquest of the Middle East might expedite the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This was to have corporatist features, with Jerusalem placed under the authority of a Vatican which was not consulted about these schemes. Failing that, Stern put out feelers to Nazi Germany via Vichy authorities in Syria, with a view to securing a pact that would allow a ‘national totalitarian’ Jewish state once the Führer had defeated the British. Underlying these bizarre gambits was a specious distinction between the evanescent ‘enemy’ (Britain) and the historical ‘persecutor’ (Nazi Germany), and the delusion that the Jews could use the latter to see off the former. This was too clever by half. Efforts to reconstrue these contacts with the Germans as part of some ‘rescue’ endeavour on behalf of Europe’s Jews are unconvincing.13

Having already countenanced a modern Israeli postage stamp, Stern is also commemorated in the name of a small town populated by many of the current Israeli ruling elite. Admirers of the Stern Gang like to situate it within the deep stream of Jewish history, which made its violence seem both historically determined and divinely ordained: ‘Because there is a religion of redemption - a religion of the war of liberation/Whoever accepts it - be blessed; whoever denies it - be cursed’ ran one of Stern’s poems. The British were Nazis and the leadership of the Zionist Yishuv a latterday Judenrat (the councils that administered Jewish existence in the wartime ghettos).14

Deceitful mythologies apart, Stern was responsible for a handful of fanatics, perhaps three hundred at most, their identity oscillating between gangsters, guerrillas and terrorists depending on the nature of specific activities. Their favoured tactics were bank robbery and assassination; half of their victims were fellow Jews whom they regarded as collaborators with the British, a proportion reflected in the ‘disciplinary’ killings conducted by many subsequent terrorist groups such as the FLN in Algeria. Both the British CID and the Haganah endeavoured to track down Stern himself. Eventually he was surrounded in a house, where a CID officer called Geoffrey Morton found him hiding in a closet. Despite being unarmed, the handcuffed Stern was shot dead, although Morton claimed he was shot trying to jump out of a window. Many people think he was assassinated. Sternist death threats would haunt Morton’s future postings in the Caribbean and East Africa. The remnants of the Stern Gang, including the future (seventh) prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, who adopted the nom de guerre ‘Michael’ in honour of Sinn Fein’s Michael Collins, took the name Lehi, shorthand for Lohamei Herut Israel or ‘Fighters for the Freedom of Israel’, and pronounced like ‘Lechi’ in Hebrew, although ‘Stern Gang’ tended to stick in the minds of their British and Jewish opponents.

Meanwhile Menachem Begin, Irgun’s new leader, was nearing the end of a modern odyssey. Having moved from Poland to Vilnius in Lithuania to escape the Nazis, he was arrested by Stalin’s secret police and shipped to a gulag; on his release he joined the Anders army, the Polish force which Stalin licensed after the German invasion of the USSR. Begin, the future sixth prime minister of Israel and Nobel laureate, was a young Polish-Jewish lawyer and Revisionist activist, who as a deskbound corporal in the Anders army finally reached Palestine via Iran and Iraq. Although he was a leading Betari ideologue, it was his lack of military experience and Polish origins that paradoxically inclined the military leaders of Irgun in Palestine to appoint him chief. There was another reason to choose this colourless and humourless little man, ‘that bespectacled petty Polish solicitor’ as Ben-Gurion described him in one of his politer formulations. Having never been to Palestine, Begin was invisible to the British CID who had no record of him. Like Stern, always dressed in a suit and tie, regardless of the heat, Begin lived with his wife an unexceptional middle-class life, where in between meetings with Irgun commanders he read the newspapers, learned English by listening to the BBC and issued his florid, hate-filled communiques.

Begin’s hatred of the British was implacable and his rhetoric intemperate. His Polish background inclined him to the view that they were unreliable allies, while their restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine even as the Nazis and their confederates annihilated Jewish communities across Europe confirmed his view that they tacitly sought the Jews’ destruction. This charge, based on the conceit that Christians secretly wanted the Jews to disappear, was as unfair as it was outrageous, although one hears it repeated from time to time. Whereas his men were ‘soldiers’, the British were ‘terrorists’, or ‘tsarists’, ‘Hitlerites’ and ‘Nazis’: ‘The [British] terrorist government in Eretz Israel conducts an unheard-of terror campaign. This terror is hidden behind laws, statutes, regulations and “books” [the White Paper, a policy document on Jewish immigration to Palestine]. Great Britain conquered the land with the help of the Jews [the Yishuv]. With their help it has received legitimacy …They are worse than the Tsars. The Tsars oppressed their nation, but the British help to annihilate the nation.’ As for the Arabs, Begin was so contemptuous of them that he thought that with the British defeated they would simply run away.

Under his leadership Irgun carried out probing attacks on the sinews of British power in Palestine, where the British had a hundred thousand soldiers as well as a substantial MI5 (Defence Security Office) and CID presence. Begin could not destroy this imposing apparatus, but he could damage its morale, and tarnish its international image, by provoking the British into actions they would come to regret. Unlike Lehi, which carried out forty-two assassinations, the Irgun was keen to avoid killing British soldiers or assassinating senior Mandate figures; instead it hit land and tax offices. Begin’s band grew from about 250 to 800 fighters between 1944 and 1948. It also became more mainstream in the sense that as, in the wake of Alamein and Stalingrad, the British reverted to more inflexible policies towards the Jews, even elements of the Haganah and Palmach began to share Begin’s desire for an anti-Mandatory revolt. This was exactly what Begin had anticipated. His forces would act as the catalyst for a wider revolt involving the more mainstream Zionists in the Yishuv, not least by provoking the British into indiscriminate repression against myriad Zionist groups whose precise coloration and contours they barely understood.

Initially, Irgun and Lehi terrorist activities triggered a diametrically opposite response from the leadership of the Yishuv. In 1944 two Lehi gunmen assassinated lord Moyne (and his driver) in Cairo. Moyne was a very wealthy member of the Guinness dynasty, and a close personal friend of Churchill. He and Churchill had founded an exclusive dining club called the Other Club, while Churchill’s wife was an honoured guest on a converted ferry that Moyne used to cruise the Pacific in search of rare lizards. Killing such a figure brought down on the heads of Lehi the condemnation of Irgun - ‘irresponsible, despicable, a deed soiled in treachery’ - while the socialist Zionists of the Yishuv decided to help the British eliminate the ‘Fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ of Lehi and Irgun.

To that end, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues declared a ‘hunting season’ (the Sezon) on ‘the gangsters and gangs of Irgun and Lehi’, although the sneaking admiration they had for the authentically Hebrew Lehi meant that most of their efforts were directed against the less lunatic Revisionists of Irgun who constituted the greater political threat. Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency did not mince their words: ‘The Jewish community is called upon to spew forth all the members of this harmful, destructive gang, to deny them any shelter or haven, not to give in to their threats, and to extend to the authorities all the necessary assistance to prevent terror acts and to wipe out [the terror] organisations, for this is a matter of life and death.’15

A 250-strong squad of Palmach commandos was let loose to track down key terrorist figures, while buffer mechanisms were created to hand information on five hundred Irgun and Lehi members to the British CID. Apparently the future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, identified a number of Irgun members, including the father of a current Israeli cabinet minister, to his handlers in MI5. None of this effort managed to snare Begin. Never having been directed at those who had ordered the killing of Moyne, notably Yitshak Shamir, the open season was called off. It should be emphasised that fellow Jews had sought to crush what are all too casually described as ‘Jewish terrorists’; such opposition by fellow Arabs was a rarer phenomenon in the concurrent history of Arab terrorism.

While Begin continued to set the overall direction of Irgun strategy, operational control was in the hands of Amichai ‘Gidi’ Paglin, a former socialist Zionist who had crossed over to the dark side. Even as the war in Europe ended, Irgun stepped up attacks on oil pipelines and police stations in Palestine. The Cairo-Haifa railway was blown up and banks were robbed in Tel Aviv. Paradoxically, the landslide victory of the Labour Party in Britain, which continued to implement the 1939 White Paper strategy, had the effect of temporarily bringing Irgun and the mainstream left-wing Zionists closer together in an ad-hoc military alliance.

In October 1945, the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi established a joint Hebrew Resistance Movement, the first attempt to co-ordinate the Zionist underground in Palestine. This was subject to poor political control - the X-Committee under the chairmanship of a rabbi Fishman. While Irgun wanted to pursue a broad assault on the Mandatory power, the Haganah wished to concentrate on those assets - such as coastal radar stations - which directly impeded illegal immigration. In other words, the Haganah was combating a policy while Begin’s group was at war with the Mandatory regime as a whole, a strategy that included seeking support from the Soviet Union in the developing Cold War. That chimed with those kibbutzim who had gleefully followed the progress of Stalin’s legions on maps pinned to the wall.16 All that held them together was a desire not to be left out at the birth of Jewish statehood. Between October 1946 and April 1947, some eighty British personnel were killed, as were forty-two Jews and an unknown number of Arabs. The British commander in chief, field marshal Bernard Montgomery, advocated the most brutal response, including the assassination of the top fifty Yishuv leaders, a recommendation that the British cabinet vetoed. Since the Haganah bore the brunt of British reprisals for Irgun operations, it decided to scale down the latter’s more spectacular operations. Specifically, in June the Haganah discovered that Irgun had dug a tunnel leading to the Citrus House in Tel Aviv, a British security zone, where it planned to detonate an enormous quantity of explosives after giving the British due warning to evacuate. Haganah succeeded in removing most of the charges, although some of its members were killed when the remainder detonated accidentally. By way of tribute, British personnel attended their funerals.

Irgun and Lehi terrorism inevitably provoked a tough British response, which included the beating and torture of terrorist suspects. On the night of 29 June 1946 - known as Black Sabbath because it was a Friday - seventeen thousand British paratroops imposed a curfew on the Yishuv and made strenuous efforts to arrest its leaders, who were then held in Jerusalem’s Latrun prison. Teams of soldiers trawled for arms in thirty kibbutzes and settlements. Confiscated papers of the Yishuv found their way to the British military headquarters in the King David hotel. In the eyes of the wider world, and especially the United States, these actions were part of a continuum that also consisted of a British Labour government detaining concentration-camp survivors in Displaced Persons’ Camps to thwart their desire to go to Eretz Israel.17

These actions, and the rebarbative tone of foreign minister Ernest Bevin when speaking on Jewish questions, set the scene for Operation Chick - Begin and Paglin’s plan to blow up Jerusalem’s King David hotel, one floor of which housed British military headquarters. This was the country’s most luxurious hotel, at whose bar British officers could relax over their pink gins. Although some Israelis seek to qualify this operation by pointing to telephoned warnings, in fact it was an act of indiscriminate terror, qualitatively different from the assassination of key figures like Moyne.

At 12.10 p.m. on 22 July 1946, a truck pulled up near the hotel’s basement. Several men dressed as Arabs unloaded milk churns and placed them below the floor containing the offices of the Palestine Government Secretariat. A Royal Signals officer who came upon the group was shot twice in the stomach. The fourteen or fifteen terrorists fled in a truck and several cars. Shortly afterwards, a colossal explosion demolished a wing of the hotel, killing ninety-one people, many of them buried under falling masonry. The victims included the postmaster-general of Palestine, several Arab and Jewish administrative staff, and twenty British soldiers. Many others sustained horrific injuries, as one clerk had his face cut almost in half by shards of flying glass. The terrorist bosses claimed that they had given the British adequate warning. A young Irgun courier, Adina Hay-Nissan, had made three calls to the British Command, the French consulate and the Palestine Post, warning the British to evacuate the hotel immediately. However, her bosses knew full well that there had been so many bomb warnings that the British had become blase; in this instance the terrorists had also shortened the time between warning and explosion to thirty minutes, to stop the British salvaging confiscated Irgun papers. In fact, the explosion occurred within fifteen or twenty minutes of the warning, leaving little time for the building to be evacuated. The Jewish Agency called the bombing a ‘dastardly crime’ committed by ‘a gang of desperadoes’. It served to end the intra-Zionist co-operation symbolised by the Hebrew Resistance Movement. At the 22nd Zionist Congress in December 1946, veteran leader Chaim Weizmann bravely castigated American Zionists for advocating resistance in Tel Aviv from the comfort and safety of New York and called the murder of Moyne ‘the greatest disaster to overtake us in the last few years’.

Regardless of widespread abhorrence among Jews for these atrocities, Irgun pressed on with its anti-British terror campaign. The British introduced the practice of corporal punishment, which may have been acceptable in Africa or Asia but was an outrage against people who had vivid memories of such practices in Nazi concentration camps. When the British army flogged persons caught in possession of arms, Irgun retaliated in December 1946 by seizing a major and three sergeants and giving them eighteen strokes of the cane. The practice stopped. On 1 March 1947 Irgun blew up the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem, killing fourteen officers. In April, it smuggled hand grenades into a prison where two of its members were awaiting execution, the intention being that they would throw these at the British CID. When a rabbi appeared to read them the last rites, the two condemned men simply blew themselves up. A major raid was also launched on Acre prison to free Irgun and Lehi fighters. Disguised as British soldiers, Irgun men blocked the road to the prison and then bluffed their way inside, where their imprisoned comrades had already used smuggled explosives to blow the locks off their cell doors. In a fire-fight with British squaddies returning from a swim, nine of the thirty-nine escaped prisoners were shot and six of their rescuers captured. The American screenwriter Ben Hecht outraged the British by taking out a full-page advertisement addressed to ‘my brave friends’ in which he wrote: ‘Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.’18

Three of the attacking force, Avshalom Habib, Yaacov Weis and Meir Necker, were condemned to death and executed. Irgun kidnapped two British policemen as hostages to stop the executions, although the presence of an Anglo-American Commission in Palestine, which took testimony from Begin himself, led to their reluctant release. Begin then ordered the kidnapping of two British army sergeants, Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice, who following the execution of the condemned Irgun men were hanged in a factory basement near Natanya. One of their corpses was booby-trapped and both were left hanging in nearby woods, where a British officer was injured trying to retrieve them. According to Begin, the two sergeants were ‘criminals that belong to the British-Nazi criminal army of occupation’. Such acts led some British officials to extend their animosity towards Zionist terrorists to Jews in general, just as many Israelis would come to hate all Arabs. ‘It’s quite time I left Palestine,’ wrote Ivan Lloyd Phillips. ‘I never had any sympathy with Zionist aspirations, but now I’m fast becoming anti-Jewish in my whole approach to this difficult problem, & it is very difficult to keep a balance & view matters objectively with a growing (a very real feeling) of personal antipathy.’19 Under these circumstances discipline collapsed, giving further impetus to conflict. On 31 July British soldiers shot dead five innocent Jewish people and wounded twenty-four others, in an act of retaliatory indiscipline that would typify other colonial terrorist conflicts. British personnel had to fortify their living quarters, which resembled fortresses ringed with barbed wire and guarded by Bren gunners. Unremitting terrorist attacks wore down the will of the British people to remain in Palestine, a subject remote from their hearts during a harsh winter when they were experiencing a fuel crisis - although pictures of the two hanged sergeants published in every newspaper gave them the temporary warmth of outrage.

Although anti-Semitic reprisals were negligible in Britain, any international sympathy the British might have expected was cancelled out by the callous and unfeeling attitude of the Labour government to illegal migrants, a major error of public diplomacy given the intense United States interest in these events under a new president, Harry Truman, who was less capable of double-dealing both Arabs and Jews than his illustrious predecessor and all too aware that most Jews voted Democrat.

The manipulation of international public opinion was a crucial part of the struggle between Zionists and British and the former won. In July 1947 a ship called the President Warfield (subsequently renamed Exodus 47) arrived off Haifa overflowing with five thousand German and Polish camp survivors. This voyage was set up to attract the maximum publicity. The clever move would have been to allow them to disembark on humanitarian grounds. Instead, the short-fused Bevin decided to ‘teach the Jews a lesson’ and had the ship intercepted by the Royal Navy, which managed to kill three of the passengers. At that point, Bevin instructed that the Jews should be put on three ships to take them, not to internment in Cyprus, as was normal, but back to Sète near Marseilles, where the British encouraged them to leave their ships while Haganah activists told them to stay on board. Newsreel footage was an essential part of a propaganda war in which the passengers were encouraged to hang Union Jacks daubed with swastikas from the portholes. In the end a ship called Empire Rival took them to Hamburg where, despite having been well treated on the voyage, they were herded off by British soldiers using rifle butts, hoses and tear gas. As the book and the film readily indicated, the saga of Exodus 47 was a major propaganda victory for Zionism.20

Revisionist Zionist terrorism alone did not cause the British to relinquish their Palestinian Mandate. Britain’s resources were overstretched and exhausted by global war against Germans, Italians and Japanese, not to speak of the concurrent reconquest of South-east Asia to stop Communists and nationalists stepping into the vacuum left by the Japanese. Indeed, five hundred sergeants from the Palestinian police were rapidly redeployed to Malaya. The conflict between Arabs and Jews seemed not only intractable, but damaging to Britain’s international image since the violence took place beneath the spotlight of world opinion and involved a people whose victimhood had recently been revealed through shocking newsreels and the Nuremberg trials. As Begin himself put it: ‘Arms were our weapons of attack; transparency was the shield of our defence.’21

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition Palestine, with British withdrawal scheduled for mid-May 1948. Neither the British nor the UN helped the situation by failing to make adequate arrangements for the transition. It therefore became exceptionally bloody even before it had started, as neither Arab nor Jewish extreme nationalists accepted this solution. In the fortnight following the UN decision, Arab terrorists killed eighty Jews. The first victims were passengers on a bus heading from Natanya to Jerusalem. As it turned a sharp bend the bus driver saw a tall Arab man standing in the road who signalled him to stop. As the bus halted the Arab man pulled out a submachine gun and raked the bus with gunfire, while comrades opened up from both sides of the road. Five of the passengers were killed, including a young woman on her way to her wedding. The leader of the attack was Hassan Salameh, whom the Beirut-based mufti had appointed commander of guerrilla forces in central Palestine. Vowing during his intermittent public appearances that ‘Palestine will become a bloodbath,’ Salameh launched several deadly attacks on lone buses and taxis plying the roads that were the Yishuv’s most vulnerable point. In January 1948 Salameh ambushed a food convoy in the village of Yazoor, using a dead dog packed with explosives to stop the Jewish police escort, seven of whom were then bludgeoned and knifed to death.

Reasonably enough the Haganah decided to deter Arab terrorists, warning ‘Expel those among you who want blood to be shed, and accept the hand which is outstretched to you in brotherhood and peace.’ This was usually done by killing individuals, including a night-time assault on Hassan Salameh’s Yazoor headquarters, led by future prime minister Rabin, which resulted in the building being demolished with explosive charges. Salameh was elsewhere. The Haganah was also not above attacks with wanton consequences for civilian bystanders, notably the attack on the Najada headquarters in Jerusalem’s Semiramis hotel, which killed the Spanish consul and eleven Arab Christians.

In dealing with Palestinian Arabs, Irgun refused to confine its response to the targeting of bona-fide Arab killers; instead, it tossed a grenade into an Arab vegetable market near the Damascus gate, killing twelve Arab civilians. On 5 January 1948, two Stern Gang members parked a truck loaded with oranges in an Arab quarter of Jaffa, pausing to have a coffee before leaving on foot for Tel Aviv. The resulting explosion killed more than twenty Arabs. On 14 January, British deserters and former German POWs working for the Arab cause exploded a postal van in the Jewish quarter of Haifa, killing fifty Jewish civilians. British army deserters also demolished the offices of the Palestine Post. Towards the end of February, further British deserters exploded three vehicle bombs in a night-time attack on a Jerusalem residential street, killing fifty-two Jews as they slept. On 11 March, ten days after the establishment of a Jewish Provisional Council, an Arab terrorist used a car bomb which killed thirteen people in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency.

Aided and abetted by fanatical supporters in the US and Europe who were seeking to downgrade Irgun from a politico-military movement into their own paramilitary arm, the right-wing Zionist underground resisted attempts to absorb it into the new Israeli Defence Force or IDF that was preparing to fight a war with the Arabs the moment the British relinquished control. It also attempted to make the shift from terrorist attacks to regular military activity in the immediate context of the battle for control of roads and strategic villages being waged between Haganah and Arab fighters. Deir Yassin was a medium-sized Arab village west of Jerusalem. Its inhabitants were described by the Haganah intelligence service as ‘loyal to the peace arrangements’ they had already initiated with the Jews. With tacit Haganah approval, Irgun and Lehi forces numbering 120 men attacked Deir Yassin at dawn on 9 April 1948. They met with some fire from Iraqi volunteers in the schoolhouse; five of their number were killed and thirty-one wounded. Having failed to take the village cleanly and expeditiously, the Irgun-Lehi forces - already vengeful because of earlier defeats at the hands of the Arab Legion elsewhere - ran amok in Deir Yassin, firing and throwing hand grenades into houses. Depending on whom you believe, between 120 and 254 Arabs, mainly women and children, were killed in this armed riot by Jewish terrorists masquerading as professional soldiers. Both Irgun (which wanted to spread fear) and the Palestinians (who wished to bolster Arab resistance) exaggerated the number of casualties. What is not in doubt, for there is contemporary evidence from a Red Cross official and the Haganah officer Meir Pa’il, is that there was some sort of massacre.

Prime minister Ben-Gurion immediately apologised to the king of Jordan for this massacre. Attempts by American and European supporters of the Irgun to arm the latter so as to give it a military capacity independent of the Haganah and emerging IDF resulted in the Altalena affair (the ship was named after Jabotinsky’s old nom de plume). This involved the government of Ben-Gurion asserting its legitimacy by using artillery to sink the Altalena before its arms consignment could be used for the madcap adventures of Irgun. Firing at a range of 350 yards, a cannon hit the ship’s hold and killed fourteen members of the Irgun. Begin inveighed hysterically against Ben-Gurion from the underground radio, while the latter could never bring himself even to say his opponent’s name. Ben-Gurion and Begin anathematised and cursed each other well into the 1950s about the sinking of the ship. These curses endured, several decades later costing prime minister Yitzhak Rabin his life, for he had also been involved in firing on the Altalena.

As Arabs and Jews went to war in the interval heedlessly caused by the end of the Mandate and the UN’s failure to implement adequate transitional arrangements, some seventy thousand leading Palestinians fled, including virtually all of their leaders. The Zionists enjoyed several advantages over the Arabs. They had coherent and tight command structures, more recent military experience, interior lines of communication, and good intelligence, including the ability to tap phones used by their opponents. By contrast, the Palestinian leadership was tainted by cowardice and rife with internecine feuding, even as control of the Arab campaign passed to neighbouring Arab states, each with ulterior objectives.

The Palestinians did not flock to fight for their own cause, as only twelve thousand volunteered to fight alongside regular Arab forces. As Deir Yassin already indicates, these were the months when the dragon’s teeth of ‘ancient’ hatreds were sown. In April 1948 the Haganah had another go at Hassan Salameh, attacking a four-storey concrete building in an orange grove where he and his men were sheltering. After a fierce gun battle, the building was blown up with eight hundred pounds of dynamite. Salameh was not among the casualties. Nonetheless, Haganah activity was taking its toll on the Palestinian leadership, with the commander in chief, Abd el-Kader el-Husseini, shot dead after a chance encounter with an alert Haganah sentry. Hassan Salameh seems to have had intimations of mortality, for on his appointment as Kader’s successor he told his wife: ‘If I am killed I want my son to carry on my battle.’ As invading Arab armies began to dominate the struggle with the Zionists, Salameh calculated that he needed to reassert the Palestinian contribution through dramatic military action. In May 1948 Irgun fighters had taken an Arab village called Ras el-Ein, a former crusader fortress whose wells supplied Jerusalem and Tel Aviv below. Salameh led three hundred fighters to retake the village, which they did to shouts of ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ As the Irgun men fled, leaving eleven dead behind, their mortar fire hit a small group of the attackers, killing Salameh’s cousin and wounding his nephew. The sheikh himself received mortal injuries as pieces of shrapnel penetrated his lungs. He died in a Ramleh hospital a few hours later, leaving the battle for his son to fight.

Although it is far from clear whether the leaderless Palestinians fled or were driven out in accordance with the Haganah’s master-plan, some 650,000 Palestinians left in a very short space of time that seems inexplicable unless they were terrified. Whether they had reason to be terrified is a contentious matter. The Zionists acted swiftly and ruthlessly wherever they encountered anything less than unconditional surrender. Some 370 villages were deliberately erased and their inhabitants expelled, although some of the claims regarding outright massacres have become the subject of libel suits by old soldiers directed at the Israeli ‘New Historians’ who are making them.22 It is also important to note that even future Palestinian terrorist leaders, such as Abu Iyad, who at the age of fifteen fled Haifa by boat, partly blame overblown propaganda - about rape and disembowelling - put about by the Palestinians themselves, and the false expectation that after a brief interval Arab armies would enter the fray to restore the Palestinians to their homes.23 Only 160,000 Palestinians remained in situ, while nearly a million found themselves in refugee camps, notably in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, a problem for the UN and neighbouring Arab governments down to the present. Jewish immigrants were settled in places whose names were deliberately ‘Hebraised’, particularly along the borders with Arab states with which Israel concluded an uneasy ceasefire. Although it is often forgotten in a discussion where sympathies tend to be unilateral, in the next few years some 850,000 Jews fled Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, often under duress as rulers made wholly unwarranted connections between Jews and Zionists and mobs perpetuated atrocities. In the case of Iraq, the Jewish Agency may have helped chaos along by covertly exploding bombs in the vicinity of Baghdad synagogues to encourage a general atmosphere of paranoia. Many of these Mizrahi Jews faced an uncongenial future in Israel.24 Beyond questions of who did what to whom, the fact is that two peoples with an acute sense of dispossession and persecution would covet the same small territory. In the case of the Palestinians, some talismanic item - a rusty key or yellowing land deeds - would give credence to the legends that the older generations would inculcate in young people, a process of ‘retraumatisation’ that was all too evident among their Israeli opponents, as the European Holocaust went from being something the heroic sabras (a term derived from the prickly pear with a sweet centre to describe native-born Israeli Jews) viewed as a source of embarrassment to becoming a central feature of Israeli national identity.25


While this conflict was developing by the Levantine shores of the Mediterranean, its North African littoral witnessed a vicious eight-year colonial struggle which had a major influence on future national liberation movements that resorted to terrorism, while offering many negative instances of how not to combat these which are being studied by the US military in Iraq today. This struggle was played out in Algeria - with Tunisia and Morocco one of the countries of the Maghreb, that immense coastal plain stretching from the Mediterranean to the interior mountain ranges.

France had conquered Algeria between 1830 and 1870 in a series of murderous campaigns led by marshal Bugeaud, which one of his main supporters, Alexis de Tocqueville, thought might toughen up the degenerate French of his time. Although there was the usual rhetoric of France’s mission civilisatrice, Algeria was run in the interests of the tough-minded European colonial minority, including many Corsican, Italian, Maltese and Spanish settlers as well as Frenchmen, rather than the majority Muslim population of Arabs and Berbers who were in a condition of tutelage. Within this European minority a tiny wealthy elite took over most of the fertile lands, which were converted from cereal production to viticulture, with Algeria becoming the third-largest wine producer in the world. The urban centres may have gleamed with white stone and sparkling fountains, but the non-European rural population derived little benefit from this. Poverty and a high birth rate forced many to seek work in the cities or in metropolitan France. There some of the more thoughtful Muslim emigrants imbibed democratic and egalitarian principles not evident in the French colonial regime in Algeria, and began to organise among the migrant proletariat in their favourite cafes. They contrasted an abstract France of universal principles with the real France of their experience, and found the latter wanting.

In 1926 Messali Hadj founded a pan-Maghrebi movement called the Etoile Nord-Africaine. Constantly harassed by the French authorities, this was relaunched in 1937 with a narrower focus as the Parti du Peuple Algérien. Simultaneously, those in favour of a puritanical form of Islam organised as the Association of Algerian Ulamas under sheikh Ben Badis. There were also Algerian Communists, organised as a separate party from 1935 onwards, as well as liberal leaders who sought the assimilation of all Algerians into France.

As in other parts of the world, the humiliation of the colonial power by the wartime Axis gave renewed impetus to Algerian nationalists, just as they would later take heart from France’s defeat in Indo-China and its ignominious role in the Suez conspiracy against Nasser. The baraka or magic aura of European invincibility was broken. Since most of the European colons or pieds noirs (a term referring to their shiny black shoes) supported Pétain’s Vichy, Algerian nationalists offered conditional support to the Free French. When the latter sought to conscript Arabs and Berbers in 1942, nationalist leaders replied with a Manifesto of the Algerian People, which reminded the French of American commitments to the liberation of colonial peoples. Refusing to countenance future Algerian autonomy, the French abolished some of the more discriminatory aspects of their rule, notably by according Arabs and Berbers judicial equality with Europeans, giving sixty-five thousand of them French citizenship, and allowing all adult males the right to vote for a separate Muslim parliament. This was too little, too late.

Tensions boiled just beneath the surface. In May 1945 Arab nationalists tried to attach pro-independence demonstrations to European celebrations of Victory Day. At Sétif in the Constantois district the police forcibly stopped demonstrators unfurling political banners and the green-and-white national flag. Arabs turned on Europeans, killing 103 and wounding another hundred in a week of murderous rioting resembling a medieval peasant jacquerie. An eighty-year-old woman was among those raped. In the course of the official and unofficial response, pied-noir vigilantes and Senegalese regulars - supported by air and naval bombardments - killed between one thousand and forty-five thousand Muslims, although more reliable estimates range between six and twelve thousand. Over five thousand Muslims were arrested, with nearly a hundred condemned to death and hundreds sentenced to life imprisonment. Ironically, those arrested included the most moderate Arab leader, Ferhat Abbas, who was detained in the anteroom to the governor-general’s office where he had gone to congratulate the Frenchman on the Allied victory over Nazism.

At a time when France was determining the constitution of the Fourth Republic, attempts at limited reform in the governance of Algeria disappointed Arab and Berber nationalists while increasing the insecurity of the ruling European minority. The September 1947 Organic Statute on Algeria established a dual electoral college system, in which half a million voters with French civil status enjoyed equal representation with one and a half million Muslim voters of local civil status, despite there being nine million Muslims. The colons engineered the recall to Paris of the governor-general they blamed for these limited concessions and his replacement by one more sympathetic to their intransigent views. To ensure the electoral defeat of the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD), the most radical nationalist party, police and troops were used to scare voters away, and Muslim nationalist candidates were arrested both before and after their election. Some ballot boxes were either stuffed with fraudulent votes or vanished in transit. Let us be entirely clear that the French were deliberately frustrating the extension of democracy to the Arab and Berber populations.26

There was particular shock at these corrupt arrangements among Arabs and Berbers who had loyally served in the French armed forces, only to revert to being treated as second-class citizens awaiting France’s decision as to when they had become sufficiently civilised to be admitted to a political process that was rigged in favour of the European minority. The future FLN commander, Belkacem Krim, remarked: ‘My brother returned from Europe with medals and frost-bitten feet! There everyone was equal. Why not here?’ Facing imprisonment for civil disobedience, Krim fled into the mountains of his native Kabilya, where one of his first acts in a career of violence was to shoot dead a Muslim village constable. Together with another war veteran, Omar Ouamrane, Krim formed a guerrilla band that had five hundred active members. Among those appalled by the violence at Sétif was a young former warrant officer, Ahmed Ben Bella, holder of the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire awarded for bravery during his service in France and Italy. A municipal councillor, Ben Bella was forced to flee the law after shooting a fellow Muslim who may have been set up to take over Ben Bella’s father’s farm. While underground Ben Bella formed an Organisation Spéciale (OS) as the armed wing of the MTLD. Although it carried out a few bank robberies, and had an estimated 4,500 men, the OS was rapidly penetrated by French agents and its leaders imprisoned or forced to flee. Ben Bella himself managed to escape his eight-year jail sentence by sawing his way out with a blade concealed in a loaf of bread. He fled to Cairo where he received sympathy rather than weapons.

The exiled Ben Bella, along with Belkacem Krim, became one of the nine founder leaders of a revolutionary action committee. In November 1954 this adopted the nom de guerre of FLN with an armed wing called the ALN. Just as France’s defeat in 1940 had contributed to the first stirrings of Muslim Algerian nationalism, so the loss of fifteen thousand French (and Muslim Algerian) troops at Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China directly influenced the decision in favour of armed revolt, especially since the victorious Viet Minh were not slow to ask Muslim Arab captives why on earth they were fighting fellow victims of French colonialism halfway around the world.27

The FLN distributed its limited and poorly armed forces in five Wilayas or major military districts which were subdivided in turn down to individual cells. A separate organisation would be built up in Algiers. Consciously restricting themselves to targeting the police, military and communications infrastructure, for the experience of Sétif made an anti-European pogrom inadvisable, the FLN commenced its revolt on All Saints Day, 1 November 1954, with a series of low-level attacks on barracks and police stations, as well as the destruction of telegraph poles, or cork and tobacco stores. An attack on oil tankers failed when the bomb did not explode. Despite the desire to avoid civilian casualties, two young liberal French teachers were dragged off a bus, shot and left to die on the road, an act which the FLN did not disavow. The FLN’s opening ‘Toussaint’ campaign seemed patchy and ineffectual, with the fighting in the remote countryside making little or no impression on the urban European civilian minority who continued their sun-filled life by the sea.

Heavy-handed deployment of police or soldiers against entire civilian populations has invariably been one of the best recruiting mechanisms for terrorist organisations. No one appreciates armed men kicking the door down, manhandling women and rifling through possessions, let alone blowing up one’s home. That the FLN survived its first dismal winter was due to indiscriminate French responses, including the destruction of entire villages as reprisal for nearby attacks; this propelled yet more resentful Algerians into the movement’s ranks. A guerrilla war acquired terrorist characteristics as some FLN commanders decided to get the Europeans’ attention, for hitherto the fighting had seemed abstract and remote from them.

The commander of Wilaya 2, Youssef Zighout, consciously decided to treat all Europeans, regardless of age or gender, as legitimate targets. Terrorism would provoke intensified and indiscriminate repression which would boost FLN support, for much of the FLN’s efforts were directed to mobilising a nationalist movement. Terror would psychologically force Arabs and Europeans into mutually antagonistic camps. There was no room either for ambiguous identities or dual loyalties, as can be seen from the fact that in its first two-and-a-half years of existence, the FLN killed six times as many Muslims as it did Europeans. Anyone who served the French administration or worked for Europeans became a target, as did those who consumed alcohol or tobacco. The former had their lips cut off, the latter their noses, by way of warning; repeat offences resulted in the ‘Kabyle smile’, the dark term for having their throat cut, a deliberate indignity otherwise inflicted upon sheep.

Anti-European terrorism was first demonstrated in several coastal towns in the Constantois in August 1955. On the 20th of that month the town of Philippeville was attacked by a large FLN force that had infiltrated the city, emerging to throw grenades into cafes patronised by colons and to drag Europeans out of their cars in order to hack and slash them to death with knives. The French military intelligence officer Paul Aussaresses, a former wartime secret agent, who had accurately read the signs that this attack was imminent, joined four hundred French troops who emerged to engage the FLN in a ferocious gun battle. When the FLN attackers retreated, they left 130 of their own dead and over a hundred wounded.28

Elsewhere, the FLN struck with truly shocking effect. At a pyrites mining settlement located in a Philippeville suburb called El-Halia, groups of FLN-supporting miners burst into the homes of European workers where they and their families were settling down to lunch out of the intense midday sun. Men, women and children had their throats cut, to the encouraging sounds of ululating Arab women. Miners who had not made it home were found stabbed in their cars. Children kicked in the head of an old woman already dying in the street. The ages of the victims ranged from five days to seventy-two years. This was not some frenzied occurrence but the result of deliberate planning, with phone communications cut and the local policeman abducted before he could fire a flare to alert nearby troops. The arrival of French paratroopers led to an extended bloodbath. After failing to restore order with warning shots, they opened fire on every Arab, mowing down batches of prisoners afterwards. There were so many corpses, and the ground was so solid, that bulldozers were used to bury them. In a further indication that the government was losing control not only of its own soldiers, but of the French colonial population, armed pieds noirs tracked down any Muslims who survived the paratroopers’ lethal ire. Anywhere between twelve hundred and twelve thousand Arabs perished, the obvious disparity representing French government and FLN statistics. Perhaps more importantly what had been too lightly described as the drôle de rebellion would now be fought across what the reforming governor-general Jacques Soustelle called a ravine of spilled blood.

During this period, the FLN surreptitiously elaborated a network of institutions, courts, taxes, pensions and welfare provision, to refocus the loyalties of the Arab and Berber population away from the colonial power, at the same time killing those foolhardy enough to continue to work for the French administration in any capacity. People with complex identities, like the Kabyle educator Mouloud Feraoun who kept a remarkable journal of these years until he was murdered by settler terrorists in 1962, felt themselves torn apart by this insistence upon people conforming to crude political labels. Never blind to the atrocities committed by the French, Feraoun also acknowledged and condemned the tyrannical pathologies beneath the rhetoric of liberation used by the FLN:

Has the time for unbridled furor arrived? Can people who kill innocents in cold blood be called liberators? If so, have they considered for a moment that their ‘violence’ will engender more ‘violence’, will legitimize it, and will hasten its terrible manifestation? They know that the people are unarmed, bunched together in their villages, immensely vulnerable. Are they knowingly prepared for the massacre of ‘their brothers’? Even by admitting that they are bloodthirsty brutes - which in any case does not excuse them but, on the contrary, goes against them, against us, against the ideal that they claim to defend - they have to consider sparing us so as not to provoke repression. Unless liberation means something different to them than it does for us. We thought that they wanted to liberate the country along with its inhabitants. But maybe they feel that this generation of cowards that is proliferating in Algeria must first disappear, and that a truly free Algeria must be repopulated with new men who have not known the yoke of the secular invader. One can logically defend this point of view. Too logically, unfortunately. And gradually, from suspicions to compromises and from compromises to betrayals, we will all be declared guilty and summarily executed in the end.29

At its clandestine Soummam Valley Congress in the autumn of 1956, the FLN established the primacy of the political over the military, and of the internal leadership over those exiled abroad. This was achieved by preventing the external leaders from attending the Congress by holding them in Tripoli until it was over. The French themselves delayed this politics of the underhand developing into murderous internecine rifts. For in October a plane carrying Ben Bella and four colleagues from Rabat to Tunis was forced down at Oran, and the external leaders landed in a French prison. This act of air piracy hugely antagonised the newly independent governments of Morocco and Tunisia, which became safe havens for FLN regular forces. The FLN skilfully exploited international opportunities by forcing their grievances into the limelight of the United Nations. This undermined French efforts to treat Algeria as a domestic issue involving FLN ‘criminals’ leading astray otherwise placid Muslims, through terror or such devices as giving them hashish, a claim that sat ill with the FLN’s grim vestiges of Islamic puritanism.

The French increased their forces in Algeria from eighty thousand in 1954 to nearly five hundred thousand two years later, the level of commitment maintained until the end of the war. Indo-China had taught some commanders hard lessons in counter-revolutionary warfare. The Foreign Legion, nearly half of whose ranks were Germans, had lost ten thousand men in Indo-China alone. Counter-insurgency techniques learned in Indo-China were reapplied against the FLN, whom French officers often referred to as ‘les Viets’. A special counter-insurgency warfare school was established at a barracks in Arzew near Oran, whose Two - to five-week courses were compulsory for arriving officers and NCOs. The French copied counter-terror tactics which the British had recently employed in Malaya, namely the internal deportation of some half a million Chinese squatters into ‘protected villages’ designed to cut off the predominantly Chinese ‘Communist terrorists’ from local sources of supply. The historical model was hardly the most edifying that might have been chosen as one British district officer had his moment of illumination: ‘The Japs put barbed wire around Titi and Pertang, garrisoned these with troops and made all the Chinese of the locality live within the defended areas… Could we not try the same idea?’30

To drain the sea in which the FLN swam, the French army corralled villagers into bleak centres de regroupement, whose only effect was to create anti-French solidarities among embittered people who had been arbitrarily lifted out of their traditional communities. They ensured ‘the concentrated hatred and frustration of thousands’ among the two millions so affected. The French tried redistributing government-owned land, only for the FLN to cut the throats of any farmer rash enough to take it. A high density of French troops was maintained in fertile and populous areas, while sparsely inhabited districts were declared free-fire zones where anyone going about was presumed to be an FLN fighter, even if this involved dressing the corpse of some elderly herdsman in an FLN uniform to bump up the body count. Banana-shaped Vertol H-21 helicopters enabled up to twenty-one thousand French troops to be inserted per month to intercept FLN bands while T-6 Texas trainer aircraft were used to bomb and strafe FLN formations. There was extensive aerial reconnaissance designed to track FLN movements. Beyond France and Algeria shadowy operatives from the SDECE - the French secret service - went into business to adulterate weapons and munitions destined for the FLN and hired assassins of mysterious provenance to murder the mainly ex-Nazi or Swiss arms dealers involved with devices ranging from car bombs to darts poisoned with curare.31

In Algeria itself machismo was the dominant tone among both the elite soldiers and the colon males, an ideology exemplified in the novels of Jean Larteguy with his philosopher heroes resplendent in leopard-striped camouflage gear clutching their distinctive MAT 49 submachine guns with the long under-slung magazines. Some of this spirit is evident in the composite anti-hero para colonel ‘Mathieu’ in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 cinematic masterpiece La battaglia di Algeri. His lean face never smiles and the eyes are perpetually occluded by sunglasses. Many of the civilian colons had fond memories of Charles Maurras and Pierre Poujade, espousing a bar-room brand of Fascism and inter-communal hatred. Limited and localised hearts-and-minds initiatives, one of which we will look at in detail, were regarded grudgingly by senior French commanders, and were invariably undone if a new dawn brought paratroopers crashing through an Arab home.32 The occasional commander who advocated more subtle strategies or who opposed torture, such as Jacques Paris de Bollardière, was encouraged to resign his commission.

The first person of note to publicise torture was the Catholic novelist François Mauriac in an article that appeared in January 1955. Various administrators in Algeria itself also voiced their disquiet. Starting in February 1957, the Catholic weekly Témoignage Chretien published a ‘Jean Muller dossier’ by a recalled reservist in Algeria, in which he said, ‘we are desperate to see how low human nature can stoop, and to see the French use procedures stemming from Nazi barbarism’. The Catholic journal Esprit also published an account by Robert Bonnaud in which he declared: ‘If France’s honour can go along with these acts of torture, then France is a country without honour.’ In September 1957 Paul Teitgen resigned as secretary-general of police in Algiers, because he recognised on the bodies of detainees ‘the deep marks of abuse or torture that I personally endured fourteen years ago in the basement of the Gestapo in Nancy’. Communist militants and Catholic priests were especially active in making torture known to the wider public.33

As well as assassinating international arms dealers, for whom hearts may not bleed, the counter-terrorist war in Algeria acquired very dark accents at the explicit behest of the French socialist government, whose ranks included the justice minister François Mitterrand. Few prisoners were taken, and those that were, were systematically tortured along with anyone suspected of FLN sympathies. This was sometimes a case of those who had experienced or who feared abuse becoming abusers themselves, although the word abuse does not begin to convey the reality, and not every victim of torture became a torturer.

As the case of the then major Paul Aussaresses suggests (he had feared Gestapo or Milice torture every time he was parachuted into occupied France by Britain’s SOE), French officers and men, including those who had fought in the wartime resistance, had few apparent scruples about torturing captives and suspects to glean information about FLN personnel and operations. Suspects were beaten or kicked and then subjected to such techniques as electric shocks or simulated drowning, sometimes to the accompaniment of gramophones or radios to drown out the screaming that victims of torture resort to by way of delaying the breaking point. After such sessions, which sometimes involved activities best described as refocused sexual sadism, such as jamming broken bottles into a person’s anus, the victims were then routinely killed. Degrading and psychologically damaging as this was not only for the victims but for the torturers too, how did the French army seek to justify this?

Senior commanders, such as general Jacques Massu of the elite 10th Paratroop Regiment, argued (as a matter of faith perhaps) that torture was scrupulously focused on those guilty of aiding and abetting or committing acts of terrorism: ‘There were few errors affecting the innocent; in very few cases did we arrest, interrogate, and beat up individuals who had nothing to do with torture.’ Torturers routinely used the ‘ticking time-bomb’ argument that torture was resorted to in order to save people from imminent terrorist attacks. Actually, except in the minds of torturers or academic philosophy seminars, such attacks never figured in the information desired or extracted. Since the FLN were trained to survive interrogation, the information given was usually out of date, or was deliberately rendered to incriminate members of the rival National Algerian Movement, who were then picked up and tortured too.

Even more slippery was Massu’s claim to Aussaresses that the army would have to adopt ‘implacable’ measures - the euphemism for torture - to forestall some morally insane act by the pieds noirs - in other words a variant on the claim that torture was the lesser of two evils. Specifically Massu indicated that the colon ultras were plotting to park several petrol tankers on an incline at the top of the Casbah, the old Turkish quarter of Algiers. Petrol would be streamed down the sloping alleys and streets which, when ignited, would incinerate ‘70,000’ Muslim residents. Here Massu’s memory may have been playing tricks for he was back-projecting to the start of the conflict a plot that the OAS undertook in the final days of French Algeria. If Massu had any religious qualms about what he ordered, these were presumably allayed by the army chaplain who explained:

Faced with a choice between two evils, either to cause temporary suffering to a bandit taken in the act who in any case may deserve to die, or to leave large numbers of innocent people to be massacred by this criminal’s gang, when it could be destroyed as a result of his information, there can be no hesitation in choosing the lesser of the two evils, in an effective but not sadistic interrogation.34

Torture led smoothly to the murder of suspects, like the lawyer Ali Boumendjel, who, arrested for organising terrorist killings, was thrown off a sixth-floor walkway connecting police buildings. The justification for murder was that there were so many FLN suspects awaiting trial that the courts were clogged to the point of immobility while liberal lawyers were ever ready to get the accused off. Rather than risk acquittal, it was better to throw a man off a high building, a clear illustration of how torture tends to be a slippery slope. Much, much later, Massu - who with his wife adopted two Algerian children - would concede that torture had been militarily superfluous.35

Massu had arrived in Algiers with his 4,600 paratroops, just as the more extreme colons in the capital were hurling tomatoes at the new socialist premier Guy Mollet at a wreath-laying ceremony, forcing him to rescind the appointment of a seventy-nine-year-old former general as governor-general to replace the popular Soustelle. Instead Algeria got Robert Lacoste, another hero of the wartime resistance. In addition to being defeated by an angry urban mob, Mollet decided to increase the military presence to half a million men by calling up reservists and extending the service of conscripts. This resulted almost immediately not only in the FLN ambushing a platoon of inexperienced soldiers at Palestro, but in the grim discovery that the FLN had taken prisoners, some of whom were later found disembowelled with their genitals cut off, and with stones stuffed in their body cavities. Although Massu’s paratroops wiped out most of the band responsible, governor-general Lacoste ordered the execution of two FLN prisoners and a massive armed raid on the Casbah that resulted in the detention of five thousand people. The battle of the Casbah was on.

Fatefully, the FLN simultaneously took the decision to focus its terrorist efforts on the capital, for as Ramdane Abane argued: ‘one corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform’. He instructed the head of the FLN in Algiers, Saadi Yacef, to ‘kill any European between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four. But no women, no children, no old people.’ The objective of this urban terror campaign was to get the maximum international visibility for the FLN: ‘Is it preferable for our cause to kill ten enemies in an oued [a dry riverbed] when no one will talk of it, or a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day in the American press?’36

Yacef was a twenty-nine-year-old baker, who in a short period of time assembled fourteen hundred fighters, while constructing an elaborate network of bomb manufactories, arms dumps and hiding places in the courtyard houses of the Casbah, home to eighty thousand Muslims. One of his most implacable fighters was the former pimp Ali La Pointe, the hero of Pontecorvo’s film, in which Yacef played himself. A classic in the revolutionary-insurgency genre, the film is required viewing for soldiers deployed in Iraq, for whom the message of how to win a battle while losing a war is pertinent. In the summer of 1956, almost fifty Europeans were shot dead by the FLN in a series of random killings in the European quarters of the city. Probably in response to this, settler extremists (perhaps including members of the local police) detonated a bomb in the Casbah’s Rue de Thebes, allegedly to destroy an FLN bomb factory; it demolished four houses, killing seventy Muslim men, women and children.

In September 1956, Yacef despatched three young middle-class women, including two law students, into the European quarter of Algiers. One of them subsequently married Jacques Verges, the half-Vietnamese lawyer who defended the Lyons Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, although the couple have since divorced. Yacef reminded them of the atrocity in the Rue de Thebes - whose effect was heightened, according to twenty-two-year-old Zohra Drif, by the knowledge that carefree and indifferent Europeans were at the beach or swimming in the city below when Arab children were being picked out of the rubble. Dressed as if going to the beach, and with their hair dyed to pass as Europeans, the girls flirted their way past French military checkpoints. One terrorist went to the Milk-Bar where families liked to go after a day at the beach; another, accompanied by her mother, to a cafe patronised by students dancing the mambo; and a third to the Air France terminus. The bombs were slipped under tables and the women left. When they exploded, a total of three people were killed and fifty injured, many by shards of flying glass. When the doctor who was hiding Ramdane Abane protested, the FLN chief replied: ‘I see hardly any difference between the girl who places a bomb in the Milk-Bar and the French aviator who bombards a mechta or who drops napalm in a zone interdite’.37 To worsen relations between Europeans and Muslims further, Ali La Pointe was instructed to assassinate the seventy-four-year-old president of the Federation of Algerian Mayors, Amédée Froger, a veteran of the Great War and a popular pied noir leader.

The governor-general of Algeria handed overall responsibility for public order to the newly arrived commander in chief, general Raoul Salan, and his subordinate Massu. Massu was an extremely distinguished soldier; his chief of staff Yves Godard was a former maquisard and veteran of the war in Indo-China.

These men used brutal force to break an FLN-inspired general strike intended to impress the United Nations as it opened in New York, dragooning strikers back to work or ripping off the grilles of closed shop fronts. By these actions the French authorities were prohibiting the right to strike, having already corrupted Algeria’s limited democracy. Yacef responded by despatching more young female bombers, who killed five people and wounded sixty in a brasserie, a bar and a cafe. A fortnight later, bombers struck at two popular stadiums, killing ten and injuring forty-five people. Godard used diagrams, called organograms, based on information from informers and tortured suspects, to give firm organisational outlines to a shadowy opponent camouflaged by the civilian population of the Casbah. Each house was daubed with a number and Nazi-style block wardens were appointed to monitor the comings and goings of the inhabitants. Hooded informers stood ready to identify FLN suspects at the choke points through which Arabs entered and left the Casbah. The French concentrated on finding the bomb makers and weapons stores, sometimes using helicopters to land troops on flat roofs at night. Some bomb makers elected to blow themselves up rather than surrender to the French, in further illustration of the deleterious effects of torture in stiffening resistance. These methods led to the arrest of Larbi Ben M’Hidi, who allegedly hanged himself in French custody shortly afterwards, but was in fact hanged by Aussaresses in a remote barn. This left Yacef in total charge of the campaign of terror. The latter moved from hideout to hideout, sometimes dressed as a woman, with a submachine gun hidden under ‘her’ capacious robes.

The battle degenerated into the tit-for-tat killings which in 1956 the leading pied noir writer Albert Camus vainly tried to halt through a civil truce committee designed to stop the indiscriminate murder of innocents. When two paratroopers were shot leaving a cinema, their comrades burst into a Turkish bath and raked the place with gunfire, leaving as many as eighty people dead, the majority beggars using it as a cheap shelter. By way of revenge, the FLN placed bombs inside heavy cast-iron lampposts, which caused grievous head injuries to passing Muslims and Europeans as they exploded, sending out heavy shrapnel. On 9 June the FLN managed to put a bomb under the bandstand at the Casino, which was packed with regular Sunday dancers. The band leader, Lucky Starway, proved highly unlucky as he was disembowelled, while his singer had her feet blown off. Nine people were killed and eighty-five wounded, many of them losing feet or legs because the bomb was positioned on the floor and the bandstand focused its blast. Men from the working-class European quarters went berserk, rounding on local Arab shopkeepers. Five people were killed and fifty injured while the army and police turned a blind eye or quickly released anyone they arrested. Meanwhile, a French patrol managed to detain Djamila Bouhired, one of Yacef’s closest collaborators, as they passed the pair in the Casbah. Yacef tried to shoot her before fleeing. Although she did not betray Yacef, further chance arrests, and the deployment of agents inside the Casbah, meant that his hiding place in the Rue Caton was nearing discovery.

Before that, Yacef took part in the celebrated dialogue with the ethnologist and former Gaullist resister Germaine Tillion, who had been incarcerated in Ravensbruck by the Nazis. She smuggled herself into the Casbah in an attempt to persuade a senior FLN commander (who she did not know was Yacef) in a four-hour meeting to halt the terror bombing of civilians. Their encounters were revealing:

‘We are neither criminals, nor assassins’ [said Yacef]. Very sadly and very firmly, I replied: ‘You are assassins.’ He was so disconcerted that for a moment he remained without speaking, as if suffocated. Then, his eyes filled with tears and he said to me, in so many words: ‘Yes, Madame Tillion, we are assassins … It’s the only way in which we can express ourselves.’

Yacef claimed that a former pied noir friend had died in the Casino bombing and that the man’s fiancee had lost both her legs. He agreed to call off attacks on civilians, and he proved as good as his word until his capture.

Yacef’s whereabouts were revealed after Godard captured his main courier to the outside world. The man also told Godard about the secret contacts between Tillion and Yacef which his captors were outraged to learn had occurred with the complicity of the French government. Godard’s paratroopers found Yacef in a concealed hideaway in the Rue Caton, from which he lobbed grenades or dropped plastique to buy time to burn crucial documents. He and his companion Zohra Drif eventually surrendered to avoid choking from smoke inhalation. Across the street, Ali La Pointe slipped away. He was eventually tracked down to another hideout, where he crouched resignedly with Hassiba Ben Bouali and the twelve-year-old Petit Omar. Refusing to surrender, the three of them were killed when bombs designed to expose their hideaway detonated a store of explosives which destroyed several houses. Seventeen Muslim neighbours, including four children, died in the blast. The battle of Algiers was over and the French army had won it, although their disgraceful methods would lose them the wider war.

The FLN’s internal leadership in Algeria fled to Tunis, where the ‘externals’ blamed them for a failed general strike, for a failed urban terrorist campaign, and for handing the French a major propaganda coup which they were calling the FLN’s Dien Bien Phu. Worse, the French were now decimating the FLN out in the countryside, while installing high-voltage fencing and minefields, with troops stationed at one-mile intervals, to prevent the FLN from raiding from Morocco or Tunisia.

The 584th Infantry Battalion was stationed in the southern Sahara around Tizi-Ouzou, Oued Chair and Ain Rich. Until major Jean Pouget took command, it was an indisciplined rabble whose soldiers had vandalised the train taking them to Marseilles for transhipment to Algeria. Pouget, a wartime resister who had narrowly avoided execution by the Nazis, and had then spent five years in a Viet Minh prison camp after Dien Bien Phu, resolved to clean them up. Thefts and vandalism were punished by making the entire battalion sleep outside in night-time temperatures of −5 degrees Centigrade. Having been tortured himself, Pouget forbade abusive treatment of FLN captives. When he encountered a captive whom a conscript had assaulted, the major punched the conscript twice in the face: ‘That is on behalf of the prisoner… do not forget that a prisoner is a disarmed soldier. He is no longer an enemy and could be a friend of tomorrow. So long as I am in command of this battalion the prisoners will be treated as if they are already our comrades. Now untie him! Medic, check out his wounds.’ Routinely, FLN prisoners were so overcome by such treatment that they gushed out information that was not even solicited. Nor would Pouget tolerate any abuse of the local civilians, imprisoning a lieutenant who had put his arm round the waist of a dignitary’s daughter and then ordering him to sweep the base courtyard. He also whole-heartedly believed in Specialist Administrative Sections. These were hearts-and-minds outposts staffed by young Arabic-speaking officers, who gleaned intelligence while improving local animal husbandry, education, irrigation and medical provision. They went from village to village, listening rather than talking to the inhabitants. If they had problems with their sheep, then the SAS officer would open a disinfection station with no questions asked. They also used mobile medical clinics and cinemas to win over the locals. They sent out doctors under the protection of the village elders, a way of breaking the vice-like grip of the FLN on the population. A twenty-one-year-old philosophy student conscript volunteered to run a village school in a remote location. He was popular. When the FLN killed him, Pouget took no retaliatory action, waiting for the village elders to ask for French protection. Through such calculations, counter-insurgency wars are sometimes won.38

The FLN were also faced with the prospective nightmare of an ethnic split between Arabs and Berbers when an Arab FLN commander shot dead his Berber political commissar who he imagined was abusing local Arab women. He then took his men over as Harkis or Muslim irregulars, who quickly outnumbered the Algerian Muslims fighting for the FLN. French intelligence also successfully inserted high-level agents into the FLN, sowing fear and murderous paranoia in its ranks. In view of these setbacks it is not surprising that there were bitter recriminations and power struggles within the FLN leadership, notoriously involving the luring to Morocco in December 1957 of its most charismatic leader, Ramdane Abane, where he was strangled on the orders of the five Wilaya colonels who increasingly dominated the FLN. A communique announced that he had been killed by the French while on a secret mission in Algeria. As the external FLN forces became more professionalised and played an increasingly important part in the fighting, leadership passed to such figures as Colonel Houari Boumedienne, the grimly taciturn figure who would become Algeria’s second president.

That the FLN recovered from apparent defeat was paradoxically due to tensions among the French victors. Success in the battle of Algiers went to the heads of many regular army officers who, already explicitly sympathetic to the colon minority, grew impatient with the succession of indecisive politicians who determined their destinies from Paris. On 8 February 1958 they caused a major international incident when, responding to FLN anti-aircraft fire from within neighbouring Tunisia, they despatched bombers which levelled the town of Sakiet, killing eighty people. This attack was never authorised by the French government and provoked international outrage. Moreover, since the disaster at Palestro, the French public was beginning to question the cost, human, moral and material, of underwriting the pied noir presence in Algeria. It was one thing for regular troops, Foreign Legionnaires and Harkis to die in a war in Algeria’s scrubland, but they felt differently when conscription meant that it involved sons of metropolitan families. Discontent spread to the army as conscript soldiers were used to control areas of scrub and sand while the paras got the glamour, girls and glory in the cities. The conduct of the war, and in particular the systematic use of torture, also discredited France in the eyes of the world, even though the FLN’s own terror tactics included disembowelling people and braining small children against walls. Clumsy attempts by the French government to censor accounts of torture were counter-productive since they could not control the international press, and the use of torture against European supporters of the FLN was a public relations catastrophe.

In May 1958, the colons launched a direct challenge to the French government when they forced Lacoste to leave his post - over government failure to stop the FLN from carrying out reprisal executions - and proclaimed a reluctant general Massu president of a Committee of Public Safety. In the background Salan threatened to extend this coup to France, bringing paratroopers as close as Corsica during Operation Resurrection designed to lever general Charles de Gaulle into power. As Parisians scanned the skies for massed mushrooming parachutes, the aged president René Coty summoned de Gaulle, granting him the right to rule for six months by decree and to draw up a constitution for a Fifth Republic. Playing his cards very close to his chest, de Gaulle had a vision of France that ranged high above the squalid little war in Algeria, to a world in which economic might and nuclear bombs were a surer index of global great-power status than a string of colonies undergoing rancid disputes between colonial dinosaurs and national liberation movements.

De Gaulle flew to Algeria in early June 1958, where he praised the army, claimed he ‘had understood’ the mutinous colons, and slightly opened a door to those ‘Muslim Frenchmen’ whom the FLN had temporarily led astray through the offer of a settlement that would acknowledge the honour of France’s opponents. His Constantine Plan that autumn promised universal suffrage, a single electoral college, and two-thirds Algerian Muslim representation in the metropolitan parliament. Integration was to be accelerated through crash economic and educational reforms. The new constitution became a trial of strength with the FLN. It lost in the sense that nearly 80 per cent of Muslims turned out to vote, and 96.6 per cent voted to approve the constitution of the Fifth Republic. The FLN responded by announcing a provisional government to be based at Tunis, with the erstwhile moderate Ferhat Abbas as president and the imprisoned Ben Bella as his deputy. This entity rejected the Constantine Plan and de Gaulle’s offer of an honourable paix des braves. Worse, in November, the FLN succeeded in deterring anyone of note from standing for election to the electoral college, thereby underlining the fact that the French would have to talk to its representatives. Paradoxically, de Gaulle had more success in reining in the army - general Salan was replaced by Maurice Challe - which then virtually crushed the FLN in three of the Wilayas. That displaced the centre of FLN military activity to Morocco and Tunisia, where quasi-regular forces could be carefully trained and equipped with the increasing flow of Chinese and Soviet-bloc weaponry.

In September 1959 de Gaulle gave radio and television addresses which made the first calculated play with the term ‘auto-determination’. A referendum on this would come about if peace could be established and maintained for four years. The FLN rejected these proposals, which were designed to reach over its head, even as the first crack in the French fa4cCade boosted nationalist morale. By contrast the more militant settlers, sensing betrayal, launched a week-long uprising in January 1960 which was viewed sympathetically by likeminded spirits in the regular army as the colons clashed violently with French gendarmes and riot police. Although de Gaulle was able to use radio and television appearances to hold the inconstant soldiery onside, for the next two years both colon intransigence and the uncertain loyalty of the army proved the major obstacle to a swift resolution of the nightmare in Algeria.

Disunity within the FLN was a further obstacle, for it too was divided between accommodationists and maximalists, the latter chiefly represented within its armed formations. That summer de Gaulle endeavoured to split the FLN by holding clandestine talks at Melun with dissident leaders from Wilaya Four in southern Algiers who were disenchanted with the external leadership. Although these talks came to nothing, and these dissidents were subsequently killed by the FLN and the French, it put enormous pressure on the FLN leadership to commence their own negotiations. In November, de Gaulle opened the door a little wider when he said in a public address that he could envisage an Algerian republic, a vision preparatory to a referendum in Algeria and France on Algerian self-determination.

In February 1956 Ferhat Abbas had heard a pied noir demonstrator remark: ‘The FLN has taught us that violence is profitable for the Muslims. We are going to organise violence by the Europeans and prove that that too is profitable.’ During 1960 extremists among the colons organised as the Front de l’Algérie Française or FAF. Its supporters among metropolitan notables included Jacques Soustelle, the centre-right politician Georges Bidault and generals Jouhaud and Salan. When de Gaulle visited Algeria, but not Algiers itself, in December, the most implacable elements in the FAF tried to assassinate him. Booed by colons everywhere, the president was greeted respectfully by Algerian Muslims. On 11 December the FLN organised a huge demonstration of nationalist sentiment in the capital, which was awash with white-and-green FLN flags and banners. In early 1961, around 75 per cent of the metropolitan electorate voted in favour of Algerian self-determination, a figure that sank to 55 per cent in the colony where the FLN urged a Muslim boycott. That month de Gaulle banned the FAF, whose more virile adherents formed an Organisation Armee Secrète or OAS, under a triarchy led by the exiled Salan. Shockingly, the retired general Maurice Challe flew to Algeria to take charge of the military putsch the OAS was planning.

On the night of 21 April 1961, the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment seized government and security facilities in Algiers and took the military commander and government-delegate captive. The following morning Challe broadcast that he and his colleagues had assumed power in Algeria and the Sahara. However, the putsch was not supported by the commander of the Oranie, while the commander of the Constantois havered. The army in metropolitan France remained loyal to de Gaulle’s government. Stalled at the outset, the putsch collapsed, with Challe surrendering himself to the authorities and the other leaders fleeing abroad. De Gaulle took the opportunity to rearrange the high command of the army. Thus the main means by which France sought to contain the FLN had disabled itself. As the putsch gave way to the nihilistic violence of the OAS, de Gaulle used Georges Pompidou to establish clandestine contacts with the external leadership of the FLN. Talks commenced at Evian, with Belkacem Krim and the FLN delegates commuting from neutral Switzerland. The OAS assassinated the mayor of the host city in a gesture that was as barbarous as it was irrelevant. The French called a unilateral ceasefire and released thousands of prisoners as a goodwill gesture. After a series of meetings the talks broke down over the FLN’s refusal to accord European settlers dual citizenship or recognise France’s claim that the (oil- and gas-rich) Sahara had never been an integral part of Algeria.

As this future was being arranged in a remote part of the Jura, the OAS developed an organisational structure to support its five hundred or so Delta terrorists. These were drawn from the colon ultras, soldiers enraged by what they saw as de Gaulle’s sell-out, and from the criminal underworld, which, on the Muslim side, was not entirely unrepresented in the ranks of the FLN either. Insofar as they had any coherent long-term ideas - and such an absence had been no obstacle to the FLN either - these consisted of admiration for the toughness of the Zionist Haganah and of apartheid in South Africa. To urgent chants and hooting of ‘Al-gé-rie fran-çais’, which became a sort of counterpoint to the FLN’s ululations, the Delta men used plastic explosives or guns and daggers to kill liberal-minded Europeans or senior members of the police. This escalated into indiscriminate drive-by shootings of any group of innocent Muslims after each FLN attack. The war spread to France when, in response to orders to the army to suppress the OAS, its operatives blew up the Parisian apartment of the chief of staff, narrowly missing the general’s wife. Ironically, French detectives in Algiers were soon resorting to organograms to pinpoint the organisational structures of the OAS, many of whose members had helped construct these diagrams in the war against the FLN.

Unsure of the loyalties of the local Algerian police, the heads of counter-terrorism in Algiers resorted to the slightly fantastical barbouzes or false beards, a motley crew of bar-room toughs, Vietnamese and local Jews, who collectively might have strayed out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Since the Vietnamese were hardly inconspicuous, the OAS Delta teams were able to track down their whereabouts with relative ease. One ‘secret’ villa was shot to pieces with a devastating display of firepower; its replacement was demolished when the Deltas smuggled in a massive bomb inside a crate bearing a printing press, which blew many of the barbouzes to pieces. The remnants tried to flee the country, but were cornered inside a hotel; the four men who managed to get out as the OAS shot up the place were trapped in a car and burned alive.

Unfortunately for the OAS the colourful barbouzes had distracted them from the activities of a team of expert metropolitan detectives, two hundred men strong, who brought their skill to bear on unravelling the OAS, rotating out of Algeria every two months so as to avoid going native with the European community. In order to publicise their cause in the metropolis, the OAS extended their campaign of terror to the mainland. There was a series of increasingly daring attempts to assassinate de Gaulle, the closest being thwarted by the skill of the president’s driver, as well as crazed schemes to bring down the Eiffel Tower. Most OAS machine-gunnings and plastiquages were directed at prominent opponents of the war in Algeria, including the headquarters of the Communist Party and Jean-Paul Sartre, that loathsome academic enthusiast for the purifying effects of political violence. In February 1962, an OAS attempt to kill the minister of culture went badly awry when the bomb intended for him sent three hundred glass splinters into the face and body of four-year-old Delphine Renard as she played in a ground-floor apartment. She was blinded in one eye and badly disfigured. Shocking newspaper coverage of this atrocity led to a small demonstration by left-wing and Roman Catholic trades unionists the following day, which ended in scenes of police violence at the Charonne Metro station where the police threw people downstairs, leading to the deaths of eight people. Half a million protesters took to the streets the following day.

Talks resumed at Yéti high in the Jura in early 1962 when the FLN had become as concerned as the French government about the indiscriminate terror campaign launched by the OAS. In February alone this resulted in the deaths of 553 people. Stringent night-time curfews meant that only killers moved around in the darkened streets of Algiers and Oran. In these talks, France dropped its claim to the Sahara, although it was granted exploration and production rights on a leased basis, and the FLN allowed France to maintain air and naval facilities, while keeping Algeria within the franc zone. Algerians would still be welcome to work in France, with which preferential trading arrangements were established. France would grant Algeria a generous aid package to ease the transition to independence. This deal was overwhelmingly endorsed through referenda held in mainland France and Algeria.

As news of this settlement reached the OAS leadership, Salan ordered an indiscriminate assault on every manifestation of governmental authority, which apparently took in postmen, foreign correspondents and flower-sellers on street corners. Many of these were drive-by shootings. OAS killers also came for Mouloud Feraoun, who was killed along with five other French and Muslim educators in a Chicago-style hit as they discussed vocational education for homeless Algerian children. Although the ensuing Evian Agreements seemed to protect the rights of the pieds noirs, the OAS ignored the stipulated ceasefire, beginning with a mortar attack on a square where Muslims were celebrating the proclamation of Algerian independence. Murderous OAS attacks on French police and conscript soldiers followed. In response to this, the French army launched an all-out assault on the OAS heartland in the suburb of Bab el-Oued, using tanks and aircraft to reduce sniper positions in the blocks of flats. When the pieds noirs held a mass demonstration to protest this siege, the OAS provoked a massacre by firing from a rooftop on the Algerian Tirailleurs brought in to police the demonstration. Totally unsuited for this role, and newly returned from hunting FLN fighters in the countryside, these troops opened fire and left forty-six demonstrators dead as well as two hundred wounded. Even as it unleashed this orgy of violence, intrepid policemen and soldiers were on the tracks of the OAS leadership.

Among those picked up were Salan himself and Roger Degueldre, the organisation’s most feared gunman, both of whom were flown to captivity in France. The OAS top brass including Challe, Jouhaud and Salan escaped with their lives, while their murderous myrmidons like Degueldre went to the firing squads. By way of response to these arrests, the OAS used a powerful car bomb to kill sixty-two Muslim dockers seeking work; and an attempt to roll a petrol tanker down into the Casbah was narrowly averted. In a uniquely mean-minded attack, the OAS murdered seven aged cleaners on their way to work, bringing one week’s death toll to 230 people. As the FLN responded with attacks on bars and cafes that were known OAS haunts, one hundred thousand Europeans slipped out of Algeria, which the OAS now decided to destroy as it was abandoned. As everything from libraries to oil refineries went up in flames, some 350,000 Europeans left in June 1962 alone. In total, some 1,380,000 Europeans departed, as well as one hundred thousand, mainly FLN-supporting, Algerian Jews, leaving a mere thirty thousand pieds noirs behind. When in Oran a few diehards rashly opened fire on the incoming FLN, a Muslim crowd went berserk and cut the throats of any men, women and children they encountered in the almost deserted European quarter of the city. On Tuesday 3 July 1962 a plane carrying the Provisional Government landed in Algeria from Tunisia. The president, Ben Youssef Ben Khedda, drove into Algiers where hundreds of thousands of people waving white-and-green flags awaited him. There were chants and whistles of ‘Ya-ya, Dje-za-ir!’ or ‘Long live Algeria!’. Peace meant the onset of faction-fighting in the FLN which cost the lives of fifteen thousand former comrades. It also brought a bloody reckoning with those Muslim Algerians who had fought for France, as the FLN murdered an unknown number of former Harkis, the most conservative estimate being thirty thousand, the most sensational one hundred and fifty thousand. The much smaller number who escaped to the metropolis experienced the full ingratitude of the French and the neighbourly hostility of the Muslim Algerians who migrated in subsequent years as remittance men to France.

There was one further important aspect to the celebrations of Algeria’s liberation from France. Among the invited guests was Yasser Arafat, whose elder brother Gamal had befriended the exiled FLN leader Mohammed Khider in Cairo. Arafat was a former student militant with connections to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and with a family relationship to the chief adviser of the grand mufti. He was one of the five young Palestinian exiles, by 1958 all working in Kuwait, who founded a movement called Fatah for the liberation of Palestine. The name was based on the initials of the Palestine Liberation Movement - Harakat Tahrir Filastin - spelled backwards. Forwards they gave ‘Hataf’ or ‘Death’, backwards they spelled ‘Conquest’. Initially there were twenty members who swore an oath before being admitted to its cell-based structure:

I swear by God the Almighty,

I swear by my honour and my conviction,

I swear that I will be truly devoted to Palestine,

That I will work actively for the liberation of Palestine,

That I will do everything that lies within my capabilities,

That I will not give away Fatah’s secrets,

That this is a voluntary oath, and God is my witness.

Arafat had initially gone to Kuwait to work as an engineer building roads. From this starting point he developed business interests in the construction industry, which enabled him to travel and to recruit from among professionals in the wider Palestinian diaspora in the Gulf and western Europe. Arafat’s friend Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, became full-time head of a Palestinian Bureau in Algeria, which along with Baathist Syria was the Palestinians’ most valuable patron. Cordial relations with the chilly Boumedienne enabled al-Wazir to open a guerrilla training camp at Blida while sending a select few to the Cherchel Military Academy. It must have been a heady atmosphere as Palestinians met such living legends as Ernesto Che Guevara or established contacts with foreign diplomats, which in early 1964 resulted in Arafat’s first visit to China.39

At this time Fatah was merely one of a host of organisations claiming to represent the Palestinians. In January 1964 an Arab summit in Cairo had created a Palestine Liberation Organisation under a diplomat and lawyer named Ahmad al-Shuqairi with the highly undiplomatic habit of calling for the Jews to be hurled into the sea. Worse, al-Shuqairi talked about establishing an armed wing of the PLO, thereby siphoning off Fatah’s potential pool of recruits. Using Wazir as an intermediary, Arafat proposed that the Palestinians should copy the Zionists’ example, with Fatah acting as the terrorist equivalent of Irgun or Lehi to the PLO’s version of the underground Haganah army of the Jewish Agency. Fatah’s extremely limited resources led to a series of strategic debates between the so-called ‘sane ones’ advocating caution and the ‘mad ones’, including Arafat, who argued that even apparently futile attacks on Israel would provoke a massive reaction that would bolster Fatah’s cause. A compromise was agreed between the two factions, in the sense that Fatah would create a pseudonymous armed formation called Al-Asifa, or the Storm, whose failures could be denied by Fatah itself, dissimulation repeated in the 1970s with the more deadly Black September organisation.

The first fedayeen consisted of twenty-six men armed with three weapons and financed by a modest bank overdraft. Their initial campaign was not impressive as one raiding party was arrested by the Lebanese while the Jordanian army was responsible for the first casualty when it shot a Palestinian guerrilla returning across the border from Israel. Despite the huge disparity between Fatah’s rhetoric and its piffling attacks on Israeli water-pumping stations from its bases in Jordan, money started to flow from rich Kuwaitis and such new benefactors as Saudi’s sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. A Saudi diplomat in Ankara was deputed to drive weapons to Fatah from Turkey via Syria into Lebanon. Paradoxically, Israel’s swift and comprehensive defeat of the Arab nations in the Six-Day War in June 1967 benefited Fatah, while more radical rival actors such as Dr George Habash’s Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine entered the scene bent on revolutionising the entire Arab world and defeating US imperialism.40 Rather than rely on feeble Arab patrons, Arafat persuaded his Fatah colleagues to organise guerrilla activity inside the territories newly occupied by Israel. Although the response inside the West Bank was poor, and the Israelis quickly killed or captured most of the guerrilla fighters, four hundred more Palestinian volunteers flew to Algeria from Germany for military training. Fatah also established bases for cross-border raids on the Israeli-Jordanian river frontier, which it could ford at night using primitive rafts. To the increasing alarm of its Hashemite ruler, Jordan became for Fatah what Hanoi was for the Viet Cong. The Israelis responded with artillery fire and the occasional air strike.

On 18 March 1968 an Israeli school bus drove over a Fatah mine, killing a doctor and a schoolboy and injuring twenty-nine children. Well informed, thanks to a CIA tip to his Jordanian hosts, about massive Israeli reprisals, Arafat made the maverick decision to stand and fight the Israelis at a border base camp at Karameh, one of the few successful rural resettlements of Palestinians by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that administered Palestinian refugee camps. Appropriately the name meant ‘Dignity’ in Arabic. Israel’s operation went awry when paratroops despatched to cut off the guerrillas’ escape route into the hills found themselves ambushed by Habash’s PFLP, while the main force ran into a regular Jordanian division commanded by a general sympathetic to the Palestinians, which after an intense fight forced the Israelis to withdraw at a loss of twenty-eight dead and nearly seventy wounded. Fatah lost around 150. The Fatah guerrillas distinguished themselves in the fight, including the seventeen men who died firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at point-blank range into tanks, a feat commemorated in the name of Arafat’s elite bodyguards, Force 17. Relations between Israel and Jordan conspired to make this a Fatah, as opposed to a Jordanian, ‘victory’. The movement was inundated with volunteers, while for the first time the name of the mystery commander allegedly responsible for Israel’s ‘defeat’ was bruited abroad: Abu Ammar, the nom de guerre of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian cause acquired a stubbly face, with the trademark chequered keffiyeh and wraparound sunglasses, his Egyptian-accented Arabic switching into broken English for the increasing number of Western interviewers.

Once again emulating the Zionists, Arafat used the increased resources flowing to Fatah from oil-rich Libya and Saudi Arabia to ramify a series of non-military institutions as a sort of state in waiting, which also gradually marginalised the authority of UNRWA in the camps. Although Egypt’s president Nasser was suspicious of Arafat’s connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, after a key meeting in April 1968 he offered the Fatah leader his protection. This enabled Palestinians to train at Egyptian military bases and to begin broadcasting from their own Voice of Fatah station in Cairo. With considerable shrewdness, Arafat managed to get financial support from the ultra-conservative Saudis to purchase arms from the Communist Chinese, who also supplied the PFLP. France’s president de Gaulle allowed Fatah to open its first official European mission in Paris, from which the Palestinians were able to forge contacts with the new left, whose sympathies migrated from the FLN to the Palestinians as the chic international cause of the day. In a further adroit move, Fatah finally took over the moribund Palestinian Liberation Organisation, thereby benefiting from its connections with the leaders of the Arab world and the erratic mandate of the Palestinian so-called parliament. In February 1969 Fatah leaders installed in the Palestinian National Council elected Arafat chairman of the ruling Executive Committee of the PLO. Although there was a parliament the modus operandi owed more to Marxist-Leninist democratic centralism than to Westminster. There was also an explicit and unequivocal commitment to armed struggle as the only means of liberating Palestine. That December Arafat sat as the leader of the Palestinians among other Arab leaders at a summit in Rabat, unaware that it was from some of the friends around the table, rather than the Israelis, that he had most to fear.


The newly installed FLN regime in Algeria also gave hope to another liberation struggle at the other end of the African continent. In early 1962 a tall, graceful, middle-aged African stood on the edge of a dusty little Moroccan town called Oujda, borrowing field glasses from an FLN commander to take a look at French troops operating across the nearby border in Algeria. Their uniforms reminded him of the South African Defence Force. The FLN’s campaign against the colonial regime in Algeria seemed the closest contemporary counterpart to the African National Congress’s struggle against white minority rule in South Africa. The following day, Nelson Mandela attended a military parade honouring the recently released Ahmed Ben Bella, watching a march-past by tough FLN fighters equipped with modern weapons as well as axes and spears. In the rear a huge African marked time with a ceremonial mace for an FLN military band. There was a warm flash of ethnic fellow feeling.

There was little of the soldier about Mandela, yet he was in North Africa as the newly appointed founder leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or the Spear of the Nation. This was to become the armed wing of the ANC. The son of a Xhosa clan closely connected with the royal house of the Transkei, Mandela had received a decent British education at Methodist schools before qualifying as a lawyer, with his own thriving (Black) practice in Johannesburg with his friend Oliver Tambo. The pose of being a simple country bumpkin made good masked a man of great political intelligence who was radicalised by the thousand quotidian systemic slights that baaskap or White mastery entailed:

To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicised from the moment of one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not. An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends school at all. When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, without which he can be arrested and thrown in jail. His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential and stunt his life. This was the reality, and one could deal with it in a myriad of ways.41

As he had done earlier in his life - for example, when he wanted to understand Roman law or Communism - Mandela began by resorting to study, this time brushing up on military matters. Living clandestinely on a farm, he borrowed Clausewitz’s On War from a friend who had fought in North Africa and Italy. He went on to read Castro, Guevara and Mao on guerrilla warfare, as well as The Revolt by Menachem Begin. Fortuitously, Arthur Goldreich, who provided cover for Mandela by renting the farm on which the MK leader was ostensibly the hired hand, had fought in the Zionist Palmach against the British. Even more experience came from Jack Hodgson, another war veteran, who showed Mandela how to blow things up with nitroglycerine. The path to violence, largely against inanimate objects rather than people it must be stressed, was paved with the obstacles that apartheid had placed in the way to the aspirations of the majority.

Black Africans were subject to pass laws in the nineteenth century by the British so as to restrict their movements into and within White and Coloured areas. Blacks were not allowed on to the streets of towns in Cape Province or Natal and had to carry a pass at all times. British liberals had also reserved the three protectorates of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland from the Union of South Africa allegedly to protect Black African interests within a White-dominated Union. These pass laws were the object of a campaign by the South African Native National Convention, founded in 1912 to co-ordinate the expression of Black opinion after it was ignored by the Union’s White founders. The campaign’s model was the passive resistance espoused by Gandhi, the Indian lawyer who spent twenty years living in Natal until he returned home in 1914. Protests by Indians (and Coloureds) forced the government to drop discriminatory measures affecting these communities. Passive resistance also reflected the fact that the majority of members of what in 1923 became the ANC had a Christian background - preventing some of them such as chief Albert Luthuli from ever endorsing political violence - which also made them suspicious of the machinations of the tiny South African Communist Party. Moreover, the Communists had sought to promote white working-class interests, as typified by the slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa’ during the 1922 Rand revolt in which troops were used to shoot down white miners striking in protest against being deskilled through the employment of Blacks. It was only when as a result of Comintern pressure the Communists advocated an ‘independent native republic’ that the Party was able to expand its influence within the ANC, although it would continue to be viewed with suspicion by pan-Africanists who resented any leading role being assumed by Coloureds, Indians or White liberals and leftists.

It is important to remember that Afrikaner nationalism was also long in the making.42 The semi-secret Broederbund was established to encourage Afrikaner culture and language and to practise a sort of Trotskyite entryism into all major institutions, while the Dutch Reformed Church gave transcendental purpose to the Afrikaner version of the toils and travails of this southerly Chosen People. The poet cum theologian J. D. du Toit claimed that racial differences were part of God’s ordinances of creation. The National Party was the political vehicle for the expression of Afrikaner interests.43

The outbreak of the Second World War meant that, regardless of the Anglo-South Africans who volunteered for the RAF, and the third of Afrikaner males who joined them, many Afrikaners sympathised with a Nazi camp whose propagandists were not slow to emphasise the historical sufferings of the Boers and Irish. Radio Zeesen was active here too, with the former headteacher Eric Holm acting as an Afrikaner ‘Lord Haw Haw’. There were nasty mass brawls between the Red Lice, that is men in uniform with Dominion insignia, and members of the paramilitary Ossewabrandwag. Extremist elements in that movement formed terrorist Stormjaers, who tried to sabotage communications and ended up killing a bystander when they blew up a post office.44 A society at war discombobulated many of the racial verities of farmers in the Transvaal. Increased wartime production also meant heavy demand for Black labour, which drained away from the interior’s Afrikaner farms, thereby nullifying the efforts of the National Party in the previous decade. Prime minister Smuts seemed to be going along with the de-facto abrogation of segregation until the National Party under Daniel François Malan stiffened his resistance. Idealistic Anglo-American talk about a better post-war world gave a fillip to the ANC, whose new Youth League became a training ground for a remarkable and more resilient generation of future leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Robert Sobuke. Instead of dividing and ruling, the government also picked concurrent fights with the Coloured and Indian communities, who instituted tentative contacts with the ANC. Finally, the Communists, their prestige enhanced by the westward march of Stalin’s legions, succeeded in penetrating and radicalising Black African trades unions, leading to such events as the Rand goldmine strike that resulted in the police forcing Black miners back to work at gunpoint.

The National Party’s victory in the May 1948 elections brought the first all-Afrikaner cabinet in South Africa’s history, all but two ministers being members of the Broederbund. The Afrikaners believed in and practised affirmative action. Men serving sentences for treasonable collusion with Nazi Germany were released from jail, while the English deputy chief of the Defence Staff was transferred to Germany and his post abolished. Official bilingualism meant that many linguistically challenged English-speaking South Africans lost their jobs while bilingual Afrikaners replaced them. To augment his slim parliamentary majority, Malan invented six new seats for South West Africa, still under a UN mandate. New rules made it hard for Cape Coloureds to register to vote; after a protracted legal battle that ran over five years they emerged entitled to vote only for four White representatives.

Unanimity of outlook in successive Afrikaner administrations enabled them to implement the racist principles inherent within the ideology of apartheid, which was presented as a form of separate development for each of South Africa’s various ‘tribes’. That this was enshrined in law made it more enforceable than the informal segregation of the US South of the day; that the rule of law still largely functioned made it less murderous than Nazi Germany with its vast supra-legal SS state. Comparisons between either apartheid or Nazism and the modern state of Israel are both inaccurate and offensively absurd, quite apart from the generous representation of South African Jews in the South African Communist Party and the ANC.

Apartheid was imposed incrementally over several years by legislation, its intellectual afflatus supplied by social psychologists and the like at the university of Stellenbosch. It began with racial classification according to crude physiognomic criteria, and regardless of the absurdly hurtful consequences in a society where Creolisation was at an advanced stage. Under legislation introduced in 1949-50 race determined who a person could marry or have sexual relations with. The 1950 Group Areas Act and the 1952 Native Laws Amendment Act made race the determinant of where a person was allowed to live. The former licensed the wholesale eviction and resettlement of Coloureds and Indians away from White districts, while trying to freeze the existing Black African urban population through stringent criteria and restrictions on intra-urban mobility.

These Black Africans were thenceforth treated as foreign guest-workers in the 87 per cent of land reserved for Whites, Coloureds and Indians, and the vast majority of the Black population was allocated some 13 per cent of the remaining land, despite the fact that they were 80 per cent of the total population. These territories were divided into ten ‘homelands’, the idea being that once they had achieved independence the Blacks living there would forfeit their South African citizenship. The 1953 Bantu Authorities Act confirmed the impression that these were analogous to the reservations of Native Americans in the US when they accorded power to government-selected tribal chiefs. In the coming decades, vast numbers of people, including six hundred thousand Coloured, Indian and Chinese as well as forty thousand Whites and millions of Black Africans, were moved around in this bizarre experiment in racial engineering, with bulldozers erasing each anomalous ‘black spot’. A ban on the South African Communist Party was loosely framed to cover not only past Party members but also others deemed to have similar sympathies.

Laws also reserved the enjoyment of quotidian ‘amenities’ along racial lines. Non-whites needed special permits to run businesses or to practise professions within White areas. No Black was permitted to employ a White, and no White could be arrested by a Black African police officer. The transport system was segregated, with Blacks consigned to the third class on trains. Whites enjoyed significantly better educational and medical facilities than Blacks. Perhaps most perniciously, the limited avenues for intellectual and social advancement that Christian schools and colleges had provided were choked off by the restriction of Black education only to those skills - such as taking orders - that were deemed necessary by the Afrikaner economy. A Black man wishing to study astrophysics could go abroad, if the funding was there, but it would take an age to get a passport and his citizenship would be cancelled the moment he left. On a less exalted scale, there were no Black vets until 1980, simply because many cattle-dip inspectors were White and Whites could not take orders from Black vets. Black Africans were made to feel on edge in their own country by myriad petty restrictions that facilitated harassment. Car parks, drive-in cinemas, hotels, restaurants, theatres, beaches, public parks and swimming pools were all segregated, requiring a plethora of trilingual warning signs and zealous jobsworths. Black African mobility was further restricted by the issuance of passes which recorded a person’s employment history and without which he or she was liable to arrest.

Although in 1955 a broad front of opponents of apartheid promulgated a Freedom Charter at a historic meeting at Klipstown, the role of White Communists in its drafting led to the formation in 1959 of a separate Pan-African Congress, and hence an unfortunate radicalising rivalry among both groups of militants in their respective campaigns against the pass laws. The PAC was under the spell of the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah and wanted a totally Africanised state to be called Azania. In March 1960 a PAC-organised demonstration converged on a police station at Sharpeville in the Afrikaners’ Transvaal heartland, with the intention of having themselves arrested for not carrying the necessary identity passes which the demonstrators had left at home. Apparently the fact that a stone hit the car of the local police chief was sufficient justification for his men to open fire, which resulted in sixty-nine unarmed Africans being shot in the back and a further 186 wounded. Press photographs caught the police reloading their weapons to fire another salvo which undermined the idea that they had responded impulsively to some imminent threat. Separate violent confrontations occurred in the townships around Cape Town. A state of emergency was declared in many areas. Shocking photographs of White policemen with snarling dogs bludgeoning Black Africans were relayed around the world.

Nelson Mandela recalled that ‘We in the ANC had to make rapid adjustments to this new situation, and we did so.’ By then Mandela was a defendant in the longest treason trial in history. In late March chief Luthuli led the way in symbolically burning his pass, a gesture followed by thousands of ANC supporters. In early April both the ANC and PAC were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. It was at this time that the ANC elaborated underground structures, with key personnel, including Mandela, living clandestinely. After his acquittal in the treason trial, for the court could find no evidence that the ANC advocated violence, Mandela went underground. This coincided with a huge ‘stay away’ campaign, in which Black withdrawal of labour by simply remaining at home rather than going to work was designed to make lethal confrontation less possible. The government responded by having armoured vehicles and helicopters patrol the townships in order to intimidate with a display of military might. The PAC unhelpfully exhorted people to go to work as part of its rivalry with the ANC, and the campaign quickly collapsed in a couple of days.

This was the immediate background to discussions within the ANC in 1961 regarding the abandonment of non-violent protest, ironically just at the time chief Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela argued that ‘the attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands’. Moreover, there was the risk that spasmodic grassroots violence would result in further massacres while encouraging the view that Africans were barbaric savages. By directing violence, the ANC stood a chance of limiting its effects. Persuasively Mandela reasoned that non-violence was a tactic rather than an inviolable principle, which could be abandoned as political circumstances dictated. After interminable discussions, in which Indian ANC supporters clung to the strategy of non-violence, Mandela won the day, and was authorised to establish a military capability, Umkhonto we Sizwe, semi-detached from the ANC.45

Umkhonto recruited volunteers through still-legal trades unions, many of whose branch leaders were Umkhonto commanders. The Communist Party secured nearly US$3 million in aid for arms purchases from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, the majority surplus AK-47s, or Skorpion, Makarov and Tokarev machine pistols and hand grenades. Because neighbouring states had their own colonial regimes, training camps for would-be saboteurs were opened in Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika (or Tanzania as it became after 1964). The journey there by train, foot and only later aeroplane via British protectorates in Basuto-land, Bechuanaland and Swaziland and then via the two Rhodesias was arduous and dangerous. Although sabotage was regarded as preparatory for full-scale guerrilla war, by being directed at things rather than people it would not harm the ANC’s considerable moral authority in the eyes of world opinion. Little thought was given to the logistics of such a campaign or how to attract and maintain international attention.

The campaign opened on 16 December 1961, the day Afrikaners celebrated a victory over a Zulu host at Blood River in 1838. The intention was to cause widespread economic disruption and a cessation of foreign investment. Bombs went off in electric power stations and government offices in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Leaflets left at the scenes explained: ‘The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain two choices: submit or fight… we shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power.’ There were some 194 attacks on further targets until July 1963, the average causing a mere US$125 damage. There were also disciplinary attacks on suspected collaborators, informers and state witnesses in terrorism trials. The South African state did not idly watch these developments. A Sabotage Act enabled it to ban individuals suspected of terrorism, proscribing even the reproduction of their words, while a year later the police were allowed to detain suspects for ninety days, the thin end of the wedge for widespread detainee abuse. For reasons that seem obscure, the Umkhonto leadership purchased a farm called Lilliesleaf in the White Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia to house a radio transmitter and duplicating equipment. Police penetration of the organisation led to a raid on the farm in July 1963 and the detention of almost the entire Umkhonto leadership.

Several of these men, including Mandela, who was already in jail, received life sentences. Leadership of the ANC passed to the London-based Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s former law partner, who became acting president of the ANC. Parallel attempts by the PAC to organise an armed campaign from Masera in Basutoland were undone when the British colonial police raided its headquarters and handed the entire membership lists of the guerrilla organisation to their South African colleagues. The South African police also successfully smashed a breakaway PAC faction called Poqo which was active in the Cape and Transkei. This had murdered pro-government chiefs and seven Whites. Surveying the ANC in the early 1960s it seems a miracle that it survived at all.

Although the internal military organisation had been decimated, in Tanzania the exiled Umkhonto leadership under the peripatetic Oliver Tambo rebuilt its military cadres. Men who managed to make the two-thousand-kilometre journey into exile were relayed to Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Morocco for military training, although some five hundred went for year-long courses to Odessa in the southern Soviet Union where the climate was relatively familiar. In 1965 Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere allowed the ANC to open its own training camp at a disused railway station at Dodoma. Zambian achievement of independence that year enabled the ANC to move one country closer to South Africa and to set up operations in Lusaka. There it co-operated with the exiled leadership of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) fighting the newly independent Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. The first joint operation by ZAPU and the MK Luthuli Detachment crossed into Rhodesia in 1967, the idea being for the main body of this force to venture into South Africa to set up further guerrilla bands. It fought a number of engagements with Rhodesian Selous Scouts in the bush of the Wankie Game Reserve, before being confronted by reinforcements from the South African Defence Force. Short of water and supplies, the MK survivors, including their commander Chris Hani, limped into Botswana without having fired a shot on South African soil.46

This disaster, whatever its symbolic significance, and the success of the government of John Vorster in persuading the heads of fourteen African states to back a non-violent solution to southern Africa’s multiple conflicts, led the ANC to consider its long-term strategies at the Morogoro Conference. The view of the Cote d’lvoire president that ‘Apartheid falls within the domestic jurisdiction of South Africa and will not be eliminated by force’ was especially ominous. Emerging from nearly two years in a Botswana jail, Hani was angrily exercised by the corruption and brutality abroad in the ANC training camps where recruits dressed in rags went on marches while their leaders rode behind in Land Rovers sipping Scotch. There was widespread resentment at the globe-trotting lifestyle of some of the senior leadership, who appeared to be swanning around on a sort of international anti-apartheid circuit. The Conference served to clear the air while both opening the ANC to all races and streamlining its operations. It established a sense of direction, namely an ‘indivisible theatre of war’ with ‘interlocking and interweaving of international, African and southern African developments which play on our situation’.

This was just as well since the ANC was in danger of being left behind by the tide of events. Portuguese colonial rule collapsed dramatically in Angola and Mozambique, giving a morale boost to the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa. Or so it seemed. For in addition to deploying its economic weight to bring those countries’ new governments to heel, South Africa also backed guerrilla armies such as UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique and ZAPU in what after 1980 became Zimbabwe, while deposing the government of Lesotho in a coup. Car and letter bombs, one of which killed Ruth First in 1982, or armed incursions and bombing raids kept up pressure on exiled ANC headquarters in each of the five frontline states, until all but three thought better of it. Cuban, East German and Soviet aides evened up these conflicts while forcing the West to construe them in Cold War terms, softening its moral outrage towards apartheid which had been declared a crime by the United Nations.

Within South Africa, where the ANC was hardly present as an organised force, a younger generation of radicals had discovered Black Consciousness, partly in emulation of the US Black Power movement of the time, with an emphasis upon Black (including Coloured and Indian) pride and values. The charismatic medical student Steve Biko emerged as its most representative figure, at a time when the ANC within the Republic was led by a seventy-seven-year-old. Based in Black universities and schools in the homelands, the movement’s rejection of violence and its interest in raising consciousness meant that the White government initially welcomed it as an alternative to the semi-Stalinist leadership of the ANC. By way of respectful osmosis, the regime began to substitute the term ‘Black’ for the fussily suburban ‘Non-White’ in its descriptions of the majority population. Student protests led to expulsions while Biko himself was placed under a banning order. The expelled students became teachers in township schools, spreading their radicalism down through the age groups.

In 1976 children at a Soweto school protested against hitherto unenforced rules that half the instruction should be in Afrikaans. With their unerring ability to misjudge the impact on international opinion, the South African police shot into a march by protesting schoolchildren, killing a twelve-year-old boy. The trouble spread to a hundred urban areas, leaving a total of six hundred people dead by 1977. For the first time in South Africa’s history, young people took control of the protest movement, and effectively assumed control of the townships. Violence was employed to eliminate collaborators and the drinking dens that undermined township discipline. Biko himself passed into legend when, after being arrested in August 1977, he was beaten in police custody, taken on a long ride in a police van, and left to die in a cell. That autumn all Black Consciousness organisations were banned and many of its supporters fled abroad, providing fresh blood for the ANC. Even before then, South Africa was losing 450 dissidents a month, many going to ANC bases in Angola, Mozambique and Zambia. The average age of Umkhonto fighters fell from thirty-five to twenty-eight as a result of this infusion of energy and commitment, even if much of it was dissipated in the ANC’s sinister military encampments.47

Between 1977 and 1982 Umkhonto stepped up guerrilla attacks within South Africa, striking communications links, industrial installations -including both of South Africa’s oil-synthesising plants and its nuclear power station - and the administrative offices of the townships. Police stations had to be heavily sandbagged against possible RPG attacks. During the 1980s these armed attacks included some which involved the bombing of innocent civilians, despite the ANC in 1980 being the first national liberation movement to sign the Geneva Convention as modified three years earlier to include guerrilla wars. Nineteen people were killed in downtown Pretoria in 1983 by an ANC bomb, prompting Nelson Mandela to criticise the attack for its lack of concern for civilians. The ANC defended the use of landmines in the context of its Operation Kletswayo on the ground that the government treated border areas as conflict zones. Most victims were innocent civilians, like thirty-four-year-old Kobie van Eck and her daughters Nasie, aged two, and Nelmari, aged eight, together with Kobus, aged three, Carla, aged eight, and their grandmother Marie de Nyschen, all slaughtered on holiday in a game reserve by a mine laid by three MK personnel acting on the orders of several members of the current South African cabinet.48

In that year the ANC launched a United Democratic Front, an umbrella organisation for all those who were opposed to apartheid, and which functioned as a surrogate within the Republic for the exiled or imprisoned ANC leadership. Enthusiastic White liberal involvement with ANC cadres occasionally brought the disillusioning realisation that they included steely Stalinists, although that message rarely filtered back to the ANC’s more credulous supporters in the West, notably in its Churches, ever receptive to the secularised messianisms of their time. In 1985 the UDF decreed a campaign to make South Africa ungovernable, while also qualifying Umkhonto’s earlier concentration on hard targets. This decision was taken partly because the hard targets had become harder to attack because of beefed-up defences, but also because in the eyes of the ANC it was time to remind Whites that the victims of their security forces were not just Blacks but civilians too. Among some Blacks there was the feeling that Whites had evaded the sort of carnage they had undergone, sipping drinks and frying sausages and steaks by their swimming pools. Car bombs, copied from events in Lebanon, exploded outside a bar in Durban while in Johannesburg a small bomb outside a court lured policemen who were killed by a much larger second explosion. Two days before Christmas 1985, ANC guerrilla Andrew Zondo left a bomb in a waste bin in a crowded shopping centre at Amanzimtoti, which exploded killing five Whites and injuring forty-eight others. He said he couldn’t find an unvandalised phone to call in a warning. In 1986 Umkhonto began planting limpet mines on White farms, regardless of whether those killed or maimed were the farmers or their Black labourers; some twenty-five people died and seventy-six were injured.49

This broadly focused campaign, which included boycotts, the campaign to free Mandela, withholding rent and strikes, led to a steady exodus of Whites, reducing their proportion of the population from 20 to 11 per cent. Their experience of South Africa passed into the great hole of forgetting that awaits unpopular lost causes, especially since charm was not the average Afrikaner’s strong suit. The South African state became progressively militarised, symbolised by the armoured high-axel Hippos careening through townships in clouds of dust and firing bursts of birdshot, while assuming state terrorist features, ranging from torture to murdering people at home and abroad. The security service BOSS was sometimes caught red handed practising any number of dirty tricks including burglary and blackmail as well as murder. In addition to the growing number of detainees who hanged themselves in cells or fell off police-station roofs, balaclava-clad security personnel were responsible for the disappearance and killing of ANC suspects.50 Of course, violence was not simply White on Black. Kangaroo courts in the townships meted out some seven hundred necklacings (death by blazing tyres), and a further four hundred other forms of burning, while intertribal violence erupted between the predominantly Xhosa supporters of the ANC and the Zulus of chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. Although one cannot overlook the asymmetry between state and sub-statal violence, White South Africans have a point when they argue that attempts to bring apartheid-era officials before the courts should be matched by trials of ANC figures responsible for these actions, if the principle of equality before the law is a reality in their country.51 The ANC’s armed campaign made little or no impact on the massive military might of the South African state, which was ultimately undermined by chronic disorder, economic failure and the seismic reverberations of the collapse of Communism which gave momentum to several peace initiatives in the 1990s. In P. W. de Klerk the Afrikaners found a leader of the calibre of Mikhail Gorbachev, a realist who rose to the occasion. The precise relationship between the ANC’s armed struggle and the chronic crime and violence that afflicts post-apartheid South Africa remains to be established.

Methods of fighting which had been peripheral to the vast industrialised clashes of the Second World War became commonplace in the wars of decolonisation that succeeded it. Guerrilla movements became the norm, with many resorting to terrorism partly to magnetise international opinion, but also because clever men like the psychiatrist-revolutionary Frantz Fanon (or his modish spokesperson Sartre) told them that violence was both bonding and liberating - a new man would emerge upright from the deformed personality created by colonialism. They had less to say about how violence could develop its own psychopathic momentum, a habit that it was impossible to shake off, or how in some left-wing circles it would be invested with a spurious glamour.

In none of the cases discussed here was terrorism the crucial factor in forcing the colonial powers, or the minority elites, to abandon Palestine and Algeria, or to agree to surrender power in South Africa. The former reflected the wider strategic picture during the Cold War, which led the British or French metropolis to regard Palestine and Algeria as superfluous liabilities which cost too much blood and treasure. The British did a quick flit; the French fought an eight-year war. International isolation, chronic economic problems, a deleterious demographic imbalance, and the end of the Cold War as a covering excuse for combating alleged Communists did for the regime in South Africa. The terrorism of Irgun and the Stern Gang never amounted to more than an irritant to the British in Palestine and an embarrassment to the leaders of Labour Zionism, for whom the moral heights were always paramount. Despite the constant Afrikaner talk of terrorists, terrorism was marginal to the ANC’s broadly based strategies, which for most of its existence revolved around non-violence. When this was abandoned it was in favour of guerrilla warfare and sabotage, both unsuccessful in any military sense, with terrorist attacks on civilians adopted at a late stage of their operations. That is not to excuse it. Arguably, the passive-aggressive war of children against policemen and soldiers in the townships had far greater impact. Even the US ambassador came to the funeral of Steve Biko. By contrast, terrorism became endemic in Algeria, initially to grab the headlines, but then increasingly as part of a cycle of vengeful attacks, which in due course was emulated by ultras among the colons and their regular army supporters in a terrorist onslaught that became mindless, discrediting their already lost cause. Finally, Arafat’s Fatah drew entirely inappropriate lessons from the FLN campaign against the French, regardless of the ways in which military activity boosted its support at a time when the Arab nations were reluctant to undertake it. The Israelis were a majority rather than a colonial minority in Israel. Unlike the colons of Algeria they were not dependent upon mood swings in the metropolitan public or on the strategic capriciousness of its statesmen. Given the background of the Holocaust, the Israelis had nowhere to retreat to - certainly not Europe, which they regarded as a vast Jewish graveyard. They were where they were and that is where they remain.

Armed national liberation struggles also led to the adoption of counter-terrorist methods which could be terroristic in themselves, in the sense of being designed to create widespread fear among civilian populations or involving such counter-productive methods as torture. Only in a few specific contexts where the insurgents, as in Malaya, were from an ethnic minority could they be isolated through political concessions to the majority. Even then, the Malayan Emergency took the British twelve years to suppress, by careful police work as much as by Dayak head-hunters or the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). In Algeria, similar tactics, with more force and less concern for hearts and minds, failed to work, for the cause of national independence was widely shared by the Arab and Berber majority. Worse, the hearts and minds of most metropolitan French people ceased to be with ‘Algérie française’, associated as it was with hapless conscripts and mutinous regulars and the lethal nihilism of the OAS, whose final contribution was to blind four-year-old Parisians and to blow the country they loved apart as it slid from their control. State brutality was matched by the horrors perpetrated by the FLN. Similarly in South Africa, the Afrikaner state readily resorted to assassination and torture to perpetuate racist domination of the Black African majority, whose leaders’ espousal of non-violence for so long is remarkable. Sharpeville came to symbolise that struggle, along with the carefully honed image of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, with any less attractive features of the ANC - or the grassroots township leaderships - suppressed in the liberal imagination. Afrikanerdom came to be synonymous with a brutal security state that undercut all the rhetoric about civilisation.

The ways in which the experiences of national liberation struggle, and the brutalities which that involved, may have become encoded in the DNA of the newly independent states, as Mouloud Feraoun predicted in the case of Algeria, has never received the sort of attention that colonialist state violence has incurred, although present-day Algeria indicates that this is a major oversight. The historian of South Africa, R. W. Johnson, claims that the exiled ANC began to assume some of the unattractive characteristics of the regime it was fighting. The PLO under Arafat became a byword for corruption, with huge sums of money destined for Palestinian causes ending up in obscure bank accounts which were inherited by the leader’s widow rather than by those in refugee camps. Despite this, the era of national liberation struggles powerfully conveyed the message that terrorism worked, and that the pariah’s mark of ‘terrorist’ - which made it impossible to negotiate with those imprinted with it - could be expunged. Ben Bella, Boumedienne, Begin, Shamir, Mandela and Tambo all became leaders of their respective countries, while Arafat became ‘Mr Palestine’ for his corrupt lifetime. That beguiling message was received in many parts of the world, as well as by terrorists in impeccably democratic states who represented causes with virtually no popular backing. The idea that it is ‘always good to talk’ has become folkloric in some circles, with the credulous imagining that dialogue is possible with Al Qaeda. There was a further lesson. The colonial struggles all involved playing to international public opinion via the mass media. Terrorists learned that too. That takes us to how a series of events in Jordan played out in and beyond Munich: grim harbingers of transnational terrorism that has become spectacular in our lifetimes.

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