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Haganah (Hebrew: "The Defense", ההגנה HaHagana) was a Jewish paramilitary organization in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine from 1920 to 1948, which later became the core of the Israel Defense Forces.


The predecessor of Haganah was Hashomer (השומר, The Guild of Watchman) established in 1909, itself a successor of Bar-Giora, founded in 1907. The Bar-Giora consisted of a small group of Jewish immigrants who guarded settlements for an annual fee. At no time did the group have more than 100 members.

After the 1920 Arab riots and 1921 Jaffa riots, the Jewish leadership in Palestine believed that the British, to whom the League of Nations had given a mandate over Palestine in 1920, had no desire to confront local Arab gangs which frequently attacked Palestinian Jews. Believing that they could not rely on the British administration for protection from these gangs, the Jewish leadership created the Haganah to protect Jewish farms and Kibbutzim. In addition to guarding Jewish communities, the role of the Haganah was to warn the residents of and repel attacks by Palestinian Arabs. In the period between 1920–1929, the Haganah lacked a strong central authority or coordination. Haganah "units" were very localized and poorly armed: they consisted mainly of Jewish farmers who took turns guarding their farms or their kibbutzim. Following the 1929 Palestine riots, the Haganah's role changed dramatically. It became a much larger organization encompassing nearly all the youth and adults in the Jewish settlements, as well as thousands of members from the cities. It also acquired foreign arms and began to develop workshops to create hand grenades and simple military equipment, transforming from an untrained militia to a capable underground army.

Haganah members in training (1947)
Haganah troops on parade
Hagana Ship Jewish State at Haifa Port (1947)

In 1936 the Haganah fielded 10,000 mobilized men along with 40,000 reservists. During the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, it participated actively to protect British interests and to quell Arab rebellion using the FOSH, and then HISH units. Although the British administration did not officially recognize the Haganah, the British security forces cooperated with it by forming the Jewish Settlement Police, Jewish Auxiliary Forces and Special Night Squads, which were trained and led by Colonel Orde Wingate. The battle experience gained during this time was to become very useful in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Many Haganah fighters objected to the official policy of havlagah (restraint) that Jewish political leaders (who had become increasingly controlling of the Haganah) had imposed on the militia. Fighters had been instructed to only defend communities and not initiate counter attacks against Arab gangs or their communities. This policy appeared defeatist to many who believed that the best defense is a good offense and, in 1931, the most militant elements of the Haganah splintered off and formed the Irgun Tsva'i-Leumi (National Military Organization), better known as "Irgun" (or by its Hebrew acronym, pronounced "Etzel"). In 1940, the Irgun also split over the issue of whether or not to attack the British during World War II and their off-shoot became known as the "Lehi" (Hebrew acronym of Lochamei Herut Yisrael, standing for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, widely known as the "Stern Gang" after its leader, Abraham Stern).

By 1939, the British had severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and were importing Arab labor from other parts of the Middle East. In response, the Haganah built up the Palmach as the Haganah's elite strike force and organized illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. (The Palmach had actually been formed with the British as a response to the threat of German invasion by Rommel's forces. It went underground after it felt betrayed by the British at the end of 1942 following Rommel's defeat) Approximately 100,000 Jews were brought to Palestine in over one hundred ships during the final decade of the Ha'apala. The Haganah also organized demonstrations against British immigration quotas.

In 1944, after the assassination of Lord Moyne, (the British Minister of State for the Middle East), by members of the Lehi, the Haganah worked with the British to kidnap, interrogate, and in some cases, deport Irgun members. This action was called The Saison, or hunting season, and was directed against the Irgun and not the Lehi possibly due to the perceived political threat the Irgun presented to David Ben Gurion's position of leadership. Future Jerusalemmarker mayor Teddy Kollek was later revealed to be the official most responsible, under the code name Scorpion, for turning Irgun activists over to the British authorities. Many Jewish youth, who had joined the Haganah in order to defend the Jewish people, were greatly demoralized by operations against their own people. The Irgun, paralyzed by the Saison, were ordered by their commander, Menachem Begin, not to retaliate in an effort to avoid a full blown civil war. Although many Irgunists objected to these orders, they obeyed Begin and refrained from fighting back. The Saison eventually ended due to perceived British betrayal becoming more obvious to the public and Haganah youth becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the policy.

The Saison officially ended when the Haganah, Irgun and the Lehi formed the Hebrew Resistance Movement. Within this new framework, the three groups had different functions, which served to drive the British out of Palestine and create a Jewish state. As Menachem Begin stated in a 1944 meeting: "In fact, there is a division of roles; one organization advocates individual terrorism (Lehi), the other conducts sporadic military operations (Irgun) and there is a third organization which prepares itself to throw its final weight in the decisive war." This united effort lasted for a total of nine months until the Irgun bombing of the King David Hotelmarker's south wing. Although the Haganah had sanctioned the operation and the Irgun phoned in two warnings to the British, the hotel was not evacuated and 91 people were killed in the explosion. Shocked by the death toll and worried about the negative image this would generate, the Haganah quickly distanced itself from both the Irgun and the Lehi.

World War II participation

Despite the 1939 White Paper which deeply angered the Zionist leadership in Palestine, Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, set the policy for the Zionist relationship with the British: We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war. The Irgun, however took a more extreme stance starting in 1944 and began bombing British installations.

In the first years of World War II, the British authorities asked Haganah for cooperation again, due to the fear for an Axis breakthrough in North Africa. After Rommel was defeated at El Alameinmarker in 1942, the British stepped back from their all-out support for Haganah. In 1943, after a long series of requests and negotiations, the British Army announced the creation of the Jewish Brigade Group. While Palestinian Jews had been permitted to enlist in the British army since 1940, this was the first time an exclusively Jewish military unit served in the war under a Jewish flag. The Jewish Brigade Group consisted of 5,000 soldiers and was deployed in Italymarker in September 1944. The brigade was disbanded in 1946.

All in all, more than 30,000 Palestinian Jews served in the British army during the war.

On May 19, 1941 the Haganah created the Palmach (an acronym for Plugot Mahatz—strike companies), an elite military-like section which focused on providing training to youngsters. It was never large — by 1947 it amounted to merely five battalions (about 2,000 men) — but its members had received not only physical and basic military training, but also acquired leadership skills that, in retrospect, would allow them to take up command positions in Israel's future army.

After the war

After the war, the Haganah carried out anti-British operations in Palestine, such as the liberation of interned immigrants from the Atlit campmarker, the bombing of the country's railroad network, sabotage raids on radar installations and bases of the British Palestine police. It also continued to organize illegal immigration.

On May 28, 1948, less than two weeks after the creation of the state of Israel on May 15, the provisional government created the Israeli Defense Forces which would succeed the Haganah. It also outlawed maintenance of any other armed force.

Famous members of the Haganah included: Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Rehavam Zeevi, Dov Hoz, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

The Museum of Underground Prisonersmarker in Jerusalemmarker commemorates the activity of the underground groups in the pre-state period, recreating the every day life of those imprisoned there.


  • Bregman, Ahron. Israel's Wars: A History Since 1947. London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-28716-2.
  • Niv, David. The Irgun Tsva'i Leumi. Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization (Department for Education and Culture), 1980.
  • "Text of the British White Paper Linking Jewish Agency to Zionist Terrorism in Palestine," The New York Times, July 25, 1946, p. 8.
  • Zadka, Dr. Saul. Blood in Zion, How the Jewish Guerrillas drove the British out of Palestine. London: Brassey's, 1995. ISBN 1-85753-136-1.
  • Jim G. Tobias, Peter Zinke. Nakam - Jüdische Rache an NS-Tätern. Konkret Literatur Verlag, Hamburg 2000. 173 Seiten, ISBN 3-89458-194-8 (German, about 1944-1947)
  • Bergman, Ronen. Kollek was British informer. Ynet news. March 29, 2007. [8241]

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