It’s tough being a newspaper editor – though, not, I concede as tough as being a Lebanese civilian. There you are, all ready to roll tens of thousands of words about the fiftieth anniversary of Suez, and you’re gazumped by not so much a new war, as a cover version of the old one. Cue desperate scrambling for breakouts detailing “Then and Now”, “A New Suez Crisis?” etc etc.

In the rush a more important anniversary is being ignored – that of a hot night in Jerusalem sixty years ago when the King David Hotel, HQ of the British Palestinian Mandate, was destroyed by bombs planted by Menachim Begin’s terrorist group, the Irgun, killing 91 people – British, Arabs, Jews and others. The Irgun was asked to do this by the main Zionist group, the Haganah, but successive governments are understandably reluctant to celebrate it.

The Irgun’s defenders have always claimed that a warning was called in prior to the explosion. Police records suggest it was no more than a few minutes. The best a recently unveiled plaque celebrating the attack can say is:

For reasons known only to the British, the hotel was not evacuated, and after 25 minutes, the bombs exploded, and to the Irgun’s regret and dismay, 91 persons were killed.

In other words, even the official, set-in-stone, spin puts the founding fathers of Israel on a moral level with the Provisional IRA.

One thing is remarkable about this – the Irgun are routinely called “freedom fighters” these days but at the time they were described as terrorists not only by their enemies – but by themselves. Indeed at the time Irgun supporters took out a full page congratulatory ad in the New York Times offering praise TO THE JEWISH TERRORISTS.

But here’s the real rub – it is not because incidents such as the King David Hotel, or the Stern Gang’s kidnap and murder of two British soldiers (sound familiar?) were wanton terrorist acts that Israel’s government shies away from them, but because they weren’t – they were legitimate, if ruthless, actions against military targets in a declared guerrilla war (the massacre of Arab villages is another matter).

Yet to acknowledge that would be to concede that urban guerrilla action can shade into terrorism. It would inevitably lead people to make similar distinctions between a suicide bomb attack on a restaurant, and the same on a military checkpoint. And the last thing wanted is that sort of symmetry, which might suggest that freedom fighting is terrorism plus time.

Still, it’s an ill-wind. Maybe some sympathetic group could be persuaded to put up a replica plaque in Australia. Then we can test the government’s commitment to its “glorification of terror” legislation…

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey