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Defense force of Jews in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1920, in the early days of the British mandatory regime in Palestine, the Arabs attacked the small Jewish settlement of Tel-Hai, near the Syrian border. A few defenders, headed by Joseph Trumpeldor, held Tel-Hai but fell in its defense. The Arabs intensified their attacks. The bloody outbreaks in Jerusalem on Passover 1920 and those in Tel Aviv in May 1921, convinced Jews that they could not depend on the British Army for protection, but that they must organize for self-defense. Thus, despite a British ban on Jewish arms, the secret Haganah (Army of Defense) was formed during the 1920’s.

In 1929, an attempt was made, under the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem Haij Amin el Husseini, to undermine the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine. The Arabs massacred more than 50 yeshiva students in the Arab town of Hebron, and killed a number of Jews in old Jerusalem and Safed, all of them unarmed and defenseless. Their attacks on new settlements, however, were repelled by the Haganah.

The Arabs repeated their efforts to destroy the Yishuv in 1936. For 32 months, Arab bands harassed Jewish settlements. They caused considerable damage to property and took 500 lives. These repeated widespread Arab attacks hastened the formation of a large and powerful Jewish fighting force. First, units of Jewish special police were organized, and later Special Night Squads (SNS) were trained and led by the colorful British officer Orde Wingate. A master tactician, a Bible scholar, and an ally of the Jews, he developed commando methods to defeat the Arab bands. These SNS groups served as a training unit for the famous Palmach, the Jewish striking force.

On the eve of World War II, the Haganah forces numbered close to 15,000 men. The Yishuv was ready to make its contribution to the victory over the Nazis. Out of a total population of 500,000, 36,000 men and women registered for military and auxiliary services. Palestinian Jews joined all branches of military service and gained valuable experience as sailors, pilots, gunners, and draughtsmen. A Jewish Death Battalion of Commandos took part in the Abyssinian campaigns against the Italian invaders. Some units rendered outstanding service to the British Eighth Army that drove the Nazis out of North Africa.

All in all, close to 30,000 Palestinian Jews served in the Allied armed forces. On September 18, 1944, a Jewish Brigade was formed. Units of the Brigade participated in the campaigns in Italy. When the war ended, and before the Brigade was demobilized, it came to the aid of survivors of the Holocaust, strengthening their determination to reach the shores of the Jewish homeland.

The doors of Palestine were closed to Jewish immigrants by the British, who sought to appease the Arabs. The task of organizing the illegal entry of Jews into Palestine fell to the Haganah. After the war, it established an “illegal” underground immigration system through which Jews from all over Europe streamed to Palestine. A number of ships carrying Jewish immigrants to Palestine were intercepted and bitter fights ensued.

The issue of free immigration became the central point of the struggle between the British Administration and Palestinian Jews. The British concentrated a force of 100,000 in the area to “pacify” the Jews. Searches for hidden arms were carried on day and night. Haganah leaders were arrested and sent to detention camps, but the Jewish resistance movement continued to grow.

After the partition of Palestine by the UN decision of November 29, 1947, the Arabs embarked on an all-out campaign to destroy the Yishuv. The armies of seven Arab states invaded Palestine. Overnight, the Haganah was transformed into the Israel Defense Forces and held the invading Arab armies at bay. Despite meager equipment and arms, the Israeli artillery, air force, and navy gave an excellent account of themselves and secured the present borders of the Jewish state.

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