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Too Safe to Run

Eliyahu Ackerman

After the Irgun warned the British of the imminent explosion at the King David Hotel, why didn’t they evacuate? Seventy years later, there’s an answer

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

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Police and volunteers dig out survivors from the rubble. All of Menachem Begin’s explanations that his people had warned the British to clear the building didn’t help clear the Irgun’s reputation

It was a regular hot summer day in Jerusalem, 23 Tammuz/July 22, 1946 — 70 years ago last week. The area around the King David Hotel, the headquarters of the British Mandate, was bustling with activity. The upper floors of the elegant building were occupied by Mandate High Commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham, senior secretary Sir John Shaw, and military commander Sir Evelyn Barker. From time to time, they glanced at the open windows (no air conditioning yet) and saw the barbed-wire fences and high checkpoints that the police had installed in order to prevent terrorists from throwing hand grenades into the complex. 

The luxurious 200-room, 7-story building was opened to the public in 1931, yet in 1938, the Mandatory government requisitioned the entire southern wing of the hotel for its military command and the government secretariat. A British military communications center was built in the hotel basement and fewer than a third of the rooms were actually reserved for civilian use.

On a Shabbos a few weeks before, on what was later known as “Black Sabbath,” thousands of British troops swept across the country, made up to 2,700 arrests (among them several rabbinic figures and future Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharett), and invaded the Jewish Agency building and confiscated large quantities of documents which were brought to the King David Hotel — including papers of crucial importance to the Jewish liberation movement and information relating to Jewish agents in Arab countries, endangering vital intelligence activities. 

The British were on high alert, and for good reason. Irgun (officially “Irgun Tzvai Leumi, or “Etzel”) chief Menachem Begin received a letter from Moshe Sneh of the Haganah — the more conciliatory group within the resistance movement — to blow up the King David. 

Over the course of the morning, several unusual incidents had occurred in the area: a garbage can had exploded nearby, there was a long, loud exchange of gunfire, and in the basement of the hotel itself, a loud commotion broke out. Yet none of these were enough to particularly concern the unflappable British officials. Neither was the message that the telephone operator received about a bomb that had been planted in the basement of the building.

     

 

 

 





Dr. Eldad Charuvi’s discovery of moldy microfilm held the secret of Britain’s spy network in the Jewish underground. “If the British knew everything, was this a massive failure?”

“We take orders from Her Majesty, not terrorists,” John Shaw replied coldly when he was asked whether to evacuate the building. His colleague Barker added: “We’re not being stubborn just for the sake of it. If something happens here, I’m right there on the front line.” 

And then, at exactly 12:34, a tremendous explosion shook the building; the boom could be heard throughout the city and echoed all the way to London. The entire southern wing of the hotel flew into the air and then crumbled as it hit the ground in a rain of stones and clouds of dust, as an ominous pillar of brown grey smoke spread rapidly 600 feet in the air and the side of the hotel began to collapse, with stories caving in on one another in a cacophony of cracking cement, buckling steel supports, and snapping wood.

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