A History of the Jewish Underground Defense force in Palestine

Haganah Logo

The banner logo has the Haganah emblem, symbolizing an army of fighters and farmers,  and reads: "The defense force of the Jewish Yishuv in the land of Israel and of the Zionist Movement"


A History of the Jewish Underground Defense force in Palestine

The birth of the Haganah

The Haganah  (or Hagannah) (means defense in Hebrew  - pronounced "Hah Gah nah') Jewish underground was created in 1920. The official name of the Hagannah was "Irgun HaHagannah Ha'vri" - The Hebrew defense organization. The Hagannah Foundation Doctrine stressed loyalty, secrecy and devotion to humanitarian and Jewish values including the sanctity of life. By candlelight, and with a pistol on the table, recruits swore the < Hagannah oath to abide by the foundation doctrine of the Hagannah in a dramatic induction ceremony. A personal recollection of the dramatic induction ceremony and oath (1947) is given here: Joining the Haganah.

Beginning in January 1920 activists in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv in particular formed defense committees  acquired some light weapons, and recruited and trained volunteers. After the fall of Tel Hai in March of 1920, the Jerusalem committee headed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Pinchas Ruttenberg took the lead.  In April of 1920, the Haganah had some role in defending against Arab attacks during the Passover (Nebi Samuel) riots. In that period, Palestine was still under British military rule, and the Jewish community was administered by the  delegate committee (Vaad Hatzirim) of the World Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky was charged by the Vaad Hatzirim with organizing the defense of Jerusalem. He did so to some effect, though six Jews were killed and about 200 injured in the disturbances. The British arrested Jabotinsky and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. When the Mandate government took over, he was amnestied, along with all the Arabs and Jews arrested in the various disturbances.

The Haganah before 1929

The existence of the Haganah was formalized  by the Achdut Ha'avoda party, which combined Poalei Ziyon and the Federation of Agricultural workers, in its convention in Kibbutz Kinneret in June of 1920.   The volunteers were mostly veterans of the Jewish Legion (Gdudim Ivri'im - Jewish Brigades) and Zion Mule Corps, who had fought for the British in WW I, and the Hashomer guards group, that had been formed in 1907-09 to guard Jewish settlements. Friction soon developed between the army veterans who wanted a tight-knit professional group, and the Hashomer people, who wanted a popular militia. The argument was futile. The Haganah was illegal,  had no source of weapons and few opportunities for training. It could not really be either a militia or a body of professional soldiers. In December of 1920 it was put under the control of the Histadruth Labor federation, but in the May 1921 riots the Haganah was not effective. Thereafter, the political leadership of the Zionist organization wanted the Haganah to become a legal body subordinated to the British, while the soldiers of the Haganah objected, because they would lose their independence and probably their arms.  The Zionist organization deprived it of funds. In any case, the British would never allow any independent Jewish self defense, though they did eventually create the  "notrim" (monitors) and the SNS under Wingate.  In 1923, the Hashomer people left the Haganah, weakening it further. There were three main chapters in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, with about 350 members in the Tel-Aviv chapter in 1926. The Haganah had 750 rifles, 750 hand grenades, about a thousand pistols and 27 machine guns, all weapons of uncertain vintage. The Haganah was a tiny underground at this time, that used small boys to carry messages. Weapons were hidden in caches in the kibbutzim, which also afforded places for training.

The riots of 1929 turn the Haganah into a force

In the riots of 1929, the Haganah proved more successful, especially in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the center of Jerusalem, and eventually in peripheral settlements as well. The case for a militia seemed to be proven. With the backing of the political leadership, the Haganah now became a country-wide organization that involved all youth and young adults of the kibbutzim and settlements and several thousand in the cities. Some light arms were brought in from Europe. A clandestine arms industry was set up in Palestine. The factories were literally underground - in subterranean cellars where imported war surplus machinery eventually produced quantities of  ammunition.

The birth of the Irgun  

In 1930 or 1931, a small group of officers set up the "Second Organization" - Irgun Beth, which wanted to take offensive as well as defensive action. This group soon identified itself with the Revisionist movement. During the Arab riots of 1936-9 (see: Arab uprising in Palestine) the leader of the Irgun Beth,  Avraham Tehomi,  and part of its members returned to the Haganah. A second group remained outside the Haganah, and in April 1937 it renamed itself the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization, IZL or Irgun). The chief difference between the groups was that the Haganah believed in a policy of Havlagah - restraint, while the Irgun urged reprisal and terrorist attacks on Arabs for terror attacks on Jews. Irgun members also were unwilling to remain under the control of the Histadrut The Irgun began a series of bombings in Arab markets and similar operations. Toward the end of the riots, under the leadership of Yitzhak Sadeh, the Haganah formed "field forces" that specialized in attacks on targets that were supposedly bases for the Arab terror groups. This was the beginning of an effort to move from static defense to taking the battle to the enemy. A third group, Lohamei Herut Israel ("freedom fighters of Israel") or LEHI, under Avraham Stern, soon split off from the Irgun. They viewed the main enemy as British Imperialism, and included both leftist and right wing members. The LEHI's attacks were rather indiscriminate at first, and they cam to be known as the "Stern Gang." Stern refused to stop fighting the British during World War II.

The Haganah in the Arab Revolt

In the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, the Haganah, under the guidance of Charles Orde Wingate, organized Special Night Squads (S.N.S.) trained in commando tactics, surprise attack and mobility. These incorporated the field forces (Plugot Sadeh) of Yitzhak Sadeh. The primary mission of these groups was to guard the Iraq to Haifa oil pipeline (TAP), but these squads also learned to bring the offensive to the enemy rather than remaining behind the protective fencing of settlements under attack. The Haganah was officially illegal, and yet at the same time the British cooperated with it during the Arab riots and later during World War II. Beginning in 1939, the Haganah helped to greet and guard illegal immigrant ships organized by the Mossad Le'Aliya Bet. After the British had squelched the Arab revolt with massive use of force, they clamped down on the Haganah. Haganah members went into hiding, and some were arrested. In 1941 however, the British amnestied a group of 41 Haganah members who were held in Acco prison, including Moshe Dayan. They joined the British war effort. The Haganah also cooperated in special operations sending Zionist Parachutists  Hannah Senesh Enzo Sereni, Haviva Reik (Chaviva Reich) and over thirty others into Nazi-occupied Europe in daring commando rescue and liaison operations.

The Birth of the Palmach

In 1941, under British tutelage, a special mobile strike force, the Palmach, (Plugoth Machatz) was created by Yitzhak Sadeh, to meet an anticipated Nazi takeover of Vichy Syria. Beginning in 1944, the Haganah cooperated briefly with the British in the "Sezon" (season) arresting members of the rival Irgun and Lehi groups.

The Revolt against the British

At the conclusion of World War II, it became apparent that Britain would not change its policies in Palestine and would not allow Jewish immigration. The Haganah then joined forces with the Irgun and LEHI in attacking the British in various commando raids and sabotage attacks.

Preparing for war

David Ben-Gurion  foresaw that a large scale clash with the Arabs of Palestine was inevitable. The Zionist Executive raised relatively large sums of money abroad, enabling the Haganah to purchase more light arms and a number of Piper Cub and Auster airplanes, ostensibly for civilian agricultural purposes. About 26,000 Palestinian Jews had served with the British forces in World War II, though most had not seen combat experience. These formed the nucleus of the army that was coming into being. They were joined by illegal immigrants who had served in the Red Army, some who had served in the French Foreign Legion, and eventually by volunteers from the United States and Canada (including notably, about 300 air-force veterans who would serve in the nascent IDF)  as well as some British soldiers. These were organized in the MACHAL. Volunteers had begun arriving even before partition, to help with illegal immigration.  Training activities and purchase of arms were stepped up after the partition decision of the UN General Assembly, ( see UN General Assembly Resolution 181)  on November 29, 1947. About $130 million were raised abroad and used to purchase arms in Europe, through a clandestine arms purchasing network.

The chief strengths of the Haganah and Palmach formed a tradition that came to characterize the IDF as well. This was a people's militia, a guerilla force that made up for lack of weapons with ingenuity and daring.  Underground status forced informality. Many of the men knew each from childhood and were neighbors in civilian life. Ranks were generally informal and a tradition of camaraderie and mutual loyalty developed. Wounded and dead would not be left behind. Soldiers and officers in an army lacking virtually everything developed a high degree of initiative and ability to improvise. The Haganah made good use of mobility and of the commando and night tactics that were taught by Wingate. The Haganah also developed a superb military intelligence system. They had tapped into the telephone lines in Jerusalem and were able to listen in on both British and Arab conversations. They developed excellent covert operations capabilities that allowed them to steal weapons from the British and to infiltrate immigrants and arms under the noses of the British army. Some illegal immigrants were drowned or otherwise killed in the rusting, overcrowded old boats that brought them out of Europe, but many were saved from certain death in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The chief weaknesses of the Haganah were also inherited by the IDF in many respects. Logistics and battle planning were often lacking. Attacks started late because equipment was missing or units did not assemble in time. Too much "initiative" by local commanders sometimes resulted in chaos, and the chaos sometimes resulted in disaster.  Despite the high moral values of the Labor Zionist movement that fathered it, the Haganah developed a tradition of punitive reprisals, often on civilians, that was evident at least as early as  the Arab riots of 1929.

The war of Independence

Arab violence broke out almost as soon as the partition plan (UN General Assembly Resolution 181) was announced (see detailed account: Israel War of Independence ). In Jerusalem, the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini organized an irregular force out of the  al futuwah, known to Jews as the "Mufti's Gangs" and led by the Mufti's cousin, Abdel Khadr El Husseini, who proved to be a worthy opponent and by Hasan Salameh.   In the north, the British had allowed Fawzi Al Kaukji and his Arab Liberation Army, organized by the Arab League, to enter Palestine. These groups, while relatively small, were better armed than the Haganah initially and were backed by tens of thousands of Palestinian villagers. The villagers formed a civilian levee or "faza," that would gather in attacks against Jewish convoys, as well as in assaults on neighborhoods.

The Haganah and Palmach were charged with defending the Yishuv against these attacks. Kaukji's army attacked across the Jezreel valley, and was ultimately stopped by the Haganah and kibbutz defenders at Mishmar Haemek, in mid-April, 1948. In the Jerusalem area, the Haganah had to battle the blockade imposed by the Mufti's gangs as well as attacks on Jerusalem and especially the Jewish quarter, and attacks on Gush Etzion that were backed by the Transjordan Arab Legion. A major activity of the Haganah was convoying supplies to Jerusalem in makeshift armored vehicles. Many young men died in those vehicles, which were left by the side of the Jerusalem road as a monument to their bravery. Danny Mas, murdered in a convoy that brought aid to Gush Etzion on foot, became a hero and a symbol of the War of Independence.  Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and other future leaders of Israel distinguished themselves in the fight to save Jerusalem from starvation. Bravery and ingenuity, however, were often marred by poor planning, lack of weapons, and poor coordination. The Haganah briefly held Latrun, which was  soon to become a critical position in the battle for the roads to Jerusalem, but gave it up because nobody understood the immense strategic value of this commanding hilltop position, overlooking the road to Jerusalem.

By May 15, 1948, the Haganah had between 25,000 and 35,000 men and women under arms, including 5-6,000 in the elite A href="http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Palmach.htm">Palmach, but the combat troops only consisted of 9 undermanned active brigades, perhaps 20,000 troops. It should be understood however, that these troops included all the support and logistics personnel as well as front-line soldiers. They also included women who served in support positions and middle aged men who were only nominally soldiers given a gun and a uniform, such as the relief troops sent to try to hold the Jewish quarter of the old city in May of 1948. Some of the "soldiers" included displaced persons just off the boat who could not speak Hebrew and had never fired a gun.

The Haganah becomes the IDF

When Israel became a state, David Ben-Gurion made a crucial and controversial decision. The new state could have no armed militias or partisan groups. This rule would have to apply not only to the rival Irgun and LEHI of the revisionists, but to the Haganah and Palmachas well. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Tzva Hagannah Leyisrael, were formed on May 28, 1948, and the Haganah became the IDF.

Ami Isseroff

Notice - Copyright

This article is copyright 2005 by the author and Zionism Website. It may be printed out for non-profit educational use or forwarded by e-mail with this notice, and portions may be cited in scholarly works with attribution. Reproduction in any other form is prohibited. Please do not copy this article to your Web site or to forums.

See also:


Charles Orde Wingate

Israel War of Independence

The Kfar Etzion Massacre

Riots and Massacres of 1929

General history of Zionism and the Creation of Israel

See here for details about  the Arab-Israeli conflict and History of Israel and Palestine.

Back to Zionism and Israel History Main Page

Additional Sources

This history is based in part on the account in Morris, B., Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf, New York  1999.

The official Haganah Web site (in Hebrew) is here


Copyright 2005 - 2008 All Rights Reserved

This work is copyright by the author. Please link to this page from your Web site. You may print out this article for private use or send it by email with this notice, giving credit to  Israel and Zionism Information and History Center   http://www.Zionism-Israel.com . This work or any part of it may not be reproduced for commercial use without express permission of the author.

External Zionism Links

This site provides resources about Zionism and Israeli history, including links to source documents. We are not responsible for the information content of these sites. These links are NOT intended to be an exhaustive reference about Zionism, but the list will keep growing...

Please tell us about your favorite links and we will review them for inclusion.

 Thank you.


This Site - http://www.Zionism-Israel.com  Israel and Zionism Information and History Center

A History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel- A detailed history from the Zionist point of view that discusses and addresses some criticisms of Zionism.

Zionism - Definition and Brief History - A balanced article that covers the definitions and history of Zionism as well as opposition to Zionism and criticisms by Arabs,  Jewish anti-Zionists.

Labor Zionism - Early History and Critique - Contribution of Labor Zionism to the creation of the Jewish state, and problems of Labor Zionism in a changing reality.

The US Library of congress has a comprehensive and balanced set of articles about Zionism:

Zionist Precursors - US Library of Congress

Political Zionism - US Library of Congress

Cultural Zionism - US Library of Congress

Labor Zionism - US Library of Congress

Revisionist Zionism - US Library of Congress


Israel Advocacy handbook


ZioNation - Zionism-Israel Web Log    Israel News  Israel: like this, as if Christian Zionism Albert Einstein Bible Palestine Nakba 1948 Israel Independence - Birth of a Nation Six Day War War of Independence History of Zionism Zionism FAQ Zionism Israel Center Maps of Israel Jew Zionism and its Impact Israel Christian Zionism Site Map