The true legacy of Yitzhak Shamir

The true legacy of Yitzhak Shamir

A man once described by the United States as a violent terrorist is now eulogized as a hero in the media.

On June 30, the world's media filled with announcements of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Predictably, Shamir's death was treated by American and Israeli politicians as the end of a great statesman and national founder. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of how Shamir, “[f]rom his days working for Israel's independence to his service as prime minister...strengthened Israel's security and advanced the partnership between the United States and Israel."1 Israeli President Shimon Peres hailed Shamir as “a brave warrior...a great patriot and lover of Israel who served his country with integrity,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of how Shamir “fought for the freedom of the Jewish people in its land.”2 This is hardly surprising. After all, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has gained a posthumous reputation as a great man of peace in spite of having ordered the expulsion of 50,000 to 70,0003 Palestinians from the cities of Lydda and Ramle in 19484 and having allegedly ordered Israeli troops to break the bones of Palestinian protesters during the First Intiafada.5

The reality of Shamir's life is rather different. Prior the founding of the State of Israel, Shamir was a member of the Zionist militia Lohamee Herut Israel, more commonly known as Lehi or the Stern Gang (after its founder, Avraham Stern). Smaller than its fellow armed Zionist groups, the Haganah and the Irgun, Lehi was also the most radical; during Stern's time as leader, Lehi distinguished itself by repeatedly attempting to negotiate an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940 and 1941. In exchange for supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Lehi would aid the Germans in their battle against Great Britain. Unfortunately for Stern, the Nazis never took him up on this offer.6 7 Stern was killed by the British in 1942 and the mantle of leadership was passed down to Shamir, Nathan Friedman-Yellin, and Israel Sheib. Under Shamir and his co-leaders, Lehi continued a violent campaign that did not discriminate between military and civilian targets. Shamir was quite open about his support for terrorism, writing in a 1943 article featured in Lehi's journal that “neither Jewish morality nor Jewish tradition can be used to disallow terror as a means of war” and that “terror is for us a part of the political war appropriate for the circumstances of today.”8 Consistent with this perspective was Lehi's involvement in the Deir Yassin massacre. On April 9, 1948, Lehi and Irgun forces captured the Palestinian village and killed 250 of its inhabitants. The inhabitants of Deir Yassin who survived the massacre were expelled.9 The Deir Yassin massacre was utilized as a propaganda tool by the Haganah, which announced in Arabic to Jerusalem residents that, “unless you leave your homes, the fate of Deir Yassin will be your fate,” and served as one of the impetuses for the flight of Palestinians from their homes. Ironically in light of contemporary American politics, the US government denounced Lehi and Irgun attacks on Palestinian civilians as “widespread terrorism and willful murder which has shocked the entire world.”10

The New York Times' obituary for Shamir euphemistically states that “to the British rulers of Palestine he was a terrorist, an assassin.”11 It is unclear why this view would be restricted to the British. Lehi undeniably engaged in the practice of political assassinations, one of the more notable ones being the 1944 killing of Lord Moyne, the British Deputy Minister of State in the Middle East.12 Though one could argue that, as a colonial administrator, Lord Moyne was a legitimate target, more difficult to justify is Lehi's 1948 assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat who was serving as the UN's mediator in Palestine. The assassination was explicitly authorized by Shamir and his co-leaders in order to remove a perceived obstacle to Zionist control over the entirety of Palestine.13

The years between the establishment of the State of Israel and Shamir's ascendancy to the office of prime minister in the 1980s did not dull his commitment to this goal. In late 1987, the First Intifada broke out in Gaza and soon spread throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a popular uprising against decades of Israeli oppression. Though violence (e.g. stone throwing) was not unknown and armed resistance played an increasing role in its later years, the Intifada was nonetheless largely nonviolent, characterized by actions such as demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, and tax resistance.14

Shamir's government responded harshly to the uprising. The demolition of Palestinian homes escalated, from 103 in 1987 up to 423 in 1988. Schools and universities were closed by the Israeli authorities, farmers were banned from selling their harvest in market towns, and large numbers of Palestinians were outright expelled from their homes and deported. In the first eighteen months of the Intifada, one in every eighty Palestinian adults was imprisoned without charge. Nor was Shamir's response limited to non-lethal actions. From December 1987 to December 1988, 311 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, including 44 between the ages of 13 and 16 and 9 below the age of 9. The Palestinian people, apparently a terrifying enough threat to warrant this response, killed six Israeli civilians and four soldiers during the same time period.15 Shamir was hardly a distant, disinterested authority figure in these affairs; he proclaimed in 1988 that Palestinians were “like grasshoppers compared to us” and that anyone who wished to damage Israeli fortresses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories would “have his head smashed against the boulders and walls.”16

This, then, is the true legacy of Yitzhak Shamir. Like many other state leaders who have been fondly eulogized, his life was one of terrible violence and his contribution to the world was mass murder and oppression. Clinton, Peres, Netanyahu, and others can go on at whatever length they please about Shamir's supposed virtues, but it is doubtful that such praise will do anything to ease the pain of Palestinians who fled their homes because of Lehi's actions or who have family and friends whose death Shamir bears responsibility for. Shamir's atrocities should not be forgotten no matter how much politicians may wish to whitewash the real historical record.

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Jul 2 2012 02:52


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Jul 2 2012 12:43

Great article, very useful summary of what the man was responsible for. One minor quibble:

Though one could argue that, as a colonial administrator, Lord Moyne was a legitimate target,

Yes, but even so, his assassination was committed, not by anti-colonialist resistance fighters (which might be seen as legitimate), but by a gang fighting for the formation of a Zionist state, that is, for a competing form of colonialism. Terrorist colonialism against colonialist terrorism.