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The Hagannah (or Haganah, Hagana)  (Hebrew: means defense) Jewish underground force was created in 1920 by members and former members of the World War I Jewish Legion, which was in the process of being disbanded. After the fall of Tel Hai in March of 1920, the Jerusalem committee headed by Zeev Jabotinsky and Pinchas Ruttenberg became more active.  In April of 1920, the Hagannah had some role in defending against Arab attacks during the Passover ("Nebi Musa") riot. Palestine was still under British military rule. 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 existence of the Hagannah 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, formed in 1907-09 to guard Jewish settlements.

In December of 1920 it was put under the control of the Histadruth Labor federation. The Hagannah  had no source of weapons and few opportunities for training. Not surprisingly, in the May 1921 riots the Hagannah was not effective. Thereafter, the political leadership of the Zionist organization wanted the Hagannah to become a legal body subordinated to the British, while the soldiers of the Hagannah objected, because they would lose their independence and probably their arms.  The Zionist organization deprived it of funds, but the British would not allowed the Hagannah to function as a legal organization in any case. In 1923, the Hashomer people left the Hagannah, 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 Hagannah had 750 rifles, 750 hand grenades, about a thousand pistols and 27 machine guns, all weapons of uncertain vintage. The Hagannah 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.

In the riots that broke out in the summer of 1929, the Hagannah proved more successful, especially in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the center of Jerusalem. The inability or unwillingness of the British to protect Jewish communities convinced the political leadership of the necessity for self-defense, despite their unwillingness to cross the British authorities. With the backing of the political leadership, the Hagannah  became a country-wide organization. It 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. Soon after the 1929 riots, the Irgun split off from the Hagannah, backing a more activist policy in defiance of the authorities.

In the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, field squads (Plugot Sadeh) were organized by Yitzhak Sadeh.  The Hagannah began to assume the characteristics of an organized fighting force. became an active partner of the British, under the guidance of Charles Orde Wingate, who organized Special Night Squads.  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 Hagannah 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 Hagannah helped to greet and guard illegal immigrant ships organized by the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet. After the British had squelched the Arab revolt with massive use of force, they clamped down on the Hagannah.Its members went into hiding, and some were arrested. In 1941 however, the British amnestied 41 Hagannah members who were held in Acco prison, including Moshe Dayan. They joined the British war effort. The Hagannah also cooperated in covert operations sending over thirty parachutists on missiongs in to Nazi occupied Europe. 

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 Hagannah cooperated briefly with the British in the "Sezon" (season) arresting members of the rival Irgun and Lehi groups.

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 Hagannah then joined forces with the Irgun and LEHI in attacking the British in various commando raids and sabotage attacks.

David Ben-Gurion, head of the Zionist Executive 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 Hagannah 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. Training activities and purchase of arms were stepped up after the partition decision of the 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 Hagannah 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 Hagannah made good use of mobility and of the commando and night tactics that were taught by Wingate. Some illegal immigrants were drowned or otherwise killed in the rusting, overcrowded old boats that brought them out of Europe, but far more  were saved from certain death in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The chief weaknesses of the Hagannah 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 Hagannah developed a tradition of punitive reprisals, often on civilians, that was evident at least as early as  the Arab riots of 1929.

The Hagannah led the defense of the Jewish community in the period following the UN partition decision, and prior to the declaration of the state of Israel. At this time, the British still ruled Palestine officially and presented the formation of state institutions, but, on the other hand, the British army was generally unwilling to provide any defense to either Jewish or Arab communities. In particular, the British did nothing to ensure the supply of food and water to Jewish Jerusalem, which was under effective siege. The Hagannah managed to supply Jerusalem, opening the roads at least briefly in several operations. The most notable of these was operation Nachshon, in early April of 1948. In the north, the Hagannah was successful in stopping the forces of Fawzi el Kaukji in Mishmar Haemeq, in the same month. These two successes had political significance, since they convinced the United States government that the Jewish state could be viable.  The Hagannah failed notably in defending Gush Etzion, in removing the Latrun outpost of the Jordan Legion, which was blocking the road to Jerusalem, and in defending the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. In these cases, it was up against the Jordan Legion, a professional fighting force equipped with artillery and trained officers. The Hagannah had no heavy weapons of any kind before the declaration of the state of Israel.

By May 15, 1948, the Hagannah had between 25,000 and 35,000 men and women under arms, including about 5,000 in the elite Palmach. 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. In some cases, the "soldiers" included displaced persons just off the boat who could not speak Hebrew and had never fired a gun. 

When Israel became a state, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a controversial and crucial decision. The new state could have no armed militias or partisan groups not under government control. The decision applied not only to the rival Irgun and LEHI of the revisionists, but to the Hagannah and Palmach as well. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Tzva Hagannah Leyisrael, were formed on May 26, 1948, and the Hagannah became the IDF. Many lamented the regimentation and formality of the state controlled army, but it would have been unwise, perhaps impossible to continue the pre-state organizations either from the political point of view, or form the point of view of efficient military organization.

Ami Isseroff


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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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