Background Although an unofficial underground movement, the Hagana ("defense" in Hebrew) was the primary quasi-military body of the Jewish community in Palestine and the Zionist Movement during the time of the British mandate, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. From that time, the Hagana became the army of the state of Israel – ‘Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) (in Hebrew, Tzva Hagana Le-Yisrael – Zahal).
The Hagana was established in 1920 and operated during the next decade under the auspices of the Workers Union ("Histadrut”, in Hebrew). Following a period of Arab rioting, in August 1929, the Hagana became the "official", though secret, military wing of the Zionist Jewish Agency and the National Jewish Committee (Vaad Leumi) of Palestine. The Hagana General Command comprised six public representatives from the left and center-right Jewish parties. The main assignment of Hagana was to provide security to Jewish life and property against Arab violence, which had caused the deaths of more than 700 Jews between 1920 and 1939.
Growing from a modest beginning of a few thousand, the Hagana soon became a large, well-organized quasi-military body of tens of thousand men and women. The British Government regarded the Hagana as an illegal underground organization, but for the Jewish population, it constituted a vital source of defense and security. Under the elected national institutions, it soon became the armed forces of the State in the making.
The Best Defense is Offense Up until 1939, the Hagana focused on static protection of settlements, towns and other communities in pre-State Israel (called “Palestine”), based on the principle of defensive operations, building up and training military forces, as well as striving to acquire arms from every possible source, including clandestine manufacturing of weapons. After the bloody Arab uprising of 1936 to1939, the Hagana changed its strategy from defending from "within the fences" to offensive operations outside the domain of Jewish settlements and developed a mobile warfare doctrine.
During that period, the first offensive units were established: first the mobile unit (Nodedet), then the field companies (Fosh) , and the famous "Special Night Squads” (SNS) under the command of a pro-Zionist Scottish Officer, Orde Charles Wingate. Those offensive operations, carried out day and night, had a tremendous effect in reducing the attacks of the Arab bands and helped the British Mandatory Government to suppress the uprising.
In the spring of 1939, a severe crisis developed after the British Government had changed the policy it had pursued since the Balfour Declaration (1917), issuing what was termed a "White Paper”, recommending a series of pro-Arab steps and legislation, such as curtailing Jewish immigration and placing restrictions on purchase of land and on the establishment of new settlements by Jews. The Hagana was in the process of planning an armed confrontation against the British authorities, but withheld this program with the outbreak of World War II in the fall of 1939.
During the war, the Hagana assisted the British in many ways, including Intelligence, and sent parachutists into German-occupied countries in Europe. About 30,000 Palestinian Jews (men and women), most of them members of the Hagana, joined the British Armed Forces in the war against Nazi Germany. In fact, the entire Jewish population, less than half a million, was mobilized to participate in the war effort.
Development of Military Forces and Capabilities As of 1939, the Hagana was re-organized and General Headquarters were formed led by the Chief of the General Staff (to be continued when the Hagana became Israel's Defense Forces in 1948).
Besides helping the British in the war against Nazi Germany, the Hagana strengthened and improved its military capability. Thousands of youngsters aged 18-25 were organized and trained within the framework of “Field-Corps” (Chish) and "Home-guards" (Chim) to protect cities, towns and settlements. "Youth Battalions" (Gadna) were formed in which teenagers, both boys and girls, acquired pre-military training enabling them to join the ranks of the Hagana. Services such as intelligence, a signals corps, medical corps, and small air and maritime units were founded. Clandestine factories started to manufacture small arms, mortars and ammunition. Thousands, sent by the Hagana, served in the British Police units, mainly as the Jewish Settlements Police.
The highlight was the establishment of the "Palmach" (Hebrew abbreviation of striking force) – the only fully mobilized force – created in 1941. The Palmach grew within four years from six companies to four battalions, soon to be organized as a brigade, directly under the command of the Hagana General Staff.
The Palmach units, consisting of young men and women, were stationed in kibbutzim, where they underwent advanced military training but also worked in order to support themselves, while also scouting the country and getting to know every corner of it. Following the end of World War II, the Palmach led the struggle against the hostile British forces until they evacuated the country at the end of the British mandate in Palestine in May 1948.Throughout the War of Independence, especially in its initial stages, the Palmach constituted the major fighting force against Arab assaults and invasions.
The need to operate secretly, with only the most meager means and inadequate arms and other facilities, promoted a unique type of strategic military thinking, guerilla tactics and battlefield ethics that involved pioneering spirit, leadership in battle, high motivation, originality in planning, taking initiative and resourcefulness. The Hagana was based not merely on a hierarchy of ranks but on mutual understanding, equality of rights and duties, friendship, devotion to the cause and to each other. The notion was that when necessary, every soldier is capable to function as a commander (a Palmach slogan “every squad leader – a general”).
As noted earlier, in 1939, the Hagana was re-structured, setting up a professional General Staff, headed by the Chief of Staff. This concept was later installed in the IDF, and remains until today.
Jewish Illegal Immigration and New Settlements In addition to building up a military force and preparing the Jewish population for the future challenges, the Hagana took on two other important tasks at the very core of the Zionist mission -- to maintain the continued immigration (Aliya) of Jews into Palestine by any means and to assure the secured establishment of new Jewish settlements. Thus, from 1936 to the end of the British mandate in 1948, the Hagana initiated and participated in setting up about 140 new settlements, some of which were known as "tower and stockade". Eleven of these were put up in the Negev in the course of a single night in October of 1946. It may well be said that these settlements actually determined the borders of the new State in the making.
Once the British adopted a policy of restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine (following the publication of the “White Paper”, and even before), the Jewish national institutions found ways and means to clandestinely bring in Jews under cover, by land and sea. This so-called “illegal immigration” (Ha’apala) began even before World War II, but it was in the forties that the Hagana took upon itself the responsibility of bringing in tens of thousands Jewish immigrants who had survived the Holocaust. During this same period, Jews from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries also reached a safe harbor in Palestine. Over 120,000 Jews were brought in by more than 100ships – acquired, equipped, navigated and commanded by a handful of Palmach youngsters.
Fighting the British Mandate In the early 1930s, a few hundred members left the Hagana and formed a right-wing military body, called "Irgun B". In 1937 most of them re-joined the ranks of the Hagana, while the rest formed the “Etzel” (Irgun Zevai Leumi), which in turn split into “Lehi” (Lohamei Herut Israel), both small right-wing nationalist groups with an extremist ideology with regard to the struggle against the Arabs and the British.Neither of these two groups accepted the authority of the national Jewish Authorities.
Towards the end of the war and after, the Hagana intensified its struggle – by political and even violent acts against British rule, along with more illegal immigration and further unauthorized settlements, in response to Britain’s opposition to the creation of an independent Jewish state (Ben-Gurion: “We will fight the Germans as if there is no White Paper, and the British as if there is no war with the Germany”).
For a period of some nine months, the "Hagana," "Etzel", and "Lehi" acted in concert (the "Hebrew Resistance Movement"), though independently, against the British, led by the Hagana. The three organizations informed each other before carrying out their operations.During this time, the Hagana performed many courageous acts, including raids on British police stations and destruction of British Radar installations.In the course of one night, they blew up 12 bridges disconnecting Palestine from the neighboring Arab countries, freed hundreds of immigrants captured by the British and held as prisoners in the Atlit camp, and caused serious damage to the mandatory railway lines and more. In all these operations, the Hagana took care as far as possible to avoid causing civilian casualties. The cooperation among the Jewish military resistance groups came to an end in July 1946 when, without authorization of the national Jewish authorities, the Etzel blew up the KingDavidHotel in Jerusalem – killing many civilians, Jews, Arabs, and Englishmen.
The operations against the British continued. The Hagana focused mainly on accelerating illegal immigration, attacking British ships and radar installations used to stop immigrants from entering the country; and setting up new settlements in border areas. In addition, major effort was devoted to building a strong military force, based on the Palmach and Chish, in order to prepare for what was considered an imminent war against the Arabs over control of Palestine. More undercover arms factories were constructed, weapons were acquired abroad, and young Holocaust survivors were trained in Europe and at the detention camps in Cyprus.
The Hagana in the War of Independence From the summer of 1947, the "Hagana" intensified preparations for a large-scale war against the local Arab militias and the armies of the Arab states. By the time it had become clear that the British were about to leave Palestine and that a war would soon break out, David Ben Gurion assumed responsibility for matters of defense. The Hagana was then organized to include the Palmach brigade, five infantry brigades, and other military services. Veterans of the British Army were also integrated into this general force, contributing their fighting skill and experience.
War broke out in December 1947, immediately after the U.N. resolution about the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state. The Hagana became the fighting force that defended the Jewish population in Palestine until the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, and continued as such until becoming the Israel Defense Force. During the first six months of heavy fighting, the Hagana managed to mobilize, equip, train, and activate a military power of about 50,000 men and women, functioning in 12 brigades, a nuclei of air and navel forces, alongside other units and services that exist in modern armies. During this period the Hagana forces broke the backbone of the Arab offensive and conquered strategic territories to resist the invasion of the armies of five Arab states. Up to May 1948, the Hagana forces finally succeeded in repelling most of the invading armies; and on June 1st, the Hagana became the Israel Defense Forces. The last Hagana Chief of Staff, General Yaakov Dori, took over as the first Chief of Staff of the IDF. The Hagana brigades became IDF brigades and its air and navel services became the Israeli Air Force and Navy, with all the other units and services being similarly transformed.
David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, described the importance of the Hagana in a famous speech on the day when the IDF was sworn in: "Without the experience, the planning, the operational abilities, the commanding officers, the loyalty and the courage of the Hagana, the Jewish community could not have withstood the terrible bloody battles, and we never would have seen the rise of the State of Israel. In the history of the Jewish people the chapter of the Hagana will shine in glory and grandeur forever”.