The Chaotic Origins of Israel’s International Airport

Confusion and combat preceded the grand opening of Israel's main airport, some six months after the young state's founding

New immigrants arriving in Israel the day Lod Airport reopened, November 24, 1948 (Photo: Benno Rothenberg / Colorization: MyHeritage). Israel State Archives, Meitar Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Disorder, noise and incompetence” were used to describe the Port of Haifa in 1947, “modern – though already inadequate,” one of multiple “gateways of the Mediterranean [that] exploit rather than serve the traffic on which they thrive.”

The roughly decade-old Lydda Airport (today’s Ben Gurion Airport), on the other hand, was then a place of “order, civility, and efficiency.”

That would change dramatically just over a year later, as the British Mandate drew to a close, virtually all British officials left Mandatory Palestine in the months leading up to May 15, 1948, as war and chaos reigned.

Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, the last British High Commissioner of Palestine, at Lydda Airport (Public domain)

The morning after the passage of the UN Partition Plan in November 1947, five passengers on an Egged bus were killed after it was attacked adjacent to the airport. They were apparently the conflict’s first casualties.

Nonetheless, the airport, staffed by Jewish, Arab and British employees, continued operating. As the Mandate’s end approached, it’s exact fate remained undetermined – a recipe for confusion.

How or when exactly that airport chaos and confusion started was quite unclear at the time, with varying and even contradictory reports coming out.

On April 21, the head of customs at the airport on behalf of the British authorities issued a rather unexpected statement “suddenly and without any prior warning,” that effective immediately he would no longer be responsible for any of the goods stored in his office. He essentially and practically abandoned the property under his care, including those items not destined for Mandatory Palestine at all, but simply in transit on their way to other destinations, including the Far East.

The confusion continued the following week, as the airport ceased operations.

Perplexingly, more than one “last” flight out of Lydda was reported during those turbulent days.

An Associated Press report cited on April 26, indicated that the last flight, belonging to Air France, had taken off the previous morning, yet on April 28, the following was published:

“The evacuation of British civilians from Palestine will be virtually completed today, when all Britons except 20 high Government officials will fly to the U.K. Their flight from Lydda will be last from that Airport under British administration.”

The chaos of confusion and war (not to mention the limitations of communications technology at the time) left many things hazy.

Rumors circulated that the British had handed the airport over to Arab Legion forces, though it soon became clear that the British themselves hung onto it (at least a bit longer), even reportedly killing a number of Arabs who had tried to loot the premises.

Right to left: Gen. John Bagot Glubb, commander of the Arab Legion; King Abdullah I of Jordan; General Sir Evelyn Barker, commander of the British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan, 1947. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The exact circumstances surrounding the cessation of proper operations was also anything but clear. Zionist outlets reported that the Jewish airport employees had abandoned their posts after the British had refused to protect them. A similar account appears in At the Gates of the State, an official history of the airport, which also adds that despite three Jewish employees refusing to evacuate, all of the others left by April 23, “after collecting a lot of equipment”.

The evacuees included members of the Haganah’s secret Tsipora Unit, which had been organized shortly after the war began in order to protect Jews in and around the airport.

According to the official British account of that day’s events, it had “ceased to function normally, because members of the Jewish staff had sabotaged operations by making off with 18 transmitters.”

The general chaos and confusion of the time had many ramifications, including the end of airmail services – then a critical means of communication with the outside world. In mid-April, it had apparently been announced that airmail service would cease on May 10, just a few days before the official end of the British Mandate. Yet with the airport no longer functioning as of that last week of April, airmail service abruptly stopped. Letters piled up, many of them likely never reaching their destinations.

Regardless of the order of the events, Lydda Airport was, in fact, ultimately taken over by Arab forces, who controlled it for a couple of months until it was captured by the IDF in July 1948, part of the massive and critical Yigal Alon-commanded “Operation Danny”.

Lydda Airport after it was captured by the IDF, July 1948. From the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Tanks and soldiers at Lydda Airport during Operation Danny, July 1948 (Nadav Mann / BITMUNA). From the collection of the 8th Brigade during the War of Independence. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The following first-hand account of the battle appears in At the Gates of the State:

“… through orchards, fences, canals, the airport structures get closer. Artillery and machine gun fire opened on us abruptly. We approached, slowly, slowly. Suddenly the enemy’s resistance stops. We are already on the landing strips. From afar, we see the [Arab] Legion vehicles fleeing towards the city of Lod… The radio technician announces: …the airport is in our hands! The airport is in our hands!”

Just a few months later, on Wednesday, November 24, 1948, the airport was once again operational as:

“Letter number one in Israel’s newly-inaugurated air mail service was delivered to the Minister of Communications, Mr. David Remez… when the airport was opened to civilian traffic under Israel [sic] management.”

There was no British presence in sight, though Air France, Czech Airlines, and T.W.A. ticket counters, among others, could be found in the new airport, which also boasted restored radio and telecommunications equipment.

In addition to foreign companies, not one, but two Israeli airlines had also already contracted to use the facility: El Al and the now-defunct Aviron.

Aviron airplane, ca. 1940s (Photo: Boris Karmi). The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Right to left: Emmanuel Zur, Aviron’s head pilot; an unnamed pilot; Uri Michaely, Aviron’s director, 1946. Zur would become Lod Airport’s first Israeli manager and Michaely later directed Israel’s Department of Civil Aviation (Photo: Paul Goldman). Part of the Israel Archive Network, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

In the coming months and years, Lydda Airport would welcome thousands of Holocaust survivors, other immigrants and tourists. Its name would be soon be changed to “Lod Airport” – using the biblical Hebrew form of the nearby town’s name – before ultimately being renamed “Ben Gurion Airport,” following the death of Israel’s first prime minister.

A few months after the grand reopening in late 1948, Uri Michaely, acting director of Israel’s Department of Civil Aviation, declared:

“We hope that the time will soon come when, with the restoration of peace, air communications between Israel and the Arab countries can be resumed… We are looking forward to the time, no longer distant, we hope, when planes with the emblem of Israel on their wings will take to the air for all parts of the world, carrying the message of Israel reborn to the Jewish people wherever they are.”


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Donating Pocket Money for Jewish Refugees in Cyprus

In 1947, Britain was still holding tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants in camps in Cyprus, many of them Holocaust survivors. The children of the Yishuv joined in the aid effort, donating their pocket money and clothing so that the displaced children could stay warm in the cold winter months.


Children donate clothing for Jewish refugees in Cyprus, 1948. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Ships packed with refugees make their way to the shores. The authorities do their best to locate and capture the boats before they anchor. The intelligence services collect information about the movement of the illegal immigrants. Coast Guard destroyers try to block the rickety and overloaded vessels. When a boat is captured, the passengers on board are sent to detention camps…

Though the above could easily be a description of recent migrant crises in the Mediterranean, it actually refers to the period of Jewish immigration to the Land Israel after the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust. The British directed considerable resources to counter unauthorized, illegal immigration during this period, an enterprise that the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine worked hard to renew after World War II. The goal was to bring as many Jewish survivors as possible to the Land of Israel.

Once a ship had been captured, the passengers on board were sent to detention camps in Cyprus set up by the British. These camps operated from 1946 to the beginning of 1949—that is, they continued to operate even after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Many Holocaust survivors—men, women and children—found themselves among the detainees in Cyprus. Some had already survived the concentration camps and then lived in DP camps in Europe. These homeless refugees took incredible risks to reach the place that promised to be their homeland, and instead of a refuge, they found themselves once more surrounded by barbed wire fences. The conditions in the camps in Cyprus were not easy and while the British took care to provide basic food and services, both were insufficient.

Detention camp residents in Cyprus being freed from the camps, photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Jews already in the Land of Israel did not forget their fellow Jews in the detention camps.  After the establishment of the state, the struggle for the release of the detainees intensified, but even before, the Jewish Agency and other pre-state institutions had been working busily on their behalf. Hebrew language instruction was provided, all the underground movements sent representatives to recruit and train the camps’ residents, and in April 1948, an illustrious cultural delegation including poet Nathan Alterman and singer Shoshana Damari visited the camps.

The “Committee for the Cyprus Exiles” was the chief body set up by the Jewish Agency, the National Committee, and the JDC, to assist the detainees. The committee mainly collected donations—money, food packages and other items. Packages with the various items were sent regularly through the committee, which also organized deliveries of toys, books, newspapers, and tools. Before the holidays, they would send special foods and other necessities required for the holiday’s observance. The committee organized regular cultural activities in the camps and provided employment for the occupants, as well as many other activities designed to ease the lives of the refugees.

A harsh winter threatens our brethren in the camps – Bring forth clothing and shoes!” reads this Hebrew Poster published by the Committee for the Exiles of Cyprus for a “Winter Clothing” drive in 1947, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

The committee also organized special fundraising campaigns. One of the largest was Operation “Winter Clothing”, which began in the fall of 1947, immediately after the committee had completed its work for the Jewish High Holy Days. This latest campaign was the third winter fundraising drive the committee had conducted. All the newspapers carried stories on the operation, whose goal was to provide blankets and clothing for about 50,000 refugees in detention camps in Cyprus, the DP camps in Europe, and also for refugees from the Aden riots in Yemen. Women’s organizations and youth movements mobilized for the two-week-long effort.

Hundreds of collection depots were set up in the larger cities for citizens to deposit clothes, blankets, food or other items. The announcements in the newspapers called on residents not to wait until the collectors came to their homes but instead to go the collection points with their donations. The Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, whose own resources were quite limited, rallied to help its fellow Jews imprisoned abroad.

The processing center for donations during Operation “Winter Clothing”, 1947. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When the operation was over, the committee did not rest on its laurels, and immediately began a campaign to supply holiday necessities and matzah for Purim and Pesach.

Operation Winter Clothing was one of the largest and most successful of its kind at the time. And not only adults lent a hand, but so did the country’s children. In the photos accompanying this article you can see children bringing clothes to collection points. The local children’s newspapers also addressed the issue. An editorial in one of these newspapers called on its young readers to ponder the question: “As we prepare our own winter clothes here in Eretz Yisrael, we should ask ourselves: Do our brothers and sisters in Cyprus have what to wear?” The same children’s newspapers also regularly reported on children who chose to donate their birthday money to the children of Cyprus: one child donated one Palestine pound or lira, another gave three, and another donated 300 mil (1 Palestine pound = 1000 mil). In one case, an entire class collected money for the benefit of the displaced children.

Children donating clothing during Operation “Winter Clothing”, 1947. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel


For the Chidren of Cyprus – Aza Tel-Tsur (of Afikim) donated 300 mil of her pocket money on the occasion of her 9th birthday”  – Children’s newspapers were filled with announcements about children’s donations for the benefit of the refugees in Cyprus. Davar LeYeladim, October 9, 1947


For the Children of Cyprus – David Tirza (of Motza Elit, on his 11th birthday – 1 Palestine pound“, Davar LeYeladim, November 13, 1947, from the very days of the clothing drive

The donations continued throughout 1948. The last of the detainees were finally released in the first months of 1949, a full nine months after the establishment of the State of Israel. Their release was only obtained after considerable Israeli efforts – the British had curiously insisted on holding onto the detainees, almost 4 years after the end of World War II. At last, the story of illegal Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel had come to an end

All the photographs in this article, and many more documenting Operation Winter Clothing in 1947 were taken by the photojournalist Benno Rothenberg and are now part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel.  Click on the link here to view them all.

When Tintin Was Abducted by the Irgun in Haifa

Why was Mandatory Palestine changed to the imaginary "Emirate of Khemed" in "Land of Black Gold", the 15th volume in the comic series, "The Adventures of Tintin"?

“Residents of the Land of Israel, be on the alert: a Belgian citizen with a tendency for trouble has been spotted in Haifa disguised as an Arab. The individual calls himself ‘Tintin.’ He is known to be sniffing around where he shouldn’t and asking far too many questions. Anyone with any information regarding his whereabouts is requested to notify the police.”

The above was not a public safety message issued by the Israeli police or the Shin Bet, rather, this was a fictional scene that played out in the world-famous and beloved comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin. This particular story in the Tintin series, Land of Black Gold, was first published in serialized form between September 1939 and May 1940.

English translation of The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The story revolves around a secret plot to sabotage oil reserves in the Middle East. In keeping with the times, the identity of the story’s villain is revealed as none other than the evil German physician, Dr. Müller. As part of Tintin’s investigation, our hero makes his way to British Mandatory Palestine, where he wanders the streets of Haifa dressed as a local Arab. He is even kidnapped by the Irgun, the Jewish underground organization which fought both the Arabs and the British.

Hergé, Tintin’s creator, drew the story’s first comic strips while on a month’s leave from the Belgian army. He was drafted into the military when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but even as a soldier, he continued sending the comic strip installments to Le Petit Vingtième, the newspaper that had been publishing the illustrated adventures of the young reporter for the past decade. After contracting sinusitis, Hergé was released from his military service on the same day Germany invaded Belgium.

Naturally, under the new circumstances of German occupation and given the villain’s German nationality, the series was discontinued, and readers following Tintin’s adventure as a respite from the terrible war erupting around them had to wait several years to find out how the young man managed to escape the deadly sandstorm after evading the clutches of the evil doctor.

After the conclusion of World War II, Hergé initially sought to distance himself from his popular character, but pressured by his wife and friends, he soon returned to drawing the adventures of the curious investigative reporter. The original plan was to send Tintin and his dog Snowy to the moon, which indeed happened later on, but first, he resumed the adventure he had left unfinished when the Nazis invaded his country.

Abdullah, heir to the Emirate of Khemed, sprinkles an itchy powder down Dr. Muller’s shirt, The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The second serialization of Land of Black Gold was published between 1948 and 1950. Importantly however, this was not the final version…

In the 1960s and 1970s, The Adventures of Tintin were introduced into Great Britain. It is not clear exactly what motivated Tintin’s legendary creator to redraw Land of Black Gold, but this time it took a surprising turn. In the English version of the beloved comic, Mandatory Palestine became the imaginary “Emirate of Khemed”. The story of Tintin’s abduction by the Irgun due to a mistake in identification—the story that appeared in the original version—was replaced by a tale involving the military police in Khemed.

Let there be no doubt, Tintin— among the bravest of all illustrated detectives—had no qualms about becoming embroiled in our local war of narratives. Yet that was not the reason for the change. The substitution of historical Mandatory Palestine with an imaginary oil-rich principality, was probably done to avoid offending the British readership Tintin’s creator was hoping to attract.

L: Tintin in Mandatory Palestine. R: the same scene in the mythical Emirate of Khemed

Sadly, regarding Land of Black Gold – neither the version which takes place in the Land of Israel nor the version featuring the imaginary land of Khemed were ever translated into Hebrew…

His Way: Frank Sinatra in the Service of Israel

How Ol' Blue Eyes managed to trick the FBI, make a special delivery down at the docks and help the Jewish state-in-the-making...

Frank Sinatra watching an IDF parade during a visit to Israel in 1962, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photograph Collection, the National Library of Israel. Colorization: MyHeritage

And now, the end is here
And so I face that final curtain
My friend, I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

(My Way, lyrics by Paul Anka, famously performed by Frank Sinatra.)

It was March, 1948 – in a few weeks, the State of Israel would declare its independence.

The Haganah organization was working back channels in order to arm the Jewish population in what was still officially Mandatory Palestine. Fighting was already underway.   At a room in a New York hotel that served as the Haganah’s de-facto local HQ, Teddy Kollek planned his next moves: His mission, on David Ben-Gurion’s orders, was to transfer funds to the captain of an Irish ship, docked not far away and loaded with ammunition. Once the transfer was made, the ship was set to sail to the Land of Israel.  But Kollek, who years later would become famous as an iconic mayor of Jerusalem, faced a difficult problem: as a known Haganah operative, U.S. federal agents were monitoring his every move. Every member of his team was being watched as well. He knew there was no way he could get the money out of the hotel on his own to pay the captain. The fate of the arms delivery the Haganah so desperately needed was unclear.

Next to the Haganah’s secret headquarters, in the very same building, was the famous Copacabana nightclub. Haganah agents would sit at the bar and drink alongside the cream of New York’s entertainment scene. One of the establishment’s frequent visitors was none other than Frank Sinatra.

“I went downstairs to the bar and Sinatra came over, and we were talking,” Kollek later recalled. “I don’t know what came over me, but I told him what I was doing in the United States and what my dilemma was.”

Frank Sinatra (right) and Teddy Kollek (left), who by then was mayor of Jerusalem, an AP photo published in Davar, June 19, 1980

The next day, in the early morning hours, Teddy Kollek left the building holding a bag. FBI agents followed him. At the same moment, Frank Sinatra left out the back exit, carrying a million dollars in a paper bag. He went down to the pier, made the delivery to the captain, and waved goodbye to the ammunition ship as it sailed on its way.

“It was the beginning of the young nation, I wanted to help.” Sinatra later told his daughter Nancy.

Well after Israeli independence was declared, Frank Sinatra would continue to accompany the young country for many years. And everything he did, he did with love. His way.

And here’s a special bonus treat – this short film produced by the “National Comittee for Labor Israel” documented Sinatra’s 1962 visit to the country, in color!

Further Reading:

Sinatra: The Life – Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan

Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, Yossi Melman, Dan Raviv

Stuart Davidson – Full interview about Frank Sinatra and Teddy Kollek, Jimmy Hoffa (Associate) – Toldot Yisrael