The Botched Hit That Sparked the First Lebanon War

The failed attempt on Ambassador Shlomo Argov's life led to one of the most complicated and difficult episodes in Israel's history

Ambassador Shlomo Argov and ruins from the Lebanon War (Argov photo published in Hadashot, July 6, 1984 / Lebanon photo: Emanuel Dudai. From the Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

The Dorchester Hotel, London — one of the world’s swankiest. Owned for decades by modern-day sultans and Middle Eastern magnates, the Dorchester has been a favorite hangout for countless cultural icons from Hitchcock to Streisand. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, held a legendary stag party there before marrying the future Queen Elizabeth II.

UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife Miriam at The Dorchester, March 1965 (Public domain)

The Dorchester is about as far as it gets from the muddy forests of southern Lebanon, yet that’s where the First Lebanon War started. Kind of.

One night in June of 1982, dozens of diplomats gathered at the Dorchester for an annual gala event. Before midnight, Shlomo Argov—the eloquent, Jerusalem-born, Georgetown and LSE-educated Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom—left the hotel and headed toward his car.

Moments before, in the men’s bathroom of the nearby Hilton Hotel, a meeting had taken place that would change the history of the Middle East. There, Marwan al-Banna took out a brown bag he had retrieved from his car. He revealed a Polish W.Z.63 submachine gun accompanied by two magazines of ammunition and handed them to his comrade, Hussein Sa’id.

Sa’id left around 11:00 p.m. and waited nervously in front of a BMW showroom, popping out as Argov approached his Volvo, shooting him and fleeing the scene.

In The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal, journalist Yossi Melman, who covered the failed assassination and subsequent trials, includes a firsthand account of the events recalled by Colin Simpson, the bodyguard assigned to Argov that night:

“He bent down somewhat and was about to enter the car. When he was about to put his head inside, I heard a noise behind me. The ambassador fell to the pavement. I looked down at him and saw what appeared then as an extremely serious wound.”

Simpson chased after Sa’id, shooting him just below the ear but not before being shot at himself, with one of the assailant’s bullets narrowly missing his head. According to Melman, “The police investigators later found that the submachine gun had been set for firing single rounds, otherwise Simpson would probably have been struck several times by the 24 bullets remaining in the magazine.”

Argov was less fortunate. A bullet went through his brain. He was comatose for months and would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, spending decades bedridden, primarily in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.

Ambassador Victor Harel, who worked closely with Argov, remembered him as a “diplomatic giant,” a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who continued fighting after being injured in Israel’s War of Independence, going on to become one of the foreign service’s most valued assets. Argov was reportedly handpicked for the London post by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, despite the fact that the two belonged to adversarial political camps. Such a decision, shortly after Begin’s historic rise to power after decades in the political wilderness, indicated the trust and respect Argov had earned as a man whose service to his country superseded his personal political ideology.

Retaliation and terrorists

Within hours of the assassination attempt, an emergency Israeli cabinet meeting concluded with a decision to hit 11 PLO targets in Lebanon, two of them in Beirut. In the meeting, Begin very clearly emphasized the urgency of action. According to military historian Shimon Golan, author of the most comprehensive work to date detailing the high-level decision-making processes during the war, Begin determined that “Israel could not wait to receive a report from Scotland Yard [regarding the terrorists’ organizational affiliation]; it had to strike without delay, the very same day, at the center of international terror in Lebanon …”

IDF Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan recommended the initial targets to hit. Begin accepted the recommendations and emphasized that Israel had to be careful to avoid civilian casualties, while being ready for the inevitable response, including PLO attacks on Israeli civilians.

According to accounts culled from official sources and documentation, including those relayed by Golan and Melman, no major pushback, arguments, or heated discussions took place in the meeting that morning. Interestingly, even though then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon is largely credited with designing and pushing the plans for the Lebanon War, he was in Romania at the time and was not even present at this most critical juncture.

Retaliatory rockets came shortly after the initial air strikes, and the Israeli leadership’s discourse shifted from how to respond to deciding on the most advantageous time to launch a ground operation. The ensuing war, known as Operation Peace for the Galilee or the First Lebanon War, led, among other things, to the decimation of PLO forces in Lebanon and their expulsion to Tunis.

Beirut Airport after it was captured by Israeli forces, June 21, 1982. (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet the PLO had nothing to do with the attack on Ambassador Shlomo Argov. The day after the assassination attempt, Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom had already reported to the Israeli leadership that the perpetrators likely belonged to the so-called Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), a rival Palestinian terrorist faction bent on taking down the PLO.

Raful Eitan famously quipped: “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO!”

Founded by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the Jaffa-born scion to one of Mandatory Palestine’s richest families better known as “Abu Nidal,” the ANO committed dozens of hijackings, murders, assassinations, and other terrorist attacks around the world beginning in the 1970s, largely at the whim of its tempestuous founder. Though the ANO did target Israeli and Jewish people and sites, most of their attacks were against Palestinians or other Arabs, particularly diplomats, journalists, and various public figures.

“He didn’t believe in religion or Ba’athism or Marxism or anything else,” an acquaintance of Abu Nidal’s once told Patrick Seale, author of a biography on the terrorist. “The gun was his ideology and his ideology was the gun.”

This photo of Abu Nidal and a North Korean military officer is believed to have been taken in North Korea. It was published in a Lebanese newspaper in 1974, and republished in the September 11, 1986 edition of the Israeli newspaper Hadashot. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Questions and conspiracies

For nearly a year prior to the assassination attempt, the Israel-Lebanon border had been overwhelmingly quiet following a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the PLO. Yet the latter continued perpetrating attacks against Israel and Israeli targets internationally. Israel’s political and defense establishment generally agreed that Lebanon could not continue to serve as the PLO’s home base, and, in fact, detailed plans for the invasion, known as “Operation Oranim,” were ready long before the failed assassination and subsequent ground incursion, which was overwhelmingly approved by all parties in the Knesset except for one.

IDF soldiers on their way to Lebanon, June 6, 1982 (Photo: Yosi Elmakis). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The exact reason Abu Nidal chose to attack Argov in London on that night in June 1982 remains elusive, but many theories have been suggested, including one peddled largely by Abu Nidal’s Palestinian enemies that he himself worked for the Mossad and ordered the assassination attempt in order to give Israel a justification for attacking the PLO in Lebanon.

In a rare interview, Abu Nidal was once asked by Der Spiegel why he ordered the attack, especially in light of the fact that it ultimately — and somewhat predictably — led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In characteristically paranoid fashion, the terrorist leader responded:

“The Zionist ambassador in London was one of the heads and founders of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. We attacked the ambassador when he had just been assigned a major role by the Mossad in Europe. Our fighters acted scrupulously in terms of my strict orders not to harm any other ambassador.”

He admitted that at the time, “Any blind man could see the Zionist plans to invade Lebanon,” though he categorically denied the role the assassination attempt played in instigating the war: “… in my eyes, it has not been proven and it is not true that the attack on the life of the ambassador was the spark that ignited the war.”

While the explanation that Abu Nidal was himself an Israeli puppet is almost certainly the invention of his political rivals, the motives behind the argument are probably not so far from the truth. According to many, including Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, veteran Israeli journalists and co-authors of Israel’s Lebanon War, the hit was ordered by Abu Nidal in close coordination with Iraqi authorities in order to serve a number of strategic objectives.

First, they knew the assassination would likely lead to a significant Israeli attack on the PLO in Lebanon—something undoubtedly to Abu Nidal’s liking and benefit. Iraq also had a clear interest in Israel attacking Lebanon, not least because it would weaken or at least divert Syrian forces away from the Iraqi border.

In The Master Terrorist, Melman dubs the Iraqi scenario “extremely credible.” He adds that the Iraqis, then facing internal strife and mired in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War—which they were losing—had another interest in provoking the Israeli attack:

“If the Israelis would indeed invade, Iraq could request a cease-fire or declare one unilaterally, while appealing to the need for Muslim and Arab solidarity against the Zionist enemy.”

Iraq did just that, announcing: “We believe in the urgent need to direct all our energy and resources to a confrontation with the Zionist aggression against the Arab world, the Palestinian people, and Lebanon.”

Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, no one — including the Iranians — paid much attention to the proposal.

The Aftermath

Though the would-be assassination certainly served some of Abu Nidal’s interests, he couldn’t have known in advance what the impact would be on his own organization and particularly its activities in London.

The attackers, including Abu Nidal’s cousin, Marwan al-Banna, were quickly apprehended, and later tried and convicted. During the investigations, some details about the planning and implementation of the attack came to light. The explicit order to carry out the attack that night did not come down until the afternoon of the same day, when Na’if Rosan, one of the assailants, answered a public telephone outside his apartment in the Kensington neighborhood of London and was given instructions by one “Comrade al-Sayf.” Rosan instructed al-Banna and Hussein Sa’id to meet him at the Hilton Hotel, where he told them that Argov, who at that point was still mingling at the Dorchester, was their target that night. He gave the gun to Sa’id, who carried out the attack while Rosan and al-Banna loitered nearby.

All three were apprehended within hours.

The police found a list of some 300 names in al-Banna’s hostel room—most of them Israeli and British Jewish figures and organizations, including Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Sir Immanuel Jakobovits; the chairman of the board of the Jewish Chronicle; and a local Chabad school, including the license plate numbers of the vehicles used to transport its students. The addresses of the Jordanian, Moroccan, Saudi, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and UAE embassies were also on the list.

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London (Photo: Prebano66 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to an interrogation transcript cited by Melman, when asked about the purpose of the list and related information, al-Banna explained, “We wanted to strip the mask from these institutions and places. We know that many of them are actually fronts for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, or are potential centers for Israeli intelligence. We only wanted to reveal their true identity and publish it, so as to warn the Arabs away from these people and places …”

Regarding the presence of Arab diplomatic and other institutions on the list, al-Banna said, “There are many groups that are ostensibly on our side but are in reality against us, such as Saudi Arabia.”

The prosecutor in the case, who referred to the trial as “the Baghdad connection,” admitted that many questions remained, yet asserted that “we have managed to open a window—even if only a small one—into the secret world of this terrorist secret organization.”

The arrests and sentencings essentially marked the end of any major ANO activities on British soil, though the organization continued to sow terror and target primarily Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and other institutions and figures worldwide for another decade or so. In 1984, Abu Nidal even tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Amman.

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the Argov assassination attempt certainly had significant implications for Abu Nidal’s activities in the U.K. and internationally, which had nothing to do with the conflict in Lebanon and which will never be fully understood.

From a circumstantial historical perspective, it seems quite clear that sooner or later there would have been a Lebanon War even had Shlomo Argov never been shot. Perhaps that’s why the failed assassination’s historic role as the spark that ignited the war has largely been ignored over the past four decades.

The pointed event was also, of course, very quickly overshadowed by the war itself and its immediate and long-term ramifications, including thousands of deaths and lives disrupted and ruined.

Though overwhelmingly popular at first, the war would ultimately leave Israeli troops in Lebanon for nearly 20 years, create a vacuum that has since been filled by Hezbollah, and spark the most significant antiwar movement in Israel’s history. Some of that sentiment was magnified and parlayed by Begin’s political enemies, yet the fact remains that the popular movements against the war and in favor of conscientious objection to military service had never been seen in Israel at that scale. The conflict splintered the country and, according to many, has severely tarnished trust in elected and military officials ever since.

Israeli reserve combat soldiers demonstrating against the occupation of Lebanon, July 1984 (Photo: Yoni Salinger). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

About a year after the assassination attempt and the outbreak of the war, Argov himself—physically paralyzed but intellectually astute—publicly expressed his personal thoughts on the war for the first time, dictating a short letter to a close friend. Mourning the tremendous loss of life, and contrasting the war with the existentially imperative Six-Day War 15 years earlier, Argov presented a critique of Israel’s political and military leadership, while diplomatically refraining from naming names.

Had the war’s planners thought more about its potential consequences beforehand, Argov argued, “they would have saved the lives of hundreds of our best sons.”

From the hospital bed where he would languish for the next two decades, Argov argued:

“We are a nation short in human resources. We do not have the ability to run experiments in the hope that one of them comes out all right. Even if one of them does succeed—what’s the good of amputated arms and legs?”

Lamenting the fact that during its short history Israel constantly and justifiably had to live by the sword due to the choices of its neighbors, Argov emphasized the eternal desire for peace, which for Israel “more than any other nation is not a slogan void of content, but rather life’s foremost essence and a truth.”

Argov’s role in the outbreak of the Lebanon War was not determinative. Yet in retrospect, there was perhaps no more appropriate trigger to this tragic and confounding conflict than the “wrong” terrorist group botching a hit on a man who bridged a toxic political divide at a time when few others did.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet MagazineIt appears here 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.

The Suicide of the Man Who Loved David Ben-Gurion

“My life’s work has been to serve you”: The tragic death of Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s trusted aide…

David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary, Nehemiah Argov. This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben-Gurion Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“My very dear Ben-Gurion,

My life’s work has been to serve you.

I believe with complete faith that the Jewish people would not have achieved independence, nor would it have reached its position in the world without your amazing character.”

So ends our story.

And so began the farewell letter written by Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s military secretary, to the man he admired. The letter is dated November 2, 1957, but several days would go by before Ben-Gurion would read the letter addressed to him.

Let’s rewind a bit. Our story begins four days earlier, on October 29, 1957. On that day, Moshe Dweck, suffering from a mental illness, tossed a hand grenade from the stands into the plenum of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which was then at Frumin House on King George Street in Jerusalem. Four ministers were injured in the incident, as well as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who was hit by shrapnel and rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.


Headline in the newspaper Haboker, October 30, 1957:”Grenade Tossed in the Knesset – Ben-Gurion and 4 Ministers Injured”

Although Ben-Gurion was only slightly wounded, his loyal military secretary Nehemiah Argov was very worried by the “Old Man’s” condition, and for several days did not leave the Prime Minister’s bedside. And so he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“The ‘Old Man’ will remain in the hospital for a few more days, with injuries to his leg and hand. The shrapnel from his leg will only be removed tomorrow. He is in good condition, and there are no concerns. However, it is hard to see this lion lying in bed . . . this lion’s place is not in a hospital bed!”

Four days after the grenade attack on the Knesset, on Saturday, November 2, Argov was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to visit the “Old Man,” when he was distracted for an instant, losing control of the wheel and hitting a cyclist named David Kadosh. He placed the injured man in his car and sped to the hospital. Doctors initially feared that Kadosh would not survive the accident.

Argov was broken by the event and felt that he could not live with his actions. Believing that it was his fault that a life had been taken, he chose to end his own with a gunshot to his temple. He left two letters behind. One letter to his friends and family, and one letter to David Ben-Gurion.


David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary Nehemiah Argov, Bitmuna. The Edgar Hirschbein Collection. Collection source: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the letter to his friends he wrote:

“Today, the car I was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem hit the cyclist David Kadosh. I am afraid that he won’t make it. David Kadosh has a wife and four children. I cannot forgive myself for the injury I have caused to this family. Even if David Kadosh does survive, who knows if he will be able to continue to care for his sacred family?”

In the letter he asked to leave his money to the victim of the accident and at the end he wrote:

“I imagine I have some friends who will be sorry for what I am going to do. I beg them not to be angry with me for doing what I did. I am not worthy of being mourned.”


The item published in Haboker, November 4, 1957


In his farewell to Ben-Gurion, he wrote:

“I was happy during the ten years that I had the privilege of serving you. I don’t know by whose right I had the privilege to serve you.”

He signed the letter “Your loving admirer, Nehemiah.”

The conclusion of Nehemiah Argov’s letter to David Ben-Gurion, Israel State Archives

But Ben-Gurion did not read the letter on November 2. Nor the next day either.

The doctors at Hadassah feared that the news of Argov’s death would worsen Ben-Gurion’s condition, as the Prime Minister was still recovering from the events of the grenade incident.

In an unprecedented move, the daily Israeli newspapers did something that had never been done before: they printed several special issues of their respective papers without the report of Argov’s death. The censored copies were brought to Hadassah hospital, and David Ben-Gurion, who would read the newspapers every day, remained in the dark about the tragedy.

We tried our best to locate the special issues at the National Library of Israel and in the archives of the daily newspapers, but unfortunately no copies were preserved.


“Last night, everything was done to keep this news from the Prime Minister who is at hospital, recuperating from his injuries sustained when a grenade was thrown in the Knesset […] ‘Maariv’ will also print special editions, which will not include this article concerning the Argov affair. Mr. Ben-Gurion is receiving these amended editions today…” – Item published in Maariv, November 4, 1957

Ben-Gurion was given the difficult news the next day. As expected, he was shocked and heartbroken. Two weeks later, on the speaker’s podium in the Knesset, he said:

“The thing that set Nehemiah apart is that he had one exceptional quality, and that is devotion and loyalty. Nehemiah was a man of the highest dedication . . . Nehemiah was endowed with a precious and rare gift from God—the great gift of love. This was a flame that burned in Nehemiah continuously and by which he was consumed, with love and agony.

Please permit me to stand here alone, in silence, for a short moment in his memory.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion napping on the grass during a lunch break on a tour ahead of the Sinai Campaign (1956). Behind Ben-Gurion is his military secretary Col. Nehemiah Argov (reading a newspaper). This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The cyclist David Kadosh, the victim of the accident, eventually made a complete recovery. With the weight of Argov’s suicide on his shoulders, he also sent a letter to David Ben-Gurion, written from his hospital bed:

“Forgive me and accept my condolences for the great tragedy that has taken your great aide from you, the noble, honest and gentle soul, the late Nehemiah Argov.”


The letter sent by David Kadosh to David Ben-Gurion, the Ben-Gurion Archive

Further Reading

David Ben-Gurion: A Biography – by Michael Bar-Zohar

Nehemiah Argov (Hebrew)


Mapping 50 Years of Zionist Pioneering

The desert was pushed back, the swamps were dried up and water reached every corner of the land - this historic map celebrated 50 years of the Zionist enterprise…

To mark the jubilee of the Zionist Organization, a pictorial map was published by the Jewish National Fund in 1947. It surveyed 50 years of Zionist settlement and development of the Land of Israel. Edited by Ernst Mechner, and designed by S.F. Loeb, the map was issued in three editions: Hebrew, English and Yiddish.

The Rutenberg Power Station and adjacent settlement of Tel Or, south of the Sea of Galilee, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection
The complete map presents the development of Jewish settlement over three periods, and the green shading indicates the expansion of Jewish owned land

The Zionist Organization, established at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, the Palestine Office and its successor the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod, which coordinated the collection of donations for the development of the country, and the Jewish National Fund, all assisted over the years in purchasing land and establishing Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel. In this map, summarizing the work of these bodies between 1897 and 1947, the editor chose to highlight the sites that in his view constituted milestones in the timeline of settlement of the Land of Israel.

For example, “Degania 1909 ‘The Mother of Kvuzot’” – Degania was the first Jewish communal settlement to be established in the Land of Israel.

Degania, “The Mother of  Kvuzot”, was established at the initiative of the Palestine Office, which  invited a group of pioneers there in 1909 to work the settlement for wages. This is the reason for the date that appears on the map, and not 1910, which is considered the official date of the founding of the Degania communal settlement.
The commune’s pioneers at Umm Juni (Degania), 1912. Photo: Leo Kahan. This image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel
Degania’s buildings in a German aerial photograph from 1918, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The swampy marshlands of the Jezreel Valley which appear in the illustration above should be taken with a grain of salt. We know that swamps characterized some settlement regions, such as the area south of Zichron Yaacov (the Kabara swamps), or the area around Hadera, but in the Jezreel Valley swamplands represented only a minimal percentage of the area, as can be seen for example in the article, The Swamps of Emek Yizre’el (Jezreel Valley) – Myth and Reality, by Yoram Bar-Gal and Shmuel Shamai. The association of swampland with the Jezreel Valley reinforced the idea of the redemption of desolate land and its transformation into flourishing settlements, and it seems that in this map that message took precedence over geographical-historical accuracy.

Water sources were a necessity for settlement: special effort was invested in a water carrier system to provide water for both drinking and agriculture purposes to the Negev; to illustrate the immensity of this Zionist project, the pioneer on the map is depicted as a giant.

Laying the first water pipes to the Negev, 1946–1947
Excavations in preparation for laying the water pipes to the Negev. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, the Hanan Bahir Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Laying the water pipes to the Negev. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, the Edgar Hirschbein Collection. Collection source: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The map includes eighteen figures of pioneers, three of them women.

A female pioneer picking oranges

Pioneers working with a pickaxe, fishing in the Sea of Galilee, plowing a field with a tractor and guarding on horseback.


The Rutenberg Power Station in Naharayim and the adjacent settlement Tel Or where the workers and their families lived. The power station supplied electricity to the settlements in the Land of Israel from 1928 to 1948, when the station ceased operations and the settlement was abandoned.


Construction of the power station at Naharayim, ca. 1927. The image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel


Construction of the power station at Naharayim, ca. 1927. The image is part of Archive Network Israel, made available through the cooperation of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel


In the most recent section of the map, the caption refers to the Jewish Agency’s efforts to establish settlement positions in the northern Negev in 1946.


The map shows the year of the establishment of the Tel Aviv port, the number of Jewish residents in the city, the establishment of the new workers’ settlements and more.


The bay of Haifa, with the industrial center and the petrochemical refinery cooling towers. To the north is the tower and stockade settlement of Kibbutz Hanita


Metzudoth Ussishkin (Ussishkin Strongholds), a group of settlements that Menachem Ussishkin (a Zionist leader and president of the JNF) requested be named for him, including tower and stockade settlements, such as the Kibbutzim Dafna and Dan


An epigram by Herzl is printed on the back of the map:


Besides serving as a summary and documentation of the past, the colorful, trilingual editions of this map served the Jewish National Fund as a means of fundraising for the Zionist institutions, as they continued their efforts to purchase land and develop the country.

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.