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Jerusalem Diary: 20 April

Natan Brun
Natan Brun says he has seen all the material on his father's criminal files

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE

Did Al-Qaeda draw on Jewish inspiration for its attacks of 11 September 2001? It may seem unlikely, but more than 60 years ago, Jewish militants were arrested in Paris on suspicion - as newspapers in Britain, France and the US reported at the time - of planning to bomb London from the air.

The arrested men were members of the Stern Gang (or Lehi, as it is known in Israel), a group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Palestine, if necessary through violence, in order to create a Jewish state.

The Stern Gang certainly had a bloody list of victims to its name. But was it also an early planner of aerial terror?

Now the son of one of those arrested says he has come up with conclusive evidence that the gang was planning only to drop leaflets, not bombs over London.

Natan Brun is an author and academic on Israeli judicial history. In 1947, he was a nine year-old boy living in the town of Bnei Brak, close to Tel Aviv.

Akiva Brun
Akiva Brun was never involved in Lehi violence, according to his historian son

On 8 September, Natan did what he always did on the way home from school. He stopped to look at the newspaper.

The second headline in Yediot Ahranot trumpeted: "The 'London Bombers', arrested in Paris, will be brought before an investigating judge today."

Natan read on. More than 60 years later, sitting in his cluttered, book-lined office in Tel Aviv, he recalls what he saw.

"The report said that one of those arrested is called 'Brown'. I knew that my father was in Paris (he had been there since the year before). But I didn't know he was in Lehi. I thought he was a merchant or something."

Natan ran home. He told his mother who, to his surprise, began laughing.

"She said: 'It's true; it's nothing new. Your father was always in prison. When you were born in October 1937, he was sitting in Akko prison.'"

Mrs Brun may have tried to reassure her son by sounding relaxed. But the headlines were ominous.

The New York Times on 8 September: "London Air Defense on Alert Over Stern Band Bomb Scare."

Le Monde, on 9 September: "A group of Jewish terrorists who planned to drop leaflets and bombs on London fall into a police trap."

Le Figaro, on the same day, reported that the French police had stopped a "deplorable venture".

ASSASSINATION PLOT

The French police had apparently caught the plotters red-handed. They arrested the pilot and two others at a small air-field near Paris, and then a further 10 - including Akiva Brun.

This was not just newspaper flam. Previously classified secret intelligence reports, which were released in 2003, show that the British Secret Service MI5 believed there was "a project for an air raid on London, in the course of which leaflets were to be dropped in the name of the Stern Gang, together with high explosive bombs".

MI5 had reason to worry: they had strong evidence of a plot to assassinate British Foreign Secretary Earnest Bevin.

A copy of the London propaganda leaflet

Akiva Brun was detained, along with the other Paris members of the Stern Gang, in the Prison de la Sante.

From there he wrote to Natan: "Now you know that your father is not only a father to his boys, but a son of his nation... The way I have chosen is very hard… and if I suffer - and I have to - and my family are troubled: no matter, it is all worth it."

At the centre of the plot stood a rabbi called Baruch Korff. In later years, he would become known as "Nixon's rabbi", a prominent figure who remained loyal to US President Richard Nixon even after his disgrace.

Natan Brun says that he grew to know Korff well.

"He was a genius in propaganda. He came to Paris and said to the Stern Gang: 'Look - you kill British, you kill soldiers. It's nothing. You have to do something spectacular.'"

And so, says Natan Brun, the plot was born, to drop leaflets over London. The language was, says Mr Brun, "shocking".

"To the People of England... This is a Warning... Your government has dipped his Majesty's Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil... People of England! Press your Government to quit Eretz-Israel (the land of Israel) NOW! Demand that your sons and daughters return home or you may not see them again."

But Brun insists that there has never been any evidence of a plan to bomb London from the air.

"My father told me there were no bombs. But I didn't believe him. I wanted to check."

He received permission from the French minister of justice to visit the archives in Paris.

There he saw "all the material" from his father's file. "No-one says that any detonators or things like that were found. If they had found bombs, they would not have released my father and the others."

TERRORIST TRANSFORMATION

Indeed, after two months in prison, Akiva Brun was given bail, and kicked out of the country.

He had become persona non grata in British-ruled Palestine, and so moved to Czechoslovakia to continue his work for the Stern Gang.

He only returned to Israel after its declaration of independence on 14 May 1948.

Natan Brun says that his father was never personally involved in violence. He was, rather, an ideologue, a disciple of Zeev Jabotinsky, the hardline Zionist who wanted to see a Jewish state along both banks of the Jordan river.

The son, now a legal historian, is reluctant to talk much about today's politics.

But the resonances of his father's history are intriguing. Do they suggest that the Palestinian militants of today can become the pillars of the establishment of the future?

Natan Brun laughs and shakes his head.

"Because Menachem Begin (the leader of a Jewish militant group, and later Israel's first right-wing Prime Minister) on 14 May 1948 passed through a transformation from a terrorist to a democrat. In one day.

"The Palestinians - I think - will never undergo this transformation. They are still terrorists... How can we make peace with Hamas?"

Begin's transformation could have been, I suggest, because he got what he wanted: a Jewish state. No, says Brun.

"He didn't get what he wanted. Because he dreamt about a state on two sides of the (river) Jordan. It wasn't his government, but his bitterest rival's, (David) Ben-Gurion and the others. But Begin understood that he had to change his way of life, his ideas, everything."

Natan Brun said that his father's struggles did not end with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Those on the right were, he says, viciously discriminated against for the first 20 years of Israel's existence. But he has some satisfaction now, as a Likud voter.

Indeed, Natan Brun argues that the majority of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) - in the parties of Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu - have their roots in Jabotinsky and the groupings which followed.

"My mother died five years ago; but if she were alive today she would say: 'We won. We are the majority.'"


Here is a selection of your comments on Tim Franks' diary:

I agree that Menachem Begin was nothing like Hamas of today. Begin was from Poland and had the task of ethnically cleansing Palestine to make his Zionist dream of a pure Jewish state a reality. Begin's Irgun gang along with the Stern gang methodically massacred Palestinian civilians in many well documented attacks such as the massacre in the village of Deir Yassin as well as the bombing of the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Over 350 Palestinian villages were completely wiped off the map after the creation of the state of Israel. It is time that some Israelis get off their high horse and take a look in the mirror before uttering the word "terrorist" again.
John, San Diego, USA

I find it amazing that Akiva Goldberg is saying that today's Hamas 'deliberately' targets civilians while conveniently forgetting what happened a few months ago where for every Israeli killed, at least a 100 Palestinians died (a glaring majority of them being civilians).
Nabeel Sheikh, Chicago, USA

Did Adolf Hitler draw on British inspiration for the Holocaust? It may seem unlikely, but more than 100 years ago, British forces forced tens of thousands of South African civilians into concentration camps where many died of starvation and disease.
John, Gibraltar

Whether this individual was intent on bombing London or not may be debatable, but the group he was involved in was certainly involved in many terrorist atrocities. Both Begin and Stern advocated and engaged in bombing campaigns against the Arab civilians of Palestine. HAMAS has on several occasions stated that it could make peace with Israel only if it withdrew to the pre-1967 borders. As for whether HAMAS can be democrats or not, they have already participated in democratic elections (and won), so some in HAMAS are already politicians and democrats.
Poyan Nahrvar, Toronto, Canada

Menachem Begin was nothing like the Hamas of today. Begin and the gang were fighting military personnel. Today's Hamas and other terror groups deliberately target civilians. There exists a MAJOR difference between the two ideologies.
Akiva Goldberg, Jerusalem, Israel

Informative and worthwhile article. But what is the truth? Obviously the son is biased regarding the father.
Robert, Boston, USA

I once met an elderly woman who sharply rebuked us after a pro-Palestinian demo back in the 1980s - "Stern Group - not Gang!" she insisted. She was a left winger of sorts (The LEHI seems to have no coherent left/right focus) who said she most admired George Habash among contemporary activists in the region (reminded her of David Stern, she said). And no-one should be surprised when police &/or their informants lie, so the report of bombs may well have been a total fabrication. Thanks for the story ... and don't be surprised if some Palestinians also transmute from terrorist to statesman.
Greg Williamson, Berkeley USA

What a disgraceful leaflet; and yet there is so little compassion on the plight of the Palestinian people. Begin didn't get all he wanted, but creating the state of Israel was huge. Hamas could change from terrorist to democrat in a day if illegal settlements were returned and they were recognized as an independent state.
Carolyn, Canada



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TIM FRANKS' JERUSALEM DIARY

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