A team of guerrillas attacked the prison from the outside, coordinating with imprisoned Irgun and Stern Gang operatives who had explosives smuggled into their cells to help detonate their way through the walls. Hundreds of prisoners — most of them Arabs availing the opportunity — escaped.
According to the London Times (May 6, 1947), 16 escaping prisoners were slain in the affray, with eight British guards and police wounded.
More crucially for our purposes, five of the guerrillas who assailed the prison were captured. Three — Haviv Avshalom, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar — were taken armed, and sentenced to death by the British.
To browse the contemporaneous western press coverage is to visit a Holy Land very familiar to the present-day reader, filled with “terrorists” and “extremists” and “fanatics” and “murderers” abetted by “those who incite them from a safe distance and supply the funds and the weapons which they put to such deadly use.”* Except that this discourse was directed at Jews, not Arabs.
One good way to earn such an imprecation would be to kidnap two British soldiers and hold them hostage against the execution of the sentence. That’s exactly what the Irgun did.
The British searched for their men, but disdained to stoop the majesty of the law at the pleasure of some seditious blackmailer. So, early this morning at that same Acre Prison they had lately helped to liberate, Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar went to the gallows.
Left to right: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar.
Palestine awaited with anxiety the expected discovery of two kidnaped British sergeants whom the Irgunists have vowed to kill in retaliation. The Mosaic law of vengeance applies and any show of clemency would be regarded by the extremists as evidence of cowardly submission.
The Irgun had already applied that Mosaic law of vengeance.
On the evening of that same July 29, it hanged its two hostages, intelligence corps sergeants Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice. The bodies were moved and strung up in a Eucalyptus grove near Netanya, to be discovered the next day, booby-trapped with a land mine. A scornful note announced their condemnation for “criminal anti-Hebrew activities.”
The bodies of Sgts. Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice, as discovered on July 31, 1947, hanging from Eucalyptus trees.
Moderate, mainline Zionists were horrified.
Of all the crimes that took place till this day on this land, this is the most grievous and disgusting one and will stain the purity of our peoples struggle for freedom. May this act of hanging remain as a sign of Cain on the doers of this disgraceful deed! The heavens and the earth are my witnesses that most of our population took desperate measures to free the hostages and prevent this shame.
-Netanya Mayor Oved Ben Ami
Said disgraceful deed-doers were far from apologetic.
And you could say they had a point, since although the threat did not prevent the death sentences at hand from being carried into execution, its example proved to be a lively deterrent: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar were the last Zionists executed by the British. Then-Irgun leader, and later Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin made no bones about the trade.
The Brits were a little less sanguine about “the sergeants affair”.
A Times editorial for Friday, Aug. 1 fulminated against “the violent deeds of the Palestine terrorists [that] will not readily be effaced,” comparing them to “the bestialities practised by the Nazis themselves.”**
Over the ensuing long weekend’s summer bank holiday, racist riots against Jews shook Britain. Jewish businesses, cemeteries, and synagogues were smashed up and vandalized all over the island, to the horror this time of milquetoast liberals like the Manchester Guardian, with again-familiar lines like: “to answer terrorism in Palestine with terrorism in England is sheer Hitlerism. We must be desperately careful to see that we do not let ourselves be infected with the poison of the disease we had thought to eradicate.”
Fine points for debate in Britain, which within months was bugging out of the Levant as open war engulfed Palestine — the violent birth pangs of modern Israel and its embrace of its own subject populace with its own frustrated national ambitions pursued by its own violent extremists.
* London Times editorial, May 21, 1947.
** Irgun propaganda’s riposte: “We recognize no one-sided laws of war. If the British are determined that their way out of the country should be lined by an avenue of gallows and of weeping fathers, mothers, wives, and sweethearts, we shall see to it that in this there is no racial discrimination.”