Israel Sites – Acco
The remains of a Crusader breakwater and the massive Ottoman seawalls still protect the ancient city of Acre from the ocean rollers of the Mediterranean.
Acre is situated 14 miles north of Haifa and is built on the Bay of Haifa. Its geographic position has caused it to be occupied by every army waging campaigns in Syria and Erez Israel. During the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Acre was in the territory of the tribe of Asher who could not conquer it, and it therefore remained an independent Phoenician city. When conquered by the Persians, Acre served as an important military and naval base in their campaigns against Egypt. It had its own coinage: gold and silver coins were minted there in 332 b.c.e. When an association of citizens loyal to the Greek tyrant Antiochus was living there, the city became hostile to the neighboring Jews in Galilee. In 164 b.c.e. Simeon the Hasmonean had to beat off its attacks, and his brother Jonathan was treacherously taken prisoner there in 143 b.c.e.
In the Middle Ages Jewish scholars arrived in Israel through the port at Acre and some settled in the town. In 1211, 300 rabbis from France and England arrived, and in 1260 Rabbi Jehiel ben Joseph of Paris remained in the town together with his son and 300 pupils, and promptly founded a yeshivah. Scholars of Israel and Babylon addressed their questions to the “scholars of Acre.” The town became a center of study and attracted many scholars, such as Rabbi Abraham Abulafia and N|ahmanides. In time the community dwindled but was revived again in the 18th century. It became a political and military center strong enough to resist Napoleon’s advance in 1799, and cause the collapse of his Middle Eastern expeditions.
During the British Mandate, a fortress in the town served as a prison where members of the Haganah including Moshe Dayan, as well as Vladimir Jabotinsky, were imprisoned.
Today Acre has been rebuilt as a modern industrial center with some 40,000 residents, but still contains an Old City with remains from the Ottoman period (I516–1918) which include the double wall of the city, the citadel, and a beautiful mosque still used by Acre’s Arab population.
Entry reproduced with permission from “Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth” CD-ROM © C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.
Acco (Getting Israel Together)
Acco is a pleasant coastal town, less than an hour’s drive from Haifa. It is a city of contrasts; it has an old city and a new city, a long and rich history, and a mixed Arab and Jewish population.
Looming over large sections of the town is a great Crusader fortress, its presence threatening and forbidding in the evening light. Even today, the fortress, nearly a thousand years old, has something of the gloom of a prison. This is quite understandable, for just 40 years ago, it was a prison. Indeed, it served as one of the main bases for the British during their attempt to break the will of Jewish groups who fought them with armed struggle.
In this fortress, the British imprisoned people suspected of anti-British activities. Into its tiny cells the detainees were crammed – 20, 25, 30 to a cell. They slept on floors covered with flimsy rags to keep out the cold. Acco jail soon became a by-word for all that was hated in British rule of Palestine – especially when the British started executing Jewish captives. Today, you can still see the gallows where the British hung Jews convicted of terrorist activity. The first hanging took place in March, 1942. In all, 12 members of Etzel and Lechi were hung.
Dov Gruner was one of the men hung on April 16, 1947. In a letter to Menachem Begin he wrote:
“Of course I want to live. Who does not? But if I am sorry I’m about to “finish” it is mainly because I did not manage to do enough. I too could have let the future fend for itself – taken the job I was promised or left the country and lived securely in America. But that would not have given me satisfaction as a Jew and certainly not as a Zionist….That should be the way of the Jewish people in these days, to stand up for what is ours and be ready for battle even if in some instances it leads to the gallows. I write these lines 48 hours before the time fixed by our oppressors to carry out their murder and at such moments one does not lie. I swear that if I had the choice of starting again I would choose the same road, regardless of the possible consequences to me.”
The ‘underground’ responded quickly. On May 4, 1947, the Etzel staged its most daring operation. Its members attacked the seemingly impregnable fortress at Acco, and organized a prisoner escape. Some 20 Jews succeeded in escaping. Although the British carried out immediate reprisals, the escape caused a tremendous loss of face.
The raid on the Acco prison was a large and complex operation. Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel and subsequent Prime Minister of Israel, remembered it this way:The ‘underground’ responded quickly. On May 4, 1947, the Etzel staged its most daring operation. Its members attacked the seemingly impregnable fortress at Acco, and organized a prisoner escape. Some 20 Jews succeeded in escaping. Although the British carried out immediate reprisals, the escape caused a tremendous loss of face. The raid on the Acco prison was a large and complex operation. Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel and subsequent Prime Minister of Israel, remembered it this way:
“Acco was not just a town inhabited only by Arabs. It was surrounded by a ring of military camps. Our commando unit was not operating behind the enemy line. It was right in amongst the enemy lines. And the attack could not succeed unless the enemy were prevented from bringing reinforcements, and unless the line of withdrawal for the attackers was kept open. The operation had been planned in great detail and was carried out precisely. One unit rained down mortar sheds on the nearby army camp – at once a diversionary and a preventive action. Other units planted mines.”
Hours had been spent going over the ground. Many eyes had ‘reconnoitered’ the terrain before the 4th of May. Sometimes they appeared to be ‘Arab’ eyes, sometimes ‘British.’ But always they were eyes of our fighters. Thanks to this very thorough reconnaissance, a second ring was built inside the ring: inside the belt of army camps was fashioned a ring of Etzel security posts. Thus Acco was surrounded.
Now the main force turned towards the fortress. Built by the Crusaders, restored by the Turks, it had withstood the artillery of Napoleon Bonaparte. Now our men had come to break the walls open and to bring freedom to their prisoners.
Behind the walls the prisoners waited impatiently. They had a quantity of explosives introduced into the prison by the underground in various ways. There was not much of it, but sufficient to blow up, from within, the heavy iron bars separating the long dark corridor from the assault group who had pierced the wall outside.
The really decisive explosion, however, was effected outside the fortress. The walls of rock, which had remained unbreachable through the centuries, submitted finally to the assaults of our unit. There were more than one hundred and fifty armed police guarding the fortress, apart from the indirect defense provided by the police post close by and the military camps in the neighborhood. The high towers of the fortress were manned by guards, armed with machine guns and rifles, to whose fire the attackers were fully exposed. The attack was carried out by daylight, for the liberated prisoners had to be brought to safety before the hour of the night of the curfew on the roads.”
A struggle developed and three prisoners were taken. Before their execution one of them, Avshalom Haviv, made this statement to his captors:
“You tyrants will never understand the spirit of Lechi men going to their death, with a song springing from their hearts. And this too you will probably never understand. l, a young Jew, facing the sentence of death, lift my heart to my God and give praise and thanks for the privilege of suffering for my people and my country and say, with all my heart: Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and maintained us and enabled us to reach this time.”
It was this spirit that finally caused the British to raise their hands in defeat. Even before the raid on Acco jail, the British were having trouble controlling the situation in Palestine. They returned the mandate they had received to the United Nations, but continued their administration of Palestine until an alternate arrangement could be made. The attack on the Acco jail emphasized their inability to deal with the situation and was a further blow to British prestige. In addition, the members of the Jewish Yishuv – even the majority who condemned violence against the British – wanted the British out. They wanted independence.
Three weeks after the Acco jail escape, the United Nations began to debate the future of Palestine. The discussions lasted several months. In November 1947, it was decided that Palestine should be partitioned into two states: one Arab and one Jewish. Although the plan envisioned a very small Jewish state which would exclude the entire Western Galilee from Haifa northwards, the Jews accepted the plan. It was, after all, something! And it provided Jews sovereignty in Israel for the first time in two thousand years.
The Partition Plan was rejected and the result was the War of Independence.
The Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leumi ), was organized in 1937 by people who wanted to take an active policy against Arab attacks. In 1939 with the publication of the British White Papers (which severely limited Jewish immigration to Palestine), the Etzel started to operate directly against the British. With the outbreak of the Second World War, this activity was temporarily suspended. However, in 1944, anti – British activities were renewed, and continued until independence.
Lechi (Lochamei Herut Yisrael – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) split from the Etzel in 1940, when they decided to suspend operations against the British for the duration of the war. The Lechi was a small group of only a few hundred members, but it carried out operations including the assassination of political figures whom it considered as jeopardizing the Jewish cause.