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Death in Tel Aviv: In 1942 the Zionist Avraham Stern (above) was shot by a British detective, Geoffrey Morton

Even by the standards of the seemingly endless cycle of violence that has plagued the Arab-Israeli conflict for more decades than most of us care to remember, the fanatical form of terrorism practised by the Stern gang has acquired a notoriety all of its own.

Named after Avraham Stern, the young Polish dandy with a penchant for poetry who became Palestine's most wanted man during the troubled era of the British mandate in the Thirties and Forties, the Stern gang adopted uncompromising tactics, leading to it being ostracised even by the mainstream Zionist establishment.

By the mid-Thirties, Arab resentment against the mounting tide of Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Europe had boiled over into a full-scale revolt. Faced with unprovoked attacks by Arab mobs, the Jewish inhabitants concluded that they could not rely on the British authorities to protect their interests, and increasingly relied on the Haganah, the Jewish defence militia and forerunner of the modern Israeli army, to defend themselves.

But for more hardline Zionists, like the revisionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, defending Jewish communities was not enough. Rejecting the softly, softly approach of David Ben-Gurion, the left-leaning head of the Jewish Agency, Jabotinsky argued the Jews should go on the offensive against the Arabs if they were to stand any chance of establishing a state of their own. Before long his slogan, "Jewish youth, learn to shoot", had been adopted by more militant Jews, and the formation of the Irgun resulted in Jewish activists adopting the same tactics at the Arabs in their battle for survival.

And, as Patrick Bishop explains in The Reckoning, his well-told and well-researched re-examination of the Stern legend, the growing militancy of revisionist Jewish leaders soon put them on a collision course with the British security authorities, who had the thankless task of trying to maintain the peace between two communities that were hell-bent on terrorising each other.

But, as Bishop points out, it was not until Stern came on the scene that the more extreme members of the Jewish community decided to direct their campaign of terrorism against the British authorities, with devastating consequences. According to one of Stern's early propaganda statements, the fundamental principle upon which they acted was that "the fate of the Jewish nation will be decided by Jewish armed force on the soil of the homeland".

Stern and his followers believed the best way to achieve their goal was to terrorise the British into abandoning their mandate to administer Palestine, thereby leaving the territory free for the Zionists to establish their own state. Indeed, so committed was Stern to defeating the British that, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Stern and his Jewish accomplices even went so far as to try to negotiate an alliance with the Nazis, in the bizarre belief that, if the Germans defeated the British in the Middle East, they would support the creation of an independent Jewish state.

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