Lehi was described as a terrorist organization by the British authorities and United Nations mediator Ralph Bunche. The Israeli government banned the organization under an anti-terrorism law passed three days after Lehi assassinated Folke Bernadotte. Lehi was also responsible for the assassination of Lord Moyne along with other attacks on the British authorities and Palestinian Arabs.
Israel granted a general amnesty to Lehi members on 14 February 1949 and in 1980 honored the group by instituting the Lehi ribbon, a military decoration which may be worn by the organization's former members.
Avraham ("Yair") Stern was an adherent of the Revisionist Zionist movement founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and a member of the Irgun (Irgun Tsvai Leumi, National Military Organization). In June 1940, when the Irgun decided to suspend its underground military activities against the British during the World War II, he left the Irgun to form his own group, which he called Irgun Tsvai Leumi B'Yisrael (National Military Organization in Israel).
Stern believed that the Jewish population of Palestine should fight, rather than support, the British in the War, and that militant methods were an effective means for achieving those goals. He was vigorously opposed to the White Paper of 1939, which sharply reduced both Jewish immigration and the ability of Jews to purchase land in Palestine. He believed that immigration to Palestine should be available to Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe, and that this was the most important issue of the day. It was over the issue of the British that Stern and his long-time friend David Raziel split. Raziel believed that the Yishuv should assist Britain in their fight against Nazi Germany; he was killed in Iraq in 1941 during a mission for the British forces. Stern believed that dying for the 'foreign occupier' who was obstructing the creation of the Jewish State was useless. He differentiated between 'enemies of the Jewish people' (e.g., the British) and 'Jew haters' (e.g. the Nazis), believing that the former needed to be defeated and the latter manipulated. To this end, he initiated contact with Nazi authorities, in order to enlist their aid in establishing the Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, open to Jewish refugees from Nazism, in exchange for collaborating with Germany against the British Empire in the Second World War.
The group believed in its early years that its goals would be achieved by finding a strong international ally that would expel the British from Palestine in return for help from the Jewish military; this would in turn require the creation of a broad and organised military force "demonstrating its desire for freedom through military operations.
An article titled "Terror" in He Khazit (The Front, a Lehi underground newspaper) argued as follows: "Neither Jewish morality nor Jewish tradition can negate the use of terror as a means of battle... We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all." The article described the goals of terror:
- It demonstrates ... against the true terrorist who hides behind his piles of papers and the laws he has legislated.
- It is not directed against people, it is directed against representatives. Therefore it is effective.
- If it also shakes the Yishuv from their complacency, good and well.
Yitzhak Shamir, one of the trio of leaders of Lehi after Yair Stern's assassination, argued that Lehi never engaged in terrorism:
There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to attack an army camp is guerrilla warfare and to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view. Is it better to drop an atomic bomb on a city than to kill a handful of persons? I don’t think so. But nobody says that President Truman was a terrorist. All the men we went for individually — Wilkin, Martin, MacMichael and others — were personally interested in succeeding in the fight against us.
So it was more efficient and more moral to go for selected targets. In any case, it was the only way we could operate, because we were so small. For us it was not a question of the professional honor of a soldier, it was the question of an idea, an aim that had to be achieved. We were aiming at a political goal. There are many examples of what we did to be found in the Bible — Gideon and Samson, for instance. This had an influence on our thinking. And we also learned from the history of other peoples who fought for their freedom — the Russian and Irish revolutionaries, Garibaldi and Tito.
Stern's group was seen as a terrorist organisation by the British authorities, who instructed the Defence Security Office (the colonial branch of MI5) to track down its leaders. In 1942, Stern, after he was arrested, was killed by Inspector Geoffrey Morton of the CID. The arrest of several other members led momentarily to the group's eclipse, until it was revived after the September 1942 escape of two of its leaders Yitzhak Shamir and Eliyahu Giladi (later killed by the group under circumstances that remain mysterious) aided by two other escapees Natan Yellin-Mor (Friedman) and Israel Eldad (Sheib). Shamir (who would later become Prime Minister of Israel), was known by the codename "Michael" which was a reference to one of Shamir's heroes, Michael Collins. Lehi was guided by spiritual and philosophical leaders such as Uri Zvi Greenberg and Israel Eldad. The smallest by far of any of the Jewish armed groups during the Mandatory era, it never attracted more than a few hundred followers, and was reviled by most other Jews. After the killing of Giladi, the organization was led by a triumvirate of Eldad, Shamir, and Yellin-Mor.
Lehi adopted a non-socialist platform of Anti-Imperialist ideology. It viewed the continued British rule of Palestine as a violation of the Mandate's provision generally, and its restrictions on Jewish immigration to be an intolerable breach of international law. However they also targeted Jews whom they regarded as traitors, and towards the end of the British Mandate they joined in operations with the Haganah and Irgun against Arab targets, for example Deir Yassin.
According to a compilation by Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Lehi was responsible for 42 assassinations altogether, more than twice as many as those of the Irgun and Haganah combined during the same period. Of those Lehi assassinations that Ben-Yehuda classified as political, more than half the victims were Jews.
Lehi also rejected the authority of the Jewish Agency and related organizations, operating entirely on its own throughout nearly all of its existence.
Lehi prisoners captured by the British generally refused to present a defence when brought to trial. They would only read out statements in which they declared that the court, representing an occupying force, had no jurisdiction over them and therefore was illegal. For the same reason, Lehi prisoners refused to plea for amnesty, even when it was clear that this would have spared them the death penalty. In one case Moshe Barazani, a Lehi man, and Meir Feinstein, an Irgun member, committed suicide in prison in order to deprive the British of the ability to hang them.
In 1940, Lehi proposed intervening in World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. It offered assistance in "evacuating" the Jews of Europe, in return for Germany's help in expelling Britain from Mandate Palestine. Late in 1940, Lehi representative Naftali Lubenchik was sent to Beirut where he met the German official Werner Otto von Hentig. Lubenchik told von Hentig that Lehi had not yet revealed its full power and that they were capable of organizing a whole range of anti-British operations.
On the assumption that the destruction of Britain was the Germans' top objective, the organization offered cooperation in the following terms: From the NMO side: full cooperation in sabotage, espionage and intelligence and up to wide military operations in the Middle East and in eastern Europe anywhere where the Irgun had Jewish cells, active and trained and in some places with weapons. From the German side, the following declarations and actions were demanded: (1) Full recognition of an independent Jewish state in Palestine/Eretz Israel (2) That the ability to emigrate to Palestine be conceded to all Jews, with no restriction of numbers, who, in leaving their homes in Europe, by their own will or because of government injunctions. For this purpose there was expressed a need to cancel any transfer plans of Jews to distant countries like Madagascar.
On January 11, 1941 a letter was sent from Vice Admiral Ralf von der Marwitz, the German Naval attaché in Ankara, depicting an offer to "actively take part in the war on Germany's side" in return for German support for "the establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich". There are three possibilities as to how the offer reached the German Naval attaché in Ankara. One is that en route to Germany, von Hentig was delayed in Ankara and delivered his version of the offer orally to von der Marwitz and von der Marwitz wrote the letter using his words. The second is that Colombani (a general in French intelligence) invented the offer because of personal rivalry between himself and other Vichy officials: this rivalry is known from a paragraph in von der Marwitz' letter, "Colombani is of the opinion that his return to France is a consequence of co-operation of Conti with Minister Pierroton", or, third, that Colombani wanted the offer to fail: he had co-operated with the Mufti of Jerusalem in Lebanon in 1938-1939 and was also the one who took him in his car through Syria to the Iraqi border in 1939.
In any case, von der Marwitz delivered the offer, classified as secret, to the German Ambassador in Turkey and on January 21, 1941 it was sent to Berlin. There was never any response. Von Hentig would later say that he believed it was important to help the Jews establish a country.
Lehi was one of groups involved in massacres of Arabs according to Israeli historian Benny Morris, see List of massacres committed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Deir Yassin is a village located 5 kilometres west of Jerusalem. On 9 April 1948, independently of the Nachshon operation but with the agreement of the Haganah, about 120 members of Lehi and Irgun attacked the village. They massacred between 100 and 120 inhabitants of the village, mostly civilians.
This massacre led to indignation from the international community, the more so since the press of the time reported that the death toll was 254. Ben-Gurion roundly condemned it, as did the principal Jewish authorities: Haganah, the Great Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency for Israel, who sent a letter of condemnation, apology and condolence to King Abdullah I.
According to Morris, "the most important immediate effect of the atrocity and the media campaign that followed it was how one started to report the fear felt in Palestinian towns and villages, and, later, the panicked fleeing from them."
Another important repercussion was within the Arab population of neighbouring Arab states, which, once again, increased its pressure on the representatives of these states to intervene and come to the aid of the Palestinians.
The conflict between Lehi and mainstream Jewish and subsequently Israeli organizations came to an end when Lehi was formally dissolved and integrated into the Israeli Defense Forces on May 31, 1948, its leaders getting amnesty from prosecution or reprisals as part of the integration.
Although Lehi had stopped operating nationally after May 1948, the group continued to function in Jerusalem. On 17 September 1948, Lehi assassinated UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte who had been sent to broker a settlement in the dispute. The assassination was directed by Yehoshua Zetler and carried out by a four-man team led by Meshulam Makover. The fatal shots were fired by Yehoshua Cohen. Three days later the Government banned Lehi.
Lehi leaders Nathan Yellin-Mor and Matitiahu Schmulevitz were arrested two months later, with Yellin-Mor being sentenced to eight years in prison, though most of the other suspects involved were released immediately. The group was then forcefully broken up for good.
In 1980 Israel instituted the Lehi ribbon, red, black, grey, pale blue and white which is awarded to former members of the Lehi underground who wished to carry it.
The lyrics of "Unknown Soldiers" were written by Avraham 'Yair' Stern, the founder of Lehi. This was one of the first songs written by 'Yair'. Yair composed the song together with his wife Roni. The song became the anthem of Etzel and remained so until 1940 when Lehi broke into a separate group. The song expresses an unlimited willingness to sacrifice. The anthem is used by veteran members of the group in gatherings as well as by some political groups from time to time, from both ends of the political map.
Full text of the song :
חיילים אלמונים הננו, בלי מדים,|
וסביבנו אימה וצלמוות.
כולנו גויסנו לכל החיים:.
משורה משחרר רק המוות.,
| Unknown Soldiers are we, without uniform|
And around us fear and the shadow of death
We have all been drafted for life.
Only death will discharge us from [our] ranks,
בימים אדומים של פרעות ודמים,|
בלילות השחורים של ייאוש.,
בערים ובכפרים את דגלנו נרים,.
ועליו: הגנה וכיבוש
On red days of riots and blood|
In the dark nights of despair
In towns and villages shall we raise our banner
On which are inscribed defence and conquest
לא גויסנו בשוט כהמון עבדים,|
כדי לשפוך בנכר את דמנו.,
רצוננו להיות לעולם בני חורין,.
חלומנו למות בעד ארצנו
We were not drafted by the whip, like a mob of slaves|
To shed our blood in foreign lands
Our will is to be forever free
Our dream - to die for our country
ומכל עברים רבבות מכשולים ,|
שם גורל אכזרי על דרכנו,
אך אויבים, מרגלים ובתי אסורים,.
לא יוכלו לעצור בעדנו
From all directions, tens of thousands of obstacles|
Cruel fate has placed on our path
But enemies, spies and prison houses
Will never be able to stop us
ואם אנחנו ניפול ברחובות, בבתים ,|
יקברונו בלילה בלאט,
במקומנו יבואו אלפי אחרים
להגן ולשמור עדי עד
And if we fall in the streets and homes|
We will be buried silently in the night
Thousands of others will fill our places
To protect and defend forever
בדמעות אימהות שכולות מבנים ,|
ובדם תינוקות טהורים ,
כמו במלט נדביק הגופות ללבנים
את בניין המולדת נקים
With the tears of bereaved mothers|
And the blood of pure babies
Like mortar shall we put together the cadaver building blocks
The edifice of the homeland shall we raise