Obituary: Matityahu Shmuelevitz

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:25

Matityahu Shmuelevitz, activist and politician: born Poland 1920: married (two daughters); died Tel Aviv 2 December 1995.

Matityahu Shmuelevitz won fame or notoriety not as a leading aide of the former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin but as a daring leading member of Lehi Freedom Fighters. The Stern Gang, as their opponents called them, were more extreme even than Begin's Irgun in the underground fight against the British Mandatory government of Palestine, and Shmuelevitz became a notorious figure in the eyes not only of the British but of the official leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community, such as David Ben- Gurion.

Inspired by the charismatic Abraham Stern, shot dead by the British in 1942, Lehi were ruthless in their activities and did not shrink from assassinations, as they showed when in 1944 they gunned down the first Lord Moyne in Cairo, a deed which horrified the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist Winston Churchill.

Though not prepared to accept Lehi's tactics, Begin was keen to co-operate with the group, whom he described as partners, in attacks on the British targets. He also offered to save the life of Shmuelevitz, who had first been imprisoned by the British in 1940, escaped in 1943, but was wounded and recaptured a year later. When Shmuelevitz was sentenced to death for firing at a British officer and carrying arms, Begin proposed a joint plan to attack the Jerusalem Central Prison to free him. The plan was about due to be carried out when the death sentence was commuted.

Shmuelevitz and his group participated with Begin's Irgun in the most daring of all their joint operations - the storming of Acre jail in May 1947. Many of the attackers were wounded or killed after the withdrawal. Begin prints in his book The Revolt (1949) Shmuelevitz's description of the disaster that befell the group and also the accusation that British troops shot wounded men.

Like another leader of Lehi, Yitzhak Shamir, who went on to become Prime Minister, Shmuelevitz became a respected member of Israeli society. After joining the Likud party, he became a devoted and close aide to Begin, its leader, in the final years of his life.

Shmuelevitz's last activity was far removed from war. He was playing chess when he collapsed.

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