UK counter-terrorism and Israel in the 1970s: Correspondence from Christopher Mayhew to Lord Balniel 1973

I am currently writing  a paper on the efforts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to use the border control system to counter Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s, as part of this project. The focus of the FCO is on two forms of terrorism from these regions – Palestinian liberationist terrorism and ‘state terrorism’ . ‘State terrorism’ was defined in an internal FCO report from 1980 (as part of the NA file FCO 50/685) as ‘the use of deliberate terror by the organs of national governments to punish their dissidents or to pursue disputes with other governments or organisations’. The FCO saw Libya, Iraq and Iran as ‘the most prominent offenders’, but also mentioned Syria, Yemen and Bulgaria as states that have resorted to violence within the UK.

In my examination of FCO and other government agency files at the National Archives at Kew, I have come across several documents that are off-topic to my main research subject, but are fascinating nonetheless. One such document is a letter from Christopher Mayhew (a Labour MP who defected to the Liberals in 1974) to Edward Heath’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Lord Balniel, written in April 1973. Mayhew had raised the question in Parliament of whether Israeli covert activity in Western Europe should be considered a form of terrorism, akin to other terrorist activities by other non-state terrorist actors at the time. Mayhew asked in the House of Commons on 11 April, 1973:

I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but is he aware that those who have been assassinated by the Israelis have included some terrorists and some political organisers and propagandists but have mostly been civilians who were not even politically active? Is he further aware that since the assassinations of terrorists and political organisers in Frankfurt, Beirut and Rome there is a widespread feeling that Israeli authorities are about to turn their attention to London? Will he, therefore, make representations to the Israeli Government that, whatever the provocation, we shall regard as an outrage the same kind of tactics in London as we have seen in other parts of the world? (col. 1309-10)

Balniel replied in Parliament:

If the hon. Gentleman has any reason to believe that the Israeli Government are going to act in the way he has described in London, I hope that he will provide the information to Her Majesty’s Government. We shall then take steps to ensure that it does not take place. (col. 1310)

The NA file FCO 93/182 contains a letter from Mayhew to Balniel providing further information. The letter (dated 13 April, 1973) states:

You invited me at question time on Wednesday, to write to you about my fears that the Israelis may make an assassination attempt in London. I think this is a serious possibility, calling for action from the government. 

You will be aware of the background, including Golda Meir’s statements on 15th and 16th October that “The terrorists must from now on know that they are not safe anywhere” and “We have no alternative solution but to strike at the terroriist organisations wherever we can locate them”. The same threats were repeated by the Israeli Chief of Staff, David Elazar, on Tuesday. Since then we have had ten assassinations, or attempted assassinations, of people considered by the Israelis – often mistakenly – to be “terrorists”.

I am particularly concerned about the danger to Mr. Said Hammami, the PLO representative in London… There is no evidence that he is linked with terrorist activities – (if there were, of course, you would have rightly refused him a visa). But this does not remove the danger, since the Israelis are assassinating political organisers and propagandists as well as terrorists. They have already killed three of Hammami’s opposite numbers in foreign capitals – Wael Zuaiter in Rome in October, Mahmoud Hamchari in Paris in December, and Husse Rizk in Nicosia in January. They have also attacked and seriously hurt Anis Sayegh in Beirut, who was Mr. Hammami’s contact for political and propaganda research. It is simply not sensible to ignore the possibility that they may now try to kill Mr. Hammami.

I know that the Special Branch are already giving protection to Mr. Hammami, and I do not question its effectiveness – I have no means of judging. The request I made in the House – which I now repeat – is simply that the government should warn the Israeli government in appropriate terms of the consequences which would follow if they commit in London the outrages they have committed in other capitals.

I hope you can assure me that this will be done.

From my notes, I don’t believe the file includes a response from Balniel. However we know that the Israelis didn’t assassinate Hammami, but also know that the UK government failed to protect Hammami. in 1978, he was killed by members of the Abu Nidal group, a breakaway ‘rejectionist’ Palestinian group that believed that no conciliation could be made with Israel and that Hammami, who encouraged dialogue between the PLO and Israel, was considered a ‘traitor’. The National Archives have this file (FCO 93/1559) on the assassination. If I have time on my next trip to London, I will endeavour to see what is in this file.

This is the only file that I have come across that raises the question of whether Israel could be considered a country involved in ‘state terrorism’, with most of the discussion within the FCO concentrating on Libya, Iraq and Iran. By 1980, there are proposals to counter ‘state terrorism’ by imposing more stringent immigration control checks on people coming from the Middle East and North Africa. Nowhere in any of the documents that I have looked at is there any discussion of further immigration restrictions on Israeli nationals, even though it was known that Israeli nationals did carry out attacks on their ‘enemies’ within third-party countries, such as Western Europe. It may be because Israel was seen as different to the other Middle Eastern nations by the UK government, but it is odd that even this likely scenario isn’t mentioned in the archival documents.

As interesting as this topic is, it is too off-topic for me at the moment, so any further investigating will have to wait…

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