The Cyprus Detention Camps

Aliya Bet - the organized clandestine immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel during the British Mandate of Palestine - was the result of severe restrictions that the British imposed on immigration of Jews to Palestine (after WW-II they only allowed 1,500 new immigrants per month). The immigrants who participated in Aliya Bet are called Ma'apilim in Hebrew.

As the rate of ma'apilim increased dramatically in the summer of 1946, the Atlit Detention Camp south of Haifa, the camp where the British detained the ma'apilim that they had captured, became crowded with detainees to its full capacity. The British decided to deport future ma'apilim to Cyprus, thinking that this would also deter the organizers of Aliya Bet. The first to be deported to Cyprus were the 1,300 ma'apilim of the Henrietta Szold and the Yagur vessels. The event - named "Operation Igloo" by the British - took place in August 1946.

By the middle of 1947, some 15,000 ma'apilim were already detained in the Cyprus camps. Their status was that of prisoners of war. The camps were operated jointly by the British Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the Mandatory Government and the British Army. However, the internal affairs of the camps were entirely in the hands of the ma'apilim through the representatives of the various Zionist parties and the representatives of the Hagana.

The Hagana established a covert paramilitary organization of the ma'apilim which was called "The Defenders' Rank". It was run by Palmach and Palyam (the elite force of the Hagana and its naval company, respectively) representatives. Within the framework of this organization, 11,000 young ma'apilim were given basic military training, using wooden guns and revolvers, in preparation for their arrival in Palestine and the inevitable outbreak of the War of Independence. About 7,000 of those that received training did actually participate in the War of Independence after their liberation from the camps.

Many Palyamniks who had accompanied the ma'apilim to the Land of Israel, as well as many of the foreign crews and of the volunteers from the USA and Canada who also served as crew on the Aliya Bet vessels that were purchased in the USA, were deported to Cyprus together with the ma'apilim, following the interception of their vessels. The Palmachniks/Palyamniks in the camps had continuous radio contact with the Palmach HQ in Palestine. There was practically free movement of Palmach/Palyam personnel between Palestine and the camps, thanks to the tunnels that were dug under the camps' fences and the fishing boats that carried personnel back and forth.

Every month, about 750 people - half of the total monthly quota established by the British - would be freed from the camps and given certificates to enter Palestine legally, and some of these certificates were used to free Aliya Bet operatives as needed. The Palmach organization within the camps also supported HaChulya - the Palyam's underwater sabotage unit - with operations against British Navy targets in Cyprus after this unit transfered its activity to the island in March 1947.

Camps in which tents had been erected were called "summer camps" whereas those in which corrugated iron had been used to build Nissen huts were called "winter camps". The living conditions within the camps were harsh. The food was poor, in summer the heat was difficult to bear as there was no shade, and in winter it was bitter cold. Mitigating factors were the help that was given to the ma'apilim from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel) and from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The period of the camps lasted for 30 months. During this period schools and kindergartens were established for the children. There were clinics, cultural activities and even an internal court. Close to 2,200 babies were born on the island. The first one to give worldwide publicity to what went on in the camps was the Jewish journalist Ruth Gruber who visited the camps in July 1947. This followed her coverage of the Exodus ship story, as she had expected that the ma'apilim of the Exodus would be sent there (this did not happen, as the British tried to send the ma'apilim back to France). In her book "Witness" one can find unique photos of life in the camps.

By the end of the British mandate, about 52,000 ma'apilim had been deported to Cyprus (including the 15,000 who arrived there directly on the two Pans ships, following an agreement between the commander of the ships and the British Navy). Shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel, the British started to set free small groups of detainees. In June 1948, a mission of the I.D.F (Tzahal) arrived at the camps to arrange for the conscription of people to the army. However, the hope that all the detainees would be freed shortly after the creation of the state was not fulfilled. There were all sort of technical and security issues, but the biggest problem was the refusal of the British to release those detainees who were of draft age.

The majority of the detainees were freed and brought to Israel in the summer of 1948, but about 10,000 were kept behind, mostly those of draft age and members of their families who chose to remain in the camps with them. On Jan. 24,1949, "Operation P'dut" (p'dut in Hebrew means setting free) began, during which the ships Galila and Atzma'ut made several trips between Haifa and Cyprus and brought the remainder of the detainees to Israel. On Feb. 10, 1949, the last detainee left, and the chapter of the Cyprus camps in the history of Zionism came to an end.

The envelope, featuring one of Israel's very early provisional stamps (still without the word Israel on it), was issued in 1949 to commemorate the end of the Cyprus detention camps.