For 400 years prior to World War I, Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Although the Turks generally allowed Jews to live in peace, by the late 19th century, the government of Palestine had grown inefficient and corrupt. And while they permitted the sale of land to Jews, these lands had been controlled by absentee landlords who had generally stripped their properties of their natural resources. Taxation was exorbitant. Local officials and Arab marauders often harassed Jewish settlers.
Since Great Britain had previously expressed support for Jewish settlement, the Jews of Palestine hoped for an allied victory. In Zichron Ya’akov, a small northern town, a few Jews did more than hope. Aaron Aaronson and his two sisters, Sarah and Rebecca, used Aaron’s position as a world-renown agronomist as a cover to run a spying operation known as NILI (Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, the Eternal One of Israel will not lie–I Samuel 15:29). Along with Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky, and others, the Aaronsons traversed the country, supposedly gathering information on locust infestation.
At first, the British were not interested in the information supplied by NILI. By 1917, however, NILI was communicating with a British frigate anchored off shore using light signals. They later switched to homing pigeons, and this was their undoing.
In the Fall of 1917, one such pigeon took a rest stop on the roof of an Ottoman official’s home. The message’s code was broken, NILI headquarters in Zichron Ya’akov were raided, and the spies caught and tortured. Sarah Aaronson committed suicide in Turkish captivity. Only Aaron Aaronson escaped capture.
Their work, however, gave General Edmund Allenby the information he needed to strike from the south, through the desert, at Be’er Sheva, leading directly to British victory. The victory occurred just one month after the capture of the NILI operatives.
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