Nili was an underground espionage organization which operated in the Land of Israel during World War I. At the organization’ height, it numbered no more than 30 active members. It operated mainly in the area of espionage order to help the British army defeat the Ottomans in the Land of Israel. In addition to espionage, the organization also delat in smuggling money from abroad to Jews in the Yishuv and later, it attempted to gain political achievements.
After two years of operating, the Ottomans uncovered the network of spies. Some of the leaders of the organization were captured and executed, while others were sentenced to prison. The founders and leaders of the organization were Aaron, Alexander and Sarah Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg, Yosef Lishansky, Na’aman Belkind and others.
Nili hoped to help the British, who were entering the Land of Israel from Egypt, defeat the Turkish and German armies. They thought that if the British were victorious, they would give the land of Israel to the Jewish nation.
So why support the English?
The main reason for establishing Nili, an espionage organization which would work for the British, was the Turkish government’s abuse of the Jews in the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, most of the Jews in the Land of Israel opposed Nili, including the people who lived in the moshavs, which is where most of the Nili members came from. The opponents feared that if the Turks uncovered the spy ring, their vengeance would be cruel.
Aaron Aaronsohn was the moving spirit behind Nili and he was responsible for the political ties with the British. He left Israel under cover and arrived in Alexandria, Egypt from where he directed the activities of the organization. When the Turks drove the Jews out of Tel Aviv-Jaffa in March 1917, they faced death from starvation and epidemics. It was Nili that passed on the information about the plight of the evacuated Jews to the institutions of the World Zionist Movement. As a result of their lobbying and requests for assistance, the persecution stopped and money even reached the needy Jews.
The Demise of the Underground
In 1917, the organization was uncovered by chance. A homing pigeon carrying a message for the British was sent from an experimental agricultural station in Atlit. The pigeon was caught by the Turks, who set out to terrorize the Jewish Yishuv. Many of the members of Nili were captured and tortured. Although Sarah Aaronsohn was brutally tortured by her investigators, she didn’t reveal any information. She committed suicide by shooting herself. Belkind and Lishansky were captured and executed. Avshalom Feinberg was killed on his way to the Sinai as he was trying to reach the British. His grave was discovered near Rafiah only after the Six Day War. Following the uncovering of the Nili espionage ring, the Turks began to persecute the members of Hashomer as well, even though they had opposed Nili. Tens of their members were arrested and exiled to Damascus.
At the end of World War I, Aaron Aaronsohn continued his Zionist activity. On of his trips to England he died in a mysterious airplane accident. The circumstances surrounding the accident are still unknown.