Articles

Shmuel Katz

Tel Aviv

 

ALTALENA!

 

It became a habit among left-wing commentators on the "disengagement"

plan to forecast that there might be some kind of revolt against the

Government by the expellees of Gush Katif and opponents of the plan

nationwide - and they call it "Sharon's Altalena". Whatever the motives

of the commentators may be, this is historical nonsense.

 

They are by implication conjuring up the "Altalena" myth of a revolt

that was never planned and never took place, a fiction woven by a great

but unscrupulous politician at the cost of a score of innocent young

lives, and the loss of a valuable ship and an invaluable store of arms.

David Ben Gurion bluffed his way through the whole meticulously

organised episode in June 1948 against Menachem Begin and the Irgun Zvai

Leumi.  He was supported by a Press largely hostile to Begin and the

Irgun; thus the fiction held the field of public opinion long enough to

undermine the popularity of a courageous patriot, and to bolster Ben

Gurion's personal campaign for the then forthcoming first parliamentary

elections in the new State.

 

To the national council (in effect the provisional government) Ben

Gurion explained his drastic action against the Irgun - including the

blowing up of the boat - by the assertion that there had been no warning

of its coming, and no permission asked of the Israel defence authority

(which was Ben Gurion himself).  He had heard of the expected arrival of

a boat with arms, he said, only on the day of its arrival.  Every word

of this story was false.

 

Ben Gurion and his staff had known about the Altalena and its purpose at

least five weeks before it arrived on June 20 1948.  At midnight on the

15th of May, Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun and three members of

its high command - Ya'acov Meridor, Haim Landau and Shmuel Katz (this

writer) had met with Yisrael Galili, the head of the Hagana and Ben

Gurion's deputy, who came with Levi Eshkol and David Cohen.

 

Begin informed Galili and his companions that the Irgun had several

months earlier acquired an American WWII ship which would be bringing to

Israel from France some hundreds of volunteers for the army and a

substantial quantity of arms.  It had been intended to bring the ship in

time for the expected Arab States' attack, but bureaucratic difficulties

had delayed the delivery of most of the arms.  As soon as this was

overcome, the ship would sail for Israel.

 

What is more, on June 15, while the ship was on its way, Begin met with

Galili to reinforce the approval of the national authority for the

venture.  The United Nations had declared a cease-fire - which

disallowed the introduction of arms and men into Palestine.  In fact

this was applied only to Israel; supplies of arms to the Arabs never

ceased - by Britain through Iraq - whence came also Arab invaders.

Galili raised no objection.  He did however make one demand - that the

boat should land not at Tel Aviv but at Kfar Vitkin near Netanya.  Kfar

Vitkin was not a convenient spot; the boat would have to anchor some

forty yards from the shore.  The captain of the Altalena, Monroe Fein -

a US naval lieutenant, veteran of the war in the Pacific - had intended

bringing up the ship - a Tank Landing Vessel - square to a shore.

Galili however explained that aerial surveillance by the UN was less

likely to cover a small place like Kfar Vitkin. (This proved to be

wrong: a UN plane almost immediately found the boat.) What he did not

mention was that Kfar Vitkin was important because it was a Labour Party

village and certainly not friendly to the Irgun.  Begin however, not

suspecting anything, accepted the condition. To him what was important

was that the provisional government was co-operating in the landing.

 

Begin raised the question of the apportionment of the arms.  Jerusalem

had not been included in the Jewish State as recommended in the UN

partition scheme, so its defence against the Arab attack was being

continued by the pre-State Hagana and the underground Irgun and Lehi

organisations - in co-ordinated activities, under the overall command of

the Hagana.  But the Irgun was particularly short of arms.  As it was

the Irgun that had negotiated for the arms to be dispatched on the

Altalena - and that, before the State was declared - Begin wanted a

portion to be set aside to make up the severe shortages of the Irgun in

Jerusalem. He also wanted to be able to present their personal arms to

the Irgun members who were now enlisting in the Israeli army - a total

of twenty percent in all. Galili indicated that the request for

Jerusalem would be considered favourably, and added that he would send

men to help the unloading of the arms.  Thus, the order was given from

Tel Aviv, and the ship sailed off - to Kfar Vitkin.

 

At some point thereafter Galili withdrew his offer of men to help in the

unloading, so a call was sent out to members of the Irgun to come and

help.

 

With the arrival of the ship, the passengers, 940 of them - including

more than 100 women - were taken off the ship and sent straight off to

an aliya camp at Netanya, where they would be able to rest before being

inducted into the army.  Begin and perhaps a score of Irgun members were

with him on the shore.  Begin was surprised and disappointed to find

that Galili was not there.  He was surprised also to see a large number

of soldiers filling the area.  Then the unloading of the arms began -

rifles still in their grease. 

 

This then is the scene for the "revolt" which Ben Gurion invented.  The

ship brought to a place where the population was known to be basically

hostile, the "manpower" sent to sleep in Netanya, the arms all in grease

in their boxes.

 

Soon after the unloading began, a soldier arrived with a note for Begin.

In it was an order signed by the local divisional commander of the army

to "surrender" - the ship and its contents - within ten minutes!  Begin

was dumbfounded.  This was impossible.  There must be some mistake, he

thought (as he told me the next day).  He decided he must go to Tel Aviv

to find Galili or somebody else to talk to.  Nobody prevented him from

leaving the shore for the ship.

 

The captain, Fein, who had volunteered because he wanted to help the

Jewish people in its War of Independence - gave the order for full speed

to Tel Aviv.  He soon discovered that there were two Corvettes tailing

him.  They even fired a couple of shots across his bow.  They remained

in the vicinity when Altalena went onto the rocks off the Tel Aviv

shore.

 

Begin sent one of the boxes of rifles to the shore - which by then was

also filled with soldiers.  He evidently wanted to show the rifles - in

their grease - to whichever representative of the government he would be

meeting.  The box was taken out of the motorboat - and then an army

officer refused to allow it to go back.  Altalena was thus cut off from

the shore.  As was Begin.  On board ship was its crew, and perhaps a

score of Irgunists, all unarmed, who had accompanied Begin from Kfar

Vitkin.

 

Against the ship and the handful of people aboard, and the arms it

carried in its hold beneath - there was now directed a fusillade of

bullets.  Several people were hit.  (By the end of the day 16 members of

the Irgun were killed.  Also three soldiers were killed by retaliatory

shots from the crew who had been armed for the voyage from France.) Fein

called the shore by radio for a doctor.  A doctor was promised but never

came.  Then came the bombardment from mortars that had been emplaced a

little further up the coast at Kfar Yona.  Fein, in desperation, ordered

the raising of a white flag and the men on the deck waved white

handkerchiefs - but the shooting did not stop, and Fein, who protested,

was told on the radio that the officer in charge had not been able to

inform "all the fronts"!

 

The shelling continued, and the ship burst into flames.  Fein ordered

abandonment of the ship.  All aboard jumped into the sea, and swam for

the shore, Lankin - the commander of the volunteers - and Fein, were the

last to do so.  Begin had demurred, but Captain Fein ordered him off.

It was the swimmers that were now shot at by the soldiers on the shore.

 

When Ben Gurion was attacked on the account at the National Council, he

denied this charge vehemently, but too many people who watched the

horrendous incident testified to it.  Yitzhak Rabin himself, the head of

a Palmach unit, who commanded the Altalena operation, described in his

memoirs how it was the soldiers on the shore who spontaneously started

the shooting at the swimmers when they heard that Begin was among them.

He explained the soldiers' action by the deep hatred that existed in the

Palmach towards the Irgun and the Lehi.  Another eyewitness, Azriel

Karlebach, editor of Maariv, the next day agonized over the horror in

his newspaper.

 

Why did Ben Gurion order the wanton insensate behaviour in Kfar Vitkin

and then at Tel Aviv?  What was he trying to achieve? There was no

quarrel about the arms.  He could have compromised on the twenty percent

or he could have simply seized them and argue afterwards.  Why did he

prevent his soldiers from taking part in unloading the arms - so

important for the army?  All the power was in his hands.  He could have

Begin detained, and continue to make a big fuss about nefarious plots.

That night Begin, in a lengthy impassioned speech on the Irgun radio,

accused Ben Gurion of simply wanting to kill him.  There was indeed no

other reasonable explanation for the murderous attack on the Altalena.

Nor has there ever been.  Among the Irgunists it was thought that

precisely it was the "big bang", the explosion, the shooting (even

though none of it came from the Irgun) that helped Ben Gurion at that

moment in Israel's history to create an atmosphere that would support

his silly story of a "putsch".

 

***

 

Ben Gurion's known hatred for Begin, for the Irgun, for anything

connected with Jabotinsky, was evidently visceral.  He was not unique in

that respect.  That is clear from the teachings that the left-wing

youngsters in the Zionist movement received in that generation. 

 

The events of that spring surely deepened the hatred.  Fresh in the

public consciousness was the undeniable fact that that it was the

struggle of the underground organisations, primarily the Irgun, that had

brought about the British decision to leave Palestine.  And now came the

events at Jaffa!  In the UN proposal for partition Jaffa had not been

apportioned to the Jewish State.  It was to be Arab - and on the morrow

of the decision the Arabs of Jaffa opened an attack on Tel Aviv.

 

It was at first a sniping campaign, and it made life intolerable in the

heart of the city.  Many people evacuated or sent their young children

away.  The joint patrols of Hagana and Irgun could do little more than

guard the border. The Jewish Agency would not permit the Hagana to go

into Jaffa. They feared intervention by the pro-Arab British, whose

troops were still in the country.  The Irgun had no such inhibitions,

but lacked the arms for such an operation.  Not only the immediate

plight of Tel Aviv, but the strategic danger to Israel from Jaffa, an

adjacent sea port, in enemy hands was a constant subject on the agenda

of the high command.  Consequently its leaders made plans but, gnashing

their teeth, had to wait. 

 

At last, in April, a major raid on a British arsenal yielded a 40-ton

crop of varied arms - and the Irgun went into Jaffa.  After four days of

hard fighting and many casualties the town was won.  The British did

indeed intervene, were repelled, counter attacked, but then desisted -

for the mass of Arabs were fleeing the town and there was nobody left to

"defend". 

 

The capture of Jaffa brought to Begin and the Irgun an unprecedented

wave of public acclaim.  It was greatly enhanced, moreover, by the fact

that when on the first day of the battle, the Irgun fighters had failed

to make progress and there loomed the prospect of defeat, they were met

by a chorus of mockery and denigration by the Hebrew Press: they were

described as "Irresponsible", "Inept" and "Exhibitionist". A derogatory

statement on the Irgun attack came also from the Hagana leadership.  And

two days later, "everybody knew" that the Irgun had not only relieved

Tel Aviv but had rid Israel of a strategic danger of immeasurable

gravity.  But another day later the Hagana and Irgun leaders met and

signed an agreement, in which the Irgun operation was "approved"; and it

was then the Hagana that signed the ceasefire agreement with the

British.

 

That was at the end of April.  If that was not enough to irk Ben Gurion,

he was now told, after the midnight meeting of May 15 that the Irgun was

again about to become the centre of attention: a ship - a ship! - and

volunteers ... and arms ... all good tidings for Israel's defence in the

war that was about to begin.  His bete noire would become a national

hero.  This was unendurable.  So he planned the deceit and the trap at

Kfar Vitkin, including the absence of Galili - and the execution of the

plan left to a misinformed military subordinate.  He did not plan the

blowing up of the ship.  It was Begin's arrival at Tel Aviv (with the

idea of talking, discussing, negotiating) that gave Ben Gurion the

opportunity.  Later on he was to proclaim "Blessed be the cannon!"

 

 

DON'T ENVOKE THE ALTALENA!

 

In the end, but far, far too late to do any good, his chief

co-conspirator confessed.  On 20 August 1971 Galili stated in Maariv:

"We agreed to the boats coming to Kfar Vitkin" ... "We made technical

preparations" ... "I reported to the Prime Minister and the Minister of

Defence on all the stages, verbally and in writing, on meetings with the

Irgun leaders including the midnight meeting".

 

Ben Gurion, by then out of office, did not react to Galili's charge, nor

did he react to questions put to him even by the Labour paper, Davar.

This however was 1971 - four years after the Six Day War.  Begin by then

had been a cabinet minister under Levi Eshkol, and Israel had more

pressing problems on its agenda.


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