Don't invoke the 'Altalena'


Jul. 27, 2005

It's become the vogue among pundits to forecast that the nation is heading toward a civil war over disengagement and that the prime minister will have to face his own "Altalena."

 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. It's time to set the record straight.

 David Ben-Gurion bluffed his way through the whole meticulously organized 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 long enough to undermine the popularity of a courageous patriot and to bolster Ben-Gurion's campaign for the then forthcoming first parliamentary elections in the new state.

 To the provisional government, Ben-Gurion explained blowing up the boat by the assertion that there had been no warning of its coming and no permission asked of the Israel defense 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 May 15, Begin, leader of the Irgun and three members of its high command – Ya'acov Meridor, Haim Landau and myself – 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 from France hundreds of volunteer soldiers and a substantial quantity of arms. We wanted to bring the ship prior to the Arab states' attack, but bureaucratic difficulties delayed the delivery of most of the arms. As soon as these were overcome, we explained, 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 national authority's approval 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. 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 40 meters 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 Labor 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 cooperating 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 defense against the Arab attack was being continued by the pre-state Hagana and the underground Irgun and Lehi organizations – coordinated 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 IDF. Galili indicated that the request for Jerusalem would be considered favorably, and added that he would send men to help unload 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 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 10 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 the 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. The 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. Three soldiers were also killed by retaliatory shots from the crew who had been armed for the voyage from France. Fein called to 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 demurred, but Fein ordered him off. It was the swimmers who were now shot at by the soldiers on the shore.

 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 toward 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 behavior 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 percentage or he could have simply seized them and argued 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.

 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. Among the Irgunists it was thought that the explosion, the shooting (even though none of it came from the Irgun) helped Ben-Gurion create an atmosphere that would support his silly story of a putsch.

 YEARS LATER, on August 20, 1971 Galili admitted 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 defense 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 admission, nor did he react to questions put to him even by the Labor 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.

 I wanted to set the record straight because the memory of the Altalena is being manipulated for political purposes to facilitate the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif.

 The writer, who co-founded the Herut Party with Menachem Begin and was a member of the first Knesset, is a biographer and essayist.

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