Themes

THE ROLE OF GALILI AND THE PALMACH IN THE ALTALENA

 

One man without whom the plot against the Altalena could hardly have been carried out has through the years escaped attention.

 

It is Yisrael Galili, then Deputy Minister of Security.

 

Galili, one of the spiritual fathers of the Palmach, once Sneh’s deputy and then his successor as chief of the Haganah.

 

HE TOOK PART IN ALL THE NEGOTIATIONS ABOUT THE ALTALENA.

 

The differences between Galili and Ben Gurion over the Palmach were yet to prove substantial.

 

They were to reach a severe crisis the next year.

 

Galili and his colleagues were yet, in bitter truthfulness, to accuse Ben Gurion of treachery towards the Palmach and of distorting history.

 

Over the Altalena Galili acted throughout as Ben Gurion’s jackal, told unblushingly the necessary lies, concocted with easy fluency the relevant fabrications.

 

The attack on the Altalena was carried out mainly by Palmach units.

 

The alliance with Ben Gurion was a natural one.

 

It sprang from the odd history of the Palmach.

 

In the war against the Arabs in 1948, the Palmach, the best trained and most compact of the Haganah forces (indeed, for open warfare, of all the Jewish forces) fought with great valor and great incisiveness.

 

Their place in the history of the War of Independence is assured.

 

Yet the legend of the Palmach had been built up for years before the War of Independence.

 

It was a legend built on wishful fantasy and untruth.

 

Anybody who came to Palestine soon after the end of the Second World War would soon hear about “the part played by the Palmach in the War,” about how “the Palmach invaded Syria,” about Palmach heroism, the wonderful spirit round the flickering campfire, with the traditional Arab “finjan” (coffee-pot) and the songs and the stories.

 

The campfire and the coffee and the songs and stories were all factual.

 

All the rest, except for two or three minor military incidents, was fiction.

 

Perhaps if you examined closely what you heard and read in those days you would find there was more insinuation than bald statement, more boastful suggestion that was downright untruth.

 

***THE FIRST YEARS OF THE PALMACH’S EXISTENCE, DOWN TO THE END OF WORLD WAR II, CONSISTED, IN FACT, OF ENDLESS DISCUSSION ABOUT THE WAR AND AN UNENDING PREPARATION OF FIGHTING THAT OBSTINATELY REFUSED TO COME OFF.

 

Of the two exploits which the Palmach instructors and propagandists inflated into major military operations only one, strictly speaking, was carried out by the Palmach.

 

When in May 1941 twenty-three members of the Haganah were sent by sea to Syria to blow up the oil refineries at Tripoli even the decision to establish the Palmach had not yet been taken.

 

The historian of the Palmach comforts himself with the thought that the twenty-three, had they lived, would certainly have joined the Palmach.

 

The twenty-three perished on the way to the target, nobody knows in what circumstances – and the Palmach leaders gave themselves a notch for heroism on their account.

 

In June 1941 thirty-three members of the Haganah who were in process of being embodied in the first Palmach units cooperated in the Allied invasion of Vichy-controlled Syria as guides and sappers.

 

The Australian group which five of these men were attached was involved in a clash with a Vichy French group, and a fortified French post was blown up.

 

In this operation the officer, Moshe Dayan, was severely wounded in the eye which had to be removed.

 

About this incident the Palmach historian writes:

 

          “We see how limited was this operation which too was turned into a part of the Palmach tradition.  Legends were woven about it and a song was sung ‘How in Syria the Palmach Marched.’  The Palmach in fact did not march in Syria.  In fact it had not yet been established.”

 

Two or three minor auxiliary operations in which, out of a total strength of about fifteen hundred, perhaps ten or twelve men altogether participated, sums up the total military activity of the Palmach in Palestine throughout the Second World War.

The circumstances of the War – the Germans did not, after all, invade Palestine – and the sour British hesitancy over any Jewish aid at all were against them.

 

They did at least get a much better military training than any other Haganah unit.

 

*Youngsters who joined the Palmach after the War were indoctrinated with the belief that they were joining a unit tried in battle and with a record of daring and heroism second to none.

 

What with the songs and the campfires and the coffee and the rollicking spirit – the legend did indeed fashion an atmosphere of high patriotism and bravery.

 

The frustration of the leaders, who practiced or condoned this deception, and who themselves did not thereby suffer any loss of admiration and adulation by their younger followers, may be imagined.

 

In time they had even greater reason for frustration.

 

The Palmach was dominated by the political group which, at first a splinter of Mapai, later became the Ahdut Avoda party. 

 

One of their sharply distinctive characteristics was a militant attitude both towards the British and on the frontiers of the future State.

 

Characteristics of their activism were phrases used by Galili (in March 1944):We may have to fight a war of zealots against the British,” or Yitshak Sadeh (in June 1945), expressing undying opposition to partition: “On this issue we shall not retreat, we shall not betray it, we shall not compromise.”

 

In the first months after my return to Palestine in 1946 I was so impressed by the closeness to our own outlook that for some time I pressed the idea of trying to reach some accord with them.

 

The fact was that the leaders hardly progressed beyond the realm of talk.

 

They were part of the Haganah and they accepted the decisions of the Jewish Agency blindly.

 

When the United Resistance Movement was established in 1945 the Palmach played an enthusiastic and impressive part in the Haganah operations.

 

THEY DOCILELY LAID DOWN THEIR ARMS WHEN IN THE SUMMER OF 1946 THE AGENCY THREW IN THE TOWEL.

 

For all their strenuous propaganda posturing as independent thinkers and the builders of a new military tradition it is doubtful whether even in the inner councils of the Haganah they fought for the ideas they preached to their followers.

 

When in 1946 Sneh was removed as heard of the Haganah because he wanted to continue resistance, Galili had no difficulty in filling the vacant post.

 

THE FIGHTING UNDERGROUND WHICH THEY LONGED TO EMULATE WAS THEREFORE AS NATURAL A TARGET FOR THEIR FRUSTRATIONS AS FOR BEN GURION’S.

 

It happened moreover that the Ahdut Avoda leaders were among the fiercest and most bigoted opponents of Jabotinsky in his lifetime and inculcated in their followers all the old clichés of the thirties.

 

“Fascists” was their most popular epithet for us.

 

It was so simple, required no explanation, had the necessary emotional effect.

 

Their movement was based almost entirely on kibbutzim where culture was controlled, where a “hostile” newspaper was taboo, where a dissenting opinion meant excommunication.

 

Their propaganda was as effective as in any totalitarian community.

 

Persisted in long enough it could not but give birth, at least among their more impressionable followers, to the conviction that a member of the Irgun (like, for example, anybody dubbed “Jew” or “Communist” in Nazi Germany) was “expendable,” that even his blood might be shed with some impunity.

 


***It was no accident therefore that with these accumulated stores of frustration, envy, and hate, the Palmach was the central pillar of the “season” organized by Ben Gurion in 1944-45
.

 

***It was not merely the fortuitous circumstances of being Ben Gurion’s deputy that drove Galili to collaborate actively in the warp and the woof of the conspiracy against the Altalena.

 

***It was almost certainly with enthusiasm that the Palmach officers that Tuesday afternoon in Tel Aviv, prevented the taking off of the wounded from the ship, violated the ‘ceasefire,’ shelled the white flag of the Altalena – while fobbing of Fein’s agitated appeals with the pretentious stupidity that not “all the fronts” could be contacted – and carried out the orders to shoot at helpless men struggling in the water.




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