In the year of the 70th anniversary surrounding Israel’s independence, there are many milestones that are being celebrated. One such milestone took place June 22, 1948, that brought the newly reborn state of Israel, already defending itself from an onslaught of several Arab armies, from a state of war to the brink of a civil war.
Known today as the Altelena Affair, the incident involved a ship owned by the Irgun, one of Israel’s pre-state militia groups, which set sail from France loaded with 940 would be fighters for the war that was raging, and a vast supply of weapons. The smuggling of the Altelena and its cargo into Israel was necessary because it was planned before the British Mandate and its control over Israel had ended. Delays prevented the Altelena from arriving in time for Israel’s independence and it sailed from France weeks later.
In the interim, as Israel’s independence had been declared, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion insisted that all the pre-state militias be folded into the new Israel Defense Force, IDF. The Irgun was under the control of future Prime Minister Menachem Begin who agreed to Ben Gurion’s demands. An agreement was signed for the absorption of the Irgun into the IDF consenting that the Irgun had to cease all independent arms acquisition. Because the deal was signed after plans to bring the Altelena and its cargo to Israel were well under way, the Irgun informed the Israeli government about its plans.
Begin negotiated that 20% of the weapons would go to Irgun fighters defending Jerusalem. By all accounts, Ben Gurion initially concurred and then abrogated this agreement. His insistence that all Israeli forces needed to be under one command was as well known as his deep dislike for Begin.
On June 11, the Altelena set sail, the same day as the beginning of the first truce in the War of Independence. Because of the truce, Ben Gurion did not want the ship’s arrival to be seen as a violation of the cease fire, albeit that Israel desperately needed reinforcements and arms, and that the plans to bring these to Israel were a month delayed.
Ben Gurion wrote, “Tomorrow or the next day their ship is due to arrive: 4,500 tons, bringing 800–900 men, 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, 10 Bren carriers…at night it will be possible to unload it all.”
The sense was to evade UN observers, the Altalena docked in Kfar Vitkin north of Tel Aviv on June 20. Irgun supporters and residents of neighboring towns gathered to help unload the military supplies. Most of the passengers disembarked and were taken for induction into the IDF. Unloading the cargo continued throughout the night. In all, 2,000 rifles, two million rounds of ammunition, 3,000 shells, and 200 Bren guns ended up going to the IDF.
At the same time, the government met in Tel Aviv during which Ben-Gurion reported on events which had preceded the arrival of the Altalena. He was now adamant that Begin surrender and hand over all of the weapons.
With a UN observation plane circling overhead, a standoff took place between Irgun and government representatives. That evening, shooting began. On shore, the Irgun fighters surrendered. The IDF lost two dead and six wounded. The Irgun lost six dead and eighteen wounded. Armed battle between Jews was unprecedented.
Upon Begin’s orders the Altalena sailed toward Tel Aviv where there were more Irgun supporters. Many Irgun members, who had joined the IDF earlier that month, left their bases and gathered on the Tel Aviv beach. Rumors circulated that the Irgun intended to launch a military coup against Ben Gurion’s government. Tension ran high.
Ben-Gurion supposedly instructed the Israeli Air Force to sink the ship at sea, long before it approached the shore, risking many more lives. Military leaders tried to convince the volunteer pilots of Israel’s newly assembled air force to attack the ship. The pilots refused saying they didn’t come to fight for Israel to attack Jews.
Upon arrival off the Tel Aviv beach, exchanging fire en route, Ben-Gurion ordered IDF forces on the beach to take the ship by force, and ordered the shelling of the Altalena.
The first gunner ordered to fire on the ship, a Red Army veteran, refused saying he was willing to be executed for insubordination and this would be “the best thing he did in his life.” The next gunner, a new immigrant from South Africa, refused at first, and told his commander “I didn’t come to the Land of Israel to fight against Jews.” He relented after being threatened with a court-martial.
Future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin commanded the IDF forces. One shell hit the ship, setting it ablaze. IDF troops on the shore also fired at the ship. Some soldiers refused to shoot, including one whose brother was an Irgun officer and was on the Altelena, underscoring the verge of a potential civil war which, in Hebrew, literally translates as a war between brothers.
Menachem Begin, adamant to avert civil war, ordered his men not to shoot back. They raised a white flag. However, the firing continued, and some Irgun men reportedly returned fire. On the beach and throughout Tel Aviv, clashes erupted between the IDF and Irgun forces.
Fearful that the fire would spread to the explosives on board, the captain ordered all to abandon ship. People leapt into the water, yet shooting continued at the unarmed survivors.
Begin remained on deck throughout and agreed to leave the ship only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated. Adding to the tense situation and fear of civil war, the government began mass arrests against Irgun soldiers who had deserted the IDF. More than 200 Irgun members were arrested. Among these, eight IDF soldiers who refused to fire on the Altalena were court-martialed for insubordination.
Meanwhile, Menachem Begin broadcast from his secret radio station, announcing to his men and the country that civil war had to be averted at all cost. He ordered his men not to fight back, and called for them to go to Jerusalem to continue the battle for the Old City.
At only several weeks old, because of Begin’s insistence that his men not fight against other Jews, Israel averted a civil war. Israel has been challenged and divided on many issues in the decades since, some contentious and also risking civil war. But the model that was set by Menachem Begin off the Tel Aviv coast 70 years ago this week has prevailed; no war between brothers.
While tensions then and since are not to be celebrated, this is an historic milestone in how it has defined Israel since; as a democracy where fighting against one another goes against the national ideal. On that level, this anniversary, as sad as it is, remains something to celebrate.
I used to live in White Plains, NY, and gained familiarity with all of Westchester County. In 2004 I pulled up my roots from the US and planted myself and my family in the Judean Mountains, affirming God’s gift and promise to Abraham and his descendants. If you can’t join me in person, you can join me in solidarity. Be among those who bless Israel, and declare today that you are a Judean. Contact me at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.