On June 20, 1948, just over a month after the State of Israel was established and shortly after the first cease fire in the War of Independence, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave one of the country's most controversial orders ever - to take the Altalena by force.
Prior to the establishment of the state, several armed Jewish militias protected early Jewish settlers and fought against the British and hostile Arab forces. The largest of these groups were the Hagana and the Irgun Zva’I Leumi (Irgun or IZL). The Hagana, led by Ben-Gurion, became the Israeli Defense Forces once the state was declared in May 1948 and the Irgun was under the command of Menahem Begin.
In mid-May 1948, during the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion ordered the various militias disbanded and integrated into the IDF in order to create one army under a unified command. While some of the militias willingly sent their fighters and weaponry to the IDF, others were unwilling to relinquish the established paramilitary organizations they had built. Notably, the Irgun, for both ideological and political reasons, was unwilling to put itself under Ben-Gurion’s command.
Begin and other Irgun commanders were still attempting to ship significant amounts of weaponry and fresh immigrant fighters into Israel in the last days of the British Mandate. The Irgun organized a large ship carrying weaponry and fighters from France, scheduled to arrive on Israel’s shores in mid-May. Due to logistical and operational factors, however, the departure of the Altalena was delayed.
By the time the ship was ready to sail, loaded with nearly 1,000 immigrant fighters and thousands of tons of materiel, the first ceasefire in the War of Independence had already been reached and importing weaponry would have constituted a violation of it. The Jewish state, however, was in need of weaponry and ammunition, so when Begin approached Ben-Gurion to inform him of the shipment, the two attempted to negotiate a deal that would see the ship’s cargo safely unloaded.
In order to evade detection by United Nations observers overseeing the ceasefire, the Irgun and the newly anointed leaders of the state and its army decided that the Altalena should be offloaded at Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya.
Negotiations between the Irgun and Ben-Gurion were complicated by Begin’s insistence on transferring most of the ship’s cargo to Irgun units operating within the newly established IDF, a condition to which Ben-Gurion could not agree. The new leader of Israel was already wary of having non-state controlled armed forces operating independently of the army and believed that directing the weaponry to IDF units from the Irgun would lead to an “army within an army.”
The fighting begins
As the ship began its final approach to Kfar Vitkin, IDF forces were ordered to surround the area in order to seize the payload. Following failed negotiations, the government decided to issue an ultimatum. The military commander on scene sent Begin a clear message: “I shall use all the means at my disposal in order to implement the order and to requisition the weapons which have reached shore and transfer them from private possession into the possession of the Israel government… You have ten minutes to give me your answer.”
Small-scale fighting between the two sides broke out at Kfar Vitkin, but Begin and the Irgun, aware of their numerical and tactical disadvantage, decided to send the Altalena south to Tel Aviv where more fighters could be assembled and the army was not yet situated to intercept the ship. Irgun fighters who had already joined the IDF began defecting from their commands and headed to Tel Aviv to fight for their weaponry.
As the two forces descended on Tel Aviv, fighting erupted along the shore and throughout the city, “mainly in the center and the south,” The Palestine Post reported in the aftermath of the clashes. The Israeli navy and artillery pieces on shore fired warning shots at the ship in a last-ditched attempt to force a surrender, but eventually hit the ship, setting it ablaze. Ultimately, over 20 Irgun fighters and more than a handful of IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting between the two Jewish forces. The Altalena was eventually brought out to sea and sunk.
Ben-Gurion has been both praised and disdained for his decision to take the Altalena by force. Fearing a civil war and a lack of government legitimacy based on the concept of a monopoly of force, Ben-Gurion ultimately decided that he could not tolerate Begin’s brazen refusal to put himself, his fighters and weaponry under the state’s command. Following the Altalena incident, however, Irgun and other militia forces were integrated into the IDF and the non-democratic challenges to the state’s legitimacy came to an end.
Nonetheless, the decision to order Jewish soldiers to act against fellow Jews – who too were fighting for the infant state’s survival – has never been forgiven by some who view it as a betrayal of the very purpose of a Jewish army. Until this day, the Altalena is invoked at times when state security forces are pitted against Jews, albeit not with the deadly consequences of June 1948.