The ‘Altalena’ burns, alliances go up in flames

Future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, following Ben-Gurion’s order, instructed an underling to fire the so-called “Holy Cannon,” which ignited the Altalena in flames.

MENACHEM BEGIN (center) with crew members of the ‘Altalena.’ (photo credit: JABOTINSKY ARCHIVES)
MENACHEM BEGIN (center) with crew members of the ‘Altalena.’
Sixty-seven years ago, on June 20, 1948, the Irgun cargo ship Altalena was attacked by Israeli gunboats off the coast of Kfar Vitkin, killing 16 and wounding many.
Those involved in the incident were some of the Jewish state’s most illustrious figures; the resulting animosity permeated Israeli politics for decades.
The ship was provided by the French government in an agreement with Shmuel Katz, the Paris commander of the Irgun – one of the Jewish paramilitary groups in the process of merging to form the IDF – to bring arms and fighters to Israel. Aboard was future prime minister Menachem Begin, who had ordered the Irgun bombing of the British military headquarters at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946.
During intense negotiations between himself and provisional government head David Ben-Gurion, an agreement was reached by which 20 percent of the ship’s arms would go to the Irgun in their ongoing battle for Jerusalem, while the rest would be allocated to the nascent IDF.
However, once the Altalena reached Kfar Vitkin, Ben-Gurion’s brigade commander issued a written ultimatum demanding Begin surrender the ship and its cargo immediately, or “all means” would be employed “to implement the order and to requisition the weapons.”
“You have 10 minutes to give me your answer,” he wrote ominously.
When Begin refused to comply, the ship was attacked. Future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, following Ben-Gurion’s order, instructed an underling – who vehemently protested but complied under the threat of treason – to fire the so-called “Holy Cannon,” which ignited the Altalena in flames.
DESPITE THE fact that on May 15, 1948, in a radio address, Begin pledged loyalty to the new government, some accuse him of plotting to overthrow it.
Yet Eliyahu Lankin, military commander of the ship, insisted that “the accusation of a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the State of Israel is the most vicious and the least credible of the claims leveled by Ben-Gurion’s faction.”
In Begin’s pledge of loyalty just over a month before the Altalena affair, he promised, “The Irgun is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state. We went underground, we arose in the underground, under a rule of oppression, in order to strike at oppression and to overthrow it.
“And right well we have struck. Now, for the time being, we have a Hebrew rule in part of our homeland. There is no need for a Hebrew underground.”
This pledge, as well as the agreement to share the arms on-board with Ben-Gurion, did nothing to stop the attack.
Opinions regarding the results of this attack have ranged from it being a tragedy to a necessity.
In September 1993, former ambassador to the UN Abba Eban stated to this reporter, “I must say that whatever the effects, the wounds are still fresh. The international effects were certainly beneficial, because the fight then was that Israel had already been established as a state, but the problem of recognition was very sticky.
“Ben-Gurion’s action was really related to the need to secure a minimal degree of recognition with which to live in the international context,” he averred. “You cannot live simply as a state with no international connections, and Ben-Gurion asserted, really, the sovereignty of Israel. And it was one of his most dramatic, one of his most courageous, but also one of his most – I would say – poignant actions.
“His logic was: Unless you have the army under a single jurisdiction, you couldn’t honestly say you were a state.”
In a 1993 interview with this reporter, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir objected to Eban’s analysis, saying, “It doesn’t surprise me. But it was not necessary for the prestige of Israel. It was necessary for the outside world… But it was not absolutely necessary and Rabin was, at that time, in charge of this small unit which bombarded the ship!” Indeed, Rabin operated under the command of IDF Gen. Yigal Allon, who ordered the cannon deployed. Following the incident, Ben-Gurion made a speech in which he is quoted as having said, “Blessed be the cannon that bombed that ship.”
Prior to the actual bombing, negotiations were conducted as a crowd began to gather on the beach. As the cargo was unloaded, gunfire erupted.
Shamir stated that, prior to the action, “Begin, here in Israel, informed the government that we would bring such a ship to Tel Aviv in the next few weeks or months, and they made a bargain about giving a part of the arms, for Jerusalem, to the Irgun – because Jerusalem was not yet a part of the State of Israel. According to the UN decisions, Jerusalem was designated to be an international city. Thus, the Irgun proposed to the provisional Israeli government to give the greater part of the arms to the army, and part of it, 20% or so, for Jerusalem.
“And before the ship arrived here, on that beach [near] Netanya, Ben-Gurion changed his mind and asked the Irgun to give up all the arms to the army!” “The ship with all the arms! With all the contents of the ship!” Shamir recounted incredulously.
“And well, the people with Begin did not agree and therefore this confrontation occurred. That’s it.”
THE ATTACK continued despite the fact that the crew was waving a white flag. Armor-piercing ammunition passed through the ship’s bulkhead, causing numerous casualties.
According to survivor testimony, a cease-fire was arranged but shortly thereafter, the Altalena took a direct hit. The crew made every effort to put out the fire but, because of the nature of the cargo, it proved impossible.
The order was given to abandon ship. Some men jumped off and attempted to swim ashore under fire. White flags continued to wave to no avail.
Attempts were made to help the injured, while more explosions left the vessel on fire and erupting violently. It continued to burn for several days.
According to one surviving crew member, “Begin pleaded with the Hagana not to fight us; he also wanted to compromise on the arms. All [those with] guns on ship were ordered not to open fire, and all ammunition was taken out of the guns. Men were told not to fire for any cause.”
During an interview with commander Katz, later an adviser to prime minister Begin, this reporter was told, “He tried to kill us! Ben-Gurion wanted to kill Begin, who was on the ship!” Concerning the agreement with the Hagana and the ship itself, Katz maintained in the interview, “It wasn’t such a great ship; it was the best thing we had and it was offered to the government. That’s not to say we were going to use it further. The idea was to bring it; this was part of the original agreement with them.
Once it [arms] was taken off, the ship would be presented to the government.
“I have no doubt about it. Nobody knows whether we got all the arms off at Kfar Vitkin, because that is where we brought the arms. Why did the Altalena come to Kfar Vitkin? It wasn’t an Irgun center. We wanted to bring the boat to Tel Aviv and get a whole lot of Irgun people to help unload it. But the agreement with the Hagana specified: No. Kfar Vitkin,” Katz continued.
When asked about Eban’s comments concerning Ben-Gurion’s need for consolidation of power, Katz’s animated response was, “Away with the bastard.… Here is a man who says it’s good to kill so many Jews [due to his need for] this consolidated [power]. It shows he’s an evil man.
“That statement itself – he didn’t have to say that! Ben-Gurion’s authority in the state was not consolidated because the Altalena was blown up. He was a prime minister after all, and no one was attacking his authority!”
“You see, Abba Eban is a pathological liar,” he stated plainly. “He always was. And if you were to bring Eban here, I would tell him so. Maybe he doesn’t know: He’s a liar. He’s dishonest and a terrific blower to his own trumpet. Even when it’s not justified.
“Is this all being recorded?” I confirmed that indeed it was. “Good!” he replied, going on to detail how in his own party, Eban was seen as a foreign minister who fires a shot, then goes to see where the bullet hit – and draws a target around that point.
Approximately 200 Irgun fighters were arrested and temporarily held following the Altalena incident. The ship was towed out to sea and sunk.
Despite Ben-Gurion’s supposed plan to have his political foe eliminated, Begin believed that, had he retaliated, the result would have been a civil war. He refused to fight other Jews: “A war between brothers? Never!” Moreover, in June 1967, he was part of a delegation that urged Ben-Gurion to return to the premiership.
Following that meeting, Ben-Gurion remarked that had he known Begin at the time of the Altalena as he did in 1967, history would have been very different.