The Defense Ministry said Friday the Irgun members who died in 1948 when the ship the Altalena was sunk by the Israel Defense Forces were "murdered."

The Altalena, carrying members of the right-wing Irgun militia, was sunk after arriving in Tel Aviv against the Israeli government's orders. Friday's announcement was put out ahead of a memorial ceremony for the dead, which will be held today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on hand.

The ministry's statement did not specify who the murderers were. The order to shell the Altalena was given by David Ben-Gurion, both prime minister and defense minister at the time. The clash took place in June 1948 out of fear the fledgling state's authority could be undermined.

The Palmach force that shelled the ship was commanded by Yitzhak Rabin. Ben-Gurion opposed the existence of an independent paramilitary force that did not recognize the new government's authority.

Friday's announcement was published by the soldier memorial unit of the Defense Ministry's families and commemoration department. The ceremony, to be held today at the Nahalat Yitzhak military cemetery, is being organized by the organization of Irgun soldiers in Israel.

The clash in 1948 left 16 Irgun members and three IDF soldiers dead. Rabin wrote in his memoirs that Irgun reinforcements were streaming to the shore both from the ship and Tel Aviv. He said the Palmach headquarters was shot at, and the Palmach returned fire. He said one of the Irgun commanders shouted, "why are you shooting Jews?" "I told him, when Jews stop shooting us, we'll stop shooting Jews," Rabin wrote. He said he was at peace with Ben-Gurion's order.

Haaretz has asked the Defense Ministry whether Defense Minister Ehud Barak, currently in Paris, believes that the Altalena casualties were "murdered," with all that entails for Ben-Gurion, Rabin and the IDF. The head of information at the ministry, Shlomi Am-Shalom, said Barak gave an order to "investigate the severe mishap, ensure that it doesn't recur and publish a corrected announcement this morning, before the ceremony."

The head of the families and commemoration department at the ministry, Aryeh Mualem, was away from work because of a death in the family last week and did not see the draft of the announcement before it went to print. Following the incident, announcements by the ministry will now be monitored by the information department.