Underwater Search for Sunken Altalena Ship Set to Begin

Altalena was a ship belonging to the Irgun, a prestate Jewish militia, which was shelled and sunk by Israeli government forces when it tried to land an arms cargo shortly after the state's establishment.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Prime Minister's Office and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center are expected to carry out an underwater search for the remnants of the Altalena in the coming weeks.

The Altalena was a ship belonging to the Irgun, a prestate Jewish militia, which was shelled and sunk by Israeli government forces when it tried to land an arms cargo shortly after the state's establishment.

The Altalena burning off the coast of Tel Aviv on June 22, 1948.Credit: Hans Chaim Pinn / Government Press Office

At Sunday's annual memorial service for those who died on the Altalena, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a commemoration of its story will be included in the government's national heritage sites program.

A source in the Prime Minister's Bureau said the proposal to try to locate the remains of the ship came from the Begin Center. Reuven Pinsky, who heads the government office in charge of the heritage sites program, and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser were thrilled with the idea and brought it to the prime minister, who embraced it.

The initial funding for the project will be NIS 200,000, to cover the underwater search team and the equipment needed to locate wrecks underwater. The initial aim is to determine where the ship is lying.

At a later stage, various possibilities for commemorating the Altalena, its crew and the story will be considered. Currently, there is a small memorial for the Altalena on the Tel Aviv promenade.

"We want to preserve the Altalena's heritage and story, and especially the values it represents," said a source in Netanyahu's bureau. "It is especially important to preserve the value of preventing a civil war and preserving the unity of the nation."

In June 1948, the Irgun tried to smuggle a large quantity of arms for its own use into Israel aboard the Altalena. Since the Irgun would not agree to surrender the weapons to the newly formed Israel Defense Forces, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the ship shelled and sunk when it tried to dock near Tel Aviv.

In the ensuing exchange of fire, 16 Irgun members and three IDF soldiers were killed. The ship went up in flames. But Begin, the Irgun's leader, refused to let Irgun members retaliate, saying he didn't want a civil war.

The Altalena lay on its side in shallow water off the coast of Tel Aviv for several months, but then Ben-Gurion ordered the navy to drag it out to sea and sink it. Some say he ordered the ship broken into pieces before it was sunk.

People involved in searching for the ship believe it lies some 10 kilometers from the coast at a depth of 60 to 70 meters.

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