June 22, 1948, was the date of one of the most divisive and disturbing events in Zionist history – the shelling of the Altalena, a ship bearing arms and recruits for Israel’s War of Independence, by the newly minted Israeli army. The bitterness caused by the incident remains fresh for many people even today.
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The Altalena, which was attacked off the coast of Tel Aviv, had been dispatched by the Revisionist pre-state militia Irgun shortly after Israel’s declaration of statehood. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion reportedly saw the Irgun’s decision to proceed with the mission, even though the militia had already been integrated into the Israel Defense Forces, as evidence of insurrection. He therefore precipitated a confrontation with the vessel.
Over the course of the two-day showdown, 19 people were killed, most of them veteran Irgun members.
Consolidating the pre-state militias
When the State of Israel was founded, on May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion ordered the various pre-state militias consolidated into a single military force. But only on June 1 did the Irgun and the government finally sign an agreement, which, inter alia, barred it from importing arms independently.
Well before that agreement was signed, however, the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, had arranged an arms deal with the French government. To bring the newly acquired weapons and some 900 new recruits to Israel, it had purchased a decommissioned American vessel, Landing Ship Tank 138.
The ship was renamed the Altalena, one of the pseudonyms of the Revisionist Movement’s late founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
When the Altalena’s departure from Port de Bouc, France, was delayed from early May to June 11, Begin informed the government and met with its representatives to determine how the ship’s cargo would be distributed on arrival. Begin wanted some of the arms to go
directly to his forces in Jerusalem, where the various militias were still battling independently of one another; Ben-Gurion basically insisted that everything be transferred to the IDF.
The ship arrives
On the afternoon of June 21, the ship dropped anchor off Kfar Vitkin, north of Netanya, per the government’s instructions. All 940 volunteers on board disembarked and reported to a camp in nearby Netanya to enlist, and close to half of the arms – 2,000 rifles, two million rounds of bullets and 3,000 shells – were unloaded and turned over to the IDF. But meanwhile, the cabinet met and ruled that nothing could remain in the Irgun’s hands.
The IDF commander on the scene, Dan Even, sent an ultimatum to Begin, who was now on board the Altalena, giving him 10 minutes to surrender the ship or be fired upon. When Begin didn’t respond, shooting began. It isn’t clear which side started it.
Six Irgun soldiers and two from the IDF were killed before Begin ordered the Altalena to up anchor and sail for Tel Aviv, where he hoped to be able to negotiate directly with government officials.
At midnight between June 21 and 22, the Altalena ran aground opposite the Kaete Dan Hotel (today the Dan Tel Aviv). Ben-Gurion ordered it surrounded by troops on shore and two naval gunboats.
Begin ordered his men not to fire even if they were fired upon. But apparently, some of his men disregarded that command.
As Begin’s people began unloading the remainder of the Altalena’s cargo, the IDF
forces on the beach, under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, fired on the ship and the naval vessels began shelling it. Fearful that the munitions still on board could be set off, the Altalena’s captain, Monroe Fein, ordered everyone to evacuate.
A shell did penetrate the ship’s hull, and Fein ordered the vessel flooded. But even as the men jumped into the water, the IDF continued shooting.
By the time a cease-fire was arranged that evening, another 10 Irgun fighters and one IDF soldier had been killed.