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Altalena Affair Ends: Nearly Leads to Israeli Civil War

On This Day in Jewish History: June 23, 1948

On this day, 1948, the newly formed state of Israel reels in the aftermath of the Altalena Affair that had ended the day before on June 22nd, 1948. The shelling of the Altalena by the IDF, a ship containing weapons and fighters for Israel’s War of Independence from the Irgun, remains a controversial, upsetting, and definitive moment at the very start of Israel’s statehood. The Altalena Affair refers to the conflict between the newly established Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which had emerged from the pre-state defense force the Haganah, and the Irgun, the other military force of pre-state Israel. A policy of restraint against the British and Arabs characterized the strategy of the Haganah while the Irgun disagreed with this approach. During the British Mandate period, the Haganah defended Jews from Arab violence and attacks but did not take an offensive strategy of pre-emptive or counter attacks. However, not all of the members of the Haganah agreed with this policy.

A group of Haganah commanders left in 1931 to form the Irgun Tz’va’i Le’umi. The Irgun carried out more aggressive reprisal attacks against the Arabs attempting to prevent the formation of a Jewish state. They also carried out attacks against the British, viewing them as the greater enemy to Jewish independence. When Israel declared independence in May 1948, the Haganah attempted to unify the different defense organizations and became the official defense force, now known as the IDF. While all of this was happening in Israel, the Altalena, which had been purchased by Irgun members abroad, had been due to arrive in Israel on May 15. The arrival was pushed back by several weeks. During that time, the Irgun led by Menachem Begin, agreed to be absorbed into the IDF, though distrust between the two forces remained.

One of the clauses of the agreement between the Irgun and the IDF was that the Irgun cease independent arms acquisitions. However, an arms deal had already been brokered by the Irgun and a ship, the Altalena, acquired to bring weapons and 940 soldiers and immigrants to Israel. Begin informed the IDF, led by David Ben-Gurion, that the ship had set sail though Begin had not given the go ahead. The arrival of the Altalena would now be in violation of the UN-brokered ceasefire between the Israel and the 6 Arab nations which stipulated that no further arms could be acquired. Ben-Gurion feared that the landing of the ship in Tel Aviv would be too obvious a violation of the ceasefire and instead insisted that Kfar Vitkin would be better. Despite an agreement on where to dock the ship, there was debate about what would happen to the cargo. Begin was determined that 80% of the weapons go to Irgun batallions in the IDF and the other 20% go to the Irgun battalion seiged in Jerusalem by Jordanians which had not been absorbed into the IDF yet. The first part of the request was rejected by Ben-Gurion and interpreted as an insubordinate demand to fortify an ‘army within an army’. Begin did not intend it this way but rather saw it as a point of honor. Ben-Gurion ordered Begin surrender and hand over all weapons and gave permission to use force to overcome the Irgun if necessary.

When the Altalena anchored off the coast near Kfar Vitkin, some passengers disembarked and joined the IDF, meanwhile Irgun members began unloading the cargo. Ben-Gurion sent instructions to his forces ordering Begin to surrender his cargo to the IDF immediately, providing only ten minutes for Begin to respond to his ultimatum. Insulted and potentially not realizing that Ben-Gurion saw him as a threat to the state, Begin refused to respond to the ultimatum and his following attempts at mediation failed in the tense atmosphere. Fighting broke out between the IDF and the Irgun forces, though it is unclear who fired the first shot. Begin reboarded the Altalena and directed it to Tel Aviv, where he hoped to speak to Ben-Gurion without an intermediary. Rumors began spreading about the fighting and former Irgun members in the IDF began leaving their posts. The prospect of a civil war became a real threat. Before it could dock in Tel Aviv, the Altalena was struck off the coast by IDF warships. IDF soldiers, led by commanders Yigal Alon and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, opened fire on the Irgun fighters. Though Begin had ordered the Irgun to not fire back even if fired upon, this order was not followed. The ship’s captain, Monroe Fein, ordered everyone on board to evacuate for fear of the shelling setting off the ammunition on board. The IDF continued to shoot as men jumped off the Altalena into the water. In total, 16 Irgun fighters and 3 IDF soldiers were killed.

A cease fire was put into place the same night while Begin broadcasted on public radio the importance of his men not to fight back even though from his point of view they had clearly been wronged. For the rest of his life, Begin credited himself and not Ben-Gurion for avoiding civil war on that day. Ben-Gurion ordered the arrest of over 200 Irgun fighters, though most were released in the following weeks. The Altalena Affair remains a controversial piece of Israel’s history and opinions on who was at fault vary widely.



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