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The 'Altalena' Affair

The 'Altalena' ship, commanded by Eliyahu Lankin, sailed from Marseille in France on the 11.6.48, with a cargo of armaments. There were 850 passengers on board, the majority were Holocaust survivors who had been trained in camps by 'Etzel' instructors. Begin learned of the ship's departure only through radio broadcasts and he tried to prevent it from arriving in Israel because he did not want to breach the truce that had come into force on that day – without receiving permission from the State of Israel.

In 1947, a large American landing craft (1820 tons) was bought for $130,000 by 'The People's Liberation Committee' – the political and propaganda section of the 'Etzel' in America. The plan was to convert it into a passenger ship and bring armed immigrants to the coast of Israel to coincide with the time of the British departure, in order to take part in the War of Independence. The name 'Altalena' was the alias for Jabotinsky.
Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel, sent letters to the Etzel headquarters in the Diaspora with urgent requests for armaments to be shipped to Israel or, alternatively, for money to be sent for the purchase of armaments.
Twenty four hours after the State was declared, a meeting took place between Menachem Begin, Israel Galilee and Levi Eshkol (representing the Defense Minister, David Ben Gurion) in order to discuss the possibilities for landing the 'Altalena' safely.
The Etzel had planned to bring about a thousand fighters and also a great deal of arms that would come from different sources.
On the 24.5.1948, George Bidot, the French Foreign minister announced his agreement to supply the Etzel with arms to the value of $5,000,000. The consignment included 5,000 British rifles, 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition for the rifles and machine-guns, 250 Bren machine guns, 250 Sten guns, 150 'Spandau' machine guns, 50 heavy mortars, 5,000 mortar shells and a considerable quantity of explosive materials. In addition to the above, there were armaments that were acquired from other sources. Personnel from the Aliya (immigration) department were aware of the Etzel plans and held the ship under close surveillance.
In accordance with the founding orders of 'Zahal' (the Israeli Army), the existence of a separate military organization in the country was prohibited. On 1.6.1948, Begin signed an agreement whereby the organization would disband voluntarily and give up its arms. The Etzel members would be organized in special regiments within the Israeli army framework.

'Altalena', commanded by Eliyahu Lankin, sailed from Marseille in France on the 11.6.48, with a cargo of armaments and 850 people, most of whom were Holocaust survivors who had been trained in camps in Europe by 'Etzel' instructors.
Begin found out that the ship had sailed only from radio broadcasts and he attempted to prevent the arrival in Israel because he did not want to violate the cease-fire - that had come into force on that day - without the authorization of the government of Israel
On the 16.6.1948, Begin reported to government representatives that the ship had sailed from Marseille with its cargo of armaments on board. The Minister of Defense, Ben Gurion, gave the order: 'They must be brought to an unknown beach' – and it was decided to choose the Kfar Vitkin beach in the Sharon area.
While the landing-craft was approaching the coast of Israel, the Etzel envoys were negotiating with envoys from the Ministry of Defense about the future of the shipment of armaments on the boat. The Etzel people wanted first to arm all of its members who were being inducted into the Israeli army, claiming that they were discriminated against and that the arms in their possession were inferior. They also demanded to transfer one fifth of the arms to their units in Jerusalem who were fighting there as an independent body.
Galili agreed that the arms would be transferred to Jerusalem but he did not indicate specifically to whom it would be handed over. A discussion arose as to where the armaments would be stored and who would guard over them. The Etzel people wanted the arms to be stored in their storage facilities with combined Etzel and Hagana guards. Both sides were mistrustful of each other.
On the 19.6.1948. Galilee reported to Ben Gurion on the failed negotiations with the Etzel and that they, the Etzel were plotting to overthrow the government or alternatively, to declare a separate state in Jerusalem. The Etzel was ordered to deliver all of its armaments into the hands of the government. According to the plan, the 'Altalena' was to reach the Kfar Vitkin coast on the evening of 20.6.1948 in order to unload the cargo at night and then to return to Marseilles for an additional cargo of armaments.
At the cabinet meeting, the ministers were not provided with full information. The information about the exchanges with Begin were not reported and therefore the ministers had the impression that this was a surprise development. A decision was taken to respond decisively and the order given to Yigal Yadin, the Operations Section Commander of the General Staff was: to try and prevent the offloading of the armaments without using force. However, "if there is no alternative – force will be used". The immigrants on the ship were to be transferred without arms, to a Jewish Agency immigrant camp.
Zahal, the Israeli army, concentrated a large force on the beach: the Alexandroni Brigade, forces from the 7th Brigade, Battalion 89 (the Commando unit of Moshe Dayan from the 8th Brigade and a company from the 6th Battalion (that was brought from the Pardess Hana camp). Two naval vessels were situated nearby. They were all ordered to overpower the ship whose people continued to offload and transfer the cargo of armaments to the 'Etzel' storehouses.
On the morning of the 21.6.1948, General Dan Even arrived and presented an ultimatum that stated: to begin transferring the cargo within ten minutes and to report to the Supreme Command for a discussion. The attempts to delay execution of the ultimatum until the morning were rejected. Begin, who feared that he would be arrested when he came to the Supreme Command, decided to board the ship and set sail to the Tel Aviv coast where the Etzel enjoyed broad support and where he would be able to negotiate from a position of greater strength than on the Kfar Vitkin beach.
When the ship arrived at the Tel Aviv coast, it was marooned on a reef about 150 meters from the beach. Many Etzel soldiers gathered on the beach. There were those who had abandoned their units in the army and broke through road-blocks that were set up on the roads. Ben-Gurion did not agree to any compromise – he perceived the situation as a revolt against the state and its army. The men on the ship lowered a boat laden with arms in an attempt to arm the Etzel people on the beach who had laid siege to the Ritz hotel (where the headquarters of the Palmach were situated) and were attempting an attack. In response, the army began to fire from the coast in the direction of the boat. The exchange of fire continued for several hours. At noon, Yigal Alon , the Palmach commander, took command of the battle in Tel Aviv. He mobilized forces from the 'Yiftach', 'Carmeli and 'Hanegev' Brigades and planned to take control of the Etzel objectives and their units in the army. At four o'clock in the afternoon, Ben Gurion ordered Yigal Yadin to bombard the ship. Artillery was placed at the 'Yona Camp" (today's Hilton hotel) and they opened fire, hitting the Altalena which began to burn. The men on board began to jump into the sea – later they claimed that they had been fired on while they were in the water – and an hour later the armaments began to explode on the ship. 16 (or 18) Etzel fighters were killed and 10 were injured, and the affair caused a political crisis. Most of the armaments sank and were unfit for use.
In the course of the battle on the Tel Aviv beach, the Palmach forces served as the principal operational arm of the government. They succeeded in preventing the Etzel personnel from unloading the remainder of the armaments in order to equip their members who had deserted their units in the army with the intention of performing illegal acts – as was presumed.
This episode serves as a bone of contention between right and left to this day in Israel.

נושאי משנה

Palmach Units's Involvement in the Affair
Operation "Purification"

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