Bystander watch as the ‘Altalena’ burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv on 20 June 1948. photo credit: Israel Government Press Office
On 20 June 1948, soldiers in the newly created Israel Defense Forces opened fire on a Jewish ship, the Altalena, destroying it and thousands of weapons, and killing other Jewish soldiers. The incident, which become known as the Altalena Affair, left nearly two dozen Jewish soldiers dead and almost led to a civil war.
In the 1930s and early 1940s three Jewish militia groups operated in British Mandate Palestine: Haganah, Lechi, and the Irgun. The largest of the three groups, the Hagannah [defense], attempted to counter or preempt Arab attacks on Jews in an effort to maintain a good relationship with the British. The Irgun, [National Military Organization], however, was more aggressive and carried out attacks on British forces. Future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion led the Hagannah, while future Prime Minister Menachem Begin led the Irgun. The pair were largely regarded as rivals, even as archnemeses.
With Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion's declaration of the State of Israel as an independent, sovereign state on 14 May 1948, there was a tremendous need for one united army to combat the Arabs planning to attack Israel. Therefore, the militia groups merged into the Israel Defense Forces, although not without tension: Ben-Gurion and Begin still distrusted each other, A month into Israel’s War of Independence, an UN-brokered ceasefire stipulated that no new weapons could be brought into the country by either side. The day the ceasefire was announced, the Altalena, an Irgun boat carrying ammunition, set sail for Israel. Not wanting to appear as if he were undermining Ben-Gurion, Begin alerted him to the ship’s planned arrival.
Ben-Gurion told Begin that the ship should land north of Tel Aviv, in Kfar Vitkin, an area loyal to the Hagannah forces and Ben-Gurion. While Begin agreed, he was adamant that the Irgun retain 20% of the ammunition. Ben-Gurion rejected the offer, however, maintaining that there could only be one army, and famously saying, “There are not going to be two states. There are not going to be two armies! If Begin doesn’t give in, we shall open fire.”
When the Altalena docked in Kfar Vitkin, Hagannah and Irgun soldiers worked together to unload the ammunition. Ben-Gurion ordered Begin to hand over all the cargo immediately, with no preconditions. While it is unclear what happened next, shots were fired, and Ben-Gurion eventually ordered the ship to be shelled. When the shooting had ceased, 16 members of the Irgun and three IDF soldiers had been killed. Despite the tension and bloodshed, Begin went on the radio calling on members of the Irgun not to fight the IDF: “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today. It is forbidden for a Hebrew weapon to be used against Hebrew fighters.”
In the aftermath of the event, both Ben-Gurion and Begin believed that they had each saved the country from civil war.
Ben-Gurion was convinced that the Altalena Affair had preserved the rule of law and called the cannon that sank the Altalena the “Holy Cannon,” adding that it was so sacred, it deserved to stand close to the Temple if it is built.
On the other hand, Begin believed that he had saved the country by ordering his soldiers not to return fire. The future prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner even said, “After my death, I hope I will be remembered as someone who prevented civil war.”
The rivalry between the two would eventually subside. Nearly two decades later, on the eve of the Six-Day War in June 1967, Begin approached a retired Ben-Gurion and asked him to join the coalition. While Ben-Gurion rejected the offer, he was moved by the gesture, saying, that if he had known Begin at the time of the Altalena episode as he knew him now, the face of history would have been different.