Raising Israel's Altalena ship 'a lesson for the future'
By Matthew Bell
(the full broadcast is here)
PRI's The World The Altalena Affair was a painful moment in the early history of the modern state of Israel
A project to raise a sunken ship in Israel, the Altalena, is stirring up painful memories of a violent confrontation between the army of the newborn state and the Irgun Jewish paramilitary group, reports PRI The World's Matthew Bell.Schoolchildren in Israel this year are studying two former prime ministers - David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Next year 2013 will be the 100th anniversary of Begin's birth, and 40 years since Ben Gurion's death.All these years later, Israeli authorities believe there is a great deal to learn from the two national icons.The truth is, Ben-Gurion and Begin did not like each other very much. Eventually, they reconciled. But in the first few weeks after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, these two leaders were on a dangerous collision course. The low-point came with the sinking of a cargo ship in June of that year. On the boardwalk in central Tel Aviv, across the street from McDonald's and next to a beachfront bar called Mike's Place, there is a stone memorial to 16 Jewish men.They were members of the Irgun militia, killed during the events leading up to the sinking of their ship, the Altalena. A memorial to the Irgun members killed in the Altalena affair stands by the beach in Tel Aviv Just a month after the State of Israel declared independence, it was still fighting hostile Arab armies and the boat was bringing in badly-needed weapons. The commander of the Irgun at the time was Menachem Begin. The man who gave the order to attack the Altalena was David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.He saw Begin's militia as a threat to the new Israeli government and was willing to spill Jewish blood to establish his authority.'Jews killing Jews'"People were very angry," says Shlomo Nakdimon, a retired Israeli journalist. Aged 12 years old at the time, he came to the beach to see the smouldering hulk of the Altalena with his own eyes. He remembers how he felt about the newly-founded Israel Defense Forces (IDF) killing Jewish militiamen of the Irgun."I was angry like the other people," Mr Nakdimon says as he looks out to the Mediterranean Sea. Tel Aviv was a hotbed of support for the Irgun and people felt the new Israeli government could have resolved its dispute with the militia group, "without shooting, without Jews killing Jews."Jews killing Jews. That is what makes the Altalena affair such a painful one for Israelis.Yehiel Kadishai was one of a number of Irgun fighters among some 900 passengers on the cargo ship. Most onboard were Jewish refugees from Europe. Irgun leader Menachem Begin went on to become prime minister He said the mood on the ship was one of indescribable joy. These were Jewish survivors of World War II, leaving Europe for an independent Jewish state."I was very happy, together with all of us," Mr Kadishai says. "We were singing the anthem, the Hatikva."Mr Kadishai had grown up in Tel Aviv and served with Jewish volunteers in the British army during the war. He said he taught some of his fellow passengers Hebrew. There were political lectures and for those who had never held a rifle, lessons on the deck about how to shoot.When the Altalena dropped anchor north of Tel Aviv at a place called Kfar Vitkin, the refugees went ashore and were sent off on buses to begin their new lives. Under fireThe Irgun men remained on the beach. Their job was to unload a huge stockpile of weapons from the Altalena. Menachem Begin was there and Mr Kadishai said he called for everyone's attention."Begin started to speak and to say that there were some differences of opinion between the government and the Irgun," he recalls. "He said two or three sentences and all of a sudden, bullets came at us from two sides."In the confusion, Kadishai and the rest of the men on the beach took cover. Some grabbed weapons. Mr Kadishai started firing back, but he had no idea who - or where - he was firing at."I was lying there. Next to me, one boy whom I knew from Italy was shot in his thigh and the blood was flowing from him. I couldn't move and I didn't know what to do," he says.The injured boy next to Kadishai eventually bled to death on the beach that night.Over the next day or so, the violence continued. Begin got back on the Altalena and it moved south, near the Tel Aviv beach. That is where the IDF shelled the ship and scored a direct hit. One of the Israeli commanders directing fire at the Irgun men was Yitzhak Rabin, who would later go on to become Israel's prime minister.When the shooting finally stopped, 16 Irgun men were dead along with three IDF troops. The ship was in flames, much of its cargo lost. Mr Kadishai says the idea that Irgun men would be shot at by members of the IDF was unthinkable. It is still difficult to talk about."Now I can smile and laugh because 65 years [has] almost past," he says. "Until the last day of my life, I'll be angry."Yehiel Kadishai went on to become Begin's personal secretary.Raising the shipDirector of the Begin Center in Jerusalem, Herzl Makov, believes it was Menachem Begin who pulled Israel back from the brink of civil war."Begin decided not to fight back," Mr Makov says. "Begin realised it was a strategic issue: 'if we, the Jewish people were going to have among ourselves now a war, there was no chance to get independence.' So, he ordered, 'don't shoot back,'" he says.Mr Makov wants to highlight this lesson of history by raising the Altalena, or at least part of it, from the bottom of the sea and building a new monument. He is currently looking for funding for the project.But there is an enduring dispute over the ship. Not everyone sees Begin as the hero of the story. Some would say that Ben-Gurion's decision, as difficult as it might have been, to strike against the Irgun's weapons ship was a key moment for the Jewish state. The sinking of the Altalena continues to be marked years later The sinking of the Altalena, this line of thinking goes, is when Israel became a truly sovereign state."Everything was still in the making, so in this situation the determination of Ben-Gurion was absolutely necessary," says Anita Shapira, a historian with the Israel Democracy Institute, who is working on a new biography of Ben-Gurion."The idea that small minorities are entitled to use force to change the course of history was a basic tenet of all Jewish underground [movements]," Ms Shapira said. "Ben-Gurion wouldn't have any of it."The Altalena affair is burned into Israel's collective memory. People have continued to draw historical analogies to the incident.During negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, there were calls for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to create his own "Altalena moment" by reining in militia groups by force. Then there are the comparisons with the Jewish settlements scattered across the West Bank. They are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.As with the Irgun militia, Jewish settlers are viewed by some Israelis and their supporters as the vanguard of the Zionist movement. Others see the settlement project as endangering Israel's future.In any case, Herzl Makov at the Begin Center says learning from history is important - and a lesson which raising the Altalena could provide.
When Menachem Begin returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1982, Israel thought it was getting not only peace but, in exchange, a buffer zone that would protect it from a hitherto intractable foe. The northern coastal plain connecting Africa to Asia was too scrubby to sustain much life. Its largest town and provincial capital was called El Arish, Arabic for palm huts. Arid inhospitable mountains dominated the center and south. And the Camp David Accords that Egypt and Israel signed in 1978 required Egypt to keep its soldiers and tanks away from the Sinai; the eastern half was turned into a demilitarized zone monitored by a US-dominated multinational force.
All that is changing as new forces pile in. Egypt has a new ruling party that sees Israel more as a threat than an ally...
... rapid population growth has turned Sinai’s indigenous population of Bedouin people into a power to contend with, particularly in the corner of North Sinai where Egypt, Israel, and Gaza meet.
The Bedouin people are descendants of the nomads who crossed the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. They consider themselves Egypt’s only real Arabs, and view other Egyptians as Arabized Africans. Their numbers have grown eightfold in forty years; today, several of their twenty tribes are tens of thousands strong. And though many are moving to new sprawling cities like El Arish, the tribes have established separate suburbs and have yet to settle down...
...Ostracized by the Mubarak regime, which viewed them as a potential fifth column and denied them a share of the tourism industry on Sinai’s coast, Sinai’s Bedouin tapped other sources of finance and support. To the north, they found a ready partner in Hamas, which was under siege by Israel and anxious to find alternative supplies of food, fuel, and sometimes arms. Together, Sinai’s Bedouin and Hamas dug—sometimes with Egyptian government collusion—hundreds of tunnels under their common border. Their cross-border clan networks, intimate knowledge of the terrain—“I can tell a man’s tribe from his footprint,” a Bedu told me—and contempt for twenty-first-century controls make the Bedouin expert traffickers. Fancy villas, with roofs fashioned as pagodas and garages for Lexuses, in North Sinai’s once dirt-poor villages testify to the extent of their success...
Over the past 20 years or so, the power of Egypt's central authority in its hinterlands has weakened. The strength of the Bedouin has grown. And over the past decade or so, the Bedouin of Sinai, like the Bedouin from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Israel have become aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and its al Qaida and Hamas spinoffs.
The Bedouin attacks on Egyptian police and border guard installations in al Arish and Suez over the past three weeks are an indication that the fear of a strong state, which was so central to Israel's thinking in during the peace process with Egypt, is no longer Israel's most urgent concern. Transnational jihadists in the Sinai are much more immediately threatening than the Egyptian military is. But the peace treaty - signed with a military dictator -- provides neither Israel nor Egypt with tools to deal with this threat.
AS ISRAEL moves into the uncharted territory of managing its relations with the post-Mubarak Egypt, it is imperative that our leaders understand the lessons of the past.
Moshe Dayan, an officer during the Saison, explained the Haganah in 1944-45 was continuing to cooperate with the British in the fight against Nazi Germany. The Haganah was therefore anxious to stop the independent actions of the dissident paramilitary organizations such as the Irgun Zvai Le’ummi and the Lehi (Stern Group).’91 The Palestine Government employed the Haganah in this role as the Security Service found it extremely difficult to obtain information on the Irgun Zvai Le’ummi (IZL) and LEHI and the Palestine Police ‘singly failed to penetrate these two organizations.’92 The Haganah provided some of its best forces to the efforts of the Saison, including those who formerly made up some of the special units trained by the SOE.93 Some veterans of the special units began working in the Saison soon after the dissolution of their units.94 Some began as bodyguards for senior Haganah figures while others put their skills in infiltration, covert operations, and attacking high value targets directly to use. The primary skills employed by SOE- trained personnel during the Saison were those required for following and ambushing a high value target and then disappearing again into the general population.95 In these activities, the SOE-trained personnel were most certainly successful. Polish intelligence verified that much of the lull in militant activities during the Saison was due to the Haganah ‘seizing (it is said with the tacit approval of British authorities) the more active members of the terrorist group, and banishing them for a convenient period of time from the arena of political life.’96 It was not just the British and Poles who believed that the Haganah units were effective. According to former members of the IZL, the Haganah was effective and a greater threat than the British, primarily because of its ability to act covertly, swiftly and decisively. These were the very skills that SOE training had emphasized.97
91 Dayan, Moshe (1976) p. 57
92 Extract from Summary Middle East No. 2 by S.I.M.E. Cairo – 5.12.1941 In KV5/29, Extract from Mr. A.J. Kellar’s Report on his visit to the Mid-East in KV5/29
93 Interview with Avigdor Cohen
94 Interview with Hayim Miller
95 Interview with Hayim Miller 2, Interview with Avigdor Cohen
96 Report from Polish Security, Middle East, 17.4.45 In KV5/29
97 Interview with Eli Shitrit, Interview with Yehuda Lapidot
1948: Israeli Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, is honored by Mayor William O’Dwyer at City Hall. The Police Glee Club sings the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva. Begin is greeted with a standing ovation. O’Dwyer jokes about Begin’s reputation with the police and the fact that the British have a price on his head. Begin thanks the United States for support. O’Dwyer also introduces a young man named Samuel Tamir, a survivor of several concentration camps and the commander of the Irgun’s Jerusalem troops. The program ends with the Police Glee Club singing Marching Along Together.