The Altalena Arrives

June 20, 1948

The Altalena arrives off the coast of Kfar Vitkin from France carrying 900 immigrants and a large stockpile of weapons. Over the next two days, the Altalena (which was one of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s pen names) would become a major flash point in the early days of the new State of Israel.

The ship and its arms had been procured by the Etzel (also referred to as the Irgun), a right wing militant group that had been formed by Jabotinsky in the 1930’s to be a more aggressive force in dealing with the British and trying to gain independence.

When the Altalena landed, Etzel was led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Just a few weeks earlier on May 31st, the new government had issued an order creating a unified Israeli Defense Force. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, worried about the existence of a separate army within the army, demanded that Begin hand over all the weapons on the Altalena to the new IDF.

After unloading the immigrants, the Altalena left Kfar Vitkin and sailed toward Tel Aviv. On June 22, an ultimatum was issued by the IDF to Begin by brigade commander Dan Even, “I have been authorized to demand that you hand over the weapons to me for
safekeeping and to inform you that you should establish contact with the supreme command. You are required to carry out this order immediately. If you do not agree to carry out this order, I shall use all the means at my disposal in order to implement the order and to requisition the weapons which have reached shore and transfer them from private possession into the possession of the Israel government.”

When Begin failed to respond, the situation grew more tense as forces of both the IDF and Irgun began to mass on the Tel Aviv beach. At four in the afternoon on June 22, Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of the Altalena. Fire broke out and the ship sank; sixteen crew members died on board and many were wounded. Despite the remaining bitterness, the incident made it clear that no “dissident” armed force would be tolerated.

The photo above from Israel’s Government press office shows the burning Altalena on June 22, 1948.