The Altalena Affair

Good advice to Abu-Mazen: Keep clear of Altalena!

He is going to get tired of the sound of this name in the near future. Every Israeli he meets on the way to Aqaba and back will demand that he do to Hamas what Ben-Gurion did to this ship. But this will be a treacherous request. A short analysis will show why.

On the eve of the founding of the State of Israel, there were three armed Jewish organizations in Palestine. In private conversations, Israeli security experts compare the present Palestinian organization to these.

The largest was the “Hagana” (“Defense”), which was a semi-official and semi-clandestine militia of the Zionist leadership. It can be compared to the Fatah (Tanzim).

The second was the right-wing nationalist “National Military Organization” (for short, “Irgun”) of Menahem Begin. It split in the 30s from the Hagana and conducted bloody actions against the Arabs and the British occupation forces. It can be compared to the military wing of Hamas.

Even more extreme were the “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”, commonly known as the “Stern Gang” (after its founder, who was killed by the British police.) It split from the Irgun in 1940, after that organization had consented to a “armistice” with the British at the outbreak of World War II. There is some similarity between the Sternists and Islamic Jihad.

The elected Zionist leadership under David Ben-Gurion detested the two “dissident” groups. First, because they prevented it from conducting the policy it considered right. Every time a compromise with the British authorities was under discussion, they undertook some spectacular action against the British, such as the blowing up of the British headquarters in the King David hotel, the murder of Lord Moyne or the hanging of two British sergeants. Second, the dissidents threatened the leadership’s authority. Third, the leadership was leftist, while the Irgun was on the extreme right. (The ideology of the Sternists is harder to define.)

Ben-Gurion and his colleagues tried everything. At the end of 1944 they even started an operation code-named “Saison” (hunting season). Hagana men were sent to kidnap Irgun members on the streets and at home and to hand them over to the British police, which interrogated them under torture and put them in prison.

It was Menahem Begin, the Irgun commander, who prevented a bloody civil war. He did not shrink from shedding Arab and British blood, but shedding Jewish blood was abhorrent to him. He forbade his men from reacting, and even during the worst days of the Saison, Irgun members did not defend themselves.

His rival, Stern leader Nathan Yellin-Mor, gave different orders. As he told me years later: “I had a clandestine meeting with the Hagana leader, Eliyahu Golomb. I put my revolver in front of me on the table and said: Every one of us will open fire on whoever tries to kidnap us.” The Hagana wisely decided not to act against his group.

The Saison did not prevent the three organizations cooperating with each other only a few weeks later. They set up the “Hebrew Revolt Movement”, which did not remain in existence for long.

So what about the Altalena?

When Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel in May, 1948, he was determined to put an end to all the armed organizations except the Hagana, which became the IDF (official Hebrew name: “Israel Hagana Army”). He waited only for a suitable occasion.

It came when the Irgun sent a ship to the new state loaded with fighters, arms and ammunition. It was called Altalena (“see-saw”, the pseudonym of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the spiritual and political father of the Likud). The details of the “Altalena Affair” are still clouded in mystery, but the outcome is very clear: Ben-Gurion demanded that all the weapons be turned over to him, Begin refused. Fire was opened on the ship, which had reached the beach of Tel-Aviv. Yitzhaq Rabin commanded the attack. Menahem Begin, who had boarded the ship, was pushed by his men into the sea and escaped. Some of the Irgun men were killed, the ship sank with all the arms in its hold. Ben-Gurion publicly praised the “holy canon” that sank it.

All this happened in the middle of the war against the Arabs. By acting resolutely, Ben-Gurion put an end, once and for all, to the existence of private armies in Israel. (He destroyed the Stern Gang three months later, using as his pretext the murder of the Swedish UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, by Sternists.)

Those who now demand that Abu-Mazen “repeat the Altalena Affair”, are using dangerous demagoguery. The request sounds reasonable, but the circumstances are quite different. Among other things:

* Ben-Gurion began to destroy the Irgun after the British had left and the State of Israel had already been established, both formally and in fact. Abu-Mazen is being asked to do this while the State of Palestine does not exist and the Israeli army controls all the occupied territories.

* Ben-Gurion, like Yasser Arafat today, possessed the necessary moral, legal and practical authority. Abu-Mazen does not.

* At the disposal of Ben-Gurion was a large and disciplined army, which was already battle-tested. (I was a soldier at the time, and my company had an indirect part in the affair.) Abu-Mazen has nothing. During the last two years, the Israeli army has systematically destroyed the installations of the Palestinian security forces, including their prisons and data-bases. When Israeli soldiers see an armed Palestinian policeman they kill him on the spot, in violation of the Oslo agreements that created an armed police force.

There is no similarity between this situation and the background of the Altalena Affair. Arafat and Abu-Mazen are now behaving exactly as Ben-Gurion did in a similar phase: putting moral and practical pressure on the “dissidents”, arguing and threatening them.

The elimination of our armed underground was possible only because the vast majority of the Israeli population understood that with the establishment of the state the national aim had been attained, and the actions of the armed groups could only endanger that achievement. When the State of Palestine is established, and the majority of the Palestinian people realize that their national aim has been achieved, it will not be difficult for their leaders to overcome the armed organizations that try to obstruct them.

Before that, no Palestinian “sacred cannon” will open fire.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He can be reached at:


URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.