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The Story of Altalena

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Adam Noy

Dec 30, 1995, 3:00:00 AM12/30/95

Samuel Schachter

The tragedy of Jewish violence against fellow-Jews did not begin
in Tel
Aviv in November 1995. I was an eyewitness to the killing of Israeli
Jews, by other Israeli Jews in the spring of 1948, shortly after the
State of Israel was established, just a few miles from the site where
Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
In June 1948, I was a 19-year-old member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi,
Jewish international fighting force led by Menachem Begin. The IZL's
guerrilla warfare had played a crucial role in forcing the British to
leave the Holy Land, and now we were taking part in the united Jewish
effort to repel the Arab invasion of the newborn Jewish state.
The most serious obstacle we faced was a drastic shortage of
Our battalions had plenty of volunteers, but there weren't always
enough guns to go around. And the shortage of weapons was impeding
efforts to forge a single, united Israeli Army. During the spring of
1948, IZL units were gradually being absorbed into the Army, which was
dominated by the labor Zionist militia, the Haganah, and its strike
force, the Palmach. Long- time political rivals were joining hands in
defense of the Jewish state. New soldiers were expected to bring their
underground weapons with them into the new Israeli Army. IZL members
who had weapons were allowed to join first. Those of us who didn't
have weapons had to wait.
The answer to our prayers -- or so we thought -- was the S.S.
an IZL ship carrying weapons that had been purchased abroad, which in
June 1948 approached Israel's shores. The weapons were for the
Israeli Army; the IZL's only condition was that 20% of them be
allocated to the fight for Jerusalem, which was then under Arab siege.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at first agreed.
I was taking part in training exercises in an abandoned British
base near Netanya on that June afternoon when a messenger brought
shocking news: Palmach forces, under the command of young Yitzhak
Rabin, were shooting at the Altalena. Ben-Gurion had apparently
reneged on the agreement and decided to strike a blow at Begin and the
IZL, his political rivals. About 20 of us immediately boarded trucks
and sped towards the Tel Aviv beach front where the Altalena had tried
to land. I remember the journey as if it were yesterday. All the
way, I was thinking to myself that it couldn't be true, Jews wouldn't
shoot at other Jews.
But when we reached Tel Aviv, my worst fears were confirmed. We
our way past the beach front cafes and across the sand. But almost as
soon as we set foot on the beach, we were attacked. As bullets
whizzed by, we pressed ourselves against the wall that rings the beach
front. For more than 15 minutes, the gunfire continued. I vividly
recall several shots missing me by mere inches. Several of our boys
had guns with them, but we were under orders to refrain from shooting
back. The Irgun clung faithfully to the principle that there should
never be a civil war between Jews. Unfortunately, the other side
didn't feel the same way.
The shooting subsided as night fell. We stayed right where we
huddled against the beach wall for protection from the Haganah's
bullets. Nobody slept a wink. During the night, Irgun members from
another unit joined us. They described how their trucks had been
fired upon by Haganah forces as they drove through the Beit Dagan
area, on their way to Tel Aviv. Five Irgun boys had been killed by the
gunfire. They, too, did not shoot back.
The Altalena had run aground in a rocky area and was anchored
just off
shore. In the morning, we watched a small boat bringing the first load
of weapons to the landing spot on the beach. It flew makeshift white
flags, and announcements were made repeatedly, over loudspeakers, that
the weapons would not be used against fellow-Jews but rather would be
shipped immediately to the Jewish forces who were then fighting to
prevent the Arab conquest of Jerusalem. The first boat encountered no
opposition. But when the second boat set out, the Palmach gunners
opened fire. Several of the Irgun boys were hit. But none shot back.
The assault continued in full force. Their cannons finally sank
ship, and their marksmen shot at the survivors as they swam to shore.
When it was all over, the Altalena went up in smoke and its weapons
sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. At least 16 Jews had been
killed. It was a horrifying spectacle that I can never forget. Jews
had shed Jewish blood, and a permanent scar had been left upon the
young Israeli national psyche.
[The author is a businessman in Florida.]
(From _Israel and Mideast News_, ed. Murray Kahl, Internet, Nov 95)

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