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June 20: Ben Gurion Almost Provokes a Civil War

June 19, 2016

150608Altalena_nOn this date in 1948, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, ordered the new Israel Defense Forces to seize the ship Altalena, which was laden with weapons and about 1,000 Jewish immigrant fighters. The ship was controlled by Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Ben-Gurion first demanded that Begin hand over the weapons and the ship, and gave only ten minutes for a reply; Begin refused, and the ship was then attacked by Israeli Navy gunboats off the coast of Kfar Vitkin. Sixteen men were killed (and many others wounded) by machine gun fire and artillery. According to Joanna M. Saidel in the Times of Israel, “Begin himself had stated his support for a Provisional Government and the disbanding of the Irgun. On May 15, 1948, he had made an emotional speech in which he pledged loyalty to the new government, saying, ‘The Irgun is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew independent State. ... In the State of Israel we shall be soldiers and builders. And we shall respect its government, for it is our government.’” Abba Eban nevertheless considered Ben Gurion’s action to be necessary for gaining international recognition for the new Israeli government: “You can’t be a government unless you have a monopoly of violence,” he told Saidel in 1993. “Once you have two armies in a country, then that means that neither of them can be a government. It becomes a Lebanon with militias . . .”

Captain Fein lifted a white flag in order to stop the shooting and allow the crew and the passengers to abandon ship peacefully, but army forces kept on shooting, nevertheless. The ship sank with all its cargo. Two hundred members of the IZL [Irgun Zvai Leumi] were arrested but were freed on August 27th (except 5 leaders of the IZL) after public pressure for their release. The IZL ceased being independent and its members joined the IDF and served during the war of Independence.” --Israel State Archives