The Palestinians need their own Altalena

On June 20, 1948, a ship named the Altalena appeared off the coast of Tel Aviv, just over a month after Israel declared its independence. At the time, Israel’s survival was far from guaranteed. It faced an onslaught of Arab armies vowed to its destruction, as well as a widening chasm between its Labor Zionist leadership and the Revisionist radicals. Indeed, in the final years of the British mandate in Palestine, there was not one Jewish militia, but several. Just as there are competing Palestinian groups today, the Yishuv included a cornucopia of militia groups, factions and ideologies. 

The Haganah embodied the principles and worldview of mainstream Zionist leaders such as Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion: socialist economic policy and flexibility regarding the territories eventually partitioned by the United Nations (UN). It was the most popular (and pragmatic) political faction in pre-state Israel, but still had to compete with more violent and radical groups such as the Irgun Zvai Leumi, led by Menachem Begin. The Irgun advocated guerrilla warfare as a means of initially forcing Britain to withdraw from Palestine. The most notorious of the Irgun’s attacks took place in July 1946, when the organisation bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing ninety-one people. It also opposed the UN partition plan and favoured a maximalist approach to the territory of Eretz-Yisrael, which included Israel proper, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and even parts of modern-day Jordan. 

On June 1, the Haganah and Irgun agreed to merge into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The agreement required that Irgun members hand over arms and terminate their separate activities. Yet there remained the question of the Altalena: an old American Navy landing vessel carrying weapons and new immigrants, bought by the Irgun’s American supporters. Ben-Gurion wanted every munition he could get, but Begin said that the arms should go to Irgun troops fighting in Jerusalem. As the Irgun men headed to the beach to unload the arms, Ben-Gurion realised the challenge he faced and stated so in his memoir: “I decided this must be the moment of truth. Either the government’s authority would prevail… or the whole concept of nationhood would fall apart.” Construing the Irgun’s defiance for a putsch against the newly-established state, he ordered that the Altalena be shelled with Menachem Begin and a huge cache of explosives aboard. Unsurprisingly, the ship ignited and sank, along with its arms and more than a dozen Irgun members. 

Brutal as it seemed at the time, Ben-Gurion’s order to sink the ship saved the new Jewish state from extreme elements that might have ultimately torpedoed it. To be sure, it was a fiasco that brought Israel to the precipice of civil war—Jew against Jew; the Irgun against the newly-established IDF; and Menachem Begin against the Labor Zionists. But it was also a necessary antecedent for Israel’s survival. Though the debacle cast a pall over the entire country (and provided Ben-Gurion’s enemies on the right with a rallying cry for the next generation), there is no way that Israel could have survived had its leaders not repressed the rejectionists within its own ranks. Ben-Gurion understood this truism of statesmanship; he knew that Israel would have to quash its radical elements or otherwise suffer fratricide and potential national destruction. A bloody civil war could have conceivably afforded global powers such as the United States with a reason to redraw the lines of Eretz Yisrael into a binational state—the antithesis of the Zionist dream. Ben-Gurion’s determination, courage and resolve kept the dream alive. Israel went on to not only survive, but thrive in the decades after the Altalena affair. 

Today, Palestinian leaders face their own Altalena. The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, does not accept Israel’s existence on any part of Eretz Yisrael. Its raison d’être is the destruction of the Jewish state and the genocide of the region’s, if not the world’s, Jewish population. It may be lionised amongst segments on university campuses as nothing more than a group of noble revolutionaries resisting the yoke of colonial oppression, but its motives could not be clearer. According to its own leading official Fathi Hammad, Hamas was founded to “cut off the heads of Jews” and it acted on this so-called divine imperative on October 7th. Until the PLO reigns in Hamas and similarly-aligned groups, there can be no Palestinian state for Israel will not—and should not—relinquish further territory without genuine security commitments from the other side. 

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has exacted a tragic cost on Gaza’s civilians, but it may also present an opportunity for diplomacy. It is incumbent upon moderates in the Palestinian camp—namely, those who seek peace as opposed to endemic conflict—to fill the power vacuum left by the war with a courageous leadership that can be trusted to truly accept Israel, in deed as well as rhetoric. It will not be easy. The combination of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the ineffectual leadership of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank has decidedly increased the popularity of Hamas in both enclaves. The PLO leadership is besieged by opponents and seemingly cannot risk alienating them further. Yet, they will have to find a way to not only condemn, but defiantly—even violently—destroy the rejectionists, just as Ben-Gurion did. There is no other path to Palestinian statehood. 

In dealing with Hamas, the PLO—or a more moderate alternative that emerges from the ashes of this war—will have to heed the lessons of the past. Indeed, the battle that took place on Tel Aviv beach on that fateful day in June 1948 is just one amongst many Altalenas in the history of revolutionary struggle. In 1921, Vladimir Lenin ordered his forces to open fire on Soviet sailors in Kronstadt who favoured a more leftist economic policy. When released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela did not renounce armed struggle, but also refused to endorse the younger, more aggressive black nationalists who wanted a full-fledged civil war to force the white minority out of South Africa. Distinct as they were, both leaders demonstrated that a national revolution’s success depends on the ability of its leaders to repress the extremist factions that it inevitably arouses. If the PLO leadership wants to lead a state and not just a revolution, they must do what Lenin, Mandela and Ben-Gurion all mustered the courage to do. The result may well be civil war between the Palestinians — and if it is, Israel’s interests dictate that it be a war that the moderates win. 

About the Author
Joe Beare is an alumnus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He served as the President of Emory's Meor club and worked with the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel on a range of Israel-related papers, articles and educational initiatives. Along with his commitment to Israel advocacy and scholarship, Beare captained Emory's Varsity Soccer Team and won a gold medal at the European Maccabi Games in 2019.
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