Government seeks to salvage the Altalena

Government seeks to salvage the Altalena

Irgun vessel at the heart of one of the early state’s enduring controversies may be turned into a monument

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The weapons ship Altalena off the Tel Aviv coastline in 1948 (photo credit: courtesy, Zaltzmans/Arik Bernstein)
The weapons ship Altalena off the Tel Aviv coastline in 1948 (photo credit: courtesy, Zaltzmans/Arik Bernstein)

After confirming its location on the seabed off the Israeli shoreline, the government is now looking to raise the Altalena, the ship that was at the center of an incident that still haunts Israeli society more than 60 years after it was sunk.

Earlier this week a report confirmed to the Knesset that a ship, discovered a few months ago in deep water off the coast of Israel, is in fact the Altalena, Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Wednesday.

A private company discovered the wreck a few kilometers off the coast of Rishon Lezion at a depth of 300 meters. A sonar survey then confirmed the identity of the ship.

The government is now interested in raising the ship and installing it on dry land as a monument in Tel Aviv or at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

The first stage of the project will be to photograph the wreck to assess its condition. The Israeli Navy is likely to be tasked with raising the ship, rather than a private company that would charge hundreds of thousands of dollars, the report said.

Knesset House Committee chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud), a driving force behind the scheme, said photographing the Altalena is important in order to provide closure for those who were witnesses to the event.

The ship, carrying a large consignment of arms and weapons, was brought to Israel in June 1948 by Menachem Begin’s Irgun militia during the country’s War of Independence. However, the nascent David Ben-Gurion government, at bitter odds with Begin, demanded that the ship and its supplies be turned over to the newly formed Israel Defense Forces. As the ship reached the coast and then ran aground, a standoff ensued that ended in a shootout between Irgun members aboard and IDF soldiers on the shore who were ordered to destroy the vessel. The ship was set ablaze by a cannon that was allegedly under the command of a young Yitzhak Rabin, later the IDF chief of General Staff and prime minister.

Sixteen Irgun members and three IDF soldiers died in the incident and the ship’s cargo was lost. A year after the clash, the ship was towed out to sea and sunk.

The incident remains at the center of a bitter controversy between the right and left wings of Israeli politics.

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