New memorial to Altalena victims erected in Tel Aviv

Monument commemorating 16 fighters killed in 1948 incident to be unveiled October 27 in Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery

Alatalena Memorial in Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery, Tel Aviv (Avishai Teicher)
Alatalena Memorial in Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery, Tel Aviv (Avishai Teicher)

A new monument to the victims of the 1948 Altalena incident, which cast a pall over the foundation of the Israel Defense Forces and has been a source of political controversy for decades, will be unveiled on October 27 in Tel Aviv.

The project will stand next to the existing monument in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery, where the 16 Irgun members who were killed on the ship Altalena in a firefight with IDF soldiers are buried. It is a joint project of the National Heritage Sites, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Tel Aviv burial society, which is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery.

The monument is a concrete, metal-coated model of the boat, which appears to be sinking. On its side is a quote from Menachem Begin urging his men not to fire back as they were being attacked by the IDF: “We can never have a civil war.”

The ship, carrying a large consignment of arms and weapons, was brought to Israel by Begin’s Irgun militia during the country’s War of Independence, in June 1948. However, the nascent government of David Ben-Gurion, at bitter odds with Begin, demanded that the ship and its supplies be turned over to the newly formed IDF.

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.

Begin went on to lead the right-wing Herut party, the forerunner of Netanyahu’s Likud, and was elected prime minister in 1977.

Throughout the decades, the Altalena remained a symbol of the bitter struggle between right and left in Israeli politics.

June 22, 1948, the ship Altalena burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)
June 22, 1948, the ship Altalena burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

The Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery’s first memorial to the Altalena was erected in 1998. The new monument is part of a larger project to make the cemeteries of Tel Aviv more attractive to visitors, Ynet reported.

Avraham Manela, head of the Tel Aviv chevra kadisha, told Ynet, “We have set ourselves the goal of rebuilding the old cemeteries of Tel Aviv to turn them into pilgrimage sites. The new memorial to the Altalena is the first part of this project.

“The hope is that this place will become an active site for visitors and a historic tourist site for the Altalena incident,” he said.

The plans for the memorial were personally approved by Netanyahu, and the prime minister will attend the unveiling, along with various other MKs, former Irgun members and survivors of the attack.

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