Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sarah Honig on the Altalena

Another Tack: The 'Altalena' sequel

On the (Hebrew calendar's) second anniversary of the callous sacrifice of existential security interests for political expediency, Uri Yarom's Kenaf Renanim is must reading. It puts into context the viciousness of disengagement, the ongoing demonization of its victims and the indifference to their anguish.

Yarom - the decorated commander of Israel's first helicopter squadron - is the salt of this country's earth, especially as he suitably hails from the left side of its great and definitive political divide. That lends him ultra-respectability and credibility.

In 2001 he included in his autobiographical book (p. 71) an eyewitness account of what he saw on June 22, 1948, as the IZL arms ship Altalena blazed off Tel Aviv. The men on board - mostly idealistic Holocaust survivors intent on joining their reborn nation's struggle for independence - dove into the sea under a hail of gunfire. Some were hurt, but the bullets still kept coming, even though the boys flailed desperately among the waves.

Yarom was a youthful Palmah soldier under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, who eagerly orchestrated and diligently oversaw the attack on the Altalena. Yarom, who cannot be suspected of pro-Revisionist bias, recalled: "The wounded were being lowered off the boat. From the shore people started swimming toward them to offer help, but from the hotel and nearby houses indiscriminate shots were aimed at the helpless wounded and at those who swam to rescue them! I'll never forget that fellow wearing a blue shirt done up with a white cord [the Hashomer Hatza'ir uniform], who directed the snipers to their targets and pointed to each head that bobbed above the water's surface. His eyes flashed with hatred as he egged the sharpshooters on with his shouts, spotted their quarry and encouraged them to get the swimmers. My heart shuddered within me. Before my eyes was waged a war between brothers! Jews are shooting Jews - in order to kill!"

A MERE three years after these lines saw print, another Hashomer Hatza'ir fellow smelled blood - once more of reviled political rivals. Outspoken Meretz Knesset member Avshalom Vilan told Haaretz on August 20, 2004 - exactly one year pre-disengagement, when the catastrophic scheme was already in high gear - that "we must fight extremist settlers by all possible means... if need be we'll open fire... we'll shoot to hit... the sovereign authority must announce that in order to preserve itself, it too is ready to kill."

His was a request for an Altalena reenactment. When Israel was little more than a month old, besieged by genocidal enemies and fighting for its very physical survival, its founding fathers subordinated everything to settling political scores and ridding themselves of domestic competition, even if it meant destroying vital, irreplaceable weaponry. Fifty-seven years later, their successors would put settling political scores above fighting implacable terrorists. The expulsion of 9,000 settlers (still mind-bogglingly not resettled) could only be countenanced and perpetrated against those pronounced beyond the pale of political tolerance. It's the mindset which rendered the harrowing Altalena tragedy possible.

The analogy was drawn by none other than those who fervently clamored for an Altalena sequel. On January 21, 2005 would-be Labor Party leader Ami Ayalon - excessively conciliatory toward hostile Arabs - hectored against the settlers and advocated resorting to physical force. He menacingly declared that "in the life of every state and nation there's more than one Altalena."

The threat was flagrant. The murder of Altalena's 16 innocents had been justified by the same mantras about "upholding the rule of law and the government's democratic legitimacy" that were brandished - just as tyrannically and ruthlessly - against Gush Katif.

The official anti-Altalena line harped on the bogus pretext of an insurgency-that-never-was, consistently omitted to mention that on June 1, 1948 the IZL signed an agreement to disband, that on June 15, 1948 it informed the government of the Altalena's (delayed) arrival, that negotiations ensued (though not completed) about how the extraordinarily valuable arms the Altalena carried were to be distributed within the IDF, that the government directed the ship to dock at Kfar Vitkin, that the Altalena followed instructions, but that its men were surrounded, entrapped and attacked.

Several neutral mediation attempts and compromise proposals bordering on IZL capitulation were scornfully rebuffed by David Ben-Gurion. The Altalena, now ferrying Menachem Begin, escaped the violent Kfar Vitkin siege. It ran aground in Tel Aviv. From shipboard Begin called out by megaphone: "Soldiers of Israel, cease fire! We brought you weapons. Come and take them." The answer was a shower of bullets in what soon emerged as an elaborately contrived assassination attempt.

Yet the establishment's account depicted the cannon which defeated the Altalena as "holy, worthy of being stationed at the entrance to the Third Temple," in Ben-Gurion's words.

Like today's vilified right-wingers, Begin already then hankered after left-wing acceptance. He believed, with schlemiel naivete, that he won governmental cooperation and backing - just like the settlers sent to Gush Katif by none other than Rabin. Precursor Altalena and its Gush Katif replica were crushed by antagonists disdainfully undaunted by the specter of civil war.

Decades post-Altalena, Shimon Peres told Begin that Ben-Gurion had been misled in the affair. Grudging contrition is already audible post-disengagement, but exhortations for another Altalena/disengagement remain ever-strident and ever-dangerous because Israelis remain gullible and their memory malleable.

Hagana commander Eliahu Golomb prophetically warned Begin, pre-Altalena, when they conferred on October 31, 1944, that "it doesn't matter who fires the first bullet in a civil war. The propaganda apparatus is in our hands. We will direct history's chroniclers. You will always be singled out as the instigators of civil conflict."

Like the Altalena, disengagement incontrovertibly proves Golomb's perceptive astuteness. The more things change the more they stay the same.