Davidka mortar displayed in the Givati Brigade Museum, Metsudat Yoav, Israel.
of the Yishuv and now reflected the character of the IDF. Necessity was the mother of invention, and the newly born state, knowing that Jewish blood would flow if it were defeated, was both ingenious and industrious at numerous points during the war. At the Burma Road, for instance:
Using bulldozers, tractors, and manual labor, the engineers began the nearly impossible task of creating a passable road to the bluff at the head of the orchard and a road to the valley below. At night, against the background of Jordanian shelling, the scene was almost unreal: hundreds of porters silently carrying food and supplies down the hill to waiting trucks and jeeps and even mules. Even herds of cows were led along this route because we desperately needed to ship beef into the city.
Using this alternate route, the Harel Brigade (under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, then twenty-six years old) succeeded in resupplying and defending the western parts of the city—but they were still unable to recapture the Old City.
The Burma Road was hardly the only example of this sort of creativity and ingenuity. Short of heavy weaponry during much of the war, the Yishuv also relied on the Davikda, a homemade three-inch mortar, which more often than not missed its target or failed to explode. If the Davidka had any redeeming value, it was that when it did explode, no matter how inaccurate, the bomb caused a bright flash and an exceptionally loud noise, which then triggered mass panic among the local Arab populations. The Davidka was most effective in the battles for Jerusalem and Safed, because the panic it triggered led the local population to leave or to surrender more quickly. In the battle for Safed, from May 6–9, the Davidka’s loud sounds convinced the local Arabs that the Jews were using “atom bombs.” “A Haganah scout plane, flying overhead, reported ‘thousands of refugees streaming by foot toward Meirun.’ . . . The Arab neighborhoods, literally overnight, turned into a ‘ghost town.’”
The air force employed similar creativity. In addition to genuine bombs loaded onto planes, the ground crews also began loading whatever empty soda bottles they could find—on base or from surrounding areas. They had heard that the falling empty bottles created a loud whistling noise that sounded to those on the ground like a bomb shrieking its way earthward and that the tactic was weakening the enemy’s resolve.
The fledgling Jewish state was still outgunned, however, and desperately struggled to hold on. Casualties were high. Israel was desperate for heavy weaponry that had been purchased but that had yet to arrive. And the Egyptians controlled the skies. Israel had barely finished declaring independence, and its fate hung in the balance.
The international community, concerned about the bloodshed, was eager to impose a break in the fighting. On May 22, the United Nations Security Council demanded an immediate cease-fire; the UN secretary-general appointed Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, to negotiate the truce.
Bernadotte was an interesting choice, to say the least. During World War II, in his role as head of the Swedish Red Cross, he had saved many thousands of Jews from the death camps, but he had also met with senior Nazi leaders, notably Heinrich Himmler, seeking back channels to end the conflict. By the time he stepped into his role as negotiator at the peak of the war in Palestine, he was seen as “the gung-ho Swedish aristocrat, ‘optimistic . . . and eager for action,’ . . . the ‘humanitarian’ Don Quixote.” Charged with ending the war, Bernadotte took on a task that no one had thus far been able to accomplish. He was undaunted, however, and set out to secure a break in the fighting, and afterward, to seek a more permanent peace.
In part due to Bernadotte’s political maneuvering and in part due to the exhaustion of all parties engaged in the fighting, the two sides eventually agreed to a truce. Originally scheduled to begin on June 1, the truce proved so complicated to implement that it officially took effect only ten days later, on June 11.
The terms of the respite dictated “a blanket embargo on arms and additional military personnel on Israel and the Arab states,” but both sides violated these conditions. The Arab states fortified their combat units and intermittently fired across the Israeli lines. The Israelis used the lull in the fighting to import massive amounts of weapons, including some they had purchased from the United States as well as from other Western powers. The Yishuv also received a massive shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia, including “more than twenty-five thousand rifles, five thousand machineguns, and more than fifty million bullets.” In what was surely an ironic twist, some of the Czech arms were standard German Mauser rifles and MG machine guns, and—having been produced for the Germans before May 1945—arrived with swastikas on them (as had the uniforms that the volunteer pilots had been given). Guns manufactured for the Germans during World War II were now in the hands of Jews desperately seeking to inaugurate a new chapter of Jewish history.
It was not only weapons that arrived from abroad. At the start of the war, Israel had no military aircraft at all and very few pilots. The American armed forces, on the other hand, had surplus planes by the hundreds after World War II, and Jewish veterans who had flown for the United States. Israel began a clandestine project of seeking out these pilots, many of whom were highly assimilated. Something about the Holocaust, however, awakened a sense of Jewish commitment in some of these men, and a few, in violation of American law, helped purchase American surplus planes and fly them to Europe and then to Israel. They were outfitted with used uniforms, which like some of the guns of those fighting on the ground had Nazi insignias—in this case, Luftwaffe patches—on them.
Germany had built factories for the manufacture of Messerschmitt warplanes in Czechoslovakia, which continued to produce the planes even after World War II ended. The American pilots flew some of these Messerschmitts to Israel to join the battle.
Almost immediately upon landing in Israel, the Americans were told that Egyptian forces were a mere six miles from Tel Aviv, and that if they did not attack immediately, there would be ten thousand Egyptian troops in Tel Aviv the next morning. So they took off, flying primitive, single-engine planes on their first bombing missions, and quickly changed the tide of battle. Later, air attacks on the advancing Iraqi forces convinced them to stay put and not to continue into Israel.
In all, some 3,500 people from around the world volunteered to come to Israel and helped with the war effort. Many, interestingly, were not Jewish. Some 190 of the volunteers served in the air force. Several of the pilots lost their lives in action. After the war, most of the Americans returned home. Others, though, decided that it was Israel that was home, stayed, and flew for El Al or worked in Israel’s aircraft industry.
Benny Morris notes that in addition to its military significance, this wave of volunteers helped Israelis understand that though they were outnumbered, they were not alone. It was a dramatic change in Jewish fate from the Holocaust and boosted the morale of the country significantly.
The desperate need for rearmament led to one of the most potentially catastrophic events of the war. On May 26, David Ben-Gurion had brought the Haganah out of “clandestine status” and declared in a simple one-page typewritten memo of twenty brief lines that it would now become the Israel Defense Forces, the official army of the new state of Israel. The memo also stipulated that no other armed groups would be permitted to operate. In what was an indication of both the degree to which the country was being stitched together day by day and the broad powers Ben-Gurion was taking for himself, the prime minister wrote, “Any action taken in accordance with this order shall be considered legal even if it contradicts another directive in an existing law.”
Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin had reached an agreement that stipulated that Irgun members would enlist in the newly created IDF. Their arms and equipment, as well as installations for the manufacture of arms, would be turned over to the army. There would be no special Irgun units within army brigades, and separate purchasing activities would end. Ben-Gurion understood that if Israel were to be a legitimate state, it could not be home to competing militias.
Begin understood and agreed that the Irgun would cease operating as a distinct military unit within the State of Israel. Yet some of Begin’s Irgun fighters remained in beleaguered Jerusalem, which was not then technically part of Israel and therefore not governed by Begin’s agreement to fold his force into the IDF. With their ammunition running dangerously low, Begin was committed both to equipping his men, and more broadly, to doing whatever was possible to hold on to Jerusalem.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to Begin, the American arm of the Irgun—with which Begin had long been at odds—purchased an old ship and named it Altalena (the Italian word for “seesaw,” which had been Jabotinsky’s nom de plume as a journalist). The ship eventually docked in France; the French, hoping to curb British influence in the Middle East, donated munitions valued at 150 million francs (more than half a billion dollars in today’s currency). The arms loaded on the Altalena included 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, and 10 light armored vehicles called Bren carriers. In addition to much-needed arms, some 940 immigrants, many of them survivors of the war, as well as some veteran members of the Irgun—including Yechiel Kadishai—also boarded the ship. Originally scheduled to reach Palestine by May 14, the ship departed late and sailed for Israel on June 11—the day the cease-fire banning the import of arms had gone into effect.
Begin was committed to upholding the truce and had not been informed of the ship’s departure. By the time he learned that it had sailed, the ship was very close to Israel’s territorial waters. He desperately tried to reach its captain, Eliyahu Lankin, to instruct him not to enter Israel’s territorial waters. But the communication equipment malfunctioned, and when Begin realized that there was nothing he could do to turn the ship around, he informed Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion understood that the ship’s arrival would constitute a highly visible breach of the truce, but at the same time was loath to give up on such a desperately needed arms cache. The ship, which reached the Israeli shore on June 20, was ordered to sail to Kfar Vitkin (just north of Tel Aviv), where it was assumed UN observers might not see it. Yet there was no agreement between Ben-Gurion and Begin regarding what would happen with the arms. While Begin offered the vast majority to the IDF, he insisted on keeping 20 percent for his Irgun fighters, still struggling to hold out against the Jordanians in Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion dismissed the proposal out of hand. He feared that allocating any arms at all to the Irgun (even the Irgun in Jerusalem) would lend legitimacy to the idea of an army within an army.
News of the ship spread quickly, along with a rumor that Begin himself might appear on the beach at Kfar Vitkin. Irgun soldiers, anxious to meet the man who had been in hiding as they had been fighting under his command, deserted their units and made their way to Kfar Vitkin. This only confirmed Ben-Gurion’s suspicion that Begin was up to something nefarious, so the next day, he called a meeting of the cabinet. Ben-Gurion told his ministers—falsely—that Begin had hidden the Altalena plan until the ship was already at sea. His long-standing mistrust of Begin now governed everything he said and did. He said to his cabinet:
There are not going to be two States and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do whatever he feels like. We must decide whether to hand over power to Begin or to tell him to cease his separatist activities. If he does not give in, we shall open fire.
Yisrael Galili, the army’s chief of staff, ordered IDF pilots—many of whom were those Americans and other volunteers who had been Allied pilots during World War II—to strafe the ship. They refused. “We came here to fight for the Jews, not against the Jews,” they said.
By this time, Begin had boarded the ship and had instructed the Irgun men to use the cover of darkness to begin unloading the cargo. Begin received an ultimatum to hand over all the weapons to the IDF, but did not respond to it; he later claimed that the ultimatum was thoroughly unrealistic and gave him virtually no time to respond.
A firefight broke out between the Haganah forces and those loyal to the Irgun. The Altalena pulled away from shore and sailed south, toward Tel Aviv, and—in full view of hotel guests and beachgoers, reporters and UN observers—ran aground and could not move. Suddenly, Palmach fighters on the beach (the Palmach were the most hostile to the Irgun; among their commanders was Yitzhak Rabin) fired on the Altalena. Irgun fighters returned fire. Jews had begun to fire on Jews. Barely five weeks old, the Jewish state was on the verge of civil war.
More cannon fire stuck the ship, still heavily loaded with ammunition. Throughout, Begin instructed his men not to return fire. The ship was hit and the munitions on board began to explode. Begin, still on board, gave the order to abandon the ship; though he wanted to stay until the very end, his men forced him off the ship and got him to shore. As he was making his way to shore, bursts of gunfire were directed in his direction; many of those present were convinced that the Haganah men were trying to kill Begin. Shortly after Begin left the ship, the remainder of the ammunition caught fire, and the ship exploded. IDF soldiers, no doubt deeply ambivalent about what was unfolding so soon after Israel had declared independence, leaped into the water to save the Altalena’s passengers.
Meanwhile, on shore, the fighting continued. With Haganah and Irgun soldiers shooting at each other, the beginnings of a Jewish civil war moved from the waters of the Mediterranean to the streets of Tel Aviv. There were casualties on both sides. But Begin had insisted that his men not fire on Jews, and men on both sides understood that Israel could not afford a civil war. The firing ended.
All told, factoring in the firefight in Kfar Vitkin, the death toll included sixteen men from the Irgun and three from the IDF. One of those killed was Avraham Stavsky, who had been charged with the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosoroff but was later exonerated. He had been one of the passengers on the Altalena and died just off the beach where Arlosoroff had been killed fifteen years earlier.
Begin took to the airwaves and delivered a radio address to his Irgun community that lasted over an hour. He reiterated his claim that the Irgun had done nothing wrong, yet even so, he reminded his men time and again, “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today.” In what emerged as a refrain, he insisted that Jew not fight Jew, for “it is forbidden that a Hebrew weapon be used against Hebrew fighters.” “There must not be a civil war with the enemy at our gates!” he virtually shouted in his radio address.
Ben-Gurion, incensed, refused to allow the dead Irgun men a burial in Tel Aviv.
Begin was vilified by some for having imported the arms. Yet others praised him for his pivotal role in bringing the fighting to an end (just as he had refused to attack the Haganah during the Saison). He would later claim that his greatest contribution to Israel was his having averted all-out civil war. Ben-Gurion also remained defiant in the aftermath, insisting that he had saved the country from a militia’s uprising. The cannon that sank the Altalena, he insisted in a comment that was oft repeated, was so sacred that it deserved to “stand close to the Temple, if it is built.”