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by Meir Zamir


Altalena burning at Tel Aviv (Elinor and Robert Slater)

The ship Altalena, which was sunk 61 years ago today [June 22, 1948], brought arms and ammunition provided to the Irgun Tzvai Leumi underground militia by the French army. Documents revealed here for the first time attest that France's Foreign Ministry believed that helping the Irgun (the National Military Organization, known also by its acronym Etzel), would prevent Jerusalem from falling into Jordanian hands, which would strengthen the position of France's rival in the region: Britain. But France failed to take one element into account: David Ben-Gurion.

Altalena burning at Tel Aviv

One of the most important documents is testimony the French deputy chief of staff, General Henri Coudraux, gave to France's Defense Ministry during an internal inquiry into the affair. Coudraux, who had played a key role in transfering the arms to the Irgun in June 1948, said in his testimony on November 15, 1949, that France "reached a secret agreement with the Irgun, which promised it advantages if it were to come into power (in Israel)." He described the Irgun's representative in the negotiations, Shmuel Ariel, as "a terrorist who did not represent a legitimate organization and acted to take power by force."

The next day Ariel testified, confirming that the Irgun signed a secret agreement with the French government whereby the latter would "provide arms to the Irgun to fight the Arabs." These arms ultimately arrived at Israel's shores aboard the Altalena, which was sunk on June 22, 1948, off Tel Aviv at the order of acting prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

The deep political and historical controversy this affair provoked has not waned even after more than 60 years. Ben-Gurion and the left accused Irgun head Menachem Begin of an attempted putsch in the midst of an existential fight by the nascent state. Begin and his supporters, for their part, claimed that Ben-Gurion had fomented a cynical plot aimed at harming a political rival seeking to bring arms and fighters into Israel, to strengthen the army in its war against the Arabs. Had Begin not evinced national responsibility, his supporters believe, there would have been a bloody civil war.

The writer of these lines recently discovered in a French archive the report written about 60 years ago by France's Ministry of Defense and the testimonies used in it. The documents cast light on the French motives in the affair, and indicate that a secret agreement concerning the arms supply included stipulations which, Coudraux said, were aimed at the provisional government in Israel. The Irgun representative said the targets of these political provisos were the Arabs.

The written agreement has not been found, but from the documents one concludes that foreign minister Georges Bidault deeply feared occupation of Jerusalem by the Jordanian Arab Legion, with British support; in the second half of May 1948, the Legion had damaged French Catholic institutions and France's consulate in Jerusalem. Years later Ben-Gurion hinted that the French gave the Irgun the arms in return for a commitment to protect the Catholic institutions in the city. On May 24 the French Foreign Ministry sent communiques to Jordan's King Abdullah, Israel's government and British and Arab legations in Paris, demanding that they avoid attacking religious and diplomatic institutions in Jerusalem. Irgun representatives in Paris received a similar notice.

According to the partition plan approved by the UN General Assembly, Jerusalem was an international zone; meanwhile, both the Irgun and the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Yisrael - Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) continued to operate there separately, even after the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces. In the agreement of early June 1948, integrating the Irgun into the IDF, its leaders insisted on receiving one-fifth of the arms slated to arrive on the Altalena for their Jerusalem battalion.

Britain's 'double game'

Thus, the Irgun's campaign against the provisional government, demanding Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, deepened the rift between the two rival camps. Ben-Gurion suspected that Irgun's leaders wanted to establish a separate power base there. Testimonies from French sources indicate the possibility that Ben-Gurion knew about the details of the agreement between Bidault and the Irgun before he gave the order to sink the Altalena.

Bidault decided to provide arms to the Irgun, an organization that opposed the interim government, and which was receiving clandestine aid from France, not only to protect French institutions in Jerusalem from the Arab Legion. He also knew this move would anger the British Foreign Office, which was closely following the Altalena's course.

On May 14, Princess Elizabeth arrived in Paris on a state visit reflecting the good ties between Britain and France. Nevertheless, Bidault decided shortly afterward to give arms to the Irgun - gratis. According to various documents, he may have had another to thwart a British-Jordanian move to control Jerusalem.

In the summer of 1944, French intelligence succeeded to recruit an agent in the Syrian government, who subsequently provided information about clandestine British activity in Syria and other Arab countries. As foreign minister in Charles de Gaulle's provisional government, Bidault witnessed the efficiency of the British secret services, which played a major role in expelling the French from Syria in 1945. Bidault, a devout Catholic, attributed great importance to maintaining Jerusalem's status as an international city, and saw a vital French interest in the creation of the state.

According to the French documents, Paris suspected that Britain had adopted a "double policy," which it used effectively in Syria: Alongside the declared policy about ending the Mandate and evacuating British forces from Palestine on May 15, 1948, the French believed that Britain's secret services sought to prevent establishment of a Jewish state, or at least to limit its size.

The siege of Jerusalem in April 1948, in which the Arab Legion with its British commanders played a major role, led the French to suspect a British plot; reports received afterward about Britain's military and diplomatic moves reinforced this suspicion. For example, the British prevented Palmach underground forces from occupying Sheikh Jarrah in northern Jerusalem, and allowed companies of the Legion to deploy in British camps in the city just before they were evacuated; also British officers of the Jordanian Legion were stationed in the British consulate. On May 12, the Legion attacked the Etzion Bloc in one of the worst defeats suffered by the new state in the War of Independence.

Confirmation of Britain's "double game" was reflected in its diplomatic efforts to thwart a proposal for a general cease-fire in the Security Council on May 19. After many years of following King Abdullah's intrigues in Syria and Lebanon, the French were convinced the Hashemite king was acting on British instructions in certain instances. The Legion concentrated its efforts in the international zone of Jerusalem, and the French were convinced that Britain hoped to enable Abdullah to gain control of all of the city.

Ben-Gurion shared these suspicions. He, too, believed, in contrast to some of his generals, that the war would be determined in Jerusalem. The last week of May, he ordered two attacks on the Latrun police station, then held by Legion soldiers, in an attempt to break through the siege of Jerusalem. The attacks failed and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell on May 28.

Reports of these developments were received in France during negotiations with the Irgun, whose strength was overestimated by the Quai d'Orsay. This reinforced Bidault's fears that the provisional government couldn't prevent Jerusalem from falling into Abdullah's hands. Bidault and his aides were also worried by the Legion's bombardments of the French consulate in Jerusalem. The consul and officials in Paris believed British agents were behind the attacks, in which several staff members were wounded. Demands by the French that the British and King Abdullah stop shooting were ignored.

Confirmed suspicions

In early June, France's Foreign Ministry ordered its consul in Amman to begin preparations to cut off relations. Reports the consul sent about his meetings with Abdullah reflect the latter's thinking in the midst of the battle for Jerusalem. Indeed, in a meeting on May 23, he was certain his forces would occupy Jerusalem within a short time and, wrote the consul: "He was determined to fight Zionism and prevent the establishment of an Israeli state in the borders of his kingdom." He scoffed at the Syrian army and said he expected that "the annexation of Palestine would be a step toward realization of his great aspiration in Syria."

The French saw these remarks as confirming suspicions that the British sought to exploit the war in Palestine to force Syria to join a Hashemite federation headed by Abdullah, which would take over parts of the land of Israel including the Negev, which had been allocated to the Jewish state in the partition plan. These suspicions were also shared by Arab leaders.

At the end of May, Bidault had reasons to fear a victory by Abdullah in Jerusalem, which would reinforce his status and enable Britain to realize its plans for a Hashemite union including Syria and Lebanon. From General Coudraux's testimony and from the Defense Ministry investigation, it emerges that Bidault decided to provide arms to the Irgun in the last week of May, due to the pressure of time, and not as part of a formal arrangement.

The strengthening of the Irgun's military and political power was aimed at achieving several goals: galvanizing the right wing vis-a-vis the left in Israel's provisional government; ensuring political, economic and cultural advantages for France if the Irgun seized power; protecting France's consulate and religious institutions in Jerusalem; and above all preventing Abdullah from controlling Jerusalem with British support. However, Bidault and his aides did not take into account Ben-Gurion's determination to prevent forcibly the strengthening of a political rival's military power. Even at the price of civil war.


EDITOR'S ADDENDUM: This next is taken from Shmuel Katz's article in the July 27, 2005 issue of the Jerusalem Post as posted on the Ice Viking blog -

[...] "They are by implication conjuring up the Altalena myth of a revolt that was never planned and never took place, a fiction woven by a great but unscrupulous politician at the cost of a score of innocent young lives and the loss of a valuable ship and an invaluable store of arms. It's time to set the record straight.

"David Ben-Gurion bluffed his way through the whole meticulously organized episode in June 1948 against Menachem Begin and the Irgun Zvai Leumi. He was supported by a press largely hostile to Begin and the Irgun; thus the fiction held long enough to undermine the popularity of a courageous patriot and to bolster Ben-Gurion's campaign for the then forthcoming first parliamentary elections in the new state.

"To the provisional government, Ben-Gurion explained blowing up the boat by the assertion that there had been no warning of its coming and no permission asked of the Israel defense authority (which was Ben-Gurion himself). He had heard of the expected arrival of a boat with arms, he said, only on the day of its arrival. Every word of this story was false."

"... on June 15, while the ship was on its way, Begin met with Galili[the head of the Hagana] to reinforce the national authority's approval for the venture. The United Nations had declared a cease-fire — which disallowed the introduction of arms and men into Palestine. In fact this was applied only to Israel; supplies of arms to the Arabs never ceased — by Britain through Iraq. Galili raised no objection."

"Why did Ben-Gurion order the wanton insensate behavior in Kfar Vitkin and then at Tel Aviv? What was he trying to achieve? There was no quarrel about the arms. He could have compromised on the percentage or he could have simply seized them and argued afterwards. Why did he prevent his soldiers from taking part in unloading the arms, so important for the army? All the power was in his hands.

"That night Begin, in a lengthy impassioned speech on the Irgun radio, accused Ben-Gurion of simply wanting to kill him. There was indeed no other reasonable explanation for the murderous attack on the Altalena. Among the Irgunists it was thought that the explosion, the shooting (even though none of it came from the Irgun [emphasis added]) helped Ben-Gurion create an atmosphere that would support his silly story of a putsch."


EDITOR'S NOTE: An updated version of this article was published as "'Bid' for Altalena: France's Covert Action in the 1948 War in Palestine," in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 46, No. 1, 17-58, January 2010. The Publisher, Routledge, has made it available at

Meir Zamir writes, "Based on newly revealed documents in French archives, the article provides a breakthrough in the little-known secret war which accompanied the 1948 war in Palestine. It looks at the secret Franco-Zionist collaboration against Britain and the Arab states and gives details of Britain's double policy in this war. The article focuses mainly on the battle for Jerusalem. The Altalena affair is studied in the context of internal Israeli politics on the one hand and the Franco-British rivalry on the other."

What follows are Appendices A, B and D of the Middle Eastern Studies article.

Appendix A

Sub-Chancery in Tel-Aviv
Uncoded telegram — by courier

Tel-Aviv, 1 March, 1948

Diplomacy, Paris No.19

Received on 2 March, 1948, at 4:00 p.m.

Mr. Ben-Gurion received me today in his office at his house in Tel Aviv. During the meeting, which lasted for about 45 minutes, the head of the Executive of the Jewish Agency gave me his opinion on several issues.

1. The attitude of the British

Mr. Ben-Gurion thinks that the British administration will actually leave Palestine on 15 May, but he is less sure regarding the evacuation of the troops on 1 August. 'Mr. Bevin', he says, 'has an aversion for Jews because they personify all that he hates: capitalists, intellectuals and internationalist leftists. This personal prejudice is strengthened by hostility to the Jewish cause among British officials, whose point of view on this matter, as well as on many others, he shares.'

Moreover, Mr. Ben-Gurion weighs his words carefully concerning the British, when he says, referring to General MacMillan, Commander of the British forces in Palestine, that a British officer is always a 'decent fellow'. This comment is even more striking if one takes into consideration that yesterday, Sunday, probably in reprisal for the recent attack on the Cairo-Haifa train (my telegram No. 13) the crew of a British armoured vehicle disarmed a group of Jewish workers in a factory near Tel-Aviv, leaving them with no means of defence in the midst of the Arabs, who killed eight of them and wounded three. While violently condemning this 'crime', which caused deep shock in Tel-Aviv, Mr. Ben-Gurion is aware of the chain of attacks and reprisals between Jews and Arabs, to which it is connected. 'The attack by the Stern Group on the Cairo-Haifa train also constitutes a crime, he says, leading me to ask him his opinion on the conflict between the Jewish Agency and the dissident terrorist organizations.'

2. Relations between the Jewish Agency and the terrorists

To my question concerning the conflict between the Haganah and the Irgun (my telegram No. 10), the head of the Executive of the Jewish Agency replies that 'some people' were trying to resolve it, but did not succeed. According to him, the matter will not be resolved before the departure of the British and the formation of the Jewish government. In fact, its settlement prior to this date would necessitate the use of force, to which the Jewish Agency does not want to resort, even though the terrorists are causing a lot of trouble to the Jewish state.

Besides, according to Mr. Ben-Gurion, even if the coming months hold in store severe hardships for the Jews, he has no doubt as to the final outcome.

3. Referring to the question of the Security Council's attitude, I asked Mr. Ben- Gurion if, given the kind of partition already made in Palestine (reported to the Department in my dispatch No. I AL), he saw a basic difference between an international force sent to implement the partition plan and an international force sent to maintain peace, since maintaining peace means preventing the Arabs from again questioning the existing partition. On this very important matter, Mr. Ben- Gurion's reply was quite clear: for him, there was absolutely no difference between those two international forces.

Then, Mr. Ben-Gurion, to whom one of his assistants had mentioned that I had previously held a position in the USSR, asks me abruptly if I think that Russia wants war and questions me at length about life in the USSR.

After inquiring about the eventual possibility of sending French technicians to help in building and developing the future Jewish state, Mr. Ben-Gurion ends the meeting, assuring me that the Jews in Palestine are aware 'of all they can learn from the French school.'


AN457AP125, No. 19, Tel Aviv, 1 March 1948, Lacharrière to Quai d'Orsay
See also Ben-Gurion's War Diary, Vol.I, p.272.

Appendix B

Sub-Chancery in Tel-Aviv
Uncoded telegram — by courier
Tel-Aviv, March 8, 1948
Diplomacy Paris 22

Yesterday I received a visitor who, after entering my offce, introduced himself as a spokesman of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, and asked me if I could forward to my Government a message from his organization concerning the arrest of Etzel members in France. I replied that this matter wasn't within my responsibilities. On the other hand, the reaction of the Irgun to these events was of certain political interest. In this regard, I was prepared to listen to what my interlocutor had to say and, if necessary, report the main points to my Department as general information.

My visitor then told me that the exposure of this new affair of arms trafficking in France dealt a severe blow to his organization. The Irgun lost equipment of very great importance and, above all, many of its members were immobilized for a crucial period of time. 'You are not unaware', he continued, 'of how difficult this situation is for the Jews. The British are blockading us very severely and are helping to arm the Arabs. Arms imports are for us a matter of life or death. In these conditions, we were particularly shocked by the news of these arrests. Until now, we considered France as a neutral world Power, even favourable to our cause. Its vote at the UN had a great impact on us. But the fact that the French police, which for a long time was not unaware of our activities chose, at this time of ordeal, to arrest our friends, can only be seen by the Irgun as a sign of hostility. For France, it means a loss of popularity. We are familiar with British jails, but it is morally distressing to think that our comrades are in jail in France. We would be deeply sorry to have to conclude that France is abandoning its traditional policy of supporting oppressed peoples. That is why it seemed to us that the French government — which might have been forced by the circumstances to take this step, we'll know soon enough — could still mitigate the harmful consequences of these arrests.'

At that point, my interlocutor apologized for the 'somewhat unorthodox' character of his forthcoming proposals, but, he said, 'We resistance fighters live our lives in an unusual and rather unorthodox way', and he added: 'It seems to the Irgun that the French Government could make two friendly gestures towards it. The first would be to ensure that the preliminary investigation for the trial of my comrades arrested in France is as short as possible, and the second, that the French government finds some way to return to us the arms it seized.'

Of course, I sharply pointed out to my interlocutor:

  1. That in no way would France abandon its neutrality and curb any arms trafficking on its territory;

  2. That it seemed to me highly unlikely that our police could ignore this trafficking for long;

  3. That our policy regarding the Palestinian issue was expressed by official actions, notably by our attitude in the UN on partition, and not by secretly allowing illegal trafficking.

'With regard to the above mentioned proposals', I added, 'the one concerning the restitution of the seized arms to the Irgun constitutes a judicial blunder. As for the one asking the French government to hasten the trial, despite the fact that it insinuates that French legal procedures take longer than necessary, it is less shocking, though very strange. Nevertheless, your assertions are interesting, at least from the psychological point of view, and only on this basis will I forward them to my Department for whatever purpose they may serve.'

My visitor then left my office, asking me to forgive his request in light of the special circumstances of the Jews in Palestine, adding — a useful precaution, given the drastic measures taken by the Irgun — that one should not see in his declarations on behalf of his organization any kind of allusion to an attempt to put pressure on France. On the contrary, he stressed the Irgun's concern not to jeopardize the relations between France and the Jews of Palestine.

Regarding this meeting, I call the attention of the Department to the following points:

  1. The Irgun is a force of crucial importance now in Palestine. It's a fact that it would be better not to have them as opponents and, in fact, its activity until now has sometimes been indirectly favourable to French interests. For instance, the correspondent of Reuters, which obtained permission from the Haganah to establish offices in Tel-Aviv, had to give up this project since the Irgun, from which he had wisely asked for the same authorization, warned him that it would blow up its new premises as soon as they were set up. On the other hand, the Irgun has considered favourably the establishment in Tel-Aviv of the new offices of the French Press Agency.

  2. The news of the arrests for arms trafficking made a bad impression not only on the Irgun, but also on the public opinion in general, all the Jews here being aware of the importance of arms supplies, which are necessarily illegal for the time being.

  3. It would be very useful if the Department let me know its views on the above- mentioned matter and sent me information regarding the circumstances in which it began and is progressing.


Copies: Office of the President of the Republic
Office of the Prime Minister
Mr. Falaize

M Chauvel
Duplicate `

AN457AP125, No.22, Tel Aviv, 8 March 1948, Lacharrière to Quai d'Orsay

Appendix D

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Incoming Telegram
Tel Aviv, 28 March, 1948 — By courier
Received on 3 April, 1948, 12:00 noon No.8 40 Restricted

The point of view of the 'Fighters for the Liberation of Israel' (Stern Group) on the current situation has just been explained to me today by one of the three people in the best position to do so.

First, my interlocutor reminded me of the aims of his organization. The 'Fighters for the Liberation of Israel' intend to gain independence for their country in all spheres as well as a peaceful coexistence with other countries, especially the Arab countries, within the framework of a federation of Middle East nations. For the Stern Group, there is no doubt whatsoever as to the legitimacy of the rights of the Jews, of all the Jews in the world, over historical Palestine. All Jews throughout the world must have the right not to 'emigrate' to Palestine but to be repatriated.

Of course, the trusteeship proposed by the Americans is incompatible with these aims. The declaration recently made by the Stern Group (appended to my telegram No. 7 AL of 23 March) leaves no doubt on this point. The American initiative was 'provoked by the fact that the US leadership thinks they need the British military power in the Middle East'. The Stern [Group] therefore intends to demonstrate that this arrangement is impractical and that Great Britain is totally incapable of playing the role the US would like it to do.

'The British Empire is in full decline', my interlocutor continues, 'Manchester has long been forgotten, the Navy is playing only a secondary role in the war, and the British economy is in full decline. Britain has only one weapon left: blackmail. And it uses it profusely. As for us, we will prove that this isn't enough. We'll demonstrate the practical impossibility of this so-called solution to the Palestinian problem, which is currently being bargained between the British blackmailers and the agents of the American Trusts.'

'This project of trusteeship', he continues, 'is well on the way to finally bring about the united front of the Jewish resistant fighters against the foreign aggressor.'

I then ask him for his opinion on the vigorous rejection of any trusteeship by the Jewish Agency. A few days ago, the Irgun thought that the Jewish Agency would surrender and accept a trusteeship, provided that some autonomy was offered to the Jewish zone together with some opportunities for immigration. Does the Stern Group share these views?

My interlocutor refrains from indulging in prophecies. Nevertheless, it seems that he does not dismiss the possibility of surrender by the Jewish Agency. But this surrender, if it happens, doesn't appear to him to bear much weight. He points out that the vote of 29 November, for example, is not the result of action taken by the Jewish Agency, but precisely by those so-called 'terrorists'. These very same terrorists may tomorrow prevent any collaboration between the foreign forces and the Jewish population. The operation is simple: attacks on the troops and then reprisals by those troops, and the gap is immediately deepened. 'Too bad', he added, 'if this encourages anti-Semitism abroad.'

This scheme is even more worthy of attention, since it is not exclusive to the Stern Group. In fact, the Irgun has described to me in very accurate terms the same process, and there is no doubt as to its efficacy.

Does the Stern Group think that the Soviets might intervene in Palestine if American forces were sent there?

'If the Americans land in Palestine', he replied, 'it will not be as the result of a request by the local administration, as was the case in Greece. Here, they would land contrary to Jewish wishes and to international law. The USSR would then be within its rights to take countermeasures, but Soviet intervention would not necessarily take place in Palestine. These Soviet reprisals against illegal US intervention in Palestine could occur also in Greece or in other parts of the world.'

The conversation summarized above took place in Russian, as were many other conversations I had with Jewish leaders. I would not have mentioned this detail if I had not been dealing with an interlocutor whose accent, expressions, vocabulary, mannerisms and manner of speech reminded me precisely of the Soviet style. My other interlocutors spoke Russian as emigrants do; this one spoke Russian like a Soviet 'agitator' and, if I may say so, he spoke Russian in the style of Pravda.

But here the matter concerns the form of his report and not its tone, nor theories concerning the Palestinian issue. These theories may be favourable to the USSR, but my interlocutor hastened to justify them with an analysis of the international situation, deliberately cold and objective, without demonstrating partiality for the USSR or its regime.

As for his opinions concerning French policy, they will be the subject, like the other aspects of the Jewish public opinion, of a special report.


Copies: Office of the President of the Republic
Office of the Prime Minister
Mr. Falaize
Mr. Chauvel

AN457AP124, No.40, Tel Aviv, 28 March 1948, Lacharrière to Quai d'Orsay


Meir Zamir is professor in the Middle East Studies department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. An extensive article by him about France's part in the Altalena affair is forthcoming.

This article appeared June 23, 2009 in haaretz

The photos accompanying this article were not part of the original posting in Haaretz. To see other Altalena photos as well as other photos of the period, go to b043edb57f40304476c.html


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