May 30, 2003


What Palestinians Can Learn From a Turning Point in Zionist History (ETHAN BRONNER, May 30, 2003, NY Times)
In the final years of the British mandate in Palestine, there was not one Jewish militia but several, just as there are competing Palestinian groups today. The main one, the Haganah, was led by Mr. Ben-Gurion. A more violent and radical one, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, often called simply the Irgun, was led by Menachem Begin. The Irgun, along with an even more radical group, the Stern Gang, was responsible for a massacre of more than 200 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948.

A month later, after the British walked out of Palestine and Mr. Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel, Arab armies attacked. On June 1, the Haganah and Irgun agreed to merge into the Israel Defense Forces, headed by Haganah commanders. The accord called on Irgun members to hand over arms and terminate separate activity, including arms purchases abroad.

But there remained the question of an old American Navy landing vessel bought by the Irgun's American supporters and renamed the Altalena. The ship, whose purchase had predated the June 1 agreement, was packed with 850 volunteers, 5,000 rifles, 3,000 bombs, 3 million cartridges and hundreds of tons of explosives.

Mr. Ben-Gurion wanted every soldier and bullet he could get and ordered the ship to dock. But Mr. Begin said the arms should go to Irgun troops. Mr. Ben-Gurion refused; at that point, Irgun men headed to the beach to unload the arms.

Mr. Ben-Gurion realized the challenge he faced. As he put it in his memoir, "I decided this must be the moment of truth. Either the government's authority would prevail and we could then proceed to consolidate our military force or the whole concept of nationhood would fall apart." [...]

The point for the Palestinians is that until their radical militias are put out of action, those groups will always be in the position of spoilers. In 1996, the Palestinian Authority showed itself capable of confrontation, making widespread arrests of extremists in the wake of several suicide bombings. Thousands of militants were arrested. But most were eventually let go. The Palestinians must do it again and in a definitive manner. The Altalena is a symbol of that task because it involved genuine confrontation yet little loss of life.

It is the essence of the State that only it be allowed to mete out death. Sooner or later--hopefully sooner--Mr. Abbas will have to establish the existence of this kind of monopoly power if the idea of a Palestinian nation is to be taken seriously. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2003 8:26 PM
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