The legendary SS Altalena might soon reach shore: An initiative is being discussed by the Knesset to salvage and display the remnants of the ship, which was sunk by the IDF in 1948 while carrying Jewish passengers, Yedioth Ahronoth revealed Wednesday.
Heading the initiative is Chairman of the House Committee Yariv Levin, whose great uncle was the SS Altalena's military commander, Elyahu Lankin. A few months ago Levin presented the issue to senior officials at the Prime Minister's Office, who asked him to come up with a detailed plan and to coordinate it with the Navy.
Levin plans to submit the plan for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approval in the coming days. According to senior Likud officials, Netanyahu is likely to sign off on the initiative. It is unclear how the project, which is estimated to cost millions of dollars, will be funded.
"We must feel a personal commitment to the founding generation in general and for the Altalena specifically, and bring the ship to shore," Levin said. "We are considering different possibilities , but the idea is that if the ship is extricated, it will be displayed in one of the museums, like the IZL Museum or the Menachem Begin Heritage Center."
Former Navy chief, Major General (Res.) Ami Ayalon, said that getting the ship to shore is technically possible. "More complicated tasks have been done," he said. He noted that the Navy knows the SS Altalena's exact coordinates and that the water level at the site where it sank is relatively shallow.
The fact that the extraction is possible does not mean it will be easy. Specialists will have to decide whether to pull the ship out whole or in pieces, depending on its condition. The restoration is expected to raise the project's cost.
'Ship was Menachem Begin's legacy'The SS Altalena was carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish immigrants from Europe, as well as weapons intended to be used in the War of Independence. When it reached the Tel Aviv coast, it was fired on by the IDF, under the command of then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.
Ben Gurion feared that the weapons aboard the ship would be handed over exclusively to the IZL, a Jewish parliamentary group that also fought for Israel's independence. When the IZL refused to surrender, cannons were fired at the ship, which caught fire and sank. Menachem Begin, who was aboard the ship and commanded the IZL, ordered his troops to hold their fire in order to avoid a civil war. Sixteen IZL fighters and three IDF soldiers died in the confrontation.
"The Altalena affair is the most significant development of Menachem Begin's legacy, which asserts that a civil war must be avoided under any circumstances," Levin said. "This statement has laid the primary foundation for Israel's democracy. Every citizen should learn the story of the Altalena, and its obvious bequest to preserve the unity of the (Jewish) people."
The idea to pull the ship from the depths of the sea has been brought up in the past; in 2004, Jewish-American businessmen offered to fund the project, the cost of which was estimated to reach $2 million. The initiative was proposed in the aftermath of a survey conducted among teenagers, most of whom thought that the SS Altalena was a casino ship.
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