“Jews Shooting Jews”: A Look Back at the Days of the Altalena Affair

The Altalena affair remains one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the State of Israel | The Altalena's sinking was the climax of a dramatic internal crisis that lasted for three tense days | An in-depth examination of the sequence of events offers a more complex picture | Featuring new photos of the curfew enforced in Tel Aviv

Soldiers and civilians looking on as the Altalena burns off the coast of Tel Aviv. Photo: GPO

“An arms ship that has arrived at the country’s shores has been seized by Irgun forces. The government of the State of Israel has come to a unanimous decision and ordered the Israel Defense Forces to use all measures to transfer the weapons to government custody.”

In June 1948, mere weeks after the State of Israel declared its independence, the above message was printed in Hebrew on flyers handed out across Tel Aviv. The Altalena, a ship carrying new immigrants, Irgun fighters, and a huge cache of weapons was docked off the coast of Tel Aviv. The Israeli government perceived its arrival as a threat to its own authority. The bitter finale of this episode is well known: After the parties failed to reach an agreement, the Altalena was sunk, and some would say the affair remains an open wound to this day. Yet the events that unfolded in the dramatic days between the Altalena’s arrival and its sinking are less familiar to the public, and they reveal quite a bit about the state of affairs in the young nation.

האלטלנה בוערת. אחד הפגזים שנורו מהחוף פגע במחסן שעל הספינה, והביא להתלקחותו בתוך שניות. דרך נדב מן, ביתמונה. מאוסף יצחק שדה. מקור האוסף: יורם שדה. האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena on fire. One of the shells fired from shore hit the ship’s storeroom setting it ablaze. The fire spread quickly and the passengers were forced to abandon ship.

First Destination Tel Aviv?

The Altalena set sail for Israel following a long delay and without informing Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun in Israel. “The Irgun” was the common term used in English to refer to the group known in Hebrew as HaIrgun HaZvai HaLeumi Be’Eretz Yisrael (“The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel”), or in short, Ha’Etzel. The Irgun had fought against both the British and the Arabs as a radical right-wing underground group in the pre-state period. In June 1948 it was no longer underground, but had yet to fully merge with the IDF.

The ship was supposed to have left in May, before the Irgun signed an agreement to disarm and prior to the UN-led ceasefire and international arms embargo coming into effect. Unable to stop the ship from setting sail, Begin took it upon himself to mediate the situation, but he did not have much success. Ben-Gurion and the Israeli government commanded the Altalena to anchor off the deserted coast of Kfar Vitkin, north of Tel Aviv, where it was to evacuate its passengers and hand over its weapons. This was where the first confrontation took place. The ship’s crew began unloading the supplies, passengers and fighters, while the IDF encircled the beach. Shortly after, Irgun forces attempted to break through the barricades, leading to an exchange of fire that left four Irgun members and two IDF soldiers dead.

אוניית ה"אלטלנה" בדרכה לישראל, עמוסה בלוחמים, עולים לארץ וניצולי שואה, תחמושת וציוד. רוב העולים ירדו בכפר ויתקין, ויחד איתם נפרק חלק מהציוד. צילום: ארכיון המדינה
The Altalena on its way to Israel. The ship was loaded with fighters, new immigrants and Holocaust survivors, as well as weapons and supplies. Most of the immigrants disembarked at Kfar Vitkin, and some of the supplies were unloaded as well. Photo: Israel State Archives

After the battle, many Irgun members (including Begin) returned to the Altalena, which then retreated out to sea. At the same time, another battle took place at Beit Dagan between the IDF and members of the Irgun. In this case, there were even some former Irgun members, already serving in the IDF, who defected from the army to come to the aid of their comrades after hearing rumors of the events involving the ship and the ensuing battle.

After fleeing out to sea, those aboard the Altalena decided to head toward Tel Aviv, the ship’s original destination. The choice was no accident: the young city was considered a sympathetic stronghold of the Irgun (contrary to its current image), and the landing of a Hebrew arms ship at Israel’s largest and central city would have gained the Irgun fame and public support in the event of another confrontation. The Irgun also planned to send some of the weapons to its fighters battling for the liberation of Jerusalem, in the hope of securing the Holy City and the Temple Mount.

לוחמי אצ"ל, יושבים על משוריין של הארגון הצבאי הלאומי וצופים במצור על תל-אביב. ניתן לראות את הסימון "רק כך" לצד ציור של רובה ומפת ארץ ישראל השלמה-מקראית, סמלו של האצ"ל. צילום: בוריס כרמי, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Irgun fighters sitting on an armored vehicle during the curfew in Tel Aviv. Visible on the vehicle is the Irgun’s insignia with the Hebrew words rak kakh (“only thus”) alongside a picture of a gun and an outline of the biblical borders of Greater Israel. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Israeli Navy sent two frigates to stop the Altalena from reaching the shores of Tel Aviv, but Captain Monroe (Emanuel) Fein, an experienced former commander of a US naval ship, managed to evade them. The exchange of fire that followed didn’t do much damage either. Later, it was decided to run the Altalena aground, about 100 meters from shore in order to convey a clear message: a ship that has run aground does not engage in rebellion. However, those on the opposite side saw things differently. The Palmach headquarters was located in the beachfront Ritz Hotel and the Altalena was anchored directly across from it. The army commanders feared that Irgun supporters would again rush to support those stranded on the ship, as had happened at Kfar Vitkin and Beit Dagan. Given the lack of communication and understanding between the IDF and the Irgun, Ben-Gurion believed that a real coup attempt was underway which could undermine the state’s authority and establish a competing military force.

אברהם סטבסקי (בחולצה הלבנה) עומד על סיפון האלטלנה. סטבסקי היה אחד מהשניים שהואשמו ברצח ארלוזרוב, והוא זוכה במשפט שנערך לאחר מכן. סטבסקי נהרג על סיפון האלטלנה מפגיעת אש שנורתה מהחוף. לצדו של סטבסקי עומד אליהו לנקין (מרכיב משקפיים), מפקד הספינה. צילום: ארכיון המדינה
Abraham Stavsky (in a white shirt) aboard the Altalena. Stavsky was one of the two accused of the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, and was acquitted at trial. Stavsky was killed aboard the Altalena from a shot fired from shore. Next to Stavsky is Eliyahu Lankin (wearing glasses), the ship’s commander. Photo: Israel State Archives


האלטלנה עלתה על שרטון מול חופי תל אביב בכוונת תחילה, כדי להעביר מסר שאינה מתכננת להגיע לחוף בכל מחיר. על אותו שרטון עלו בעבר שתי אוניות מעפילים אחרות, שתיהן בשנת 1939. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena purposely ran aground opposite the Tel Aviv shore to send a clear message that it was not intent on reaching the shore at all costs. Two other refugee ships had run aground at the same location, in 1939. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Curfew: The Kiryati Brigade Closes Off the First Hebrew City

With the Altalena anchored in Tel Aviv, the government held an urgent meeting and imposed a curfew on the city. Forces from the Kiryati Brigade put up roadblocks and evacuated civilians from all areas near the coastline. Cafés were closed by military order. Fearing that civilian government institutions and military headquarters in Tel Aviv would become targets, the Kiryati Brigade commander Michael Ben-Gal (Rabinovitch) issued a general order for the immediate recruitment of “all forces in the defense zone of Tel Aviv … in order to block all traffic along known routes, with the exception of persons carrying security ID, supply vehicles and our army units.” Yitzhak Rabin, arriving at the scene by chance, took command. The Altalena sent a small boat ashore in another attempt at negotiation, but this too was unsuccessful.

חיילים חמושים אוכפים את העוצר ברחובות תל אביב בסמוך לחוף בו נמצאה האלטלנה. העיר הצעירה נחשבה אוהדת ותומכת בארגון, שרצה מראש להביא את האלטלנה לחופי תל אביב מסיבה זו. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Armed soldiers enforce the curfew on Tel Aviv’s streets next to the shore where the Altalena was anchored. The young city was considered to be supportive of the Irgun, which had originally wanted to dock the ship in Tel Aviv, for this reason. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Still clinging to the hope of unloading the weapons on the shores of Tel Aviv, the Altalena decided to send yet another boat, this time with fighters and weapons, to put pressure on Israel’s leadership. Meanwhile, many Irgun members reached the shores of Tel Aviv and managed to capture part of the nearby beach strip, even taking control of Navy headquarters at the San Remo Hotel. Ben-Gurion authorized his commanders to use harsh measures, and to open fire if necessary. The Irgun’s arms boat, loaded with light weapons, machine guns and PIAT anti-tank launchers managed to reach shore. It then set out for another round, returning with more forces, and unloaded them about 300 meters north of the ship while coming under fire. Some of the newly arrived Irgun fighters stationed themselves at the Panorama Café on HaYarkon Street and laid siege to the Palmach headquarters.

עמדת מקלעים של צה"ל שהוקמה בקפה "פנורמה" בחוף הים, מכוונת לעבר האלטלנה וכל מי שינסה לרדת ממנה. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
An IDF machine gun post at Panorama Café along the beach, positioning against the Altalena and anyone trying to disembark. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Jews Shooting Jews

In his memoirs, Rabin described the next hours with an expression that became synonymous with the whole affair: “Jews shooting Jews.” Heavy gunfire was exchanged between the respective forces on shore, while the Altalena also opened fire and was targeted in turn, suffering casualties. After the Irgun forces fired a PIAT shell at Palmach headquarters, the commanders – led by Rabin – decided to act before the building was breached, throwing grenades from the roof at the Irgun forces and badly injuring many. A lull in the fighting enabled them to remove the injured and regroup. Residents of Tel Aviv took to the streets in the hope that the fighting had ended; however, this was not the case. The Palmach commander, Yigal Alon, arrived at the scene and established a command post at Camp Yona (today the Hilton Hotel gardens). After many soldiers refused to cooperate with Alon’s operation, codenamed “Purge,” the Carmeli, Negev and Yiftach Brigades were called in for backup and to enforce the curfew. All the while, along the beach there was an exchange of fire with Irgun members who came to support their comrades from the Altalena.

חיילי פלמ"ח שהשתלבו בצה"ל אוכפים את העוצר ברחובות תל-אביב. ניתן להבחין כי המשוריין שלהם היה בעבר שייך לפלמ"ח. צילום: בוריס כרמי, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
Palmach soldiers who joined the IDF in enforcing the curfew on the streets of Tel Aviv. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Alon issued an ultimatum demanding (again) the Altalena’s unconditional surrender. After the ultimatum expired, Ben-Gurion ordered Alon to begin firing mortars. The second shell hit a ship storeroom that immediately ignited, and the Altalena began to burn. Years of tension and anger had built-up over the years between the Irgun and its rivals in the Haganah and the Palmach – now they were exchanging live fire. Rabin and other commanders testified that they tried to prevent the shooting, but were unsuccessful. Many Irgun members jumped from the burning ship. Palmach and IDF forces were only able to retake control of the shore toward evening. About 19 people in all were killed and many were injured. The incident was a scarring experience for the young State of Israel.

האלטלנה בוערת לנגד עיניהם של מפקדי צה"ל והממשלה בחוף תל אביב. יגאל אלון העיד כי ביקש את הפקודה לירות פגזים בכתב, ורק לאחר שקיבל זאת הורה על פתיחה באש. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה
IDF commanders and government officials watch the Altalena burn from the Tel Aviv beach. Yigal Alon testified that he asked to receive the order to open mortar fire on the Altalena in writing, and only after receiving written authorization did he order the forces to fire. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Israel State Archives


A closer look at the events of the Altalena affair in Tel Aviv and the battles in Kfar Vitkin and Beit Dagan offer a more complex perspective on this historical episode. The ambivalence and lack of communication among the forces, the panic in Tel Aviv and the curfew enforced on the city tell the story of a young country facing a predicament that hit upon all of its exposed nerves, at a time when it was still engaged in an even greater war. The Altalena’s conduct while anchored on Israel’s shores presents the Irgun as an organization attempting, unsuccessfully, to maintain its power in a changing reality, in which it suddenly had become a foreign force within a newly-established state. While the Haganah and Palmach managed to retain their weapons even after signing agreements with the government, the delay in the Altalena‘s departure prevented the Irgun from doing the same.

הבאת האלטלנה לחופי תל אביב, לאחר שהצליחה להתחמק ממשחתות חיל הים שניסו לעצור אותה, אפשרה לאנשי האצ"ל לקבל את האפקט הפומבי שרצו, שבא לבסוף לידי ביטוי בכך שהמונים ראו את הספינה עולה באש. גם נוכח העוצר, העשן היתמר למרחקים. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The Altalena’s arrival on the shore of Tel Aviv, after managing to evade the naval destroyers sent to stop it, gave the Irgun the public effect it had desired, eventually resulting in crowds of thousands who watched the ship burn. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In retrospect, one can assume that the Irgun was motivated by a desire to hold on to its prestige and power within the process of integration into the IDF. The entire chain of events, from the ship’s late departure to the lack of coordination between Begin and his men aboard ship, led the Israeli government to fear a rebellion. The government and Ben-Gurion refused to compromise on what they perceived as an undermining of the authority of the state and this fear led them to act harshly. It is impossible to know what would have happened if the Irgun members had chosen to accept the government’s demands and disarm, just as it is impossible to assess what would have happened if the state had authorized the Irgun to unload its weapons and equip its people already serving in the IDF and in Jerusalem.

האלטלנה השרופה עמדה מול חופי תל אביב למשך שנה, מפוחמת ומעלה חלודה, כאנדרטה שותקת. לבסוף הטיל בן גוריון על חיל-הים לפנות אותה. צילום: בנו רוטנברג, ארכיון המדינה, אוסף מיתר, האוסף הלאומי לתצלומים על שם משפחת פריצקר, הספרייה הלאומית
The hulk of the Altalena remained as a silent witness, anchored opposite the Tel Aviv shore for a year. Ben-Gurion eventually authorized the Navy to dispose of it. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When Tintin Was Abducted by the Irgun in Haifa

Why was Mandatory Palestine changed to the imaginary "Emirate of Khemed" in "Land of Black Gold", the 15th volume in the comic series, "The Adventures of Tintin"?

“Residents of the Land of Israel, be on the alert: a Belgian citizen with a tendency for trouble has been spotted in Haifa disguised as an Arab. The individual calls himself ‘Tintin.’ He is known to be sniffing around where he shouldn’t and asking far too many questions. Anyone with any information regarding his whereabouts is requested to notify the police.”

The above was not a public safety message issued by the Israeli police or the Shin Bet, rather, this was a fictional scene that played out in the world-famous and beloved comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin. This particular story in the Tintin series, Land of Black Gold, was first published in serialized form between September 1939 and May 1940.

English translation of The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The story revolves around a secret plot to sabotage oil reserves in the Middle East. In keeping with the times, the identity of the story’s villain is revealed as none other than the evil German physician, Dr. Müller. As part of Tintin’s investigation, our hero makes his way to British Mandatory Palestine, where he wanders the streets of Haifa dressed as a local Arab. He is even kidnapped by the Irgun, the Jewish underground organization which fought both the Arabs and the British.

Hergé, Tintin’s creator, drew the story’s first comic strips while on a month’s leave from the Belgian army. He was drafted into the military when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but even as a soldier, he continued sending the comic strip installments to Le Petit Vingtième, the newspaper that had been publishing the illustrated adventures of the young reporter for the past decade. After contracting sinusitis, Hergé was released from his military service on the same day Germany invaded Belgium.

Naturally, under the new circumstances of German occupation and given the villain’s German nationality, the series was discontinued, and readers following Tintin’s adventure as a respite from the terrible war erupting around them had to wait several years to find out how the young man managed to escape the deadly sandstorm after evading the clutches of the evil doctor.

After the conclusion of World War II, Hergé initially sought to distance himself from his popular character, but pressured by his wife and friends, he soon returned to drawing the adventures of the curious investigative reporter. The original plan was to send Tintin and his dog Snowy to the moon, which indeed happened later on, but first, he resumed the adventure he had left unfinished when the Nazis invaded his country.

Abdullah, heir to the Emirate of Khemed, sprinkles an itchy powder down Dr. Muller’s shirt, The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The second serialization of Land of Black Gold was published between 1948 and 1950. Importantly however, this was not the final version…

In the 1960s and 1970s, The Adventures of Tintin were introduced into Great Britain. It is not clear exactly what motivated Tintin’s legendary creator to redraw Land of Black Gold, but this time it took a surprising turn. In the English version of the beloved comic, Mandatory Palestine became the imaginary “Emirate of Khemed”. The story of Tintin’s abduction by the Irgun due to a mistake in identification—the story that appeared in the original version—was replaced by a tale involving the military police in Khemed.

Let there be no doubt, Tintin— among the bravest of all illustrated detectives—had no qualms about becoming embroiled in our local war of narratives. Yet that was not the reason for the change. The substitution of historical Mandatory Palestine with an imaginary oil-rich principality, was probably done to avoid offending the British readership Tintin’s creator was hoping to attract.

L: Tintin in Mandatory Palestine. R: the same scene in the mythical Emirate of Khemed

Sadly, regarding Land of Black Gold – neither the version which takes place in the Land of Israel nor the version featuring the imaginary land of Khemed were ever translated into Hebrew…

His Way: Frank Sinatra in the Service of Israel

How Ol' Blue Eyes managed to trick the FBI, make a special delivery down at the docks and help the Jewish state-in-the-making...

Frank Sinatra watching an IDF parade during a visit to Israel in 1962, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photograph Collection, the National Library of Israel. Colorization: MyHeritage

And now, the end is here
And so I face that final curtain
My friend, I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

(My Way, lyrics by Paul Anka, famously performed by Frank Sinatra.)

It was March, 1948 – in a few weeks, the State of Israel would declare its independence.

The Haganah organization was working back channels in order to arm the Jewish population in what was still officially Mandatory Palestine. Fighting was already underway.   At a room in a New York hotel that served as the Haganah’s de-facto local HQ, Teddy Kollek planned his next moves: His mission, on David Ben-Gurion’s orders, was to transfer funds to the captain of an Irish ship, docked not far away and loaded with ammunition. Once the transfer was made, the ship was set to sail to the Land of Israel.  But Kollek, who years later would become famous as an iconic mayor of Jerusalem, faced a difficult problem: as a known Haganah operative, U.S. federal agents were monitoring his every move. Every member of his team was being watched as well. He knew there was no way he could get the money out of the hotel on his own to pay the captain. The fate of the arms delivery the Haganah so desperately needed was unclear.

Next to the Haganah’s secret headquarters, in the very same building, was the famous Copacabana nightclub. Haganah agents would sit at the bar and drink alongside the cream of New York’s entertainment scene. One of the establishment’s frequent visitors was none other than Frank Sinatra.

“I went downstairs to the bar and Sinatra came over, and we were talking,” Kollek later recalled. “I don’t know what came over me, but I told him what I was doing in the United States and what my dilemma was.”

Frank Sinatra (right) and Teddy Kollek (left), who by then was mayor of Jerusalem, an AP photo published in Davar, June 19, 1980

The next day, in the early morning hours, Teddy Kollek left the building holding a bag. FBI agents followed him. At the same moment, Frank Sinatra left out the back exit, carrying a million dollars in a paper bag. He went down to the pier, made the delivery to the captain, and waved goodbye to the ammunition ship as it sailed on its way.

“It was the beginning of the young nation, I wanted to help.” Sinatra later told his daughter Nancy.

Well after Israeli independence was declared, Frank Sinatra would continue to accompany the young country for many years. And everything he did, he did with love. His way.

And here’s a special bonus treat – this short film produced by the “National Comittee for Labor Israel” documented Sinatra’s 1962 visit to the country, in color!

Further Reading:

Sinatra: The Life – Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan

Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, Yossi Melman, Dan Raviv

Stuart Davidson – Full interview about Frank Sinatra and Teddy Kollek, Jimmy Hoffa (Associate) – Toldot Yisrael

How France Nearly Snatched Half of Jerusalem From Britain Over Lunch

If not for a crucial lunchtime intervention by General Edmund Allenby, who apparently had his mouth full, half of Jerusalem could have come under French control. In fact, had Allenby remained silent, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine, not to mention a State of Israel…

It could have all been very, very different, if things had actually gone to plan…

In late 1917, Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, received urgent orders. He was to immediately put aside his work in helping to stir up the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, and join General Edmund Allenby in Palestine.

It was the late stages of the Great War – within days Jerusalem would fall to the conquering British Army, after nearly three grueling years of fighting against the Ottomans and their Imperial German allies in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

General Allenby rides at the head of the procession down Jaffa Street. He would dismount upon entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate. This photo appears on a souvenir postcard found in the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel


This was a landmark event in history – the Holy City was changing hands. The international press, who had paid little attention to the Palestine Campaign until now, were caught up in the excitement. After all, General Allenby had succeeded where even Richard the Lionheart had failed.

Comparisons to Richard the Lionheart and thoughts on the “Zionistic Dream”, J. The Jewish News of Northern California reports on Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem, December 21, 1917


Lawrence managed to secure an invitation to the highly anticipated handover ceremony on December 11. He was lacking the proper attire for such an event, needing to borrow a clean uniform and a brass hat, but he entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate, several steps behind Allenby who strode on foot as a mark of respect. Lawrence was present as the general announced to the dignitaries gathered in front of the Tower of David that the city was now officially under martial law. Though he wrote little else about the ceremony, Lawrence noted that, “for me it was the supreme moment of the war”.

The ceremony outside the gatehouse of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, December 11, 1917. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Allenby speaks to the gathered dignitaries. His declaration of martial law signaled the beginning of British rule in Jerusalem. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.


In his classic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Englishman did however elaborate further on a peculiar exchange that unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the ceremony, over a fairly impressive lunch (by military standards) in the quaint, nearby village of Ein Karem.

The aides pushed about, and from great baskets drew a lunch, varied, elaborate and succulent. On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative […], who said in his fluting voice: ‘And tomorrow, my dear general. I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.’

[…] a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise and foie gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, ‘In the military zone the only authority is that of the Commander-in-Chief – myself.’

Picot protested further, but was cut short by Allenby, who made clear that the civil government would only be established when he saw fit.

It seems that François Georges-Picot was under the impression that France and Britain would share administrative authorities in Jerusalem, now that the city had fallen to the Allied Powers. Allenby was clearly having none of it.

T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919. Lawrence was present at both the ceremony at Jaffa Gate, as well as the lunchtime diplomatic incident


It’s possible that the exchange was even worse than Lawrence described. Another eyewitness, a French officer by the name of Louis Massignon who was part of Picot’s delegation, later wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered”. The British general, nicknamed “The Bull”, stood 6 foot 2 and was known for his unpredictable temper and imposing appearance.

General Allenby, “The Bull”, depicted in a sketch from 1917


The truth was that Picot had a point. The French diplomat, along with his British counterpart Mark Sykes, had been one of the chief formulators of the famous “Sykes-Picot Agreement”.

François Georges-Picot was appointed France’s High Commissioner in Palestine and Syria in 1917, but never held any effective authority in Palestine due to Allenby’s objections


According to the terms of this secret agreement signed in January 1916, Jerusalem and most of what had been Ottoman Palestine was to come under international administration with the conclusion of the war. Until then, according to Picot, all conquered sections of Palestine were meant to be ruled by a joint Anglo-French administration.

At this stage however, the British had other ideas. After all, they had fought and bled in this region for years. There were major setbacks along the way, including two military defeats at Gaza. They would suffer over 60,000 battle casualties with nearly 17,000 killed over the course of the campaign (it’s worth noting that much of the rank and file came from the far reaches of the British Empire, including India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). The French contribution in Palestine was minimal in comparison. The British had no intention of now ceding control of the great prize because of a confidential agreement that was not even public knowledge.

With Allenby’s declaration of martial law, any serious talk of joint or international administration was put off indefinitely. British martial law effectively remained in place until the summer of 1920, when a civil administration was finally established, under the British Mandate, with no French or international involvement.

A Hebrew Hanukkah greeting card from 1917 celebrating the “Liberation of Jerusalem”. It features Allenby in colonial attire, soldiers from the Jewish Legion and a depiction of Mattathias, the Jewish priest credited with helping to spark the Maccabean Revolt. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.


The brief and rather informal diplomatic tussle described above by Lawrence may very well have changed the course of Middle Eastern history. What would an Anglo-French Jerusalem have looked like? One can only imagine…

If not for General Allenby’s verbal resistance, raised as he chewed on his fois gras sandwich, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine. If an international administration had indeed been established in Palestine as per the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, would the State of Israel have ever come into existence? Arguably not.

The name of Edmund Allenby (who was later raised to the rank of Field Marshal and given the title “Viscount of Megiddo and of Felixstowe in the County of Suffolk”) today graces countless streets, bridges, parks and city squares across Israel. These honors celebrate the officer’s considerable military exploits, but his lunchtime stand against French intervention may have been just as crucial.




Further Reading:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, Dell Publishing, 1926

The Fantasy of an International Jerusalem, by Martin Kramer, Mosaic Magazine, 2017