As the rate of ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) increased dramatically in the summer of 1946, the Atlit Detention Camp became crowded with detainees to its full capacity.
The British decided to deport future ma’apilim to Cyprus, and thought that this would be a deterrent to continued illegal immigration. The first to be deported to
Cyprus were the 1,300 ma’apilim of the ‘Henrietta Szold’ and the ‘Yagur’ vessels. The event – named “Operation Igloo” by the British - took place in August 1946.
By the middle of 1947, some 15,000 ma’apilim were already detained in the Cyprus camps. Their status was that of prisoners of war.
The camps were operated jointly by the British Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the Mandatory Government and the British Army. However,
the internal affairs of the camps were entirely in the hands of the ma’apilim through the representatives of the various Zionist parties and the
representatives of the Hagana. The covert activity of the Hagana among the ma’apilim was run by the Palmach and the Palyam and was called
“The Defenders’ Rank”. Within the framework of this organization 11,000 young ma’apilim were given basic army training, using wooden guns and revolvers,
in preparation for their arrival in Palestine and the inevitable outbreak of the War of Independence. About 7,000 of those that received training did actually
participate in the War of Independence after their liberation from the camps.
Many Palyamniks who had accompanied the ma’apilim to Eretz Israel, as well as many of the foreign crews and of the volunteers from the USA and Canada
who also served as crew on vessels that came from the States, were deported to Cyprus together with the ma’apilim, following the interception of their vessels.
The Palmachniks/Palyamniks in the camps had continuous radio contact with the Palmach HQ in Eretz Israel. There was practically free movement of Palmach/Palyam
personnel between Eretz Israel and the camps, thanks to the tunnels that were dug under the camps’ fences and the fishing boats that carried personnel back and
forth (the boat named ‘Shark’ was the “Palyam taxi” that had a shuttle run between Palestine and Cyprus). Every month, about 750 people - half of the total
monthly quota established by the British - would be freed from the camps and given certificates to enter Palestine legally, and some of these certificates were
used to free Aliya Bet operatives as needed. The Palmach organization within the camps also supported Ha'Chulya - the Palyam's underwater sabotage unit -
with operations against British
Navy targets in Cyprus after this unit transfered its activity to the island in March 1947.
Camps in which tents had been erected were called “summer camps” whereas those in which corrugated iron had been used to build Nissen huts were called
“winter camps”. The living conditions within the camps were harsh. The food was poor, in summer the heat was difficult to bear as there was no shade,
and in winter it was bitter cold. Mitigating factors were the help that was given to the ma’apilim from the Yishuv in Eretz Israel and from the
Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The period of the camps lasted for 30 months. During this period schools and kindergartens were established for the children.
There were clinics, cultural activities and even an internal court. Close to 2,200 babies were born on the island. The first one to give worldwide publicity to what
went on in the camps was the Jewish journalist Ruth Gruber who visited the camps in July 1947. This followed her coverage of the ‘Exodus’
story, as she had expected that the ma’apilim of the ‘Exodus’ would be sent there (this did not happen, as the British tried to send the ma’apilim back to France).
In her book “Witness” one can find unique photos of life in the camps. Towards the end of 1947, Golda Meir managed to negotiate with the British a special early release and immigration to Eretz Israel
of about 2,000 babies with their parents (click here for Golda's personal account of this accomplishment).
By the end of the British mandate, about 52,000 ma’apilim had been deported to Cyprus (this includes the 15,000 who arrived there directly on the two ‘Pans’,
following an agreement between the commander of the ships and the British Navy). Shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel, the British started
to set free small groups of detainees. In June 1948, a mission of the I.D.F (Tzahal) arrived at the camps to arrange for the conscription of people to the army.
However, the hope that all the detainees would be freed shortly after the creation of the state was not fulfilled. There were all sort of technical and
security issues, but the biggest problem was the refusal of the British to release those detainees who were of draft age. The majority of the detainees were
freed and brought to Israel by the ‘Pans’ in the summer of 1948, but about 10,000 were kept behind, mostly those of draft age and members of their families who
chose to remain in the camps with them. On January 24th,1949, “Operation P’dut” (p’dut in Hebrew means setting free) began, during which the ships ‘Galila’
and ‘Atzma’ut’ made several trips between Haifa and Cyprus and brought the remainder of the detainees to Israel. On February 10th,1949, the last detainee left,
and the chapter of the Cyprus camps in the history of Zionism came to an end.
A painting of the camps by the painter Shmuel Katz, a ma'apil on 'Knesset Israel' and a detainee in the camps
One of the "winter camps"
Close to 2,200 babies were born in the camps. In the picture is the temporary birth certificate of Uri Farbari, whose parents (holding him in the camps, in the small picture on the right) were
ma'apilim on the La'Negev vessel. They all arrived in Haifa on Nov. 28th, 1947, when the British freed about 2,000 babies and their parents.