The Atlit Detention Camp

After the publication of the British “White Paper” in May 1939, which limited the number of Jewish immigrants allowed to enter Palestine to 75,000 for five years; 25,000 immediately and 10,000 per year following, the Mandatory Government built the Atlit camp – a detention camp near Atlit (15km south of Haifa) for holding illegal immigrants who were captured trying to enter the country. The number of detainees who were released from the camp was deducted from the general yearly quota. This camp was run by the British until the State of Israel was created in 1948.

During WW-II, 34 voyages of Aliya Bet – the organized clandestine immigration of Jews to Eretz Israel during the British mandate of Palestine – brought about 17,000 ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) to Eretz Israel, from ports in the Black Sea. The ma'apilim were detained in the Atlit camp until they were freed in accordance with the monthly quota (with the exception of 1,750 ma'apilim who were deported for a lengthy detention to the remote island of Mauritius).

After WW-II ended, attempts of clandestine immigration to Eretz Israel by Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors from Europe surged dramatically. From Jan. to Jul. 1946, 10,200 ma’apilim were interned in Atlit. They arrived on 11 Aliya Bet vessels that failed to run the British blockade. In Aug. 1946 the British changed their policy and began to deport the ma’apilim to detention camps in Cyprus.

Between Aug. 1946 and Apr. 1948, 52,500 ma’apilim were deported to Cyprus, of which 30,000 were freed by the British and brought to Palestine as their quota allotment came due (the quota was increased to 1,500 per month after WW-II ended). The process of liberating the refugees was concluded in the Atlit camp (the rest of the Cyprus detainees, most of those of draft age, were liberated only after the State of Israel had come into being).

Two events related to the Atlit Camp are particularly worth mentioning:

(1) In a daring raid of the 1st Company of the Palmach on Oct. 10, 1945, all the inmates of the camp were set free. This act signaled the beginning of the armed struggle of the Palmach against the British which lasted until the summer of 1947 (Yitzhak Rabin – Israel’s 5th Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1995 – was the commander of one of the two platoons that took part in this operation).

(2) “Black Saturday”, Jun. 29, 1946: following the British search for members of the Palmach and their weapons in Yagur and Sdot Yam, all those who had been captured were first moved to the Atlit camp. After few days of interrogation there they were transferred to the detention camp in Rafiah.

After the State of Israel was established, the Atlit camp became a temporary shelter for the absorption of new immigrants and served as such until 1970. In 1986 the Council for the Preservation of Old Buildings and Settlements (a government agency) took upon itself to reconstruct the neglected site and the following year it was declared a “National Heritage Site”.

The purpose of the site is educational: to tell the story of Aliya Bet. Several of the old buildings, such as the decontamination building and several of the barracks were cleaned and restored and other objects were added to make the camp appear as it had been when in use. There is a library there dedicated to the subject of Aliya Bet. Special mention should be made of computerized database which contain the names of many of the ma’apilim. For a small entrance fee one can visit the camp and tour it on his/her own or join a guided tour.

The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites – the government agency which maintains the camp – purchased and brought to the site a small ship similar to a typical small Aliya Bet vessel, and built an exhibit inside it. The stamp features this ship, against the background of the camp's barracks. The stamp tab shows ma'apilim disembarking from the "United Nations" Aliya Bet vessel onto the shore in Nahariya. Because this ship was one of few to run the British blockade, its ma'apilim escaped detention.

The stamp was issued in 2014 as part of the Israel's National Heritage Landmarks series. Designer: Ronen Goldberg