Israeli Jets Attack PLO’s HQ in Tunis : 36 Killed; Raid Called Response to Cyprus Deaths

Times Staff Writers

Israeli warplanes swooped across the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday and bombed the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization here, destroying the PLO complex and reportedly killing at least 36 people.

The U.S.-made F-16 jets mounted the raid to show that “there is no place in which terror organizations can be immune” from Israeli retaliation, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in Tel Aviv.

Rabin said Israel retaliated for the Yom Kippur murder of three Israeli civilians in Larnaca, Cyprus, last week and for other recent terrorist attacks.


Longest Air Strike

On the raid, the longest air strike ever undertaken by the Israelis, the planes followed a nearly straight-line route from Israel for 1,300 miles across the Mediterranean to a seven-acre complex of PLO buildings on the Tunisian coast, in the Hamam Shatt suburb about 12 miles southeast of Tunis.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat had just returned to Tunis from a trip to Morocco but was not at the compound when it came under attack. He and an aide later toured the devastated site, where his political headquarters, his residence and the homes of several PLO officials were destroyed. PLO Secretary General Abu Abbas vowed to retaliate, saying, “We will hit very hard.”

The Tunisian government, regarded as one of the most moderate and conservative in the Arab world, denounced the raid as a violation of its sovereignty, and Tunisia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to denounce the Israelis for the attack.

According to witnesses, a flight of jets appeared over Tunis Bay after fog lifted at 10:15 a.m. It appeared that two jets dropped the bombs while others circled nearby, the witnesses said.

Windows shook in homes far across the bay in Carthage, where Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba has his presidential palace.

Fathi Ouidi, an official of the Tunisian Information Ministry, said one 3,000-pound bomb was dropped, followed by four 1,000-pound bombs. He said it was not clear just how many planes were involved.


The F-16s were refueled in midair on their way back to their bases, Israeli sources said, and Israeli navy ships were reportedly deployed far out in the Mediterranean to assist any aircraft that might run into trouble. Military sources said that all planes returned safely and that their pilots reported direct hits on all targets.

Confusion Over Losses

There was great confusion here over the exact loss of life, as the Tunisian government clamped security around the bombed area and at the hospitals to which the wounded were taken.

But, as the films on Tunisian government television made clear, there was little doubt that damage was extensive. The TV shots showed only ravaged buildings and enormous stretches of flattened rubble where the PLO complex had once stood.

The PLO has made its headquarters here since it was driven from Beirut in 1982 by Israeli forces.

Noting that the bombs had dug out a crater, Ouidi, the Tunisian official, said bitterly in an interview, “If the Israelis wanted to build us a football stadium, they could not have done a better job.”

Ouidi, reading from an official government report, said 36 people were killed in the raid and 60 wounded, 25 seriously. But other reports, including that of the PLO, put the death toll as high as 60. Ouidi said Tunisian civilians were among those killed, and other sources said at least one of the dead was a member of Force 17, Arafat’s elite bodyguard.


Only Weizman Opposed

In Tel Aviv, Israeli military officials provided only sketchy details of the operation, but informed sources said it was approved late last week by the “inner Cabinet” of 10 senior ministers. Only Ezer Weizman, a minister without portfolio, voted against the plan, which was drafted at the initiative of Rabin, the sources said.

Tuesday’s attack was believed to be the first by Israel on the territory of a country with which it is not technically at war.

Rabin declared that “we have nothing against Tunisia.” He said Israel’s targets were PLO facilities that have, in effect, “extraterritorial status” in the North African country.

“We cannot tolerate . . . immunity for the PLO because they are located in countries which are not active against Israel,” Rabin said.

‘Israel Will Wage War’

“As long as PLO terror or any other terror acts against Israel, Israel will wage war against it,” Rabin told newsmen. “Israel will determine the method of warfare, the place of the strike, in accordance with its judgment and its judgment only.”

Rabin said Israel had given no notice to the United States of its intentions to launch the Tunis attack. “The decision was taken by Israel,” he said. “We informed friendly countries, including the United States, only after the mission was accomplished.”


Senior defense sources said the raid was planned after two Palestinians and a Briton boarded an Israeli yacht in the marina at Larnaca, Cyprus, early last Wednesday morning, killing three Israelis--two men and a woman--before surrendering to police 10 hours later.

The PLO disavowed any involvement in the attack, which came on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and a Cyprus government spokesman has said that police inquiries have not yet established whether the terrorists are connected with Arafat’s organization.

Blame on Arafat

However, Rabin told newsmen, “We have all the reasons to believe that this atrocity at Larnaca was carried out by forces under Mr. Arafat.”

A senior defense source said that four leaders of the PLO’s Force 17 commando unit, who were captured by the Israeli navy Aug. 31, had identified the three men held for the Larnaca killings as members of the group after being shown photographs of them.

A background paper distributed by the Israeli army also listed several other operations allegedly planned and carried out by PLO members whose offices were located in the Tunis complex, including an aborted attack against military headquarters in Israel last April, an attempted car bombing in Jerusalem and the placing of explosive charges at Israeli and military hitchhiking stations.

The attack, coming just one day after Jordan’s King Hussein and President Reagan met in Washington in an effort to revive the latest Middle East peace initiative, was also seen in Israel as intended to underline Israel’s refusal to include the PLO as a participant in any negotiations.


Hussein and Arafat agreed last February to a “joint framework” for peace talks, and Israel is concerned that despite pledges to the contrary, the United States is getting ready to negotiate with the PLO. Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has already invited two PLO officials to London for talks with her government.

While not disguising his contempt for Arafat and his organization, Rabin insisted that it was “total nonsense” to suggest that Tuesday’s raid was designed to torpedo the peace process.

It is “those who continue and increase terror attacks against Israel, against Israelis, against Jewish targets, either in Israel or outside Israel,” who want to undermine the search for Middle East peace, Rabin said.

He refused to discuss Israeli thinking in choosing Tunisia as its target, and when pressed as to whether there might be a future strike against PLO targets in Jordan, he responded: “I repeat that no PLO terrorist target is immune, no matter where it is located, against attack by us. I don’t want you to draw conclusions from this regarding if and when we will decide to attack such a target. I will add no more.”

The Israeli air force said Tuesday’s operation was “the longest-range attack” ever undertaken by Israel. On July 4, 1976, Israeli planes traveled 2,200 miles from Israel to free the hostages of an Air France airliner hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe airport in Uganda. In July, 1981, Israeli jets flew 1,000 miles to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad.

Stanley Meisler reported from Tunis and Dan Fisher from Tel Aviv. Also contributing was Don Shannon at the United Nations.