Three Arab gunmen demanding freedom for Palestinian prisoners took over a passenger bus near here Monday, killing one Israeli man in cold blood before a special police anti-terrorist unit stormed the vehicle and shot the hijackers to death. Two more Israelis, both women, were killed--apparently during the rescue attempt--and eight other women passengers were wounded.
The incident marked the first Israeli deaths after nearly three months of unrest in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was also the first known example of classical terrorist tactics against Israeli civilians since the trouble began.
Impact on Peace Hopes
The attack was seen here as likely to have a major impact on perceptions of the Palestinian uprising, the internal Israeli political situation and prospects for the latest U.S. Middle East peace plan.
Israel Television reported Monday night that its radio monitor heard a broadcast from Baghdad, Iraq, in which the dominant Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed responsibility for the hijacking. The Associated Press reported a similar claim in a PLO statement released in Nicosia, Cyprus.
The army said the three hijackers, armed with automatic weapons, had apparently infiltrated from Egypt. Speaking to reporters where the bus was stormed Monday morning, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, who commanded the combined Israeli army and police action, said one of the slain terrorists carried documents indicating that he was from the Egyptian half of the divided city of Rafah. The northern part of the town is in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.
Blast of a Grenade
According to accounts by the army and witnesses, the four-hour hijacking drama, which ended in the blast of a stun grenade and a 40-second blaze of police gunfire, began about 30 miles south of here in treeless, high-desert terrain known as Ramat Nafha.
The youthful gunmen, who apparently slipped across the border overnight, spotted a white Renault headed north near Ramat Nafha early Monday. Four soldiers inside were reportedly heading, unarmed, from their nearby military base to a special physical training exercise.
When the Arabs opened fire on their car, the soldiers fled. The infiltrators took over the vehicle about 6:30 a.m. and drove north, turning west on the main road linking Beersheba with Dimona, site of Israel's highly secretive nuclear facility.
They fired on at least two other vehicles, including a semi-trailer and a mini-van carrying four schoolteachers. Mira Friedman, one of the teachers, said she saw only one of the three, describing him in an Israel Radio interview as young, slight and wearing what appeared to be army fatigues. The teachers escaped when the driver of their van accelerated toward the firing gunmen and they ran, Friedman said.
The bus, filled with workers headed toward their jobs at the Dimona nuclear facility, came upon the semi-trailer, which was stopped in the highway. "Next to it were two men with weapons shooting towards the truck," the bus driver, who was identified only as "Zvika," told Israel Television.
"I stopped. I couldn't turn around because there was a cliff," the driver said. "The moment he caught sight of me, one of the terrorists ran toward me and started shooting at my bus. I let off the passengers immediately, as much as could get away, and we started running. . . . Then he (the terrorist) went on the bus and took over."
It was about 8 a.m.
11 Remain on Board
Eleven passengers remained on board--10 women and a man who had been unable to escape.
"We saw three terrorists in the bus," related a distraught Stella Bechar, a wounded survivor of the incident interviewed from her hospital bed on Israel Television. "They were very young. One had a mustache. They said to us: 'Sit quietly and we won't harm you.' We told each other: 'Don't do anything foolish.' One of them said he was thirsty, so we gave them milk. We said to them: 'We're mothers. What do you want from us?' "
As the terrorists held their captives, Israeli police and army units, alerted when the soldiers whose car was stolen reported the incident, closed in on the site near the tiny, hilltop Bedouin village of Aroer. Mordechai said he tried to negotiate with the men. "We made every effort to both relax them and to promise them that negotiations may bring results," he said.
The men demanded to see a representative of the Red Cross and asked for a megaphone. But their main demand was the release of all Palestinians imprisoned as a result of the uprising in the occupied territories.
They set a 30-minute deadline for the Red Cross representative to appear and warned that they would then start killing hostages. As the time limit neared, they began shooting out the bus windows facing the Israeli security forces and threw one grenade, which failed to explode.
"The terrorist got nervous and said, 'Shut up!' " survivor Bechar told Israel Television. " 'I'm going to kill somebody every 20 minutes.' And then he shot a man."
The passenger, identified as Victor Ram, a 39-year-old widower and father of three, died from a bullet wound in the chest.
At that point, Gen. Mordechai said, he decided to storm the bus. It was 10:25.
"We told each other: 'That's it, girls. Lie back and shut up. This is the end," said a weeping Bechar. "I heard shooting. And I said: 'That's it. We're finished.' I don't know if you say goodby in these moments."
A witness said he heard the explosion of a stun grenade and then a volley of shots as about 20 members of the Special Border Police Anti-Terrorism Unit (known by its Hebrew initials as YAMAM) stormed the bus. The three terrorists and two other women were killed in the 40-second assault. The women were identified as Rina Shiratky, 31, a mother of two, and Miriam Ben-Yair, 46, a mother of four.
Reporters who arrived soon after the shoot-out found at least eight large army helicopters parked on the undulating terrain beside the road. Scores of police and military jeeps, vans and trucks lined both shoulders of the road.
The hijacked bus was still parked beside the road, most of its windows shot out. Inside, there was fresh blood on the floor and on several seats in the rear. Shattered glass was everywhere. A plastic cup of cottage cheese lay open on the rearmost seat, and an Israeli coin was on the floor.
About the time Stella Bechar was sure she was going to die, an Israeli soldier came to her side. "Lady, don't be afraid. Come out," she quoted him as saying. "And he carried me out."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was in constant telephone contact with officials on the scene as the drama unfolded, immediately linked the incident with Palestinian unrest in the occupied territories.
'These Are the Same'
"The terrorists try to attack us daily," the prime minister commented. "These are the same individuals who are inciting disturbances in the territories."
"This is the face of our real enemy," added Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin during an address Monday evening to the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. "This is the murderous PLO terror."
Rabin described the hijacking as part of a major PLO effort to show that terrorism remains the principal means by which its political goals will be achieved.
Reflecting the defense establishment's frustration over what it considers unfair criticism of its record in trying to put down Palestinian protests, Rabin added: "I want to ask--will the international press describe this incident like it always describes every little detail in incidents where there is no murder? No killings? . . . Will Knesset members, who are always so accurate about when an Israel Defense Forces soldier may do this or another thing, make their voice clear against those who appear in the media every day directing these actions, assisting and recruiting young and old people to do these acts of murder?"
An Earlier Infiltration
There have been several recent attempts to infiltrate Israeli territory, including a successful one last Feb. 4 by three Palestinians who slipped across the border from Egypt near Har Harif. They were caught a day later before they could mount any attack.
The hijacking incident clearly dismayed many prominent Palestinians in the occupied territories, who feel that the costly uprising of the last three months has won sympathy for the nationalist cause largely because it has been conducted by civilians.
"It's very worrying, because the whole point of the thing is to have a so-called white revolution in which people don't use any arms," commented Birzeit University political scientist Sari Nusseibeh. He called the hijacking a "deplorable act" and added, "The only purpose it serves is to de-legitimize the Palestinian people's struggle against occupation."
"I believe such actions should stop once and for all," added Ibrahim Dakkak, head of East Jerusalem's Arab Thought Forum. "I believe that these methods hurt the Palestinian cause and hurt the Palestinian uprising in particular."
Dr. Zakariya Agha, head of the Arab Medical Society in the Gaza Strip, also said he is "against killing civilians, no matter what nationality they are." But he added that the hijacking could not be separated "from the killing of innocent civilians in the occupied territories and breaking people's bones."
In other violence Monday, Palestinian sources said that a man was killed by army gunfire near Nablus and that at least seven more were wounded in Idna, a village near Hebron. The death brought to at least 84 the number of Palestinian fatalities in three months of unrest.
Observers here said that the political left, which had appeared to get a new lease on life from the Palestinian uprising, may suffer a setback because of the killing of three Israeli civilians in the hijacking. After years in which it was anathema to even contemplate, there had even been a significant number of calls here to negotiate with the PLO. It is unlikely that they will be repeated soon in the wake of Monday's hijacking.
Israelis' Deepest Fears
By stirring the deepest fears of many Israelis concerning the Arabs, the incident may also influence a continuing political debate between Prime Minister Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc and the centrist Labor Alignment of Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The two are at odds over long-range Israeli policy toward the occupied territories and over an American proposal to open Middle East peace talks next month.
Shamir on Sunday rejected an American deadline for responding to the U.S. plan by mid-March, arguing that he needed more time to "clarify" some of its points.
Labor has been threatening to push for early elections if Likud blocks the peace process. But on Monday, Peres was as harsh in his assessment of the hijacking as Shamir.
"This shows exactly why the PLO is a calamity for both the Arabs and the Jews," the foreign minister said. "Today they captured innocent women and men. What did they do? They angered the entire world in the ugliest way. . . . Where does this lead?"