Israeli soldiers thwarted two boatloads of Palestinian guerrillas trying to assault beaches near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, killing four of the attackers and capturing 12 others.
No Israeli soldiers or civilians were injured in the dramatic shoot-out, which has broad diplomatic implications.
Maps of the hotel-dotted Tel Aviv waterfront were found on the Palestinians, and Israeli officials concluded that a major terrorist attack was planned. The guerrillas traveled to within 120 miles of the Israeli coast aboard a mother ship that had set sail from the Libyan port of Benghazi, Israeli officials said. The landing craft were lowered from the larger ship, which escaped.
Members of the Palestine Liberation Front, a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization, issued a statement both in Lebanon and Iraq saying that the attack was to avenge seven Palestinian workers who were shot to death by an Israeli gunman May 20.
The PLO link is bound to create a dilemma for the Bush Administration, which, in late 1988, had opened contact with the organization based in part on PLO chief Yasser Arafat's pledge to abandon the use of terrorism.
The Palestine Liberation Front is headed by Mohammed Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abul Abbas. He masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in which a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed. He is also a member of the PLO's highest councils.
"The aim of this operation was to kill civilians in the most populated areas of Israel, the central beaches in the Tel Aviv area," Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron said. "Abul Abbas was responsible."
In Washington, U.S. government reaction was the sharpest since the Reagan Administration opened contacts with the PLO. State Department officials condemned the incident as a violation of Arafat's renunciation of terrorism.
"The U.S. is horrified at this terrorist attack," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said. If PLO involvement is proven, she said, "We would view this as a very serious matter."
The Bush Administration quickly drafted a "tough" message to the PLO threatening to end the dialogue, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. One version calls on Arafat to take disciplinary action against the Palestine Liberation Front.
"Arafat has to take some kind of action in order to be credible. (PLF leader) Abul Abbas is on the PLO's Executive Committee. Arafat may not have known about his plans, but he is still accountable," a U.S. counterterrorism official said.
California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and eight other lawmakers immediately wrote Secretary of State James A. Baker III urging the Administration to end the U.S.-PLO dialogue unless Arafat expels Abul Abbas and his group from the PLO Executive Committee.
But U.S. analysts were skeptical that Arafat would take strong action for fear of fragmenting the PLO again. Since Arafat took over in the late 1960s, the multifaceted PLO movement has gone through three major ruptures that have created militant new wings and weakened Arafat's ability to make credible moves on the peace process.
"It's a problem that could throw the PLO into chaos," the U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The fallout from the foiled attack shows how tenuous the U.S.-PLO dialogue has been since the first formal round of talks in January, 1989. Israel has repeatedly pressured Washington to end the exchange, while PLO officials have complained publicly that neither the peace process nor relations with the United States have moved forward over the past 17 months.
Israeli officials made indirect reference to the U.S.-PLO talks.
"It is, I suppose, proof to the world, to those who needed that proof, that the PLO continues to engage in terrorism despite what is being said by Arafat here and there and to our surprise is being believed by some," Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said.
In their account of the thwarted attack, Israeli military officials said one of the guerrilla boats reached shore near the kibbutz-operated beach club of Nizzanim, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv. The 11 guerrillas landed and scattered but were pursued by soldiers. The four Palestinians were killed in a gun battle there and several others were captured.
The second boat was intercepted by an Israeli gunboat north of Tel Aviv and the five guerrillas on board were taken into custody.
In all, five boats were launched from the mother ship.
Israeli army officials declined to explain why the mother ship was not intercepted.
Times staff writer Robin Wright, in Washington, contributed to this story.