GENEVA (Feb. 19)
The Swiss Cabinet went into session at Berne today to consider the situation created by the Arab terrorist attack on a civilian Israeli airliner. In a statement issued following the meeting, the Cabinet expressed “deep regret” over the act which “made our neutral soil the arena of warlike conflict” and condemned the action “in all severity.” It called for international action to halt “aerial piracy and other attacks against air travel.”
The Cabinet acted after receiving detailed preliminary reports on the incident, as Federal and cantonal authorities pressed investigations seeking to find holes in the security arrangements at Kloten Airport set up after the attack on an El Al airliner in Athens last December. One question to which they sought the answer was how the four Arab terrorists, heavily armed, had managed to drive a hired Volkswagen so near the runway as to be able to open fire on the El Al Boeing 720B without being detected.
The three surviving terrorists–the fourth was shot and killed by an Israeli security guard identified as Rachamin Mordechai, 21–may be charged with attempted murder, which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment. District Attorney Joerg Renberg said they might also be charged with endangering air traffic and with intent to use explosives to harm or kill.
The Israeli security officer, who leaped off the plane to attack the Arab assailants, killing one, was also held by the Swiss police. Swiss police said he could be released on the grounds that he had fired in self-defense, or accused of manslaughter or even of murder if it were established that the Arabs had stopped firing before the Israeli rushed them.
On this crucial point, a number of witnesses said that the Arabs had continued to fire on the plane after the Israeli guard began to return their fire, but Mr. Renberg said one witness has asserted the Arabs had ceased firing before the Israeli shot at them. According to the Zurich police, the Israeli maintained silence and refused to answer questions.
(In Jerusalem, authorities said they were doing everything in their power to provide legal protection to the Israeli, whom they described as a “passenger”. It was decided that no extradition request would be filed on the terrorists since their offense is not listed in the treaty between the two countries.)
The Arab prisoner talked through an interpreter. A police spokesman said one of the prisoners had said the four Arabs had “undergone training for this action” but did not disclose where the training had taken place. All four were said to have been identified as natives of Israel or Israel-occupied territories and, as such, would not have required Swiss visas. Police said the three surviving Arabs had quietly surrendered but the Israeli had had to be forcibly disarmed or he would have killed all of the terrorists.
Police in Zurich displayed some of the weapons carried by the quartet, including a Russian-made Kalachnikov sub-machinegun with which they sprayed the aircraft with 60 bullets in three bursts. Police said that if any of the thermite incendiary bombs the Arabs threw at the plane had detonated near its wings, the plane’s fuel supply would have exploded. Shells found on the runway at the Zurich airport were of Russian make.
Confidence in Swiss action was expressed by Gideon Rafael, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who had been a passenger on the attacked airliner. He said he had talked with the Swiss authorities before his departure from Zurich and commented that Switzerland, “as a State of law and justice” would know how to deal with the case.
The Swiss Cabinet’s statement today expressed particular outrage over the fact that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had claimed credit for the attack and the violation of Swiss neutrality. The statement noted that the Swiss reaction was marked “with all the greater indignation” in view of the substantial past Swiss aid for Palestine Arab refugees.
Anticipating this reaction, the Arab organization issued an “apology” Tuesday night to the Swiss people. It claimed credit for the attack and said El Al pilots would not be endangered if they persuaded the Israel Government to “stop using El Al planes for military purposes.” The statement was carried on the Swiss television network Tuesday night.
Swiss press reports described the Swiss people as shocked and angered over the attack on the airliner and the violation of Swiss neutrality. Offers of blood donations for the wounded El Al trainee-pilot. Yoram Peress, were telephoned to the Zurich hospital where he remained in critical condition today after major surgery.
The International Air Transport Association, from its Geneva headquarters, issued a statement denouncing the attack in the strongest terms. The International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, based in London, said the selection of civilian aircraft for criminal attacks threatened international aviation.
The Histadrut, the Israel Federation of Labor, cabled appeals today to the International Transport Union in London and the International Congress of Free Trade Unions in Brussels asking that every measure be taken to ensure freedom of transport and safety of passengers and crew members of civil aircraft. The Israeli Association of Travel and Tourist Agents called on the Universal Federation of Tourist Agents for action to prevent recurrence of attacks on airliners.
The terrorists, as identified by the Popular Front, in Amman, were Amina Dahbour. a 25-year-old schoolteacher from Gaza; Ibrahim Tewfik, a laborer from Haifa; Hohamed Abu el Haza, a Nazareth laborer; and Abdel Mohsen Hassan, a driver from Lydda, who was killed.
(The Popular Front called the attack a reprisal for brutality and torture allegedly committed by Israeli authorities against “unarmed and innocent civilians in occupied Arab territory.”)