TEL AVIV (Apr. 8)
The sun-drenched city of Eilat at the southernmost point of Israel was wrenched into the Arab-Israel war zone today along with its neighboring Jordanian port of Aqaba for the first time since the Six-Day War. Israeli jets rocket-bombed the sleepy port, Jordan’s sole outlet to the sea, in retaliation for an early-morning Arab guerrilla Katyusha-rocket attack on Eilat that, Israel claimed, wounded 14 civilians, two seriously.
By common consent, Israel and Jordanian regular forces have kept their hands off each other’s port cities on the northern tip of the Gulf of Eilat, their outlet to the Red Sea and worldwide shipping. Aqaba is Jordan’s port of entry for materiel of key importance to its economy and military establishment, including food, oil and heavy weapons. Eilat is a major port for the unloading of oil for Israel and has boomed as a tourist center because of its dry heat, warm waters and beaches.
Aware of its vulnerability, King Hussein some months ago cracked down on Arab guerrillas in the area who fired rockets that fell near Eilat. Following their repression, which had political consequences involving government-guerrilla tensions in Amman, the guerrillas moved their sabotage activities northward. The El Fatah guerrilla organization announced in Amman that it was responsible for the Eilat attack.
(At the United Nations, Israel’s Ambassador Yosef Tekoah complained to the Security Council against what it termed the “wanton, unprovoked and barbaric” attack. “In self-defense, Israel took air action to stop the attack which originated from the area of the Jordanian city of Aqaba,” his note said. Jordan also complained to the Council and called upon it to impose “more effective measures” against Israel. Ambassador Muhammed H. el-Farra was apparently referring to possible diplomatic, economic or military measures. While not calling for a Council meeting as it did recently in the case of the Israeli air attack on the Salt area, Jordan recalled the Council’s April 1 resolution condemning Israel and warning that if attacks were repeated, the UN body “would have to meet to consider” additional steps “as envisaged by the Charter.” Jordan claimed that a Belgian Catholic priest and his mother were severely wounded, his church badly damaged along with about a dozen homes, and that less damage was done to a girls’ high school and a police station.)
ISRAELIS, EGYPTIANS BATTLE 5 HOURS ALONG 70-MILE SUEZ CANAL STRETCH
Tensions escalated westward also as Israeli and Egyptian troops fought a pitched artillery battle for about five hours, the second in recent days, along a 70-mile stretch of the Suez Canal. An Israeli military spokesman said that four troops were wounded, two seriously, in the exchange. Egypt claimed it suffered five wounded, killed 40 Israelis and destroyed 11 tanks. Israel said that an Egyptian tank at Suez City was destroyed and that anti-tank weapons were hit in the Bitter Lakes and Ismailia areas. Egyptian bunkers were also said to have burned. The fighting subsided after United Nations observers arranged three cease-fires. Both sides blamed the other for initiating the exchanges.
Among the injured in Eilat was a four-month old baby who was flown to Tel Aviv for eye surgery. A number of buildings and cars were also damaged. In Amman, a Jordanian military spokesman said two Israeli jets killed eight civilians and wounded nine, in addition to damaging buildings.
An Israeli Foreign Minister spokesman said that Arab attacks on Eilat and across the canal were timed to “influence the Big Four talks” on the Middle East which resumed today in New York. The spokesman said that the Arabs were trying to convince the United States, Soviet Union, France and Britain that the Mideast was on the brink of a new war, a warning which King Hussein of Jordan delivered when he arrived yesterday in the U.S. for talks with President Richard M. Nixon. (The King said at the time that another Arab-Israel conflict threatened the “possibility of outside involvement and entanglement,” and he welcomed the Big Four’s “friendly intervention.”)
While touring Eilat, Chief of Staff Gen. Haim Bar-Lev warned today that Aqaba, which is three miles away, was more vulnerable that Israel’s port. Even if the Arab rocket attack was carried out by irregulars, he said, the Jordanian Army and authorities were responsible for preventing such assaults.
(Members of King Hussein’s entourage in Washington told the press informally that the Jordanian Government could not assure the security of Israelis from attack. The Eilat bombardment, they said, may have been launched by El Fatah guerrillas “whose activity is encouraged by continued Israeli occupation of Arab territories.” The bombing of Aqaba for “guerrilla action for which the Jordanian Government and public were not responsible” was “deplorable,” they said.) Observers in Israel said that the guerrillas apparently seized on King Hussein’s absence from the country to renew their attacks in the area.
Eilat was back to normal within hours and many holiday-makers continued to arrive in the hot Negev city to lie on the beaches and cool themselves in the waters. Repair work began immediately. When the Katyusha attack began at 3:50 a.m., says JTA’s Tel Aviv correspondent Itzhak Shargil, people in pajamas and carrying blankets dashed for shelters. Eilat was immediately blacked out but lights continued to shine in Aqaba.
“Every four or five minutes, a volley of three or four shells exploded,” reported Mr. Shargil. “One exploded near a synagogue, another wrecked one flat where the baby was injured.” Other shells whistled over the Queen of Sheba Hotel and exploded in the city’s center near WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) institutions and a parking lot.
“Eilat is crowded with visitors who spent the night on the warm sand. Luckily, they were unhurt,” said Mr. Shargil. “Eilat has a hippie and beatnik population. They were seen during the attack strolling the streets with their guitars. They simply did not know what to do.”