Special JTA Analysis the Horns of the Hijack Dilemma

Two main considerations engaged Israel’s Cabinet and Army in their deliberations when they realized that a hijacked plane was stationed on Israel’s home ground, and they were contradictory. Israel places a very high value on human life. Stories of how Israelis risked being killed extricating wounded soldiers from the firing line–and many of them were indeed killed–are kept alive by soldiers and civilians.

Policemen discovering time bombs in Jerusalem in the years of terror after the Six-Day War would pick them up and run to empty spaces so that they would hurt as few persons as possible. They ran the risk, of course, that they themselves would be blown up before reaching their destination.

Several times in the annals of Israel young people have thrown themselves on live grenades, shielding bystanders with their bodies and giving up their lives for them. The last such act occurred in Munich, when terrorists attacked an airport bus on its way to an El Al plane. A young man from Haifa sacrificed his life so that the other passengers would remain safe. Such attitudes toward human life are sanctioned and encouraged by the country’s leaders.

On the other hand, Israel has been asking countries to which planes have been hijacked not to give in to blackmail. The consideration was that once blackmail pays it will continue and branch out. Faced with such a threat on its own soil, Israel was thus forced to take her own advice and take it seriously.

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The question was, therefore, how to find a way to both free the airliner and do so without causing death. It seemed an impossible task. However, the ministers at Lydda Airport and later the entire Cabinet hit on the solution that dragging out negotiations might tire the hijackers to a point where they might let their guard down, enabling the Army to overpower them. Thus offers and counteroffers were traded. Eventually, more than 20 hours after the hijacking, during which the hijackers got no sleep, their request for technicians was ostensibly complied with and the Army was able to get men into the plane. The resistance of the tired terrorists was short and futile.

The question is being asked in Jerusalem if any lessons can be learned from this happy ending. It appears that one lesson is what some passengers later told reporters: the terrorists were even more frightened and nervous than the passengers themselves. Another lesson is that even hijackers do not willingly commit suicide; if some hope is held out to them that they may achieve part of their objectives, chances are they will accept.

Lastly, when the whole government machinery of a nation is faced with threats by a single man or a small group, the government will usually be able to out-think the individual or group, however, ferocious the threats. In this respect–and possibly in this only–Israel’s example may lead other nations to rethink their methods and their reactions when faced with the demands of hijackers.

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