JERUSALEM (Mar. 13)
The Cabinet met in special session this morning for a briefing by Police Inspector General Haim Tavori on Saturday’s terrorist assault amid a rising chorus of criticism over the way security forces reacted in the emergency. The government has promised a full inquiry and Premier Menachem Begin was reported today to have asked a top reserves general to head an internal security probe.
At the same time Begin declared today to a somber Knesset that “innocent blood will not be shed with impunity.” Opening a brief debate on the terror attack, Begin added: “We will defend our womenfolk and children. We will root out the arm of wickedness. We will under no condition resign ourselves to the prospect of an evil hand being raised against our children. We will do what is incumbent upon us to do….” (See related story.)
Speaking at a press conference here shortly after he emerged from the Cabinet room, Tavori rejected charges that police forces had failed to cope adequately with the attack though he conceded that in hindsight there were several instances “in which I would have acted differently.” On the whole, he said, the police performed according to regulations and could not have done better given the circumstances and the limitations under which they operated.
Three questions are being asked: How were the heavily armed sea-borne killers able to evade Israel’s off-shore defenses and land on a beach in one of the most heavily populated regions of the country? How were they able to proceed for 50 kilometers along Israel’s main traffic artery before being stopped? Why was there a lack of coordination between the regular police and special anti-terrorist units trained to handle such situations?
EXPLANATIONS OF WHAT HAPPENED
Explanations offered by some experts today indicated circumstances beyond anyone’s control were partly responsible for the terrorists’ successful landing. Yochai Bin-Nun, former commander of Israel’s Navy, noted that rubber dhingies such as were used by the killers could make the trip from Lebanon to points along Israel’s coast in a few hours. Because of their low silhouette they would not show up on radar screens, especially if the sea was rough as it was Saturday.
The rough seas imperiled amateur yachtsmen off the shore at Tel Aviv and police and naval patrol craft were concentrated there for possible rescue operations and to escort small boats safely back to the marina. The terrorists, who spotted this concentration, abandoned their original landing point which was to have been the Tel Aviv beach and went ashore instead at Maagen Michael, just south of Haifa, where the trail of bloodshed began.
Nevertheless, it was pointed out that Israel’s sea defenses should have been more alert inasmuch as Saturday’s landing was not the first by terrorists. An armed group landed on the Tel Aviv beach in March, 1975 and attacked the Savoy Hotel. Sea defenses supposedly were improved after that.
A combination of poor communications, a lack of fast police cars and heavy traffic on the Tel Aviv-Haifa main highway were among the elements responsible for the terrorists’ ability to race unstopped from Maagen Michael to the so-called “country club crossroads, ” a busy intersection at Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, where they were finally halted by a roadblock.
Tavori noted that the killers were stopped short of Tel Aviv and thus an even worse catastrophe was avoided. He said the police spotted the hijacked bus at several points along the 50-kilometer route but could not attack it for fear of hitting other vehicles in the heavy traffic. He said the police decided not to spread nails in the path of the bus because a tire blow-out might have killed all of the hostages in the vehicle that was traveling at 60m.p.h.
Other police sources said today that the police jeeps and vans pursuing the bus were not fast enough to overtake it. In fact, the speed of police vehicles is inferior to that of any modern car, the sources said.
POOR COMMUNICATIONS CITED
Poor communications were cited for the fact that the brunt of the roadblock shoot-out with the terrorists fell on a handful of regular policemen, many of them assigned to traffic duty. When the specially trained and equipped border police arrived, the battle was almost over. This was explained by the regional subdivision of Israeli police, each with its own radio wavelength. The radio sets in the regular patrol cars were unable to tune into the radios of the border police and contact had to be made through regional headquarters which resulted in precious time lost.
The communications gap was also apparently responsible for the fact that a helicopter carrying crack army units was flying in the direction of Maagen Michael when the terrorists were already nearing Tel Aviv. The hijacked bus could not be spotted and identified from the air.
Tavori explained that the helicopter, provided by the Air Force, had been ordered to fly to Maagen Michael because it was erroneously believed that the terrorist attack was centered there. After it was airborne, the pilot was re-directed to an airstrip at Sde Dov about five miles south of the point where the bus was stopped. By the time the unit arrived, the battle was over.
But Tavori refrained from attacking the army and referred to the traditional cooperation between the military and the police. Nevertheless, he remarked, “One should bear in mind that Israel’s police is not alone in this battle, ” implying that the army and other security services shared responsibility for dealing with emergencies such as occurred Saturday.
ONE OF THE MAIN LESSONS
The police inspector said that one of the main lessons of the tragedy was that police forces needed more and better equipment. He said he had submitted some of the police needs to the government recently and they were granted but have not been supplied so far. He stressed the need far more sophisticated communications equipment and im
Tavori provided an updated account of Saturday’s events based on the stories of eye-witnesses and the interrogation of the two terrorists captured alive. He said 32 Israelis and nine terrorists were killed. He disclosed that 13 terrorists had set out from Lebanon originally but two drowned when their dhingy capsized in heavy seas shortly before the landing Saturday. He also disclosed that 19 of the Israeli victims–not 25 as reported earlier–died in the bus. The rest, including one policeman, were killed by terrorist fire from the bus.
Tavori confirmed that, based on the interrogation of the surviving killers, the gang had intended to land to land at Tel Aviv, seize a hotel or other public place and hold hostages for the release of terrorists imprisoned in Israel. They planned to demand a plane to fly them out of the country. Tavori reported that the terrorists and their equipment left a Lebanese port aboard a merchant vessel, probably in the middle of last week. They were launched in their Soviet-made rubber dhingies much further north of Tel Aviv than intended and were at sea for two days before landing at Maagen Michael Saturday afternoon.