Gunman Kills a Top PLO Leader
Menu JTA Search

Gunman Kills a Top PLO Leader

Download PDF for this date

Issam Sartawi, a moderate leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who had met frequently with Israeli leftwing representatives, was shot dead today in the Portuguese town of Albufeira where the Socialist International was holding its congress. Sartawi, the first PLO representative to attend a Socialist International congress, was killed by a lone gunman at the entrance to the hotel where the congress was being held.

The extremist Palestinian group, headed by Abu Nidal, claimed responsibility for the killing. This group has been involved in similar actions in Europe, including the attack on Israel’s Ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, which sparked the war in Lebanon last June.

The Nidal group said after today’s killing that it had “the honor of having carried out the death sentence on the traitor Sartawi,” Israel Radio reported.

“Sartawi was a criminal, a traitor and an agent who had sold himself to American imperialism and its European allies. He was a cheap servant of the Israeli intelligence (Mossad) and the British intelligence.”


A reporter for Israel Radio attending the Socialist congress reported that all the delegates appeared to be in a state of shock. Eulogies were delivered by the heads of most delegations, including Shimon Peres, who heads the Israeli delegation. He said he condemned the murder of a man who, while a PLO member, had tried to steer a more open approach of talks with leftwing Israelis. Peres also said he condemned the killing as a human being, a Jew and a Socialist. “The culprit who put an end to his life was aiming at the spirit of moderation,” he said.

Following the shooting, Portuguese authorities sealed off all borders and ports of entry and exit to the country. Israel Radio quoted a government official this evening as saying that the assailant was “no more than 10 kilometers from the hotel,” as all roads had been closed.

The gunman who pumped four or five bullets into Sartawi, whose blanket-covered body was left in the hotel lobby for several hours, was described by eye-witnesses as “of Middle Eastern appearance.”


In Israel, Arye Eliav, the leftwing Israeli who had frequently met with Sartawi in the past seven years, mourned the slain PLO leader as a “proud Palestinian and a brave man, a man who had been an enemy and also a close friend.” He said his death was a blow to Israel, to those Palestinians and in the PLO who wanted peace, and to the peace effort as a whole.

Eliav said Sartawi had tried to bring about peace with Israel through compromise. He said the PLO leader was opposed to the PLO’s official objective of creating a “secular democratic state” in “Palestine” because it would not give full rights to the Jewish inhabitants.

Sartawi, who had initiated the attack on an El Al plane in Vienna over 10 years ago in which Israeli actress Hannah Meron lost a leg, had, since the Yom Kippur War, decided that terrorism was a dead end tactic which should be replaced by negotiations for a compromise arrangement in which the area of Palestine in dispute should be shared between Israel and a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Sartawi, a doctor and specialist in cardiology, was born in a village now on the West Bank whose family had taken him to Iraq in 1948. Sartawi did much of his medical training in the U.S.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund