JERUSALEM (Apr. 15)
Israelis are wondering this week whether they face a new wave of terrorist attacks within their own borders in the aftermath of the bus hijack Thursday night in which a woman soldier was killed and seven civilians wounded.
The four terrorists who seized the bus enroute from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon in an attempt to take hostages across the Egyptian border, were killed by Israeli troops who stormed the vehicle before dawn Friday after its tires were shot out in the Gaza Strip.
The hijack was the fifth major terrorist assault on civilians inside Israel since last December. Although more serious casualties were averted, tension is running high. Security precautions for the Passover holidays are especially strict. Hundreds of additional policemen are on duty and the volunteer civil guard has also increased its manpower. Cities and resort areas have been put on special alert.
HOUSES OF THE 4 TERRORISTS DYNAMITED
Yesterday, Israel army engineers systematically dynamited the houses of the four dead terrorists, all residents of the Gaza Strip. Three had lived in Beni Shuheila village and one in Abassan near Khan Yunis. It has long been standard practice to demolish buildings where terrorists lived or found shelter.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a terrorist group headed by George Habash who broke with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974, claimed credit for the bus hijack. But Israeli authorities insisted that the terrorists were all members of the mainstream El Fatah, the PLO faction still loyal to Yasir Arafat, and in fact were acting on Arafat’s order. (See related story.)
Premier Yitzhak Shamir said the terrorists were making "a desperate attempt to resume activity after having lost control over the terrorist theater in Lebanon." Defense Minister Moshe Arens observed that the terrorists are "trying to prove they still exist."
Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Levy hinted that the bus hijackers had been trained and armed on the West Bank where there is considerable support for the PLO but not for Habash’s PFLP. The hijackers’ had demanded the release of 500 imprisoned PLO terrorists from Israeli jails in exchange for the bus passengers, and safe passage for themselves into Egypt.
U.S. CONDEMNS THE HIJACKING
(The hijack drew swift condemnation from the Reagan Administration. In Washington Friday, State Department spokesman John Hughes said: "The United States condemns this wanton act of terrorism which struck at innocent civilians. We remain relentlessly opposed to terrorism wherever it occurs, whoever is the agent. Israel has too long suffered the outrages of such dispicable acts. The United States has long maintained that only through negotiations, not violence can progress be made toward a just and lasting Middle East peace.")
RECENT CHRONOLOGY OF TERROR
In the recent chronology of terror, civilians have been the targets. On April 2, three terrorists threw grenades and opened fire on crowds in King George Street near Jaffa Road, the busiest intersection in Jerusalem, wounding 48 persons. One of the assailants was killed and two were captured.
On March 7, three Israelis were killed and nine wounded when a bomb exploded on a bus in the port city of Ashdod. On February 28, 21 persons were wounded when two hand grenades exploded outside a mens’ clothing shop on Jaffa Road. Last December 6, a powerful bomb demolished a bus in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Vagan, killing six people and wounding 41.
The hijack Thursday, involving an inter-city bus, triggered memories of the March 11, 1978 coastal highway massacre in which 35 people were killed and 80 wounded by heavily armed terrorists who seized a bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway and fired from its windows on passing vehicles.
The terrorists had come from Lebanon by sea and the mass killings were followed by Israel’s invasion and occupation of south Lebanon in what became known as the Litani River campaign.
TERRORIST GROUPS CLAIMING RESPONSIBILITY
Responsibility for several of the more recent attacks inside Israel was claimed by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist oriented, pro-Soviet group headed by Nayef Hawatmeh and currently based in Damascus. The Democratic Front is a breakaway from Habash’s PFLP. Israeli experts on Arab affairs noted that both dissident PLO offshoots are vying for leadership of the badly divided PLO at the Palestine Council meeting next month.
For that reason, it is believed, the PFLP took responsibility for the bus hijack inasmuch as Hawatmeh’s group claimed credit for the King George Street shooting earlier in the month. But Israeli sources, pointing to El Fatah, noted that Arafat’s deputy, Khalil Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, told reporters in Amman last week that the PLO would take "many actions in the near future against the enemy who only understands force."
TOTAL NEWS BLACKOUT IN ISRAEL
Israelis had no knowledge of the bus hijack and hostage-taking attempt until late Friday morning, hours after the incident had ended. There was a total blackout of news of the event domestically. Foreign journalists were allowed to cable abroad but their dispatches were heavily censored and no details were given.
The full story emerged on Israel Radio Friday morning. The bus, an Egged No. 300, left the Tel Aviv terminal at 6 p.m. local time Thursday on its evening direct run to Ashkelon. Four young Arabs, described as Hebrew-speaking, boarded the bus at Tel Aviv. One of them carried an attache case, which, it was learned later, contained two booby-trapped grenades.
At the Ashdod crossroads, little more than half way from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon, the four men pulled out guns and ordered the driver to head at high speed toward the Gaza Strip and the Egyptian border. A woman passenger who is pregnant, told the hijackers she was feeling ill. They allowed her to leave the bus. She was picked up on the road by a truck driver and the police were alerted.
Police and army roadblocks were set up on the highway north of Ashkelon. But the bus broke through them at high speed. The police and soldiers would not fire at the vehicle for fear of hitting passengers. Sharpshooters at each roadblock tried to hit the tires and succeeded only as the bus neared the Arab town of Deir El-Balah in the Gaza Strip. The bus veered off the road and stopped.
It was surrounded by troops and police. Defense Minister Arens and Chief of Staff Levy both rushed to the scene. Evacuation helicopters and ambulances were stationed nearby as army officers heard the terrorists’ demands and engaged them in what seemed to be negotiations in order to gain time.
DECISION REACHED TO STORM THE BUS
By midnight a decision was reached to storm the bus at the first light of day. The terrorists apparently were unaware of the preparations being made. At 4:45 a.m. the assault was launched. Troops smashed through the bus windows gunning down the terrorists. A woman soldier, tentatively identified as Irit Portugez, 19, was fatally wounded and seven other passengers were hit by bullets in the shooting melee.
Two of the terrorists were killed instantly. A third died shortly afterwards and another died on the way to the hospital. The four men were identified later as Sobhi Abu Jama, 18; Majdi Abu Jama, 18; and Muhammad Barake, 19, all of Beni Shuheila village; and Jamal Kavalan, 22, of Abassan.