Israel went where none of its Arab neighbors dared to go this week when it allowed a hijacked Iranian jet to land on Israeli soil.
But within hours of the arrival of the hijacked flight in southern Israel, the Iranian news agency IRNA was reportedly accusing the "terrorist hijackers and Israeli officials" of being involved in a "prearranged scheme with the knowledge of the Israelis."
At the same time, the government of Iran issued an appeal to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the immediate return of the plane, crew and passengers – and for the extradition of the hijacker – of the flight that landed in what it described as "occupied Palestine."
return the plane and its 177 civilian passengers and crew to Iran as quickly as possible.
For air controllers at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, the hijack drama began Tuesday morning, when a Kish Air Boeing 707 on a flight from Teheran to the Persian Gulf island of Kish radioed a distress message.
The pilot indicated that the plane had been hijacked – he did not say by whom – and that he had been refused landing permission by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
He added that his fuel was running dangerously low and that he thought that he would have to crash-land if Israel did not give its consent to land at Ben- Gurion.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, contacted at a session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, forbade the plane to land at Ben-Gurion, fearing that it was filled with explosives and on a terror mission.
Instead, he instructed the Israeli air force to escort it to Ovda, a large military air base in the southern Negev that is also used as a civilian terminal, mainly for charter flights to Eilat.
"I did not want to be a partner or to bear responsibility for the crash of a plane full of passengers," Rabin later said.
An Israeli Hercules transport plane, carrying an army anti-terror team, touched down at Ovda immediately after the Iranian plane landed, with the crack unit ready to attack, if necessary.
But further radio contact with the cockpit soon established that beyond the hijacking itself, there was nothing sinister about the flight.
According to the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the hijacker was a flight attendant who was armed with a pistol and was "fed up with living in Iran."
The hijacker was reportedly sought political asylum in the United States. He originally wanted the plane to fly to Europe, but the plane did not have enough fuel, according to sources at the air base here.
All the flight’s passengers were transferred to the Ovda terminal, where they were offered lunch by air force personnel after they conducted Muslim prayers.
The male passengers, including the hijacker, were questioned by Israeli authorities.
Israel reportedly refused Tehran’s demand on Tuesday that the hijacker be returned to Iran.
Five of the passengers have also asked not to be returned to Iran, according to reports.
An English teacher among the passengers who spoke to Israel Television voiced his thanks for Israel’s "hospitality."
He made it clear, though, that the passengers – who had hardly dreamed that they would begin their vacation in Israel – were anxious to be getting back to their homeland.
Other passengers, among them women in black chadors, spoke freely with Persian – or Arabic-speaking journalists.
Some observers here speculated that Israel might wish to link the episode with its ongoing frustrations over Iran’s failure to supply information on the whereabouts of captured airman Ron Arad.
Iran has long been suspected of direct involvement in the captivity of Arad, whose plane was downed over Lebanon in 1986 and who is believed to have been held by pro-Iranian groups there.
But the prime minister was plainly unwilling to treat the hijack episode as anything other than a chance incident that was to be handled – once security fears were allayed – on the basis of purely humanitarian considerations.