The government decided this morning to bow to the Air France hijackers’ demand for the release of jailed terrorists in return for freeing the remaining hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The announcement was made in a radio broadcast at 1 p.m. local time which said that the decision had been relayed to the French authorities. France has been asked to conduct the negotiations on Israel’s behalf. (See separate story.)
The hijackers have demanded the release of 40 Palestinian or pro-Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel in exchange for the safety of the hostages. The government’s decision today in effect reverses Israel’s long-standing policy of no deals with terrorists. But the fact that it was taken unanimously at a special Cabinet meeting indicated certain overriding considerations that the government could not ignore. Among these were the urgent appeals from the families of the Israeli hostages to agree to the terrorists’ terms.
The hijackers originally set a deadline of noon today for the release of the terrorists held in Israel and 13 others held in France, West Germany, Switzerland and Kenya. The deadline was extended last night to noon Sunday. The hijackers freed 48 hostages yesterday and another 100 non-Israelis today. They continue to hold 102 passengers and crew members of the hijacked jet. The majority of the passengers still imperiled are believed to be Israelis. (See separate story from Paris on returnees’ account.)
Premier Yitzhak Rabin and other ranking ministers and their aides consulted with the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee before finalizing their decision to negotiate. According to radio reports, most members of the committee which includes representatives of all major political factions approved the Cabinet’s decision.
A government communique said the Cabinet has set up a team of ministers and other officials to men negotiations with the hijackers with a view to saving the lives of all hostages. The communique confirmed Israel’s readiness to negotiate the release of the terrorists imprisoned here. With Israel acceding to the hijackers’ demands, the other countries involved are considered certain to do the same.
There are two known instances in the past when Israel agreed to release terrorists in exchange for the lives of hostages. Israel freed a number of Arab prisoners in July 1968 to secure the safety of passengers aboard an EI AI plane hijacked to Algeria. In the winter of 1969, Israel released two captured Syrian pilots–and possibly a number of other prisoners–for the release of two kidnapped Israelis who had been held by Syria for three months.
REASONS FOR CABINET DECISION
Today’s Cabinet decision was believed to have been influenced by several factors. One of these was the location of the hijacked jet and the hostages in Uganda, which precluded any rescue attempt. Another was mistrust of the Ugandan army’s ability to act effectively if the hijackers opened fire. The fact that there are no Israelis in Uganda or directly involved in the negotiations complicates the situation. Finally, Israel is aware that the lives of non-Israelis are at stake.
The role of the hostages’ relatives was probably the most important factor in the government’s decision. Beset by mounting anxiety since news of the hijack was broadcast Sunday, the families banded together to exert pressure and pull political strings. Their pleas received a hearing at the highest levels of government. Transport Minister Gad Yaacobi met with the relatives and later a delegation visited Premier Rabin for a half-hour at his office.
Their message was: “Principles (such as no deals with terrorists) are fine but when lives are at stake principles cannot be allowed to stand as an obstacle to any means to gain their safety. Terrorists kept in prison do us no good. Release them. We want our loved ones back alive.”
When the government’s decision to negotiate was announced today, relief spread among the hostages’ families though some feared it might be too late. The terrorists who may be released were reported to be following developments from radio broadcasts piped into the prison yards over loudspeakers.
BITTER PILL TO SWALLOW
Nevertheless, submission to the hijackers’ demands will be a bitter pill. The list of terrorists whose release is the condition for the lives of the hostages includes murderers and saboteurs sentenced to long prison terms. The list is headed by Greek Catholic Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, who is serving a 12-year prison term for smuggling arms and explosives to Arab terrorists inside Israel. It includes Kozo Okamoto, the sole survivor of the three Japanese terrorists who perpetrated the 1972 Lod Airport massacre. Okamoto is serving a life sentence.
Two other non-Arab terrorists on the list are Rojaro Rong, an Austrian national detained when he arrived at Haifa and a Chilean, Carlos Musalim, arrested in Bethlehem. The authorities never made public the reasons for their arrests.
Others whose release has been demanded are: Fatima Barnawi, a woman terrorist arrested in 1968 after she planted a bomb in the Zion Theater in Jerusalem; William Nasser and Kamal Nimri, leaders of a terrorist gang active in Jerusalem who were involved in the murder of a Druze watchman while stealing explosives from a building site. Habib Kowej of Haifa, leader of an Arab-Jewish espionage ring that spied for Syria; and Mozna Kamal Nicola of Yafia village who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for terrorist-related acts. Nicola was released two months ago and is in London.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.