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Good Fortune Prevented Terrorists from Doing Any Beachhead Damage

June 1, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Good luck as much as any other factor helped foil a potentially disastrous attack by heavily armed seaborne terrorists on Israeli civilians Wednesday.

Air, ground and naval forces engaged the intruders, killing four and capturing 12 before they could cause casualties or damage.

Meanwhile, a full-scale inquiry has been opened at Israel Defense Force General Headquarters, in order to seek answers to many questions being asked by officers, politicians and the public at large over the defensive operation conducted by the IDF.

Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Shomron and his senior officers admitted they took a calculated risk by not clearing the beaches as soon as the attackers were detected. An important consideration was not to create panic, they said.

They also withheld fire until it was certain the approaching boatloads of men were enemies.

Two apparently well-planned and coordinated assaults were attempted by Palestinian terrorists traveling in fast fiberglass motorboats from a “mother ship” cruising more than 100 miles off the Israeli coast.

In addition, more numerous landing attempts were aborted by mechanical difficulties.

Responsibility for the operation, believed to have been launched from Libya, is being claimed by the Palestine Liberation Front. The PLF, headed by Mohammed (Abul) Abbas, is the group responsible for the 1985 attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the subsequent killing of Leon Klinghoffer.

Initial targets were beaches north and south of Tel Aviv, where the assailants knew thousands of Israelis would be spending the Shavuot holiday sunbathing and swimming.

Maps and documents found on the terrorists made clear their targets also included hotels and the center of Tel Aviv, which could be expected to be crowded with civilians.

The armaments carried by the terrorists included cannons, heavy machine guns, assault rifles, side arms, grenades and explosives.


The attempted landings were at Ga’ash, a beach north of Tel Aviv, and Nitzanim, a beach between Ashkelon and Ashdod to the south. More than three hours separated the two assaults.

Military and civilian leaders agreed that the timing of the Shavuot attack had nothing to do with the slaying of seven Palestinians by a reputedly deranged Israeli gunman near Rishon le-Zion on May 20, though the PLF claimed it was in revenge.

Experts pointed out that the attack, which included a mother ship and 16 armed men riding six speedboats, must have been planned weeks or months in advance.

Israelis also admit the element of chance did much to prevent a massacre. The engine of one boat would not start when it was put into the water.

Three others, including one used as a refueling tanker, broke down shortly afterwards.

If all six assault boats had reached beaches or deserted areas on the coast, the outcome might have been different.

In addition to the Ga’ash and Nitzanim beaches, targets circles on the terrorists’ maps included Tel Aviv’s beachfront hotels, the Migdal Shalom Tower, Israel’s tallest office building; and Malchei Yisrael Square outside Tel Aviv City Hall.

A mystery surrounds the mother ship, which was 124 miles off the Israeli coast when it dropped the speedboats.

According to the IDF, it sailed from Benghazi, Libya, on Sunday and headed for Port Said, Egypt, after the attack. The Egyptian authorities were alerted but the vessel has not been found.

Acting Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is also defense minister in the caretaker government, congratulated the security forces on their “tremendous success” in preventing the attempted mass murder of innocent civilians.

The police anti-terrorist unit, under IDF command, took an active part in the operation, but despite official praise for IDF-police cooperation, Police Commissioner Ya’acov Terner stated publicly that he learned of the Nitzanim landing from a private citizen who telephoned him.

According to news reports, the first warning of trouble was received at 6:45 a.m. local time when navy radar picked up the blips of speedboats about 26 miles off shore heading toward Ga’ash.

A Dabour-class gunboat on routine patrol off Tel Aviv was sent to investigate. It intercepted the speedboat and ordered its five occupants to jump into the sea without their weapons. They were promptly captured and taken ashore.

Air force spotter planes, attack helicopters and other naval vessels were immediately put on alert.

But it was not until 10 a.m. local time that a second suspicious-looking speedboat was seen making for shore near Nitzanim.

A Dabour gunboat gave chase but was outrun. Seven gunmen were put ashore and took cover under bushes on the sand dunes.

Cobra attack helicopters rushed to the scene but had to make sure the invaders were indeed terrorists and not IDF soldiers or civilians before they opened fire.

In the event, four terrorists were fatally shot by helicopter gunners or soldiers of the Givati Brigade sent to the scene.

Details of the interrogation of the others was passed on to the United States.

Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israel Radio that intelligence reports received about five months ago indicated that Abbas was in Libya planning a seaborne assault on Israel. It was not known, however, when or where it would occur.

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