Middle East History: It Happened in December; Israel Was First Nation to Skyjack A Civilian Airliner

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN DECEMBER; Israel Was First Nation to Skyjack A Civilian Airliner

By Donald Neff

It was 40 years ago that Israel conducted the first skyjacking of a civilian airliner. On Dec. 12, 1954, Israeli warplanes forced a Syrian Airways Dakota passenger craft carrying four passengers and five crewmen to land at Lydda airport inside Israel. 1 The passengers were interrogated for two days before international protests, including strong complaints from Washington, finally convinced Israel to release the plane and its passengers. 2

Moshe Sharett, who as Israel's foreign minister had to explain the incident to the international community, was privately appalled by it. He recorded in his diary: "I have no reason to doubt the truth of the factual affirmation of the U.S. State Department that our action was without precedent in the history of international practice. What shocks and worries me is the narrow-mindedness and the short-sightedness of our military leaders. They seem to presume that the state of Israel may--or even must--behave in the realm of international relations according to the laws of the jungle." 3

The purpose of the unprecedented skyjacking, according to Sharett, was Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan's ambition "to get hostages in order to obtain the release of our prisoners in Damascus." 4 The reference was to an incident that had occurred four days earlier. Five Israeli soldiers were captured retrieving tapping devices on Syrian telephone lines on the Golan Heights inside Syria. Israel expressed outrage at the imprisonment of the soldiers but Syria refused to release them. 5

Israeli passions were riled even further the next month when one of the Israeli soldiers, Uri Ilan, son of a former Mapam member of parliament, committed suicide in jail on Jan. 13, 1955. Although the Israeli press loudly charged Syria with torture, an examination by the United Nations showed "no signs of physical ill-treatment." 6

But still Syria refused to release the prisoners, pointing out that Israel was holding Syrian civilians prisoner. The impasse contributed to an even graver incident toward the end of the year. On Dec. 11, 1955, Israel sent two paratroop battalions backed by artillery and mortar batteries under the command of Ariel Sharon, later Israel's defense minister, against Syrian military posts at Buteiha Farm and Koursi near the northeast shore of Lake Tiberias.

It was Israel's largest military raid inside Syria up to that time and resulted in 56 Syrian deaths, including three women, and nine wounded. Significantly Israel also took 30 prisoners, whom it later used as hostages to exchange for the four Israelis held by Syria. 7 The United States expressed its "shock" at the raid and supported a resolution by the United Nations Security Council that unanimously condemned Israel for its "flagrant violation" of the armistice agreement. 8

French Ambassador to the U.N. Herve Alphand observed that the condemnation resolution of Israel was "the strongest ever passed by the council." 9 It was the fifth time the council had condemned, censured, called on and otherwise passed resolutions critical of Israel.

"Our action was without precedent in the history of international practice."

Israel insisted the raid was simply in retaliation for Syrian troops firing at an Israeli patrol boat on Lake Tiberias the previous day, in which there had been no casualties. But the explanation was widely disbelieved. Canadian General E.L.M. Burns, the chief of staff of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, bluntly wrote:

"No one with any knowledge of military affairs would believe that such an elaborate, coordinated attack had not been planned well before, and probably rehearsed. Certainly it was not improvised in a few hours....The reasons given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' statement were only an excuse, and not a very good one." 10

In fact, like most major actions in the Middle East, there was far more than just retaliation behind the raid. …

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