Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations

By Lilienthal, Alfred M. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1994 | Go to article overview

Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations


Lilienthal, Alfred M., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations

By Alfred M. Lilienthal

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's White House handshakes with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, Middle East peace is not yet at hand. There still is too little trust on either side. Nor is trust enhanced by persistent efforts by the U.S. and Israel, in concert, to pressure Syria and Jordan into signing final peace agreements before final agreement is reached with the Palestinians concerning Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and Palestinian sovereignty. The suspicion grows that the Israeli government deliberately is planting media "myth-information" to delay the hard negotiations with the Palestinians.

For example, when Yasser Arafat returned to Gaza from a Cairo meeting on July 12, 1994, two Palestinians attached to his entourage were barred from entering with him. According to The New York Times, Rabin spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said the two men had never been given permission to enter Gaza because they had planned the infamous May 15, 1974 raid on a high school in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot, where "one of the most horrific terrorist assaults had taken place." In that raid, the Times account reported, three Palestinian gunmen had taken scores of students hostage. When Israeli soldiers stormed the school to rescue the young-sters, the gunmen opened fire, killing 22 students and wounding dozens more.

The true story of what actually took place is far from the Israeli version repeated by the Times. Three fedayeen from the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) stole across the Lebanese-Israeli border (an Israeli nurse testified that one actually had been living in nearby Safad for some time). At 6 a.m. they seized the Ma'alot school, in which 90 teenage members of the semimilitary Nahal had been spending the night after some training.

Fifteen youngsters escaped through an open door at the time of the takeover, and two were allowed to leave because they were ill. The guerrillas sent two more youths out with a list of 26 prisoners held in Israeli jails whose release they demanded in exchange for the hostages. They asked that the French and Rumanian ambassadors serve as mediators.

The guerrillas demanded that the prisoners--23 Palestinians, two Israelis and one Japanese--be flown to Damascus. As soon as the arrival of the released prisoners was confirmed in the Syrian capital, the mediating ambassadors would receive through Paris and Bucharest a code word with which to identify themselves before starting negotiations for the release of the hostages. If no code word was received by 6 p.m., the guerrillas warned, they "would not be responsible for the consequences."

Half an hour before the guerrilla deadline, while negotiations were underway between the Palestinians, Israelis, Cairo (from where the plane which was to carry out the Palestinian prisoners was to come) and the ambassadors, Israeli military forces attacked the school. In the ensuing battle, the three fedayeen were killed, as were 16 children, victims either of exploding Palestinian grenades or Israeli bullets. Initial U.S. and British media accounts both reflected and fanned world outrage at the brutal killing of innocent children, and ignored evidence that instead of doing everything in their power to avert the tragic loss of life, both the Israeli military and government had over-reacted. It was left to the French ambassador to Israel to cast the first doubts on the oversimplified story disseminated by the Western press at that time, and still being disseminated by the U.S. press today.

First Doubts

Ambassador Jean Herly had waited at the French consulate in Haifa throughout the afternoon for the Israeli authorities to call him to Ma'alot. At 2 p.m. he was informed by the Israelis that he would not receive the code word permitting him to negotiate with the fedayeen until the prisoners held by Israel had reached Damascus. …

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