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The Experience of Being a Hostage

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Hostages on the British airline sit ina doorway with a hijacker None of the hostages on flights seized by Palestinian guerrillas in September 1970 died, and some would later report that under the circumstances, they had been treated reasonably well. But fear and violence are integral parts of any hijacking, and at times in their ordeal, many of the hostages must have wondered if they would ever see their homes or families again.

From Sky to Ground
Of the four planes hijacked on September 6, 1970, only the passengers on El Al Flight 219 fought back, and that was precipitated by the captain's decision to put the aircraft into a sudden dive, a move that threw skyjacker Leila Khaled and her comrade off their feet. In the ensuing scramble, several passengers tackled Khaled, and an armed guard shot her accomplice. On the other flights, by contrast, there was no resistance. Some passengers even tried to maintain a sense of humor: when Jack Detweiler's wife told him their Swissair Flight 11 was being skyjacked, he replied, "Yes, and by a woman -- the Woman's Lib Movement is really moving!" But the mood darkened as the Swissair flight and TWA Flight 74 began their approach to "Revolution Airport," in actuality just a strip of hard ground in the middle of the desert, its runway lighting provided by torches stuck in oil barrels. Swissair passenger Paul Fehse recalled a landing so hard he thought the plane had crashed, followed by a panicked rush for the doors by people who feared the aircraft would explode. After the TWA flight had landed, Rivke Berkowitz witnessed people in army fatigues storming on board and "all kinds of weaponry that I had not seen in my life." Some passengers tried to run off into the desert before realizing they could not escape by foot, while one woman handed a stack of dollar bills to a hijacker; they were angrily refused. With neither escape nor bribery an option, the more than 300 hostages had no choice but to wait.

Conditions in the Desert
Conditions were not pleasant inside the planes; although their hijackers were by and large not abusive, the hostages had to sit inside a metal shell without air conditioning during desert days that soared to 120 degrees. The airplane lavatories soon stopped working, and the stench became oppressive. The hijackers supplied a certain amount of food and water, but neither was particularly appetizing: Detweiler noted that the hostages were given pigeon eggs for breakfast that were stamped "Bulgaria," and Berkowitz remembered that the water was so heavily chlorinated that it tasted like a swimming pool. The Red Cross brought in provisions, but shortages were frequent and the children on the airplanes, two babies among them, became particularly restless.

Fear, Especially Among Jews
Eclipsing any material discomfort was the hostages' fear of what would happen to them. The hijackers had wired the planes with explosives and threatened to blow them up if their demands were not met. In the words of then 17-year-old David Raab, "fear was ever-present," and Jewish passengers in particular wondered how they would be treated by the Palestinian militants. After the planes had landed, seven passengers with dual Israeli-American citizenship tried to flush their Israeli passports down the toilet. And their concerns were not unfounded; although 127 women and children were released on September 7, the hijackers asked everyone their religion and kept on board those who admitted to being Jewish. In the words of Barbara Mensch, "It was the first time in my life ... [that] my treatment was different because I was Jewish."

Extended Ordeal
The most anxious moments for the hostages came on Friday, September 11. Concerned that their demands would not be met and that Israel might attempt a rescue raid, the hijackers were on edge, one shouting at the hostages: "Your government don't like you. ... You're all going to die." Another militant explained, "We don't want to kill you, but if we have to, I'm afraid we shall." When David Raab was awakened at 2:30am and told to come to the front of the plane for questioning, he began to shake, sure that he would be killed. As it turned out, the Palestinian militants were not prepared to murder their hostages; everyone was eventually released unharmed, although the empty airplanes were destroyed in a final act of violence. But Raab and a number of other Jewish passengers remained singled out even after being removed from the plane. While most of the hostages were released at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, Raab and the others were taken to militant hideouts where they had to wait nearly two weeks while civil war raged in Jordan before eventually being released.

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