The People Involved and Affected
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine emerged from the ashes of the Six Day War. Unable to best Israel on the battlefield, P.F.L.P. guerrillas decided to move the fighting to the new, civilian arena of commercial airliners.
The 1967 Six Day War not only dashed the dream of Palestinian militants that they would have an independent state anytime soon, but it also shattered their confidence in the Arab states who had formed the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 but had been decisively defeated by Israel on the battlefield. As the P.L.O. moved towards greater independence from those Arab states, a number of new militant groups were formed that operated loosely under the P.L.O. umbrella. The P.F.L.P. was founded on December 11, 1967, by George Habash, a 42-year-old doctor and Palestinian of Greek Orthodox background whose family had been forced to flee their home during the 1948 war. One thing that distinguished the P.F.L.P. was its Marxist ideology; the group viewed the push for Palestinian independence as part of a class struggle against global imperialism, including those Western powers that backed Israel. As the P.F.L.P. declared, "The fact that imperialist interests are linked with the existence of Israel will make our struggle against Israel, a struggle against imperialism." The P.F.L.P. sought common cause with other left-wing militant groups, such as Italy's Red Brigade, Germany's Baader-Meinhof group, Japan's Red Army, and Spain's E.T.A.; in one operation P.F.L.P. members referred to themselves as the "Che Guevara Commando Unit of P.F.L.P."
Not all members shared the organization's Marxist mantra; some were drawn by the P.F.L.P.'s willingness to take the fight against Israel to new battlefields. To that point, Palestinian militants had mostly concentrated on attacks within Israel, but infiltrators from Jordan, where the P.L.O. was based, had little success against superior Israeli forces. P.F.L.P. co-founder Wadia Haddad had a different vision; he proposed a series of high visibility attacks outside Israel that would bring the Palestinian cause to the world's attention. Haddad's first suggestion, the hijacking of an El Al airplane, was carried out on July 23, 1968, just over a year after the end of the Six Day War. It netted the release of Arab prisoners from Israel, as did an August 29, 1969, skyjacking of a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. The Israelis subsequently refused to negotiate with hijackers, but the P.F.L.P. found other nations still willing to deal: a July 22, 1970, skyjacking secured the release of seven P.F.L.P. members imprisoned in Greece. From the P.F.L.P.'s perspective, American and European airlines were acceptable targets because their governments supported Israel, and in the September 1970 hijackings, only one of the five attacked airplanes belonged to El Al. Its series of skyjackings brought the P.F.L.P. worldwide notoriety and thousands of new recruits, but the September 1970 operation also precipitated a bloody confrontation with the Jordanian government that would result in the P.L.O. and its subgroups being expelled from that country.
After Black September
The years after what Palestinians would dub "Black September" were difficult for the P.F.L.P. Habash publicly disavowed further hijackings, but the P.F.L.P. was linked to a February 1972 Lufthansa skyjack that netted a $5,000,000 ransom, as well as an attack three months later on Israel's Lod airport that killed 27 people. In 1974 the P.F.L.P. left the P.L.O. in protest over Yasser Arafat's perceived willingness to soften his stand on the destruction of Israel, only to return a few years later. Numerous splinter groups broke away from the P.F.L.P., and its influence waned. Beset by failing health, Habash resigned as General Secretary of the P.F.L.P. in 2000; what is left of the organization now operates in Syria and areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
The Hijackers' Perspective
The Palestinian militants who hijacked the planes on September 6, 1970, were certainly willing to die for their cause. The question was: were they willing to kill for it?
Ready to Fight
Like Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine founder George Habash, Leila Khaled and her family had been forced to flee their home in their aftermath of the 1948 war. Like Habash, she grew up embittered by what she saw as Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Khaled became convinced "mentally and morally that there is no other choice for [Palestinians] except to fight," and she was willing to do whatever P.F.L.P. leaders suggested. She studied how airplanes operated and then participated in the 1969 hijacking of a TWA flight to Tel Aviv, easily evading the minimal airport security. Waiting to board the flight, Khaled saw a young girl with a t-shirt saying "Be Friends." We Palestinians would like to be friends with everybody, Khaled thought to herself, "but we were obliged to do [the hijacking] to show that we were forgotten as a people."
Guns and Hand Grenades
One year later, with plastic surgery performed to conceal her features, Khaled was confident she could again commandeer an airplane. After all, she reasoned, "who could resist ... people armed with guns and hand grenades." Khaled and her comrade Patrick Arguello, who were both using fake Honduran passports, were stopped and their luggage searched, but no one thought to examine their persons. Khaled had two grenades on her, and some 20 minutes into El Al Flight 219, she stood up and removed the pins with her teeth, then rushed through first class and demanded that the captain open the cockpit door. "I will count," she said, "and if you don't open I will blow up the plane." Khaled later claimed that she would not have made good on this threat; the grenades were only for self-defense. But Arguello had no such inhibitions; when the pilot threw the plane into a dive, Arguello shot steward Shlomo Vider repeatedly, nearly killing him. Arguello was himself then mortally wounded by an armed guard.
Getting the World's Attention
On the other targeted flights, the P.F.L.P. met no resistance, but that did not mean they knew no fear. The Jordanian "airport" to which the planes were directed was just a strip of hard ground; there was no guarantee the planes would be able to land safely. In the words of P.F.L.P. member Abu Samir, "We were afraid. Could you imagine how the passengers felt?" On the ground, P.F.L.P. spokesman Bassam Abu-Sharif discovered how difficult it might be to bring the Palestinian struggle to the world's attention. One American he questioned thought the plane had landed in Africa. "No," Sharif said, "You are in Jordan, and we are Palestinian guerrillas." They were in Pakistan? Palestine, Sharif corrected, explaining the political situation. But the American hostage knew nothing about it. Another hostage tried to give a stack of dollar bills to her captors. "Put it back in your purse," Sharif replied. "We are not thieves. This is not a robbery."
Violence With Limits?
Throughout their time in the desert, Sharif tried to get the hostages to relax. "Don't worry," he told them at one point, "it's only a hijack. Nobody will be hurt." Sharif said this while his colleagues were setting explosives on the plane, and the incident illustrated a central irony of the situation. The hijackers viewed themselves as fighters in a just war, with these skyjackings their only way to get the world's attention. The militants by and large treated the hostages well, making sure they had food and water. They allowed select groups of passengers to speak with the media and permitted one man to get vital medicine for his daughter from the airplane luggage. And yet at the same time, the P.F.L.P. was telling the world that these hostages would suffer the consequences if imprisoned Palestinian militants were not freed. Sharif acknowledged this duality at a press conference, admitting that hijacking was an inherently violent act, but he stressed that his people did not want to hurt any of the passengers, only use them to obtain the release of captured comrades. And in the end, the P.F.L.P. threats turned out to be only that; although the hijackers could have killed the hostages, every one of them was eventually released. Khaled would pointedly note that on her flight, only the hijacker died. But even though in general these particular militants were not willing to kill hostages for their cause, a precedent had been set, with goals sought not through negotiation but armed hijacks. In the years to come, future militants would have considerably fewer qualms about ending innocent life.
The Experience of Being a Hostage
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."
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.
Flight Crews and Airport Security
Airline hijackings were not a new phenomenon in 1970; the first skyjacking had occurred four decades earlier, and in 1969 alone, 71 planes were hijacked. But airport security remained patchwork at best, and on September 6, 1970, the flight crews of the four affected airplanes paid the price.
The first recorded skyjacking occurred in 1930 and involved Peruvian activists who commandeered an F-7 airplane and used it to drop propaganda booklets over their country. The skies were relatively quiet for the next 30 years, but in the 1960s, numerous American planes were hijacked and diverted to Cuba. Skyjacking soon spread to the Middle East; determined to gain attention for the Palestinian cause, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv on July 23, 1968, diverting it to Algiers. At the time, flight personnel were instructed to obey hijacker demands and focus on keeping passengers safe; as the El Al pilot later said, "If an eighty-year-old woman had pointed a gun at me and demanded that I land in her son-in-law's garden in Algeria, I would have complied."
The July 1968 hijacking did not prompt any general improvement in airport security, and one year later the P.F.L.P. seized a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. In a 2000 interview, skyjacker Leila Khaled recalled, "There were no security measures like now. It was just very easy to go ... no searching, nothing ... you just show passport and you pass by." Airports at the time lacked metal detectors, and airlines set their own security procedures, with widely varying results. On September 6, 1970, that disparity would have dramatic consequences.
El Al Security
The P.F.L.P. attempted to hijack four airplanes that day: one each belonging to El Al, Pan Am, TWA, and Swissair. Of those, only El Al had responded to the wave of skyjackings with significant security changes; its flights now featured armed guards and armored cockpit doors. That day the four P.F.L.P. members were flagged as suspicious because they had shown up for their tickets at the last minute. The two whose Senegalese passports had consecutive numbers were removed from the flight, while Khaled, who had undergone plastic surgery to conceal her identity, and her comrade Patrick Arguello were allowed to stay. Twenty minutes later they drew concealed pistols and grenades and tried to commandeer the flight, but Captain Uri Bar Lev thwarted them. Lev put the plane into a sharp dive, knocking the hijackers off their feet, and Khaled was overpowered by a number of passengers. For his part, Arguello shot steward Shlomo Vider and was then mortally wounded by the armed guard on the plane. The flight soon landed in London, where Vider underwent emergency surgery (he would recover from his wounds), Arguello was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital, and Khaled was arrested.
The hijackers on the other flights were more successful; they seized the Swissair and TWA planes without any resistance, and both were diverted to "Revolution Airport" in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Meanwhile, the two P.F.L.P. guerrillas turned away from El Al managed to get on board a Pan Am plane, where they again aroused suspicions. Unfortunately, the Pan Am captain who searched them did not detect the pistols and grenades they concealed. But Captain John Priddy was able to convince the hijackers that his airplane was too big to land on the desert airstrip in Jordan; after refueling in Beirut, the plane proceeded to Cairo, where the flight crew hustled off all the passengers, and the hijackers then blew up the aircraft. They were subsequently arrested by Egyptian authorities.
Incomplete Security Improvements
The multiple hijackings sent shock waves around the world, but its impact on airport security was not enough to prevent P.F.L.P. sympathizers from skyjacking yet another plane on September 9. This joined the others at Revolution Airport, where they were blown up by the P.F.L.P. on September 12. During their period of captivity, the flight crews endured the difficult conditions with calm and even a sense of humor; when asked about any shortages, the TWA flight engineer told reporters, "We're about out of jokes. ... Know any new ones?" But back in America the mood was increasingly serious, and President Richard Nixon decided something had to be done about airline security. He ordered an initial group of some 100 federal agents to begin serving as armed air marshals on U.S. flights, and the program would be expanded in the days to come. An international convention aimed at combating skyjacking assembled later that year, and countries began coordinating security measures and stiffening criminal penalties. By the end of 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all U.S. airlines to start screening every passenger and piece of luggage. These efforts were aided by the introduction of the first airport metal detectors, then called magnetometers. But airline hijackings did not disappear in the years after 1970, and gaps in American airport security remained. Those gaps would be exploited most tragically some 30 years later, on September 11, 2001.
Journalists and the Hijackings
This was a story unlike any they had ever covered: three planes sitting in the middle of the Jordanian desert, armed militants, hundreds of hostages. The images that journalists covering the September 1970 hijackings transmitted helped introduce an incredulous world to the new age of global terrorism.
Gerald Seymour, a correspondent for British broadcaster ITN, was at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman on the afternoon of Sunday, September 6, 1970, when word of the multiple hijackings first came in. He and his colleagues had never heard of skyjackings on such a scale, and his shock grew when at dusk he learned that the hijacked planes were heading to Jordan. The next morning Seymour and three television crews set out to find what the hijackers had dubbed "Revolution Airport," where the planes had landed. They had trouble at first but were directed to the spot by an Italian engineer they found roaring across the desert in a jeep. When he came over the rim of a hill and saw the planes, Seymour's first impression was that they looked like children's toys.
In addition to getting a number of imprisoned comrades freed, the members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wanted to use the hijackings to let the world know about the Palestinian struggle. So on the afternoon of September 7, they agreed to hold a press conference for the 60 members of the media who had made their way to Revolution Airport. Representative groups of passengers and crew were brought out from the planes and made to sit in the sand 20 feet from the media. First photographers and cameramen took their pictures, and then reporters were allowed to ask questions. Various P.F.L.P. guerrillas, including Bassam Abu-Sharif, made statements through a megaphone and fielded inquiries about conditions on board the airplanes. When evening approached, the reporters and television crews headed back to Amman to file the stories that would soon be broadcast around the world. Seymour, for one, felt ashamed that he was able to return to air-conditioned hotel comfort while the hostages stayed on planes in unsanitary and deteriorating conditions.
For the next several days, news from the Jordanian desert transfixed the world, dominating broadcasts and political debate. New waves of reporters, including David Phillips, who would go on to co-author a book about the hijackings, arrived to see what would happen at the deadline set by the P.F.L.P. for meeting their demands. Flying over Revolution Airport at 20,000 feet on the morning of Saturday, September 12, Phillips thought "the skyjacked planes looked like three dots on a domino." Later that day, PFLP guerrillas blew up the three aircraft that had now been emptied of all hostages. Sharif made sure a news photographer and cameraman were on hand to record the events; journalists 40 miles away at the Intercontinental Hotel could see smoke trails from the explosions. And in a denouement that showed the importance of media images in the coming age of global terror, at one o'clock the next morning, reporters at the Nicosia Airport in Cyprus surrounded a chartered jet that had just arrived from Amman, anxious to hear firsthand accounts from the freed hostages. "Tell me," a reporter asked, "how many days were you in the desert?" Only one, as it turned out; the two passengers on board were not freed hostages but television producers. Their only cargo was film of the explosions that would soon be relayed around the world.