El Al Hijacker Released to House Arrest

An Israeli citizen convicted of attempting to hijack an El Al airplane en route from Israel to Turkey three years ago was released to house arrest yesterday by the Nazareth Magistrate's Court.

Immediately after the attempted hijacking, Tawfiq Fukra, 26, was tried in Turkey and sentenced to a year in jail. He was then required to remain in Turkey, under house arrest, for another 18 months. He returned to Israel some two weeks ago and was arrested and taken for questioning by the Shin Bet security service and police.

"Three difficult years are over - a tough period of time," Fukra said on his release yesterday. "I am happy to be returning home, to my family, to the country, to the village and land on which I grew up."

His attorney, Riyad Anis, said he hoped the house arrest in Israel would mark the end of Fukra's nightmare. According to Anis, the court has not yet decided whether to try Fukra, and he hopes the state prosecution relies on the Turkish court's decision and does not choose to indict his client.

"There were times when I broke down and cried; I feared I wouldn't make it," Fukra said of his time in the Turkish prison, adding that his plans now were to complete his bachelor's degree in public administration. "I only have six months of studying left, and thereafter, I want to work like any other person," he said.

In November 2002, Fukra boarded El Al flight 581 to Istanbul - his first flight ever. He came to the airport only with a small handbag and told the security personnel who questioned him that he was going to Istanbul for four days to meet a friend.

Fukra was seated in the economy class section, and tried several times to enter business class during the flight. The passenger who sat next to him noticed his irritability. Approximately 15 minutes before landing, Fukra went into business class again, and asked the flight attendant for water.

When she asked him to return to his seat, he refused and tried to assault her. Fukra kept striding toward the cockpit and was stopped by a plain-clothes security guard who jumped and handcuffed him. Fukra was found in possession of a pocketknife.

A source involved in Fukra's questioning in Turkey said at the time that the suspect intended to crash the plane into a skyscraper in Tel Aviv. The source said Fukra had confessed in his interrogation that he intended to break into the Boeing 757 cockpit and order the pilots to fly back to Tel Aviv and crash into a skyscraper to protest the sufferings of Palestinians, under the inspiration of the September 11 attacks.

Fukra also told his Turkish interrogators that he could not muster the courage to carry out his plan, and that by the time he confronted the flight attendant he was very confused. According to the Turkish investigators, Fukra prepared well for the attack and acted on his own accord, not as part of an organization.