New Testimonies on Bus 300 Affair Reveal How Lies Protected Israel's Secret Service

Three decades after security agents covered up the killing of Palestinian hijackers, the incident continues to make waves.

"Ehud told us to put them on the van without stretchers. We took them like carcasses and threw them ... The fat one was covered in blood ... They lay there, tied up like boxes ... We drove toward Ashkelon Prison, laughing all the way at the crazy mess. On the way, I asked the terrorist if he wanted to say anything, but he was apathetic and didn’t respond. One of our people said to me, ‘Leave off, they’re actors’ ... My feeling was that they were play-acting. Close to [Kibbutz] Yad Mordechai I saw a huge amount of blood ... The vehicle was flooded ... The fat one made a wheezing noise. I said: ‘Let’s go to a hospital.’ We got to the Katza turnoff and drove left ...

“I said: ‘We can’t bring them to Ashkelon Prison like this in order to go on questioning them.’ The night equipment was removed, they were taken off and put on the van behind. In my opinion, they were already gone ... We arrived at a hospital, at the emergency room ... The nurse came out and covered them with sheets ... The doctor said, ‘A blow to the head, nothing can be done’ ... The vehicle was full of blood ... We found a black rubber hose that had a strong pressure and we cleaned off the blood.”

− Testimony of the head of the Arab affairs department in the southern district of the Shin Bet security service to the Zorea Committee, April 1984.

This quote is one of the biggest lies ever told in the history of the State of Israel. The lie was well-planned, well-staged and entered into the smallest details, aimed at creating an impression of precision and implanting in the listener a sense of credibility. The lie rocked the country in the 1980s and jolted the Shin Bet so powerfully that the aftershocks continue to be felt to this day.

Is there anything left to say about the Bus 300 affair? Surely everything has been told by now (see Timeline, Page 14): the capture of two of the four hijackers of a bus on the Tel Aviv-Ashkelon route (bus number 300) on April 12, 1984; the illegal order to eliminate them given by Avraham Shalom, the head of the Shin Bet; the false testimonies by top Shin Bet officials to the commissions of inquiry; the active involvement of Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in concealing the events; and the pardons granted by Israel’s president, Chaim Herzog. Yet it is consistently surprising to discover anew the efforts still being made by the Shin Bet, nearly three decades on – with the backing of the state prosecution – to cover up the entrails of the affair, the hidden archival material that documents it, stage by stage.

Two years ago, this writer submitted a request to the state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, to receive all the archival material related to the Bus 300 affair. The request was rejected out of hand. I then turned to the High Court of Justice, through attorney Nadav Asael. That petition generated a series of internal discussions in the State Prosecutor’s Office with the participation of Shin Bet officials, who wanted to keep the material classified for additional decades.

The state prosecution rebuffed that odd idea, but for its part permitted the publication of only three transcripts, documenting a meeting between the three senior Shin Bet officials who exposed the cover-up and the attorney general at the time, Prof. Itzhak Zamir (“Newly released papers reveal how Shin Bet tried to hide ‘Bus 300’ killings,” Haaretz, September 27, 2011).

A full year passed, and as the date of the High Court hearing approached, the prosecution agreed to throw us another bone from the treasures of the State Archives: the full testimonies of the ranking Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet officers before a secret committee established by Defense Minister Moshe Arens and chaired by Maj. Gen. (res.) Meir Zorea.

The committee’s brief was to investigate the circumstances of the death of two young Palestinians who had hijacked a bus, were captured by the security forces and photographed in the pre-dawn hours by journalists − among them photographer Alex Levac, then with the newspaper Hadashot and now with Haaretz − alive and apparently well, but who died mysteriously a short time later.

The struggle to uncover the material was not over. The High Court petition called on the state authorities to make secret key testimonies, taken by the police in the wake of the affair, available for publication – among them the testimonies of prime ministers Peres and Shamir. Uncovering all the investigative materials in this affair is of great importance for historical research. It could put an end to the false myths attached to the case, as well as to softened versions of the events, which those involved continue to voice to this day.

For example, the star of the Bus 300 affair, Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin Bet at the time, recently took part in Dror Moreh’s documentary film “The Gatekeepers” (which garnered an Oscar nomination). In a rare interview, Shalom reduced his part in the affair to a minimum. He maintained that he had not seen the two hijackers at the time of the event, and that he learned about the way they died only a year after their extrajudicial execution. The credibility of that account will be examined later in this article in juxtaposition with accounts of a different character that were given to the Zorea Committee.

Shalom, the strongman of the defense establishment at the beginning of the 1980s, objected strenuously to the establishment of the Zorea Committee. Then, in order to control it from within, he forced the appointment of Yossi Ginossar on political decision makers. Ginossar headed a Shin Bet department and was one of the most sophisticated and intelligent officials in the secret service. He played the role of a double agent, a Trojan horse, in the secret committee. In a series of night meetings, he leaked information about the committee’s hearings to the highest ranks of the Shin Bet and helped plan a systematic deception. The information Ginossar supplied made it possible for top Shin Bet officials to undermine the committee’s work and brief other Shin Bet officials about what to tell the committee and, above all, what to hide from it.

During the period of the Zorea Committee’s investigation, there were scenes in the Shin Bet that could have come straight from a certain boot-shaped country. In an Israeli version of omertà − the code of silence of the Sicilian Mafia − a few heroes of the Bus 300 affair met in an orchard and took a mutual vow never to reveal the secret.

The Zorea Commission was established 10 days after an international furor erupted following publication of the photographs of two of the hijackers being led away from the bus under their own steam, but who then were said to have died almost immediately afterward. In addition to Zorea and Ginossar, the committee consisted of a military defense counsel, Ilan Shiff (presently deputy president of the Haifa District Court). The deliberations were secret. The newspaper Hadashot, which had the temerity to report on the committee’s existence, was shut down for four days by state authorities under a draconian order. The committee concluded its work within a few weeks. Its conclusions rested on a foundation of lies.

The testimonies from the Zorea Committee, being published here for the first time, arrived at Haaretz partially redacted. The names of the people who admitted to serious offenses and modes of operation by the security forces in hostage-bargaining terrorist attacks and prisoner interrogations were blacked out by the Shin Bet, whose officials went over the hundreds of pages time and again. Some of the deletions are quite comic. For example, the name of the chief of staff at the time, Moshe Levy, was blacked out. So was the name of another of the stars of the affair, the head of the Shin Bet’s operations department, Ehud Yatom. In fact, almost all the names of the Shin Bet operatives who took part in the liquidations and the deceitful cover-up were blacked out. A black felt pen blotted out the names of people over whose deeds a black flag flies.

Moral qualms

On April 12, 1984, the number 300 bus, which plied the Tel Aviv-Ashkelon route, was hijacked by four young Palestinians. The vehicle was stopped by the security forces close to Dir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip. One of the passengers, a pregnant woman released by the hijackers during the southward journey of the bus, had called the security forces to inform them about the event. It was a crowded scene. Among those who arrived were Defense Minister Arens, Chief of Staff Levy, Shin Bet head Shalom, chief Paratroops officer Yitzhak Mordechai, army and police commando units, and dozens of journalists and curious onlookers.

The hijackers conducted intensive negotiations with the Shin Bet for the release of the passengers. To the teams from the secret service and the army, they looked like amateurs. “The truth is that it’s a bit ridiculous to call this a hostage-bargaining terrorist attack,” a Shin Bet operative who took part in the negotiations told the Zorea Committee. “The functionaries on the ground [i.e., the hijackers] did not justify all the people who were milling around there.”

“I realized immediately that these were not serious people who constituted a risk,” the head of the Arab affairs department in the Shin Bet, Nachman Tal, who also took part in the negotiations, would say afterward. The director of Military Intelligence, Ehud Barak, who received ongoing updates in Sweden, where he was at the time, formed the impression that if the negotiations could be dragged out a few more hours, “the hijackers will agree to release the passengers in return for a few sandwiches.” The hijackers’ demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners was rejected out of hand.

Before dawn, the chief of staff ordered the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit to storm the bus and eliminate the four hijackers, “so they would not endanger the safety of the hostages,” as Levy told the committee. None of the ranking IDF and Shin Bet officers imagined the possibility that unarmed hijackers would be found on the bus who would clumsily pose as passengers who, by chance, happened to be caught up in this nightmarish scenario.

The commandos burst into the bus at 4:40 A.M. “We heard a volley of shots, got out of the car and started to run along the rail line that was more or less opposite the bus,” the journalist Nahum Barnea, who was on the scene, stated in his testimony. Passengers jumped out of windows and some were so frightened that they soiled themselves in the bus, as recalled by the commander of Unit 504, who took part in the assault. The force killed two of the hijackers and accidentally shot to death one of the passengers, a 19-year-old soldier, Irit Portugues.

The commander of the assault force, a captain in Sayeret Matkal, spotted one of the hijackers hiding under a seat. “I tried to find out if he was a terrorist,” the officer told the committee. “He replied in Hebrew that he was not a terrorist ... I wasn’t sure ... I did not shoot him at that stage ... My impression was that he was a young boy, which made it hard for me to decide.” The Sayeret Matkal commander, Shai Avital, arrived on the scene. “I saw that Shai was undecided about what to do, to kill them or leave them alive. He gave a kind of halfway order − to stun them,” the captain said in his testimony. “Shai told me to kill him. Then he told me: ‘Just stun him,’” another Sayeret Matkal officer, who was holding a hijacker, stated. “I had a semi-automatic pistol and I hit him in the face and the head ... Every time he didn’t obey me he got hit.”

“I understood that the chief of staff was disappointed that I didn’t kill all four,” Avital told the committee. “Did you feel bitterly disappointed that you didn’t liquidate the four?” Zorea asked him. “No,” Avital replied, adding, “One of the members of Sayeret Matkal wasn’t sure whether we were morally right or whether we should have finished them off. He asked me if I was agonizing, and I told him that as soon as the fighting ends, killing is forbidden. It’s important for me to drive that point home. These things lie on my shoulders.”

“I grabbed him by the shirt collar,” a Sayeret Matkal officer said, describing the capture of a hijacker. “As I was leading him, rifle barrel in his back ... chief Paratroops officer Itzik Mordechai came into the bus and hit him twice ... When we came out of the bus he got another blow to the ribs with my knee.”

“Yitzhak Mordechai got on the bus and took the terrorist from one of our officers,” another Sayeret Matkal officer, who witnessed the events, told the committee. “He hit him quite hard with his pistol butt, hit him in the skull.” “Was the terrorist going wild?” another officer was asked by a member of the Zorea Committee. “The kid?” he replied. “No. He looked scared, he didn’t resist being led away.”

“It was clear to all of us at that stage that there were two captives,” Avital summed up his testimony. “We were ordered not to give them so much as a slap,” the commander of Unit 504 added. While Mordechai and a few IDF and Border Police troops led the “thin” hijacker (Subhi Abu Jumaa) away for interrogation, his accomplice and cousin, who was universally termed “the fat terrorist” in the testimonies (Majdi Abu Jumaa) remained on the bus. He too was hit in the head with a rifle. “I hit him very strongly with the rifle butt and his head started to bleed,” an officer from Sayeret Matkal stated. “I asked someone who was passing by the bus to give me handcuffs,” another officer, who was holding the hijacker, said. “At this stage there were a few people from our unit who hit him. I asked them to stop ... He was bound. I asked him: ‘Are you off your rocker?’ He was stunned, staring, didn’t answer me ... I led him out of the bus ... A guy in civilian clothes appeared opposite me ... he looked European, not a soldier ... He grabbed [the hijacker] by the lapel and spoke to him in Arabic. At this stage I left him ... He looked to me like a Shin Bet man.”

The Shin Bet agent and one of his colleagues led the hijacker to a nearby wheat field. “I asked him who he was,” the agent related in his testimony. “He told me in Hebrew, ‘I am a passenger from the bus. People started to hit me and the fat terrorist’ ... After I managed to pick him up I led him in the direction of the railway tracks.” The Shin Bet agent who held the hijacker by his other hand described what happened next: “Rifle butts were flying there ... Soldiers hit the fat terrorist with rifles. I shouted at the soldiers, ‘Leave him, we need him’ ... We dragged him. After a few meters there was a flash. X [a Shin Bet man] shouted, ‘Take the film from him.’”

The flash was from the camera of press photographer Alex Levac, from Hadashot, who was on the scene a long time. Levac had no idea that he was now in possession of a journalistic bombshell. “When I took the picture, I didn’t know who it was. I thought at first it was one of the survivors,” he told the Zorea Committee. “But because one of the men who was leading him attacked me angrily, I thought maybe he objected to being photographed because he was an undercover man.” Levac refused to hand over the film. He managed to hide the roll in a sock and gave the Shin Bet man an empty roll.

Field execution

“After the photograph, we took the fat terrorist to a wheat field,” the Shin Bet man escorting the hijacker told the committee. “Our interrogators joined in ... We were busy holding back the soldiers. It was hard, because every time some hothead burst the circle ... [and] gave him a kick in the face or the stomach ... I picked up the fat terrorist, his head was streaming blood ... I was covered in blood.”

Dozens of people were already milling around his accomplice in the wheat field. “Fat Majdi said, ‘I am a regular passenger,’ ‘Work,’ ‘Work.’ He was taken to the thin one so he would say he was part of the gang,” a Shin Bet man testified. The Shin Bet interrogators encircled the two, along with soldiers and civilians who were at the scene. They were subjected to a lynching. “Blows to the head with weapons, kicks to the face, the stomach, the testicles and all kinds of blows that made me shudder,” a soldier who witnessed the events told the committee. “I heard the shouts, meaning cries of pain in Arabic, crying. I saw them being beaten, they stood over them and beat them,” a sniper who was mobilized for the rescue operation stated.

“All our efforts to stop the beating were to no avail,” the head of the Shin Bet southern district interrogations department reported in his testimony. “They kept at it, all over the body, including the head, with rifle butts. The impression was of a tremendous number of blows.”

“It was a bloodbath,” a senior Shin Bet interrogator at the scene asserted. “I got to the scene with the head of the Shin Bet,” Ehud Yatom stated in his testimony. “I saw two piles [sic] of people at a distance of 10 meters from one another. There were 20-30 people in each pile ... When I made my way in, I saw a pile of people that now reminds me of the description of the Syrian peasants who attacked our pilots. They did whatever they felt like with their hands and legs. When I saw the terrorist I hit him, too, I was swept up in the mob atmosphere ... One was on his knees, like a fetus, trying to protect his head, and the other was supine.”

Zorea was impressed by Yatom’s honesty − he was, in fact, the only member of the Shin Bet who admitted to hitting the hijackers. However, Zorea had no inkling of the dark secret the head of Shin Bet operations was hiding from him. Yatom, like all the Shin Bet personnel who were in that wheat field, described a mass lynching perpetrated by civilians and soldiers. Yet they found it difficult to identify any of those who had taken an active part in the orgy of violence. With one exception: Yitzhak Mordechai. That was the orchestrated and coordinated symphony of testimonies played out by the Shin Bet, composed during night meetings conducted by the head of the service. The aim was to direct suspicion at Mordechai. “I definitely saw Mordechai hitting his pistol on the head of − if I am not mistaken − the fat terrorist,” Yatom specified in his testimony. “Hard blows.”

“Who did you see doing the beating?” another senior Shin Bet official was asked, after he too described a lynching. “It’s very complicated, hard to remember,” he replied. “The only one I can single out is Yitzhak Mordechai − his blows cried out to the heavens.” “I saw Yitzhak  hitting them hard on the head,” another Shin Bet man stated, though he found it hard to identify anyone else. “The most serious thing [was that] I saw a brigadier general − I think it was the chief Paratroops officer − who beat one of the terrorists with the butt, not with the barrel,” the head of the Shin Bet interrogations department emphasized. He, too, of course, saw none of his secret service colleagues lift a finger against the terrorists.

At this stage, the head of the service’s Arab affairs department, according to the account, arrived at the grove where the lynching was underway. “I decided it could not go on like this,” he testified. “I saw the lynching continue ... I told Ehud Yatom to get them out of here.” “He told me that these were no conditions for an interrogation,” Yatom confirmed in his testimony, “and he asked me, by virtue of my position, to order them taken to prison. I met the head of the service again next to the railway, and told him I would take the equipment and the people to the interrogation facility in Ashkelon, in the prison [there].”

It was here, at this critical juncture, that Avraham Shalom ordered his loyal officer, Ehud Yatom, to liquidate the hijackers. They had been moved, in the meantime, to a nearby olive grove. It would be their final stop on the way to their death.

Mission accomplished

“They were both lying next to the olive trees. The fat one was handcuffed ... The other one, the younger one, had a rope tied tightly across his mouth and on his hands and legs ... The fat one’s shirt was drenched in blood ... It’s possible they were unconscious, or it might have been playacting,” one of the senior Shin Bet personnel stated in his testimony. The IDF soldiers who arrived at the olive grove also formed the impression that the two were not conscious, more like stones. But they were both alive, as several witnesses told the committee, and as medical experts stated later.

“After the interrogation was done, I had the feeling they were alive,” a soldier said. “That’s because the people there tried to beat them some more. I told them to load them onto a stretcher. The terrorist was afraid he would get more blows ... I think they were able to walk.”

The soldiers at the site were ordered to fetch stretchers. “We were told to bring an ambulance and I took two stretchers from it,” a soldier recalled. “I went into the olive grove ... They were placed on the stretchers. The intelligence officer and I wanted to put the stretchers in the ambulance. A tall guy told me to put the stretchers in the Volkswagen. I told him I had an order to put them in the ambulance. He said it was all right ... I understood that they were under the responsibility of the Shin Bet, and that the deputy head of the Shin Bet made that decision.”

“We opened the back door and the soldiers threw one of them into the van and we put the other one on top of him,” a Shin Bet man told the committee. “They did not load them gently, they were thrown inside ... with their heads down, one on top of the other, thrown. I didn’t hear a sound from either of them,” Ehud Yatom, who ordered the hijackers to be placed in the van, confirmed.

“Didn’t it occur to you to have someone examine them?” “We had gone through a rough night,” Yatom went on telling tall tales. “The technical equipment worked well, we carried out the mission well, the operational intelligence was up-to-date and good − that’s what interested me ... We − me and my four guys − made our way to the interrogations facility,” Yatom continued. His lying account would change the course of his life. “The whole way I didn’t hear a thing, I think maybe I heard a wheezing noise and I was told it was the engine. We took the sea road − the Nusrat-Gaza road. On the way we talked about our experiences during the events of the night with the terrorists ... As we approached the Erez checkpoint, one of the Shin Bet men said he saw a pool of blood forming down below ... We pulled over at Katza Junction.”

A senior member of the Shin Bet operations department continued the false testimony: “We removed the two of them from the vehicle. We tore the rope from the terrorist’s mouth. When we put them back into the van they were dripping blood, maybe from the nose, ears, skull. We got out of the vehicle and opened the door. The fat one was with his head toward the door of the double cabin, and when we opened the door there was a large pool of blood in his skull area and both of them weren’t moving.”

In his testimony, Yatom continued: “I saw the [results of the] battering they took, the swollen eyes. At this stage, my human side did not come into play ... I saw them as an adversary, I saw no reason to ask too many questions, and I also said nothing about the rope that was tied around their mouths.”

“We pulled the two of them out, removed the equipment and transferred the two into another vehicle that we summoned ... We loaded the two guys into the back ... in the rear, they were dripping blood ... We decided to go to a hospital,” another Shin Bet man lied. He also spared the committee members, and his colleagues, the most significant detail of all: that here, at this spot, Yatom and his men liquidated the hijackers.

“Very quickly, and without hesitation, Yatom carried out the order of the head of the Shin Bet,” a Supreme Court judgment stated years later. “At his order, his men removed the terrorists from the vehicle and, with the intention of causing their death they ... Yatom and his men ... struck them in the head with stones and with an iron rod. After ascertaining that they were dead, Yatom ordered his men to load the bodies into the vehicle and took them to a hospital, where a doctor pronounced them dead.”

It is likely that this primitive method of killing was not chosen by chance: in this way the perpetrators could use the lynching and the blows delivered by Yitzhak Mordechai as an alibi. “We all got out of the vehicle next to the emergency room; someone went in and came back with a nurse. She took a quick look at the two terrorists, went back in and came back with sheets,” one of the Shin Bet personnel stated, “and we understood from her behavior that they were dead.”

“I went inside to look for a water tap,” a senior member of the operations department said. “I wanted to wash my hands, which were covered in blood ... There were a few members of minorities [that is, Arabs] outside ... We covered them in sheets, so that the members of the minorities would not see.”

Exchanging ideas

The sun came up. The Israeli governor of Gaza was asked to arrange for the two to be brought for burial. In his testimony to the Zorea Committee, he related that he decided not to give the bodies to the family for mourning rites, so that they would not “be like heroes.” In the meantime, family members of the four hijackers were arrested and their homes demolished by bulldozers. The Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir, in Tel Aviv, to which the two bodies were taken, received a peculiar message from the Gaza police: “Do not perform an autopsy on the bodies, do not even examine them externally.”

To ascertain the cause of death, after all, Zorea ordered the two bodies to be exhumed for a postmortem. Zorea, Ginossar and Shiff went, in the dead of night, to Abu Kabir, to be briefed by the pathologists. The stench was overpowering. Ginossar went out in the middle to throw up.

Now came the most dramatic testimony of all, and the top ranks of the Shin Bet prepared for it assiduously. Mistakes were not an option. Shortly before Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom was to appear before the Zorea Committee, the top-ranking personnel of the Shin Bet met secretly at the home of one of the service’s senior members, in Ramat Hasharon. Yossi Ginossar conducted the proceedings. He briefed Shalom about the questions he was likely to be asked and about the replies he should give. He spoke to Shalom firmly.

“They will ask you whether you hit them,” Ginossar said to Shalom. “Did I hit so hard?” Shalom asked. “Look, among ourselves, at least, we won’t play the game. Everyone knows you hit them,” Ginossar replied. They decided that Shalom would act insulted when asked if he had pummeled the hijackers.

“I once asked Ehud Yatom, ‘Tell me, did the head of the service hit him that hard?’ the deputy head of the Shin Bet at the time, Reuven Hazak (one of those who later exposed the cover-up), related in a home tape recording that was intended to document the events not long after they happened. “And Ehud Yatom told me how the head of the service hit [him] with a pistol. He told me that the head of the service ran amok. He hit like a madman ... He would have killed him if he had continued.”

However, Shalom, in his testimony to the committee, stuck to the fabricated story that had been agreed on. “I did not hit [anyone],” he said, “I actually took a blow, if I am already being asked about this.” Zorea confronted Shalom with the testimony of Yitzhak Mordechai, who claimed to have seen the head of the Shin Bet kick one of the hijackers in the face. “That is not true,” Shalom replied forcefully. “I did not hear a terrorist speaking. I reject that out of hand. I did not hit any terrorist.”

Zorea: “We have testimony that claims that one of those present suggested − during an exchange of ideas after it became known that two of the terrorists were killed immediately and two remained alive − the possibility of also eliminating the two who remained.”

Shalom: “Not in my presence.”

Zorea: “The chief of staff claims you said that.”

Shalom: “That is just not true. I did not see the chief of staff and I did not exchange a word with him after the takeover [of the bus].”

Shalom tried to show the committee a relaxed exterior, but inside he must have been fuming. At this stage, Maj. Gen. (res.) Zorea put to Shalom another clue, also supplied by Chief of Staff Levy. Zorea said that, according to Levy, a few days after the event Shalom had approached him and demanded that no investigation be made into the death of the terrorists. Again, Shalom rebuffed the allegations, saying, “The chief of staff is referring to a meeting that was held under the prime minister about a week later ... I told the prime minister that what we had was apparently due to the lynching and that we need an examining officer to look into the matter thoroughly, and not a commission of inquiry, because I am worried about the relations between the IDF and the Shin Bet ... The IDF and the Shin Bet work very closely together. Without the IDF, the Shin Bet cannot work in conditions of Arab terror ... I heard wicked gossip in these three weeks. I heard that the army gave them [the hijackers] to the Shin Bet and that the Shin Bet killed them ... I heard that we caught the Jewish underground in order to blur all this.”

Shalom’s arsenal of lies ignited a conflagration between the IDF and the Shin Bet.

Disinformation

A few days after the bus hijacking, two of the heroes of the event met for a personal conversation. It was a dramatic exchange. One of the interlocutors was a colonel, the Southern Command operations officer, who accompanied Yitzhak Mordechai through all the stages of the hijackers’ interrogation. The other was a senior official in the Shin Bet, the head of the organization’s Arab affairs department in the southern district, and one of those in the fatal van.

“Did you see how Yitzhak Mordechai went nuts when he hit the terrorists with a pistol,” the operations officer said to his friend from the secret service. “Yes,” the latter replied, though he knew the truth. “He really lost it. You should know that if they died, they died because of him.”

“On the night of the event, you checked with me about the possibility of
eliminating the two of them,” the IDF officer reminded his interlocutor, “so maybe you in the Shin Bet killed them?”

“Come off it,” the Shin Bet man said.

Zorea probed this suspicious dialogue carefully. “I am stunned that the remarks were taken to mean that I supposedly suggested killing the terrorists,” the Shin Bet official stated in his testimony. “All I remember saying is that it’s a pity they didn’t go to hell.”

That conversation was not the only clue to the fact that Shin Bet personnel were behind the execution. “After the event, did you receive reports, written or oral, about what happened with the terrorists who were still alive?” the GOC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Moshe Bar-Kochba, was asked. “The Shin Bet told us they did not want to talk about such delicate matters,” he replied. And Chief of Staff Levy remarked to the committee with a certain irony, “What would the Shin Bet do with dead people? The Shin Bet accepts only living people.”

However, all Zorea’s attempts to tie the loose threads together failed. The embroidered testimonies of the Shin Bet personnel produced an almost seamless design, in which the pattern emerged of the immediate suspect: Yitzhak Mordechai. A cascade of testimonies by Shin Bet and IDF personnel pointed to Mordechai as having pistol-whipped the two hijackers brutally on the head. “We have testimonies that you hit them on the skull with your pistol a number of times,” Zorea informed Mordechai, who replied, “That is without doubt not true.” He confirmed that he had hit the two a few times, but did not remember whether he used his hand or his pistol. He denied outright having struck them on the head.

Mordechai confirmed that he gave the “thin” hijacker “a few slaps ... We made him say how many terrorists there were ... he swore to God there were only four ... I left him and he was taken by a few guys in civilian clothing.”

Mordechai stated that afterward he had walked quickly with the Shin Bet personnel to the nearby wheat field in order to question the second hijacker. “He was pummeled by all of us, including me ... I have to emphasize that at this stage I considered it possible that the bus would explode, and I focused on that ... The fat one did not talk. He was beaten hard and then described the structure of the explosive device ... I rushed toward the bus and told the BDU [bomb disposal unit] that it was not a dangerous device.” Zorea sought corroboration of Mordechai’s wild run, but with little success.

In his testimony, Mordechai contradicted the testimonies of the Shin Bet personnel to the effect that they had not lifted a hand to the hijackers. He also described an odd event that took place after the hostages were rescued: “Someone named Shmulik or Shaike, whom I associate with the Shin Bet, came running up to me ... a handsome guy, thin face, lean, beautiful eyes, gentle ... He said to me, ‘Sir, can we liquidate them?’ I told him, ‘Get out of here, don’t you dare’ ... I was stunned by the fact that they died.”

Mistaken conclusions

A few weeks after the hijacking, the conclusions of the Zorea Committee − all of them based on falsehoods − were presented to Defense Minister Arens. “The investigative material shows explicitly that neither the IDF troops nor the Shin Bet personnel were given any order which might have implied that the two terrorists who remained alive should be killed or harmed,” the report − which is also being made public for the first time here − stated.

It is astonishing to discover how much trust Zorea placed in Shin Bet chief Shalom. “A single testimony, by Brig. Gen. Mordechai, attributed a kick in the face of the terrorist to the head of the Shin Bet ... That was denied vigorously by the head of the Shin Bet, whose account is accepted by the committee as reliable.”

Zorea arrived at one correct conclusion, based on the postmortem, to the effect that the terrorists died as a result of three potentially lethal blows. He did not know that Shin Bet personnel were behind the blows, which created holes in the heads of the two hijackers.

The committee recommended that the Military Police investigate Mordechai on suspicion of having struck the terrorists illegally. With regard to Mordechai’s claim that the blows were intended to extract vital information, Zorea wrote, “That account is partially inconsistent with a number of testimonies given to the committee, and which are supported in certain details by other testimonies ... The possibility arises that Mordechai illegally struck the terrorists on the head with his pistol ... No connection can be drawn between those blows and the lethal blow.” The committee added several lame critical comments against other Shin Bet and IDF personnel.

The fog was not dispelled. Attorney General Itzhak Zamir established a second committee of inquiry, under the state prosecutor, Yona Blatman. However, it too was tripped up by Shin Bet lies − and came close to putting an end to Mordechai’s career. In the end, the military advocate general decided to try Mordechai only on a charge of abuse. The judge in Mordechai’s trial was his former commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Haim Nadel. Mordechai was acquitted.

Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom breathed a sigh of relief. He was convinced that he had been extricated from the worst mess of his life. However, three senior Shin Bet officials − Reuven Hazak, the designated successor as head of the service, and two department chiefs, Peleg Radai and Rafi Malka − refused to play along. They demanded Shalom’s resignation. “You have corrupted the General Security Service,” they told him in no uncertain terms. “Every person who took part in the liquidation and the murder now has relations of blackmail with you. You have lost your moral authority and your leadership ability.”

Shalom refused to budge, and instead dismissed the three. Hazak went to Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who showed him the door. He and his two colleagues then crossed the Rubicon: they met secretly with Attorney General Zamir and told him what had happened. Zamir demanded a criminal investigation against Shalom, but Peres and Shamir protected the offenders like a mother bird protects her young. They ousted Zamir and subsequently initiated wholesale pardons that spared those involved from standing trial on criminal charges and spending time behind bars.

Some of the Shin Bet officials remained true to the code of silence. They continued to lie in the police investigation, which was held after the pardons to answer one question: Did the political decision makers know about the order to eliminate the two hijackers and about the false testimonies to the Zorea Committee? The investigators were appalled to discover that “the Shin Bet personnel stood by their accounts like a brick wall,” as the investigative report stated. “They refrained systematically from testifying to us about their colleagues’ part in beating the terrorists.”

Once more the exception was Ehud Yatom. He confirmed to police investigators that he killed the terrorists at the order of the head of the Shin Bet, and explained that he did it “so that terrorists will not emerge alive from a murderous kidnapping attack.”

Yatom also admitted that in their testimonies to the Zorea Committee and the Blatman Committee, he and his men concealed the fact that they had killed the terrorists. He himself took this line, and instructed his subordinates to follow suit, with the concurrence of the head of the Shin Bet.

The Bus 300 affair deeply scarred everyone involved. Maj. Gen. Zorea refused to forgive Shalom to his last day. A few years after having lied to Zorea, the head of a senior department in the Shin Bet came to Zorea’s home in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael to ask his pardon.

“I forgive you,” Zorea told him, “but there are two people I will never let come close to the gate to my house: Yossi Ginossar and Avraham Shalom.”

Timeline:The Bus 300 affair

April12, 1984

Four Palestinians hijack Bus 300, on the Tel Aviv-Ashkelon route

April 13

Sayeret Matkal takes control of the bus before dawn. Two of the hijackers are killed in the rescue operation. The two others are taken for questioning by the Shin Bet and are killed at the order of Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom.

April 26

Defense Minister Moshe Arens establishes a committee, under Maj. Gen. (res.) Meir Zorea, to investigate the killing of the terrorists. Shin Bet personnel lie to the committee.

May 20

 Zorea’s secret report submitted to Arens. The committee is unable to determine who killed the terrorists.

June 4

Attorney General Itzhak Zamir appoints another committee, under State Attorney Yona Blatman. The Shin Bet personnel continue to lie.

July 1985

Alex Levac

Blatman’s secret report submitted to Zamir. Again the committee is unable to determine who killed the terrorists.

August-November 1985

Shin Bet deputy chief Reuven Hazak demands Shalom’s resignation. He tells Prime Minister Shimon Peres what actually happened. Two department heads in the Shin Bet, Peleg Radai and Rafi Malka, join Hazak in demanding Shalom’s resignation. The three find themselves booted out of the Shin Bet.

March 1986

Zamir meets with Hazak, Radai and Malka. They tell him all the grisly details.

May-June 1986

Zamir files a complaint with the police against the ranking personnel of the Shin Bet. Zamir is dismissed as attorney general. His successor, District Court Judge Yosef Harish, decides to continue to investigate the affair. That same month, President Chaim Herzog grants a blanket pre-trial pardon to Shalom and four other senior Shin Bet officials. The affair that rocked the country is given the kiss of death.