Tales of Black September

Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

The United States' actions in the 1970 Black September clash in Jordan might have spelled death for David Raab, who at 17 was held hostage by the Palestinian militants who tried to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy. Raab, who has just published a book on the conflict, says Washington and Israel were right to intervene despite the risk to the hostages.

Raab, a Jewish boy from New Jersey on his way back from a vacation in Israel with his mother and four younger siblings, was on one of the three New York-bound airplanes that were hijacked during the second week of September 1970. The planes were made to land at Zarqa airstrip in Jordan - one of many areas in the Hashemite Kingdom that were under the de facto rule of Palestinian terrorist organizations.

The hijackers took 310 hostages, but after blowing up the planes a week later they held on to 56 passengers, including David. All the hostages were freed three weeks after their capture.

The hijackings prompted the late Jordanian King Hussein to launch a massive offensive to cleanse his kingdom of militant strongholds, killing thousands of Palestinians in the process. Raab discusses these events in his book "Terror in Black September," published last year by Palgrave Macmillan.

In his research, Raab found that Washington actively encouraged Hussein to act against the Palestinian terrorist camps - knowing full well that this could result in the execution of all the hostages.

"The national interest of the U.S. was to save Hussein's regime, even if that meant the terrorists would start executing us to get Hussein's forces to stop shooting," Raab, who lives in Ra'anana and works as a management consultant, told Anglo File last week at a kosher cafe in Tel Aviv. "I understand it and I'm not upset about it. We were prepared to die if that meant cleaning the terrorist threat," said Raab, who is married with three children and six grandchildren.

Even in speaking about the concern he felt for his siblings and mother - whom the militants interrogated - Raab maintains an unemotional approach. "I had a diary that I could have published a long time ago. But I didn't want to write a victim book about me or my personal experiences."

Focusing, nonetheless, on his days in captivity, Raab divides the period into three stages. At first, the hostages were kept on the planes. A few days later, Raab and some of the Jewish hostages were taken to a refugee camp near Amman. Then, after more than a week, they were transferred to an apartment in the capital itself, which was by then in the throes of a brutal attempt at a coup d'etat.

"It was three weeks of fear and uncertainty," Raab says. "We knew they would kill us as soon as word came from their commanders, but on top of that there was the fear we would be killed by mistake because we sat through a war," he says.

Chance for escape

In retrospect, Raab sees that he might have had a chance to escape. "Hussein's tanks were rolling up the street of our small apartment building in Amman. The guerrillas opened up the doors to make the building look vacant. We were guarded by one nervous man armed with a machine gun and some grenades. That was the moment. We could have tried to overpower him. All we needed was to walk over to the tanks, and we'd be free."

Raab, who was president of his high school's honor society and captain of the chess team, says that at least one of the hostages had served in the Vietnam War, and could have operated the gun. Instead of focusing on his own personal story, Raab, who immigrated to Israel shortly after graduation, studied the hijackings and their aftereffects from a historical perspective.

Raab says he couldn't have written the kind of book he wanted to write before information about the affair was declassified and opened for review. "A huge amount of material has been declassified in the past few years," he says.

In conducting research for his book, Raab says he went over American, Israeli and British archives about the backroom negotiations between Israel, the U.S., U.K., Germany, Switzerland, the Red Cross and the group responsible for the hijackings - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Raab says he has found proof that King Hussein requested Israel to militarily intervene in the conflict - a claim Arab historians have contested for years.

On September 18, when Raab was still held hostage, some 300 Syrian tanks rolled into Jordan, in an apparent attempt to exploit the conflict within the Hashemite Kingdom to increase Damascus' clout in the region. Hussein's army seemed incapable of checking the Syrian drive.

Israel, which found the move undesirable, performed mock air strikes on the Syrian column at the Americans' request. Possibly alarmed at the prospect of an armed conflict with Israel, Syria's president at the time, Nureddin Atassi, ordered a hasty retreat. Raab says he has reviewed transcripts of diplomatic communiques that show that Hussein requested Israeli intervention against Syria.

"I found explicit cables that Hussein had sent to the British Embassy in Amman, requesting immediate air strikes," Raab says. Even with the declassification, the book about the event - which was earth-shattering in regional terms - might have been written earlier, Raab concedes. He says he had another reason for waiting a full 37 years before publishing.

"In the 1990s we had the Oslo Accords, which gave some the sense that terrorism was a thing of the past," he says. "But then we realized Palestinian terrorism was still very much with us. Then we saw global terrorism in 9/11. I decided this story is still relevant because it could still happen to anyone today."

Lesson for today

Black September, Raab argues, is an important lesson for today's leaders. "We have to learn from Hussein. He had tried for years to negotiate with the Palestinians, constantly making agreements which they violated. They had just about taken over Jordan much like Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. The hijackings made Hussein realize terrorism is a cancer that you can't negotiate with."

The determination with which Hussein set about reclaiming his country is the only way to beat terrorism, Raab says. "Hussein didn't fear collateral damage because a society that harbors terrorists has to be prepared to pay the price. Innocent people will get hurt. I could have become a casualty in that war. But skirting the conflict for fear of collateral damage would've been a mistake."

Revisiting his experiences in captivity, Raab can recall a few happy moments during the ordeal. "When we were still on the planes, the flight crew inflated some life rafts and put them in the desert for the children to play with," he recounts. "The kids had a good time."

Inevitably, black humor found its way into the conversations. "We laughed about our funerals. We wondered if we would get a fancy funeral with black horses pulling our caskets, like John Kennedy's. That was one of our lighter moments," Raab says.

But for the few Holocaust survivors onboard the plane, the experience triggered memories from the concentration camps they had left only 25 years earlier. "They told the kids how to behave based on how they had behaved in the Holocaust. They hoarded food and water because you don't know where the next meal is going to come from."

When on the second day the terrorists separated Jewish hostages from the non-Jews, Raab began seeing the analogy more clearly himself, he says. "They were reading only the names of non-Jewish women and children, who were taken aside with only the Jews remaining surrounded by terrorists with guns. I thought of images from the Holocaust, of machine-gun-toting Germans. I thought this was what it must have felt like."

Some of the hostage-takers had hatred in their eyes, Raab says, whereas others were empathetic. "Some even played cards with the hostages. One of them asked me to teach him English. He would point to something, say the word in Arabic, then he would look at me and say 'Anglezi'."

But at other times, Raab adds, the terrorists would "go berserk," pointing machine guns and shouting. "Unlike with the team that actually hijacked the planes, we didn't get a sense that the guards who replaced them were professionals who knew what they were doing."

The decision to blow up the planes after the hostages were taken off attests to the disarray in the ranks of the PFLP, according to Raab. "Most people believe the planes were blown up without the high command's approval. The people on the ground did it to make a statement."

Upon his return to the U.S., Raab became something of a celebrity. After the 17-year-old told the press that he had seen a human side to his captors, the far-right Israeli American politician, Rabbi Meir Kahane, accused him of showing sympathy toward his captors - a psychological condition known as the Stockholm syndrome.

"Of course this was ridiculous," Raab says, "but the terrorists made a special effort to explain their cause to the flight crew. There was a little bit of the Stockholm syndrome coming out with some of the female crew members."

Amazingly, none of the passengers were questioned by the U.S. security services after their return. Within a week after landing in the U.S., Raab was back in school. But his experiences, he says, made him "obsessed with Israel." He says he isn't the only one. "Every fifth Jewish hostage ended up making aliyah and immigrating to Israel," he says. "So if you're looking for a strategy for bringing more Jews - you've got one."