How the Terrorist Who Attacked Israel's Main Airport Escaped the Death Penalty

Top politicians at the time debated whether to kill the killer.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

It's hard to say whether Kozo Okamoto was insane even before he took part in the murderous attack on Lod airport (today Ben-Gurion International ). That was on May 30, 1972. His defense lawyer argued that at the time he carried out the operation he was not sane, but a military court rejected this claim and sentenced him to life in prison. In the course of his trial and the 13 years of his incarceration, reports of his madness came out from time to time. Among other things it was said that he requested to convert to Judaism and had tried to circumcise himself with nail clippers.

Okamoto and two other Japanese terrorists belonged to a radical leftist organization, and thought for some reason that their operation would aid the Palestinians in their national struggle. They landed at Lod on Air France Flight 132 from Paris. They went to the passenger baggage carousel, whipped out Kalashnikov rifles and hand grenades from their luggage, and began shooting. Twenty-six people were murdered, about half of them non- Israelis; nearly 80 were wounded. One of those killed was the physicist Aharon Katzir.

One of the three terrorists shot one of his two comrades, before blowing himself up with a grenade. Kozo Okamoto also believed he would be killed during the operation, but he was only wounded.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the terror attack, Israel's state archives uploaded to its Internet site three documents related to the case, and all three are very interesting. Two are in English: An unidentified individual referred to only by the codename "March" expresses horror at the attack, and an individual identified as "April" thanks him profusely. "March" was King Hussein; "April" - Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Okamoto's military trial was conducted quickly, and about six weeks after the massacre the prosecution was already faced with the question of whether to demand the death penalty. The attorney general at the time, Meir Shamgar, brought the question to the government for a decision. He reminded the ministers that a few months after the Six-Day War, the government had decided that prosecutors in military courts would not demand death sentences, even in cases when it might ostensibly be justified. Shamgar wanted to know whether that directive would be applied in Okamoto's case as well. He did not express his own opinion.

The minister of transportation at the time was Shimon Peres. "I am in favor of us tasking the prosecutor to demand a death penalty in this specific case," he said, and cited two rationales. First of all the action "veritably comes close to a case of genocide within the range of action of one man. It's true that one man cannot annihilate an entire people. But when such a man enters a hall with a submachine gun and fires indiscriminately at men, women and children, without expressing any remorse, then his subsequently remaining alive will be a never-ending source for such 'day and night stars' ... In my opinion it is incumbent upon us to demand the harshest sentence that can be imposed by law." At the same time, Peres did not rule out the possibility that the sentence would be commuted. None of the other ministers backed his opinion.

The question segued into a principled debate for and against the death penalty, of the type that used to be waged in those days in youth movements. The minister of religious affairs, Zerach Warhaftig, said: "We have a positive image that we conduct fair trials. If with regard to all the trials there is an order not to demand the death penalty, it would not be good ad hoc to demand imposing a death sentence in this case. It would be a change taken in regard to a person, and not one in position." He added that, in his opinion, it was necessary to engage in talks with the left-wing terrorist organizations, "which are intervening in a fight that is not their own."

Yisrael Galili, minister without portfolio, said: "I do not want the State of Israel to provide a martyr for this eccentric and mad organization. I do not think that a death penalty is enough to deter this type of criminal, certainly not the suicide terrorists." He pointed out that in other countries as well there was a growing tendency to reduce the imposition of the death penalty: "Refraining from death sentences is one of the hallmarks of the liberal and progressive portrait of the State of Israel. I would not want this hallmark to become blurred by our turning to a death sentence."

Galili also rejected Peres' idea, of considering granting clemency to Okamoto after sentencing him to death. The authority to commute his sentence was in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, David Elazar. In Galili's view there was no chance that Elazar would commute Okamoto's sentence. Foreign Minister Abba Eban, too, was concerned that a death sentence would hurt Israel's liberal character. The truth is that Israel had not always been so liberal. The death penalty for murder was abolished only in 1954, after a long and heated argument: A majority of government ministers was against eliminating it.

The welfare minister, Meir Hazani, said that executing Okamoto might incite a wave of revenge acts, but conceded that leaving him in jail might also lead to a wave of terrorist acts - to secure his release.

It seems that Peres did not fight for his position: The decision not to demand a death sentence for Okamoto was unanimous. In May 1985 Okamoto was released as part of the so-called Jibril deal. As far as is known he is alive and living in Beirut.

Kozo Okamoto.Credit: AP

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