During his term as Israel's defense minister, Ariel Sharon ordered the Israeli army to shoot down a passengers plane if it was confirmed that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was on board. In one instance in 1982, the plane in question was carrying 30 wounded Palestinian children, survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
- Yitzhak Rabin told me: I don't forbid you from continuing contacts with the PLO
- How Lebanon managed to end its bloodiest conflicts, while Israel failed
That operation was called off, but, according to a new book by an Israeli journalist, it was one many planned assassinations, some even inspired by the film “The Manchurian Candidate.”
"The military operation had been set in motion by the Mossad. Taking advantage of lax security at the Athens airport, [the agents] waited for Arafat in the area where private planes were parked," Ronen Bergman wrote in the New York Times, revealing parts of his upcoming book.
Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, then-Sharon's chief of staff who Bergman claims was pushing for the operation, scrambled Israeli jets to follow the aircraft suspected of carrying Arafat.
“You don’t fire without my OK. Clear? Even if there’s a communications problem, if you don’t hear my order - you don’t open fire,” Eitan stressed to the pilots as the plane took off from Athens. But the confirmation never came, and the man they thought to be Arafat was most likely his younger brother, Bergman writes.
Bergman report that from November 1982 to January 1983, four F-16s and F-15s were on alert in case Arafat was spotted. They were scrambled "at least five times to intercept and destroy airliners believed to be carrying Arafat, only to be called back soon after takeoff," Bergman writes in the New York Times.
One such instance saw the fighter jets closing in on a commercial flight traveling from Amman to Tunisia before they were pulled off the mission. In another instance, they even disrubted the communications of a Boeing 707 they were targeting.
'Kill them all'
According to new book, after the gruesome terror attack in Nahariya in 1979, Eitan decided to up Israel's battle against the PLO: “Kill them all,” he reportedly told his deputy in reference to members of the Palestinian organization, then based in Lebanon.
Meir Dagan, the man who would go on head Israel's Mossad, was then appointed by Eitan to lead the what was called the "Front for the Liberation of Lebanon From Foreigners."
After 1981, when Sharon was appointed defense minister, the operation – which Bergman claims was until then run "almost entirely without the authorization or knowledge" of the defense establishment or the government – shifted gears. Among its differents ideas: a plan to detonate a bomb in the Beirut stadium where the Palestinian leadership was planning an event.
“You can’t just kill a whole stadium,” one officer recalled telling then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin: “The whole world will be after us.” Begin overruled Sharon and decided to nix that bombing which Bergman says would have taken out the entire Palestinian leadership.
However, Sharon was not deterred. After launching an invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, he hatched a new plan to push the Palestinians out and into Jordan – thus eliminating their demand for a state in the West Bank. A key element to this plan, Bergman reports, was killing Arafat.
"To this end, a special task force was set up, code-named Salt Fish," Bergman writes, with Dagan and Eitan, then a counterterrorism adviser, joining the special team.
“I thought that hitting him would have changed the course of history. Arafat was not only a Palestinian leader, but a kind of founding father of the Palestinian nation. Killing him would unleash a large part of the internal conflicts inside the PLO and significantly hinder its capability to make any strategic decisions from then on,” Bergman wrote.
The Salt Fish team tried targeted bombings in Beirut, but Arafat managed to avoid them.
When Uri Avnery, a famous Israeli journalist and pro-peace activist, traveled to Lebanon to interview Arafat, the team trailed him with the aim of taking Arafat out, even at the cost of the Israelis' lives. But Arafat's maneuvering payed off and the journlaists' lost their tail and lived.
Arafat's 'good luck'
“Arafat was saved by two things,” said Uzi Dayan, Salt Fish's commander, “his interminable good luck and me.”
Though Dayan had no issue killing Arafat, according to Bergman he did not want civilians killed in the process: “Raful [Eitan's nickname] used to blow up with anger. He’d call me up and say: ‘I understand you have information on such and such a place. Why aren’t the planes in the air?’ I replied that it was impossible because there were a lot of people around. Raful said: ‘Forget about it. I’ll take responsibility for it.’ I wasn’t prepared to allow it. Raful would not teach me the ethics of war.”
Dayan, Bergman reports, even went as far as withholding intelligence information from Eitan: “All I had to do was to report when the target was ripe from the intelligence point of view. So from that point on, each time we knew that bombing would lead to massive civilian casualties, we reported that the target wasn’t ripe from the intelligence angle.”
“I told chief of staff Eitan that it could ruin the state internationally if it were known that we downed a civilian airliner,” then head of Israel's military intelligence Amos Gilboa told Bergman. “Gradually, the awareness grew that Arafat was a political matter, and he must not be seen as a target for assassination,” Gilboa explained.