Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1994, Pages 71-72

Middle East History: It Happened in December

Israel Was First Nation to Skyjack A Civilian Airliner

By Donald Neff

It was 40 years ago that Israel conducted the first skyjacking of a civilian airliner. On Dec. 12, 1954, Israeli warplanes forced a Syrian Airways Dakota passenger craft carrying four passengers and five crewmen to land at Lydda airport inside Israel.1 The passengers were interrogated for two days before international protests, including strong complaints from Washington, finally convinced Israel to release the plane and its passengers.2

Moshe Sharett, who as Israel's foreign minister had to explain the incident to the international community, was privately appalled by it. He recorded in his diary: "I have no reason to doubt the truth of the factual affirmation of the U.S. State Department that our action was without precedent in the history of international practice. What shocks and worries me is the narrow-mindedness and the short-sightedness of our military leaders. They seem to presume that the state of Israel may—or even must—behave in the realm of international relations according to the laws of the jungle."3

The purpose of the unprecedented skyjacking, according to Sharett, was Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan's ambition "to get hostages in order to obtain the release of our prisoners in Damascus."4 The reference was to an incident that had occurred four days earlier. Five Israeli soldiers were captured retrieving tapping devices on Syrian telephone lines on the Golan Heights inside Syria. Israel expressed outrage at the imprisonment of the soldiers but Syria refused to release them. 5

Israeli passions were riled even further the next month when one of the Israeli soldiers, Uri Ilan, son of a former Mapam member of parliament, committed suicide in jail on Jan. 13, 1955. Although the Israeli press loudly charged Syria with torture, an examination by the United Nations showed "no signs of physical ill-treatment."6

But still Syria refused to release the prisoners, pointing out that Israel was holding Syrian civilians prisoner. The impasse contributed to an even graver incident toward the end of the year. On Dec. 11, 1955, Israel sent two paratroop battalions backed by artillery and mortar batteries under the command of Ariel Sharon, later Israel's defense minister, against Syrian military posts at Buteiha Farm and Koursi near the northeast shore of Lake Tiberias.

It was Israel's largest military raid inside Syria up to that time and resulted in 56 Syrian deaths, including three women, and nine wounded. Significantly Israel also took 30 prisoners, whom it later used as hostages to exchange for the four Israelis held by Syria.7 The United States expressed its "shock" at the raid and supported a resolution by the United Nations Security Council that unanimously condemned Israel for its "flagrant violation" of the armistice agreement.8

French Ambassador to the U.N. Herv? Alphand observed that the condemnation resolution of Israel was "the strongest ever passed by the council."9 It was the fifth time the council had condemned, censured, called on and otherwise passed resolutions critical of Israel.

"Our action was without precedent in the history of international practice."

Israel insisted the raid was simply in retaliation for Syrian troops firing at an Israeli patrol boat on Lake Tiberias the previous day, in which there had been no casualties. But the explanation was widely disbelieved. Canadian General E.L.M. Burns, the chief of staff of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, bluntly wrote:

"No one with any knowledge of military affairs would believe that such an elaborate, coordinated attack had not been planned well before, and probably rehearsed. Certainly it was not improvised in a few hours....The reasons given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' statement were only an excuse, and not a very good one."10

In fact, like most major actions in the Middle East, there was far more than just retaliation behind the raid. At the time, it was widely suspected that Israel's main motive in launching the heavy attack was primarily to punish Syria for keeping the four Israeli soldiers prisoners. But it turned out that was just one of the reasons. Israeli historian Benny Morris reports that primarily the attack was meant as a provocation to goad Egypt into attacking Israel and thus start a war. "This," wrote Morris, "was the thinking behind the strike."11

The timing was dictated by two events during the previous three months: Egypt and Syria had signed a mutual defense pact on Oct. 20, 1955, and on Sept. 27 Egypt had announced its historic "Czech" arms deal, shocking Israel by the fact that Egypt was about to start receiving massive quantities of Soviet weapons. In the event, Egypt did not respond to the attack on the Golan and Israel had to wait nearly another year before taking on itself the burden of attacking Egypt to start a war.

Another Motive

There was also another motive behind the attack. It had to do with Israel's long- term policy to establish exclusive control over Lake Tiberias, the biblical Sea of Galilee, which lay within Israeli territory, and the three demilitarized zones (DMZs) that lay along the Israeli-Syrian frontier in the Jordan Valley.

Palestinians and Syrians insisted on fishing in the lake and were a constant source of friction, especially during mid-November to mid-April, which marked the official fishing season. Israel denied Arabs had any rights to fish there, citing the fact that the Mandate governments over Palestine and Syria had agreed in the 1920s that the frontier followed the east shore of the lake at a distance set back 10 meters parallel to the water.

However, the Arabs countered that under Anglo-French agreements of Feb. 3, 1922, June 23, 1923 and Feb. 2, 1926, Syrians were given "the same fishing and navigation rights on Lakes Huleh and Tiberias...as the inhabitants of Palestine" and also the right to "enjoy grazing, watering and cultivations rights" and to "cross the frontier freely."12

Nonetheless, Israel insisted on keeping Arab fishermen away from the lake, by force if necessary. It further lacerated relations with Syria by chasing Palestinian farmers out of the DMZs near the lake in violation of the truce of 1949, which held the farmers should be allowed to remain. Israel's forceful takeover of the DMZs left the Palestinian farmers and fishermen denied access to their fields or fishing grounds embittered and angry. A later UNTSO chief of staff, Norwegian General Odd Bull, who served during the 1960s, wrote:

"I imagine that a number of those evicted settled somewhere in the Golan Heights and that their children have watched the land that had been in their families for hundreds of years being cultivated by Israeli farmers. From time to time they opened fire on these farmers. That, of course, was a violation of the armistice agreement, though I could not help thinking that in similar circumstances Norwegian peasants would almost certainly have acted in the same way. In the course of time all the Arab villages [in the DMZs] disappeared."13

So too did the Arab fishermen. In 1967 Israel conquered the whole area, including the Golan Heights, and chased out all of the Arabs. It is Israel's continuing occupation of this land that today remains the major impediment to peace between Israel and Syria.

Recommended Reading:

Bull, Odd, War and Peace in the Middle East: The Experiences and Views of a U.N. Observer, London, Leo Cooper, 1976.

Burns, Lt. Gen. E. L. M., Between Arab and Israeli, New York, Ivan Obolensky, 1962.

Chomsky, Noam, The Fateful Triangle, Boston, South End Press, 1983.

*Chomsky, Noam, Pirates & Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World, Brattleboro, VT, Amana Books, 1986.

Khouri, Fred J., The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1985.

Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Morris, Benny, Israel's Border Wars: 1949-1956, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993.

*Neff, Donald, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America Into the Middle East, Brattleboro, VT, Amana Books, 1988.

Rokach, Livia, Israel's Sacred Terrorism: A Study Based on Moshe Sharett's Personal Diary and Other Documents, Belmont, MA, Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 1980.

Von Horn, Carl, Soldiering for Peace, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1967.

Notes:

1 New York Times, 12/13/54.

2 Associated Press, New York Times, 12/15/54.

3 Rokach, Israel's Sacred Terrorism, pp. 20-21. For an analysis of Sharett's lengthy diaries, see "Secrets of State: An Analysis of the Diaries of Moshe Sharett," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1980, pp. 35-57.

4 Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, p. 84.

5 Morris, Israel's Border Wars, p. 366.

6 Burns, Between Arab and Israeli, p. 109.

7 Ibid., p. 108; Morris, Israel's Border Wars, p. 366n.

8 Resolution 111. The text is in Tomeh, George J., United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1947-1974, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1975, p. 137; the text of the U.S. statement is in Boudreault, Jody and Eric Fortin, U.S. Official Statements: The Golan Heights, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1993, pp. 27-28.

9 Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem, 118.

10 Burns, Between Arab and Israeli , p. 108.

11 Morris, Israel's Border Wars, p. 364.

12 Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, p. 194.

13 Bull, War and Peace in the Middle East, pp. 50-51.

*Available through the AET Book Club

Donald Neff is author of the Warriors trilogy on U.S.-Middle East relations and of the unpublished Middle East Handbook, a chronological data bank of significant events affecting U.S. policy and the Middle East on which this article is based. His books are available through the AET Book Club.