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Who Remembers LAA Flight 114?
In the early afternoon of February 21, 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114, a Boeing 727 with 113 men, women and children aboard, was nearing the end of its regular run from Tripoli, Libya, to Cairo. But it never made it.
As it was preparing to begin its descent to Cairo the unarmed airliner developed compass problems and strayed out of Egyptian-controlled airspace into the skies over the Sinai peninsula, then occupied by Israeli forces. It turned out to be a fatal malfunction.
Within minutes, Israeli Phantom jet fighters had moved into action to intercept the plane. And within minutes after that, one of the fighters had shot it out of the sky. One hundred and six persons, including all but one of the mostly French crew, were killed. The victims were mainly Egyptians and Libyans, and included one American.
In a number of respects, both the attack itself and the reaction of the perpetrators were strikingly similar to the case of Korean Airlines flight 7, shot down recently by Soviet jets after its Boeing 747 had infringed their airspace. Far different, however, was the U.S. response to what happened. President Nixon and the State Department did, of course, deplore the loss of life (even though the U.S. charge in Libya at the time was not permitted to offer condolences in person). But what was missing was any official criticism of what the Israelis had done, not to mention any rhetoric on the scale of what has been said to the Soviets. Nor was the U.S.interested in taking any disciplinary action against Israel. It did not bring the issue to the United Nations. And when the 30-member International Civil Aviation Organization voted on June 5, 1973, to censure Israel for its attack, the U.S. and Nicaragua—then under the Somoza regime—abstained.
If the U.S. had been of a mind to, it could have found plenty to criticize. The positions taken by the Israeli government after the shooting down of the plane, when examined today, look eerily similar to those taken by the Russians during the days after the Korean plane went down.
Israel's first communiqué after the shooting was more ready than the first Soviet one was to acknowledge at least implicitly what had happened. But it was nonetheless a study in euphemistic vagueness. After saying the plane had entered Sinai airspace and flown over "sensitive" Israeli military areas "in a manner that aroused suspicion and concern," it noted that Israeli jets "approached the plane and instructed it to land in accordance with international regulations. When the plane took no notice of the instructions and the warning shots that were fired, it was intercepted by Israeli planes. The hit plane landed inside Sinai 20 kilometers andcrashed." (italics added). It was a deft exercise in conveying the idea that the plane had been shot down without describing specifically just how it had happened.
Not so vague, however, were the Soviet-style statements by Israeli officials in which they refused to concede that Israel was in any way to blame. Prime Minister Golda Meir, still referring to the incident, as the communiqué did, as a "crash," commented that in any case the French pilot was entirely to blame, because he "did not respond to the repeated warnings that were given in accordance with international procedure." Transportation Minister Shimon Peres indicated his belief that the question of whether the plane made an innocent incursion or not was irrelevant. "There are international principles regarding the penetration of air space of another country whether deliberately or by error," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, Israel acted in accordance with those procedures."
Dayan Talks Tough
The next day, while Egypt was insisting that the pilot had had an instrument failure and had thought he was over Egyptian territory—and after a surviving crewman claimed there had been no warning shots—Israel's attitude stiffened even further. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan announced that the decision for Israeli fighter planes to fire at the airliner had been taken at the military level, that he had not been consulted, but that he had reviewed the decision made and found no fault with it. He denied that there was any need at all for a formal inquiry.
Sounding every bit like one of the Soviet generals who have defended the attack on the Korean plane, General Dayan added that if he had been a pilot of one of the Israeli planes, "I certainly would have been suspicious of the pilot's intention when he failed to heed warnings and elected—for whatever reason—to risk the lives of all his passengers rather than to follow the instructions to land ... I haven't the slightest doubt that the captain heard the order to land and understood it. I don't like to blame a dead man for what happened, but he is the only one to be blamed."
Two days later, on February 24, General Dayan's case fell apart completely when the discovery of the "black box" containing records of the pilot's conversations with Cairo's control tower revealed that the Egyptian version of what had happened was the right one. In a new communique, Israel conceded that the pilot of the plane had "apparently thought that the plane was flying in Egyptian skies. When the Israeli planes appeared, the pilot thought that those were Egyptian MIGs circling around the plane." There was no conclusive evidence in the black box that any warning shots had been fired, or that if they had, the crew of the plane had heard them.
General Dayan then made the first acknowledgment by any Israeli leader that Israel might bear at least a tiny part of the responsibility for the incident—although no more than a tiny part. The acknowledgment came in rather a backhanded way, as he announced why Israel would refuse to pay any compensation to the victims. His explanation: "In this case, we erred—under the most difficult of circumstances—but that does not put us on the guilty side."
The next day, February 25, Israel's government changed its mind about the compensation—but not about the guilt. It announced it would pay compensation voluntarily, out of "humanitarian considerations"—but that it had determined that the Israeli airforce had acted "in strict compliance with international law" in firing on the airliner.
The Israeli public appears to have acted pretty much as the Russian man-in-the-street has, in accepting its government's view that the Israeli air force had had no alternative. Terence Smith, the highly respected Israel bureau chief of The New York Times during that period, reported from Jerusalem on February 24, three days after the attack, that although most Israelis "seemed genuinely to regret the incident, few if any would accept Israeli responsibility for the loss of innocent lives. Rather, they seemed to regard the downing of the airliner as justifiable."