ATbar Palestinian Terrorism: 1968-1978

Palestinian Terrorism: 1968-1978

15/04/2008 | by Yaffe, Aharon (Dr.)  


The decade between 1968 and 1978 was a peak of international terror activity, of the number of operations, a choice of goals, of daring and imagination, of high level involvement in terrorist activity and in resource allocation.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization, commonly known as the PLO, was founded on January 1st 1965, marking its first operation. On that day, the terrorist Mahmud Hijazi was caught having placed a small demolition charge at the National Water Carrier conduit in the Galilee. It took terrorist organizations three years of preparations, until they were fully integrated in the international terror scene.

During these three years the Palestinians established a worldwide network of terror bases, aided by local terror organizations, especially in Europe. They were busy training terrorists, collecting weapons and explosives and hiding them. In addition, they collected intelligence in preparation of a series of terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. These terror operations were aimed at the following goals:

  1. Making the Palestinian cause known worldwide
  2. Disturbing air and sea traffic to and from Israel
  3. Spreading fear and confusion in Israeli and Jewish offices and institutions worldwide
  4. Disturbing Israeli tourism and the Israeli economy, thus hurting Israel's image – following the 1967 war - as a strong and winning country
  5. Isolating the State of Israel and its institutions; making it a "leper" nation

These targets are well integrated in the definition of terror and demonstrate that terror is "a type of violent struggle… in order to achieve political goals"[1]

Over the years, there was a change in the type of targets, from civilian and defenseless, to the execution of operations against military targets in the Jordan Valley.

International Palestinian terrorism stepped forward, further than the operations at the Jordan Valley, the southern front or along the northern Syrian border. After the Palestinians were badly defeated by the Jordanian army, during Black September of 1970, they moved their terrorist operations into Lebanon and the northern border. The terrorists expanded their arena to the sea (killing the Haran family, father and children in the northern city of Nahariya, the act in which the famous Samir Kuntar was caught) and later on to air operations. In conclusion, Palestinian terror organizations tried their luck at every possible arena. Nevertheless, air attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad received maximum media exposure and served the Palestinians most effectively.

This article will sum up Palestinian acts of terror between the years 1968-1978. The main criteria in which these acts will be analyzed are the geographical location of each act and the number of casualties caused by the aggressor.

Nonetheless no terror attack will be analyzed according to its effect on the political point of view and its psychological effect on public opinion and decision makers, although that was indeed the main goal and success of a terror attack.

The article will focus on the ways the State of Israel used to defeat Palestinian terror abroad, utilizing its excellent intelligence services in cooperation with other western services. The war against terror involved a discrete and tough pursuit of leaders, operators and the infrastructure they established, and setting up special and sophisticated passive defense data apparatuses.

Palestinian Terror Features

Examining Palestinian struggle, over the past 40 years, in retrospect, and in comparison with the results of Palestinian terror abroad, one may honestly conclude that Palestinians have achieved most of their goals through terrorism. Their most important success has been the establishment of an autonomic entity in Gaza and parts of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Terror has brought the Palestinian issue to the table of decision makers at the UN, in Europe and America. This fact should not be underestimated, as other minorities struggling at the same time, failed, i.e. the Kurds, the Basques and Tupamaros in South America and others. Nevertheless, Palestinian inability to go through the required change from terror organizations and urban guerilla into administering a state by accepted political means, has left the "Palestinian Issue" as a bleeding wound and as an island of instability in the Middle East. The most troublesome problem in Palestinian history today seems to be - despite the short historical perspective - Arafat's denial of President Clinton's and PM Barak's proposals in Camp David in 2000, a denial which brought about the eruption of the 2nd Intifada (Uprising). The series of murderous suicide attacks, which characterized this Intifada, stirred repulsion towards the terror phenomenon among the liberal world. It was seen as similar to Al Qaeda terror, and the terror initiated by the "axis of evil" nations, i.e. Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea.

Table 1: Terror Organizations and number of Operations 1968-1978


Black Sept.
Habash Front
Gibril Front
Black June
National Arab Youth
Khawatme Front
Abu Nidal
Bader Meinhoff
South Lebanon Sons
Jordanian Liberation Movement
Turkish Liberation Army
Red Army
Popular Struggle Front
Wadi'a Hadad

A major characteristic of Palestinian terrorism has been its numerous organizations and lack of a united front. According to available information ten Palestinian organizations have been active in the collaboration of six international organizations. This group of international organizations, whose interests were other than Israel, joined the Palestinian organizational front. This activity was later named "International Terror".

The first organization to act internationally was the George Habash front. This organization carried out the first seven acts of terror, from hijacking an El-Al plane on July 29th, 1968, to placing demolition charges in two Marks & Spencer department stores in London on August 18th, 1968. Later on other organizations entered the arena of terror, but until December 1969 the George Habash front was the most active and thus the dominant leading organization.

According to table 1 George Habash front and PLO/Black September performed altogether 91 acts, compared with other organizations, which performed 45 acts of terror. That means that 2/3 of all acts were performed by these two organizations only. Their modus operandi was more violent, more complex, requiring many operators, more up-to-date intelligence, and better organized home front logistics. For example, George Habash organization attacked and hijacked four planes during its first 13 months of international operations. This fact alone demonstrates, more than anything else, its operational capacity, its determination and the available infrastructure.

Palestinian Terror Targets

As stated above, Palestinian terror focused mostly on Israeli and Jewish targets in Israel and Western Europe. 117 acts of terror were directed at those regions, compared with 83 acts elsewhere. Since the bases of terror organizations were in Arab countries, where Palestinian refugee camps were located, naturally part of the acts started or ended on Arab land (i.e. 28 acts).

Table 2: Targets of Palestinian Terror 1968-1978

Central Europe
Australia & North America
Cyprus, Turkey
South America & Africa
Arab Countries
Western Europe

The table demonstrates, surprisingly, that Israel was not the main arena of terror activity. Israel was wise enough to set up effective defense systems, to station security units at international airports, at El Al counters abroad, at sea ports, Israeli embassies and other "sensitive" locations. Following the hijacking to Algiers of an El Al plane, Israeli government decided to set up an air security unit, staffed by highly trained Air marshals, thus turning the national airline into the safest of all airlines. Thereafter, until 1978, "only" five terror acts were successfully executed within Israel borders. Nevertheless, some of them were hard and painful. The most outstanding was the terror attack performed by three Japanese Red Army activists, on May 30th 1972. The three, among them Kozo Okamoto, took an Air France flight from Paris to Tel Aviv. Upon landing they picked up a suitcase loaded with weapons and hand grenades from the luggage conveyor. They fired indiscriminately killing 28 passengers and wounding 74. Two of the terrorists committed suicide when their ammunition ran out. Kozo Okamoto was caught, tried and imprisoned. He was released on May 21st, 1985, in what was termed the "Gibril Deal".

A few questions are left unanswered: What has happened to the terrorists? Under whose auspices did they act and what was their political back up? Had their sponsor promised to rescue them, had they been caught? Had operation planners considered activists' chances of a safe return possible? (If so, the motivation to act would have been much greater).

Abundant data reveals that out of 91 terrorists, only 10 were killed or wounded in action, 34 were caught and imprisoned, and the remaining 17 fled. Nevertheless, those caught and imprisoned were later released due to organizational pressure and due to prisoner exchange bargaining. This "soft", forgiving attitude was typical to most European countries, which, as we can now determine, stemmed from an understanding European governments reached. According to their belief, the agreement would prevent future terrorist attacks on European soil.

Syria and Turkey's handling of terrorists was exceptional. Syria has executed three terrorists who, in September 1976, attacked the Semiramis Hotel, killing and wounding guests. Syria has made a turnaround since then, which one can see from the terror bases stationed on Syrian territory. Turkey, where two terrorists attacked El Al plane on August 1976, is another exception. The terrorists were caught and imprisoned for life.

Israel's consistent policy was put to trial on several occasions. The most famous example was at the Air France plane hijacking and the subsequent heroic operation at Entebbe, where the IDF successfully released kidnapped passengers. This policy stated that Israel will firmly resist terror and will not surrender to terrorist demands or blackmail. According to the policy, any terrorist wishing to hit an Israeli or Jewish target will be pursued by Israel's agents relentlessly everywhere.

Table 3: Fate of Terror Activists Abroad

Not Caught
Caught, but not Imprisoned
Caught & Imprisoned

Palestinian Terror – Landmarks

From their establishment, Palestinian terror organizations needed three years until the start of their terror activity abroad. Their modus operandi abroad was usually turning to Palestinian immigrants, well integrated in foreign countries, and recruiting them to terror activity. This method saved them time, resources, documentation preparation and setting up a local network of assistants, well integrated in their environment.

From the moment the cycle of international terror began, the number of terror acts increased dramatically due to the following reasons: 

  1. The international echo resounding from these terror acts. International terror is attractive and "shoots" better on television screens and on important newspapers worldwide. This echo has carried the Palestinian plea to every home in the west. 
  2. The international atmosphere prevailing in the 60s-70s was sympathetic to "Freedom Fighters". Attacks on "capitalist" targets, identified with Israel by radical organizations and other "oppressed" minorities, were treated favorably. These were the years of the massive demonstrations in the US against the Vietnam War, student demonstrations in France led by anarchist Danny Bendit, "Danny the Red" and the Bader Meinhoff gang in Germany.
  3. The confusion, helplessness and lack of coordination among intelligence services in the West, facing ever increasing terror activities, was supported by the communist Eastern European intelligence services. 
  4. Palestinian organizations' preference of "glamorous" and "awesome" acts over routine frustrating guerilla acts, trying to penetrate into Israel's "sealed" borders.

There are several landmarks of Palestinian terrorism. Such a landmark was September 1970, named "Black September". On September 6th 1970, three planes were hijacked, in a well coordinated operation. One was exploded in Cairo, the other two flown to Zarka, Jordan.  This was considered an impressive achievement for the hijackers. All their demands were met and their imprisoned friends in European prisons were released as per their demand. King Hussein of Jordan was afraid he might lose control over his country; therefore he initiated a major organized military operation, attacking bases located in the Palestinian refugee camps. Various sources state that over 5,000 Palestinians were killed in September 1970.

Once their camps were destroyed, Palestinian organizations were forced to search for locations for new bases. They founded new bases in refugee camps in southern Lebanon. Before the establishment of bases in the refugee camps, Lebanon was a western-like country, its economy based on international trade, tourism (mainly rich Saudis who came to vacation and misbehave) and international banking. Its common border with Israel was calm and life in southern Lebanon was tranquil. Palestinian penetration into southern Lebanon turned it into a base of their operations for the various Palestinian factions; it created a new reality of a state within a state, undermining the social order between the various minorities. This was followed by an intervention by its brutal neighbor to the east and brought a crisis upon Lebanon, one it has not recovered from to this day. The relocation of Palestinian organizations' bases in Lebanon brought about an increase of terror attacks abroad. Between the years 1971-1972 the number of terror acts increased by 100%. In 1973 the number of acts increased by 33%.

Another landmark was the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The outcome of the war reduced the number of attacks considerably from 40 acts in 1973, to 14 in 1974 and only 8 in 1975. The Middle East went through a tantalizing shock as a result of the war, a shock so great, - not only in military terms – that it reduced the motivation of actitvists to commit terror.

Nevertheless, the most outstanding landmark, for international public opinion and the moral effect on terror organizations and their supporters, was the hijacking of the Air France plane and the Entebbe IDF rescue mission on the 3rd-4th of July 1976. The government of Israel decided not to surrender to terrorist demands; therefore commando troops (Sa'yeret Matkal) were flown thousands of kilometers away from Israel, to perform a dramatic rescue operation of unprecedented scope. That operation proved Israel's ability to defeat terror anywhere, even if far away and on hostile foreign land. This ability was a result of political determination, utilization of superb special forces, superior intelligence, imagination and boldness.

Ever since that heroic operation, the IDF and other security forces have weakened and have not been able to re-exhibit such skills (such as the Nachshon Wachsman rescue attempt on October 14th 1994). It seems that risk taking, daring and determination are long gone.

The Entebbe Operation became a model operation for other countries. For example Germany set up a special unit to combat terror, a unit which proved effective during the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane on October 13th, 1977. The plane was hijacked by four terrorists, all members of the Bader-Meinhoff gang. The plane was then flown to Mogadishu, Somalia - in East Africa. The special German unit, called GSG-9, was a commando unit trained to combat terror and plane hijackers. The unit landed secretly at Mogadishu airport on October 17th, and in less than an hour broke into the plane and took control of it by killing three hijackers and wounding the fourth. This brilliant operation, versus the failure of the German forces dealing with the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, September 5th 1972, has not ceased to reverberate till today.

Other countries copied the Israeli modi operandi, employing security forces on all air lines, especially the US Airport Authorities, which experienced many incidents of hijacking planes into Cuba. Indeed, since the Entebbe Operation, we have seen a gradual decrease in terror acts in the air, due to the presence of security guards on board. The number of acts has decreased, and the airlines, prone to hijacking, have invested great resources into screening passengers, installing x-ray systems for luggage and in stationing armed guards on ground and on board. This gamut of air security was put to test once again on September 11, 2001. It was a test that air security did not pass. Faced with the failure, a revolution in air transportation was obligatory.

Table 4: Air Terror Acts by Year



International Palestinian terror did not cease in 1978, and not following the Lebanon War, in June 1982, in which the PLO was expelled from Lebanon. The change was due to a decreased involvement of Palestinian organizations in international terror.

This involvement has decreased gradually, as a result of the relentless war the State of Israel has waged against terror organizations in European capitals and of IDF raids into Lebanon; and afterwards into Tunis - such as the "Teshura" (Present) operation, December 1969, in which IDF forces, led by s. brigadier Rafael Eitan, raided Beirut airport, destroying 14 planes of Arab airlines.

Another operation was "Spring of Youth", led by unit commander Ehud Barak (later chief of staff and Prime Minister), on the night of 9- 10 of April, 1973. Special IDF forces killed three PLO top leaders, surprising them in their headquarters and homes.

El Al airplanes in Israel and worldwide have been protected by several lines of security, as a result of the terror attack by Kozo Okamoto and his partners. Armed guards have been stationed on board. Local police reinforced themselves following the growing collaboration between the forces and ongoing accumulation of classified intelligence on suspects. 

According to foreign sources, armed guards have been stationed on Israeli vessels, following the murderous attack on the passenger ship "Achille Lauro". The ship, sailing in the Mediterranean, was kidnapped by Abu-Abbas –led Palestinian terrorists, on October 7th, 1985.  The wheelchair-bound passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was executed on the ship because he was Jewish. This attack brought about the armoring of western passenger ships, sailing on "prone to attack" lines.

Foreign sources state that armed guards have been stationed overseas, protecting Israeli diplomats. Israeli embassies have been equipped with new security devices, following the terrorist seizure of the Embassy of Israel in Bangkok, on December 28th, 1972, by the Black September organization. 

Still, the greatest influence on the defeat of international Palestinian terror was a cabinet decision (X Committee) under PM Golda Meir, to act against international Palestinian terror, utilizing special secret agents of the Mossad, the Israel Secret Intelligence Secret Service. Following the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, the Mossad had started to operate the Kidon (Spear) unit. The unit's mission was to search for terrorist leaders and commanders. Within several months most of the participants in the Munich attack were eliminated, either by gunshot or explosives. Concurrently a fierce manhunt was conducted against leaders and initiators of terror operations overseas. Despite a few mishaps, such as the erroneous identification of Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bushiki as a terrorist in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer, and the arrest of Mossad members of the secret unit, the chase has never ceased. Norway, like most European countries, understood the vital role of the unit in the prevention of international terror, and therefore treated the captured men accordingly, i.e. not too severely. Other operational failures were the assassinations of Baruch Ofir, a Mossad man in Madrid and of deputy brigadier Yoseph (Jo) Alon, the air force attaché in Washington. The assassins were never caught. 

Dozens of Palestinian terror leaders were eliminated abroad by the Mossad, exposing their infrastructure. Even if some activists were replaced, local authorities were no longer light and forgiving, thus disabling them and deterring them from committing any big scale operations.

This article described the numerous defensive and offensive means used by the State of Israel in the war it has waged against international terror. Another mean has been the collection of information, a source shared with foreign intelligence security services, which collaborated in combating terror. A profile of a prototype terrorist has been drawn for the use of border police and security officers. The profile is used especially during airport and international border checks. Terror traffic has subsided due to constant watch, the exposure and arrests of suspects.

Elaborated computerization has enabled watching traffic and made identifying forged documentation easier. Alerts, pictures and documents are transmitted online by intelligence services to border control terminals within seconds. The more sophisticated intelligence services get, the more familiar with terrorist modus operandi they get. Lamentably, this leads to the terrorist modus operandi becoming more sophisticated terrorist. Advanced technology has been leaking to the private sector, making the route to terrorist states and organizations much shorter. The influence of these organizations has been growing steadily, and the leading groups are affiliated with Al Qaeda. The threats of international terror have become more massive and more concrete, especially since the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon Headquarters in Washington. Israel is facing a more sophisticated terror front: better equipped and strategically supported by Iran and Syria. Hizballa on the north, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad elsewhere have become a strategic threat, making the adoption of versatile new ways and tactics obligatory, but with the same determination that has characterized the State of Israel in the past.

[1] As was defined by Boaz Ganor in his book "The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers, The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, 2003 p. 203