The Coastal Road massacre of 1978 was an attack involving the hijacking of a bus on Israel's Coastal Highway in which 38 Israelis, including 13 children, were killed, and 71 were wounded. The attack was planned by Abu Jihad and carried out by the PLO faction Fatah. The plan was to seize a luxury hotel in Tel Aviv and take tourists and foreign ambassadors hostage in order to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
According to a Fatah commander who had helped to plan the attack, the timing was aimed at scuppering the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat and damaging tourism in Israel. However, due to a navigation error, the attackers ended up 40 miles (64 km) north of their target, and were forced to find alternative transportation to their destination.
Time magazine characterized it as "the worst terrorist attack in Israel's history." Fatah called the hijacking "Operation of the Martyr Kamal Adwan", after the PLO chief of operations killed in the Israeli commando raid on Beirut in April 1973. In response, the Israeli military forces launched Operation Litani against PLO bases in Lebanon three days later.
On 9 March 1978, 13 Palestinian fedayeen from Fatah, including Dalal Mughrabi, left Lebanon on a boat headed for the Israeli coastline. They were equipped with Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, light mortars and high explosives. On 11 March, they transferred to two Zodiac boats and headed towards the shore. One of the Zodiacs capsized in the rough weather, and two of the militants drowned, but the surviving 11 carried on with their mission.
The terrorists landed on a beach near the kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, north of Tel Aviv. They met American photographer Gail Rubin, who was taking nature photographs on the beach, and asked her where they were. After she told them, they killed her. Both surviving attackers said that Mughrabi shot Rubin, who was a niece of United States Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff.
The remains of the hijacked bus on display
They then walked less than a mile up to the four-lane highway, opened fire at passing cars, and hijacked a white Mercedes taxi, killing its occupants. Setting off down the highway toward Tel Aviv, they hijacked a chartered bus carrying Egged bus drivers and their families on a day outing, along the Coastal Highway. During the ride, the militants shot and threw grenades at passing cars, shot at the passengers and threw at least one body out of the bus. At one point they commandeered Bus 901, traveling from Tel Aviv to Haifa, and forced the passengers from the first bus to board it.
At one point, the bus stopped, and one of the perpetrators got out and fired directly into a passing car, killing a teenager, Omri Tel-Oren, and injuring his father Hanoch. Sharon Tel-Oren, Omri's mother, testified: "We were in our station wagon, driving along the coastal highway. We saw something odd ahead – a bus, but it seemed to be stopped. Then we saw someone lying on the road. There was shattered glass all over, children screaming. Then we heard the gunshots. Omri was asleep in the back seat. The bullet passed through the front seat and hit his head, killing him instantly. My husband was shot in the arm, and lost the movement in his fingers."
Police were alerted to the attack; their cars caught up to the bus and trailed it. Although the militants fired at the pursuing police cars, policemen did not return fire, fearing they would hit the civilians inside the bus. Police quickly set up a roadblock, but the militants plowed the bus through it and continued their journey. According to Khaled Abu Asba, one of the two surviving attackers, police set up multiple roadblocks, and there was an exchange of fire at every intersection.
Standoff at the Glilot Junction
The bus was finally stopped by a large police roadblock set up at the Glilot Junction near Herzliya, which included nails planted on the road to puncture the bus' tires. Due to the speed at which the attack was transpiring, Israeli counter-terrorism squads had been unable to mobilize quickly enough, and the roadblock was manned by ordinary patrolmen and traffic policemen, who were lightly armed in comparison to the militants and untrained in dealing with hostage situations. A firefight erupted, and police broke the bus' windows and yelled at passengers to jump.
Escaping passengers were shot at by one of the militants. According to the Israeli police, Assaf Hefetz, then head of the Israeli Police counter-terrorism unit, arrived at the scene before his unit, and stormed the bus, killing two militants. Hefetz sustained a shoulder injury during the battle, and was later awarded the Israeli Police Medal of Courage.
The battle reached its climax when the bus exploded and burst into flames. The explosion may have been set off by a burning fuel tank, or by grenades. The Palestinians claimed that the Israelis destroyed the bus with fire from helicopter gunships.
A total of 38 civilians were killed in the attack, including 13 children, while 71 others were wounded. Of the 11 perpetrators, 9 were killed.
The PLO claimed responsibility for the attack, which was perpetrated by eleven Palestinians, including Dalal Mughrabi.
One motive for the attack from the PLO was to derail Egypt-Israel peace talks. In October 1976, Egypt, the PLO, and Syria were back in contact with each other, though temporarily, under Saudi auspices, at the Riyadh conference that year. In 1977 "...the United States appeared anxious to coordinate Arab approval of a Geneva peace conference, as well as the presence there of Palestinians, and most important, the cooperation of the Soviet Union."
Both the Egyptians and the Israelis were opposed to the possibility of a political settlement which would have the effect of uniting the Arabs with the Palestinians or the two superpowers against Israel. "No less than Israelis, therefore, Sadat opposed the join US–USSR statement of October 1977. Not only did the statement put the Palestinian question on a par with the return of Egyptian territory, it almost meant a clear victory for Syrian pan-Arabism."
The US–USSR joint statement state the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be based on: "an Israeli withdrawal from 'occupied territories' in 1967; the resolution of the Palestinian question, including insuring the 'legitimate rights' of the Palestinian people; the termination of the state of war; and the establishment of normal peaceful relations on the basis of mutual recognition of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence."
Ultimately, America opted for an Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty as Anwar Sadat made a visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. In that treaty "the first item dropped was the question of Palestine as it had evolved through the United Nations; after that the US–USSR statement, and agreed upon Palestinian representation at the Geneva conference, were also dropped.". Anwar Sadat's main concern was the territory of Sinai to be returned to Egypt from Israel.
- Involved parties
- Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin stated in a press conference that Israel "shall not forget the carnage" and added that "there was no need of this outrage to understand that a Palestinian state would be a mortal danger to our nation and our people."
- The PLO official stated that "the operation stems from the firm belief of Fatah in the necessity of carrying on the armed struggle against the Zionist enemy within the occupied land."
- Egypt: Egyptian president Anwar Sadat condemned the attack as "an irresponsible action" and indirectly appealed to Israel not to strike back.
- United States: US president Jimmy Carter released a statement saying the attack was "an outrageous act of lawlessness and senseless brutality. Criminal acts such as this advance no cause or political belief. They inspire only revulsion at the lack of respect for innocent human life."
The two surviving perpetrators, Khaled Abu Asba and Hussein Fayyad, were arrested and tried in an Israeli military court in Lod. They were charged with 10 counts of firing at people, two counts of placing and detonating explosives, and one count of membership in a hostile organization. Their trial opened on 9 August 1979. The trial was presided over by Judge Colonel Aharon Kolperin. The chief prosecutor was Amnon Straschnov, while Abu Asba and Fayyad were represented by defense lawyer Leah Tsemel. On 23 October 1979, they were convicted on all 13 charges. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, and spent seven years in prison before being released in the 1985 Jibril Agreement.
In a statement to the press the following day, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin stated, "They came here to kill Jews. They intended to take hostages and threatened, as the leaflet they left said, to kill all of them if we did not surrender to their demands.... We shall not forget. And I can only call upon other nations not to forget that Nazi atrocity that was perpetrated upon our people yesterday."
Speaking to the Knesset on 13 March, Begin said, "Gone forever are the days when Jewish blood could be shed with impunity. Let it be known: Those who shed innocent blood shall not go unpunished. We shall defend our citizens, our women, our children. We shall sever the arm of iniquity."
On 15 March, three days after the massacre, Israel launched Operation Litani against PLO bases in southern Lebanon. The IDF spokesman stated, "The objective of the operation is not retaliation for the terrorists' crimes, for there can be no retaliation for the murder of innocent men, women and children – but to protect the state of Israel and its citizens from incursions of members of the Fatah and PLO, who use Lebanese territory in order to attack citizens of Israel."
According to Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University, the IDF military operation killed approximately 1,100 people, most of them Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
Palestinian glorification of hijackers
Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli NGO that monitors antisemitism and support for terrorism in Palestinian society, has cited examples of Palestinian media that regard Dalal Mughrabi as a heroine and role model. A Hebron girls' school was briefly named in honor of Mughrabi but the name was changed after it emerged that USAID was funding the school. Her name has also been given to summer camps and both police and military courses. In February 2011 Palestinian Media Watch exposed a pan-Arab feminist media campaign promoting Mughrabi as a role model for women in the Arab world.
During the 2008 Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap, Israel intended to transfer her body to Hezbollah, however DNA testing showed that it was not among the exhumed corpses.
Several locations under Palestinian Authority control have been named after Mughrabi.
Palestinian Media Watch reported that, in January 2012, official Palestinian Authority television, which is under the control of PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, rebroadcast a music video glorifying the attack. The words of the clip included: "We [PLO squad] set out on patrol from Lebanon; with no fear of death or the darkness of prison. On the coast [Dalal] Mughrabi's blood was shed, the color of [red] coral on [white] lemon flowers."
In 2011, a summer camp "which took place under the auspices of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad" divided the children into three groups named after militants, and one group was named for Mughrabi.
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