Israel’s late notorious politician Ariel Sharon had ordered, during his time as the defense minister in the 1980s, Israeli fighter jets to shoot down passenger planes suspected of carrying Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestinian Liberation organization, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman has claimed.
“The air force drew up a detailed plan. They found a spot over the Mediterranean where there was commercial air traffic but no continuous radar coverage by any nation and where the sea below was three miles deep, making a salvage operation extremely difficult, perhaps impossible,” Bergman wrote in a detailed article for the New York Times about his new book.
In “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” the journalist discusses in length the Israeli army’s special taskforce set up to assassinate Arafat during the 1980s when the Palestinian leader was leading the armed struggle against the young state from Lebanon.
“When [Israel’s intelligence agency] Mossad reported that Arafat was flying more commercial flights, with [the PLO] often buying the entire first-class or business-class cabin for him and his aides, Sharon decided that such flights would be legitimate targets,” Bergman claims.
The journalist reports that the targeting of commercial planes was pushed for as a strategy after Israel almost shot down a transport jet flying from Athens to Cairo in 1982, when the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad believed that Arafat was on board.
The plane was also carrying 30 wounded Palestinian children, survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre that killed more than 700 Palestinian refugees and was carried out by Lebanese Christian right-wing militias under the orders of the Israeli army commanded by Sharon.
“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,” Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, then-Sharon's chief of staff stressed to the pilots as the plane took off from Athens, according to Bergman.
The strike never took place as the man Mossad suspected of being Arafat was most likely his younger brother, he added.
After that close call, the army employed four F-16s and F-15s to target commercial planes in case Arafat was spotted in the period between November 1982 and January 1983, according to the investigative journalist. 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," he writes in the New York Times.
Several planes were potential targets but the strikes were never carried out by army commanders who disagreed with Sharon’s plan but did not “dare to stand up to him,” according to comments by then-air force operations chief Aviem Sella made to Bergman.
Therefore, the commanders decided to make it technically impossible to carry out the strikes in an attempt to avoid ruining “the state internationally if it were known that we downed a civilian airliner,” as former brigadier general Amos Gilboa told the journalist.