JERUSALEM — The Israeli government expressed "shock and outrage" Friday over the terrorist attacks against passengers of El Al and other airlines at Rome and Vienna airports, and senior officials vowed reprisals against the Palestinians, whom they charge were responsible.
The Israeli reaction came at a moment when the country is already involved in a tense new military confrontation with Syria, involving deployment by Damascus of surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier.
Israel sees Syria as a major supporter of Palestinian terrorism, raising concern here that an Israeli retaliation for Friday's airport attacks could lead to a clash with its most powerful Arab antagonist.
'I Don't Know How'
"I can tell you only one thing: we are going to react," a senior government source said. "I don't know where; I don't know when; I don't know how. But we will not let it (the airport attacks) go unpunished."
Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly discussed the incidents at dinner Friday, and senior officials were expected to review their options at a Cabinet meeting Sunday.
Israel's most recent retaliation for a terrorist attack was last Oct. 1 when its warplanes bombed Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters on the outskirts of Tunis, Tunisia, killing at least 73 people. The surprise raid, Israel's longest-range air strike ever, was in response to the murder of three Israeli yachtsmen six days earlier in Larnaca, Cyprus by pro-Palestinian terrorists.
"Generally speaking, our policy is not so much to make reprisals, but to wage a war on terrorism," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. "And we have always made that point--that we cannot just sit by passively in the face of terrorism. Especially we try to take deterrent action to prevent further terrorism. It's not just a simple tit-for-tat affair; it's more than that."
Calling Friday's attacks a "shocking slaughter," Peres pledged to defend Israeli citizens at home and abroad. And Deputy Prime Minister David Levy promised that "Israel will do its duty. This organization will not get away without punishment."
While saying that they still had insufficient information Friday night to identify those responsible for what appeared to be well-planned and coordinated airport attacks, several Israeli officials blamed the Palestinians.
The attacks should "remind anyone who has either forgotten or ignored the fact that the Palestinian terrorist organizations have not quit and are trying to reach us and harm us wherever they can," said Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Expulsion of PLO Aides Urged
While not explicitly blaming the PLO, an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement on the attacks called "on all countries which give shelter and support to the PLO to immediately expel all representatives of that organization."
PLO spokesmen in Tunis and Rome denied that the organization was involved and condemned the attacks.
In Malaga, Spain, an anonymous caller to a local radio station claimed responsibility for the "Abu Nidal group," which broke away from the PLO mainstream in the 1970s. The group, originally calling itself Black June and now generally known as the Revolutionary Council of Fatah, has been blamed for many attacks on Israelis and PLO moderates in Europe.
A senior Israeli military source said its leader, Abu Nidal, is one of the most extreme of the Palestinian leaders, operating as "a sort of hired killer for various Arab governments." Abu Nidal was reported to have died of a heart attack in November, 1984, but has since been reported alive.
In London, Alan Hart, a specialist on Palestinian affairs and a biographer of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, called Abu Nidal "the most vicious killer on the Palestinian side."
'Most Ruthless Opponent'
Speaking on a radio interview program, Hart added: "He's schizophrenic. . . . He's been Arafat's most ruthless opponent since 1974, totally opposed to any compromise with Israel which Arafat has been steadily plodding his way to." Abu Nidal's group has been blamed for a 1982 attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris in which six people died. The Israeli military source said Friday that evidence also points to the group as responsible for last month's hijacking of an EgyptAir jetliner to Malta.
Abu Nidal, who was born Sabri Banna, has been supported by both Iraq and Syria but was reportedly expelled from Baghdad two years ago. If he is still alive, he is now considered closest to Damascus.
Tensions between Israel and Syria are already high in the wake of the shooting down by Israeli fighters on Nov. 19 of two Syrian warplanes and by Syria's subsequent positioning of surface-to-air missiles in and around Lebanon, challenging Israel's claim to "freedom of the skies" over southern Lebanon.
In their reactions to Friday's airport attacks, Israeli officials commented on the fact that the targets were located in Italy and Austria.
"It's ironic that these attacks were made in the countries of (Italian Prime Minister Bettino) Craxi and (former Austrian Chancellor Bruno) Kreisky," said Defense Minister Rabin. The two leaders are among those who have been most supportive of the PLO, Rabin said, "believing naively and strangely that they (the PLO) can be partners for the peace process" in the Middle East.
Israel contends that any political support of Palestinian organizations amounts to what one official described Friday as "leniency and appeasement toward terrorism"--attitudes which "only encourage terrorism."
Hart noted that the Austrian and Italian governments were the two best friends of Arafat and the PLO in Europe by giving it the most moral support.
"So if you're seeking to discredit Arafat, as I believe the controllers of this operation are, then it makes sense to discredit them in these two places in particular."