AROER, Israel — Three Arab gunmen demanding freedom for Palestinian prisoners took over a passenger bus near here Monday, killing one Israeli man in cold blood before a special police anti-terrorist unit stormed the vehicle and shot the hijackers to death. Two more Israelis, both women, were killed--apparently during the rescue attempt--and eight other women passengers were wounded.
The incident marked the first Israeli deaths after nearly three months of unrest in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was also the first known example of classical terrorist tactics against Israeli civilians since the trouble began.
Impact on Peace Hopes
The attack was seen here as likely to have a major impact on perceptions of the Palestinian uprising, the internal Israeli political situation and prospects for the latest U.S. Middle East peace plan.
Israel Television reported Monday night that its radio monitor heard a broadcast from Baghdad, Iraq, in which the dominant Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed responsibility for the hijacking. The Associated Press reported a similar claim in a PLO statement released in Nicosia, Cyprus.
The army said the three hijackers, armed with automatic weapons, had apparently infiltrated from Egypt. Speaking to reporters where the bus was stormed Monday morning, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, who commanded the combined Israeli army and police action, said one of the slain terrorists carried documents indicating that he was from the Egyptian half of the divided city of Rafah. The northern part of the town is in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.
Blast of a Grenade
According to accounts by the army and witnesses, the four-hour hijacking drama, which ended in the blast of a stun grenade and a 40-second blaze of police gunfire, began about 30 miles south of here in treeless, high-desert terrain known as Ramat Nafha.
The youthful gunmen, who apparently slipped across the border overnight, spotted a white Renault headed north near Ramat Nafha early Monday. Four soldiers inside were reportedly heading, unarmed, from their nearby military base to a special physical training exercise.
When the Arabs opened fire on their car, the soldiers fled. The infiltrators took over the vehicle about 6:30 a.m. and drove north, turning west on the main road linking Beersheba with Dimona, site of Israel's highly secretive nuclear facility.
They fired on at least two other vehicles, including a semi-trailer and a mini-van carrying four schoolteachers. Mira Friedman, one of the teachers, said she saw only one of the three, describing him in an Israel Radio interview as young, slight and wearing what appeared to be army fatigues. The teachers escaped when the driver of their van accelerated toward the firing gunmen and they ran, Friedman said.
The bus, filled with workers headed toward their jobs at the Dimona nuclear facility, came upon the semi-trailer, which was stopped in the highway. "Next to it were two men with weapons shooting towards the truck," the bus driver, who was identified only as "Zvika," told Israel Television.
"I stopped. I couldn't turn around because there was a cliff," the driver said. "The moment he caught sight of me, one of the terrorists ran toward me and started shooting at my bus. I let off the passengers immediately, as much as could get away, and we started running. . . . Then he (the terrorist) went on the bus and took over."
It was about 8 a.m.
11 Remain on Board
Eleven passengers remained on board--10 women and a man who had been unable to escape.
"We saw three terrorists in the bus," related a distraught Stella Bechar, a wounded survivor of the incident interviewed from her hospital bed on Israel Television. "They were very young. One had a mustache. They said to us: 'Sit quietly and we won't harm you.' We told each other: 'Don't do anything foolish.' One of them said he was thirsty, so we gave them milk. We said to them: 'We're mothers. What do you want from us?' "
As the terrorists held their captives, Israeli police and army units, alerted when the soldiers whose car was stolen reported the incident, closed in on the site near the tiny, hilltop Bedouin village of Aroer. Mordechai said he tried to negotiate with the men. "We made every effort to both relax them and to promise them that negotiations may bring results," he said.
The men demanded to see a representative of the Red Cross and asked for a megaphone. But their main demand was the release of all Palestinians imprisoned as a result of the uprising in the occupied territories.
They set a 30-minute deadline for the Red Cross representative to appear and warned that they would then start killing hostages. As the time limit neared, they began shooting out the bus windows facing the Israeli security forces and threw one grenade, which failed to explode.