The Middle East: Assault on Salt

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When Israeli jets whooshed low over the Jordanian town of Salt one midmorning last week, the townspeople paid scant heed. Though Salt is only 13 miles from King Hussein's palace in Amman, the incursion was not unusual. Jordan's air force was destroyed in last year's Six-Day War, and Israel has had the virtual freedom of Jordanian skies ever since. This time, however, the Israeli overflight was far from routine. Angered by daily raids on Israeli-occupied territory by Jordan-based Arab commandos, Israel had decided to make use of its air superiority to strike back. El Fatah, the largest and most aggressive of the commando groups, had its operations headquarters in a half-acre grove of fig and olive trees just outside Salt. The Israeli jets were out to destroy it in the heaviest Israeli air raid against the Arabs since the war.

Waves of Mirage, Mystère and Skyhawk fighters swooped in on Salt, plastering the El Fatah headquarters with rockets and napalm, strafing other suspected El Fatah installations near by and setting asphalt blacktop boiling on roads for miles around. Citrus fruit sizzled on branches in neighboring orchards. When the planes let up briefly, the people of Salt streamed out to survey the damage and were hit by the second wave of planes that caught ambulances, taxis and a television mobile unit from Amman parked out in the open. Two dozen people sought shelter in a culvert, but an Israeli fighter pilot blew it apart with pinpoint rocket fire. Not a vehicle on the roads in the area escaped damage or direct hits. Altogether, the Jordanians claimed, 34 people died and 82 were wounded. Leaflets dropped from the planes made clear the lesson Israel intended: "Death for those who ask for death. Life for those who want to live in peace."

Helicopter Pursuit. Arab delegates protested the raid at the United Nations, and Fatah Leader Yasser Arafat, who escaped the Salt attack unscathed, swore that "we shall strike back harder than ever." The Israelis replied in kind. Two days later they used helicopters to track a fleeing band of commandos into Jordan after an attack in Israel's Negev desert, landed troops from choppers fore and aft of the guerrillas and killed five of them in the ensuing firefight. While Israeli and Jordanian troops traded fire in daily duels across the muddy Jordan River, Israeli Premier Levi Eshkol observed ominously that "any form of war and incitement to war will oblige us to repel, deter, and take the battle to the enemies' gates and beyond." That might mean new invasion thrusts toward Damascus, Amman and Cairo if the commando infiltrations continue.

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