MIDDLE EAST: A Sabbath of Terror

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Palestinian death squad lands in Israel with a savage message

Their orders were to kill until they themselves were killed. And thus last week a Palestinian suicide mission left a grisly trail of carnage along Israel's main coastal highway from Haifa to Tel Aviv. Slipping ashore from the Mediterranean on the afternoon of the Sabbath, the terrorists hijacked two buses filled with tourists and sightseers, took them on a wild ride down the road toward Tel Aviv, shooting along the way at everyone in sight, and finally destroyed one bus in an orgy of fire and death. Official statistics put the dead at 37 (all but a few of them civilians, among them at least 10 children) and 76 wounded—a toll that exceeded the 1972 Munich massacre (11 dead) and the slaughter at a Ma'alot school in 1974 (26). It was the worst terrorist attack in Israel's history.

The Sabbath massacre came on the eve of Israeli Premier Menachem Begin's scheduled departure for Washington, where he was to confer with President Carter this week on the derailed Middle East peace talks. Begin immediately went into a huddle with members of his Cabinet, then announced that he would postpone his visit to Washington for at least a week. Deeply shocked by the massacre in the midst of renewed efforts toward a Middle East peace settlement, the world waited anxiously for Israel's reaction, which in the past has been to retaliate for terrorism on its soil with severe blows against the Palestinians. Begin finished a grim TV and radio report to the Israeli nation by vowing: "We shall not forget."

The timing of the attack left no doubt about the terrorists' purpose: to sabotage any attempt by Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to move toward a peace that would ignore or bypass Palestinian interests. In fact, the attack will make any peace at all more difficult. Certainly, it will reinforce Israel's resistance to any kind of Palestinian state on its borders, make the Israelis distrust all Arabs more than ever, and stiffen Begin's stance toward making further Israeli concessions in any peace talks. The attack seemed to be the opening salvo of a new policy by Palestinian leaders, launched in Tripoli last December at the Arab states' rejectionist summit, to carry to Israel's soil the war against Sadat's peace initiative. Sure enough, shortly after Saturday's bloodbath, Al-Fatah, the commando group within Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, claimed responsibility for the operation from its headquarters in Beirut.

The commandos were carefully chosen and highly trained for their suicidal mission. The plan called for them to seize a bus and use it as a shooting platform to aim at anybody, civilian or military, who happened to come along the highway. Their only purpose was to kill as many Israelis as possible. If they could carry it off, they were to take the bus into the very center of Tel Aviv and continue the carnage until they were wiped out.

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