In a region notorious for its history of wars and terrorist attacks, perhaps one of the most shocking incidents involved the attack on a group of schoolchildren on May 15, 1974. That day began with a school trip celebrating Israel’s independence day, during which 105 religious school students from Safed went for a hike in the country’s western Galilee region. After a long day of trekking, the students went to the Netiv Meir School in the area known as Ma’alot, where they laid down and slept. The group members awoke to find they were being attacked by three terrorists from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). At the conclusion of the events, 25 victims were dead and more than 50 were injured.
The origin of this incident can be said to be rooted in the creation of the State of Israel, which inspired a sharply negative reaction from many of the new country’s Arab residents and neighbors. In 1948, in the weeks and months leading up to the date when the Jewish state was slated to become independent, Arab leaders both within and outside the territory coaxed the Arab residents within the borders of the future state to leave, thereby creating an open battlefield in which militant Arab groups promised to destroy the nascent country. Many Arab residents complied with this request, traveling to Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria to await the Arab victory and the fulfillment of promises to give them the property and land of the vanquished Jews.
At the end of what would be called the “War of Independence,” Israel survived, following an armistice. For their part, the Arabs who left their homes were forced by the aforementioned host countries to remain in refugee camps, denied both citizenship and the right to permanently settle there. Over time, a number of radical terrorist groups would arise from these camps, with most eventually cooperating to form the umbrella group called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose charter calls for an “armed struggle” to conquer and destroy the State of Israel. The two largest factions within the PLO during its first decades were Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist group led by Lebanon-born Christian named Dr. George Habash.
In 1969, a group of people in the PFLP led by Nayef Hawatmeh, a Jordanian Arab from a Malachite Catholic family, broke away to form a new terrorist faction called the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A decade earlier, Hawatmeh had participated in a coup attempt that sought to overthrow the government of Lebanon. After that failed action, he traveled to Iraq, where he was imprisoned for his anti-government activities. Hawatmeh would eventually participate in revolutionary and terrorist activities across the Middle East before returning to the fold by joining the PFLP and then creating his own power base. Eventually, the DFLP began to engage in terrorist activities. For example, the group sought to overthrow the regime of King Hussein of Jordan. That failed effort ended with the deaths of many DFLP members (as well as members of Fatah and the PFLP), the destruction of the DFLP office in Amman by Jordanian tanks, and a shift in the group’s strategy from the destabilization of moderate Arab leaders to attacks focusing on Israel.
The DFLP’s planning of the attack on the Netiv Meir School was both meticulous and sinister. The target was a group of schoolchildren who would be sleeping at the targeted location–a school that otherwise would be empty. as its facilities consisted of only classrooms and no dormitories. The students were participating in a program called “Gadna,” which stresses good citizenship, physical training, and endurance. Even today, this popular one week program is undertaken by most Israeli students.
The team of three terrorists infiltrated Israel’s northern border from their base in Lebanon. En route to their target, their first victims were two Arab Christian womenwhowerebeingdrivenhomeinavandrivenbyaDruze. Onewoman was shot and died instantly; the wounded driver succeeded in continuing to drive the vehicle to safety, where the other woman died from her gunshot wounds. The terrorists then knocked on several homes’ doors until one was answered by Yosef and Fortuna Cohen. Fortuna was seven months’ pregnant. The Cohens were shot dead, as was their four-year-old son Eliahu. Their five-year-old daughter Miriam was also shot, but survived. Unhurt was the Cohens’ 16-month-old deaf-mute son Yitzchak. Leaving the Cohens’ home, the terrorists asked a sanitation worker, Yaakov Kadosh, for directions; they then severely beat and shot Kadosh, assuming that they had taken his life, too.
Before dawn, the terrorists entered the three-story concrete-constructed school and immediately took charge of the sleeping hostages. Screaming in Arabic and Hebrew, the terrorists demanded that everyone follow their orders or be killed. Seventeen students, the driver, and two army escorts managed to escape by climbing out the windows during the commotion. Several hours later, the terrorists, who set up explosives amidst the captive schoolchildren, released Narkiss Mordecai, a medic escort. She was given letters addressed to the French and Romanian ambassadors, instructing them to act as intermediaries between the terrorists and the Israeli authorities. The letters also demanded the release of 23 Arab terrorists and three people of other nationalities held in Israeli prisons. Among the latter were Kozo Okamoto, a Japanese Red Army commando who had taken part in the Lod Airport Massacre, a bloody event in which Okamoto and two partners opened fire with automatic machine guns in Israel’s (now Ben Gurion) international airport, murdering 25 people and wounding 70 more victims. The attack was a joint operation between the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army, the latter a leftist terrorist group that declared its goals as overthrowing the Japanese monarchy and overthrowing the world.
The terrorists’ note declared that the school building was rigged with explosives, and stated that the Israeli government had until 6 p.m. (local time) to comply with the demands or the hostages would be executed. During the hours of that day, the Israeli Parliament, under the leadership of Prime Minister Golda Meir, held heated debates about the complex situation, including the difficulties of arranging the release of convicted terrorists within such a limited time span as the looming deadline approached. Public statements were made asserting the willingness to comply with the demands, although political pundits and analysts still debate their authenticity.
Most importantly, the terrorists made it clear that they would not hesitate to carry out the massacre at the appointed time if their code word were not communicated back to them by their freed comrades upon their release and subsequent arrival in either Damascus, Syria, or Nicosia, Cyprus. After that, the terrorists’ note continued, the terrorists would release half the hostages and would fly with the other half to an unnamed Arab country, where they promised to then release the rest of the schoolchildren. The Israeli Cabinet agreed that this arrangement would never be accepted, although this information was not disclosed to either the public or the terrorists.
As Israeli soldiers were put into place around the outer perimeter of the school, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan personally came to Ma’alot to oversee the operation, accompanied by Army Chief of Staff Motta Gur. The initial negotiator was Victor Cohen, the head of negotiations from Israel’s General Security Services (equivalent to the FBI). Cohen had also been the negotiator with the Black September terrorists when they captured 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, West Germany, during the Summer Olympics in 1972.
Beginning at 9 a.m., the leader of the terrorist team began to appear at the window of the school with five students, firing his gun wildly and sometimes throwing live grenades, as he continuously threatened to begin killing hostages. One local man on leave from the army was killed by a stray bullet during these tirades. As the day wore on, Dayan became more convinced that only a military rescue operation could succeed in saving the hostages, as the terrorists continued to reiterate their threats of a massacre. Even so, the Israeli Cabinet continued to plan for the possibility that an alternative might exist in which the students could be released in exchange for the freeing of prisoners, as Prime Minister Meir refused to abandon this possibility.
In the afternoon, the top three terrorists on the list were transported from prison to the Ma’alot area in preparation for an attempted compromise. It was proposed that the French ambassador would approach the school to engage the terrorists in a face-to-face negotiation. The terrorists rejected this proposal, however, stating that anyone who approached the school without the code word would be shot on sight.
At 5:40 p.m., the Israeli Defense Forces stormed the school. The terrorists opened fire with their Russian-manufactured AK-47s, spraying the captive schoolchildren with bullets and exploding at least one grenade in a classroom full of students before the three members of the DFLP were killed. The military operation was far from flawless, as some confusion ensued during the operation when Israeli soldiers entered the school from various entrances and windows, creating some amount of chaos before the mission was completed.
Today, Netiv Meir School is still open as a school for religious schoolgirls. A memorial in its library commemorates the fallen students and their escorts who died there.
- Dolnik, A., & Fitzgerald, K. (2008). Negotiating hostage crises with the new terrorists. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Pedahzur, A. (2009). The Israeli Secret Services and the struggle against terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.