The Achille Lauro hijacking: Selective memory does none of us justice

Above: Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro is docked 10 October 1985 in Port Said harbour during the hijacking. (AFP File)

The Achille Lauro is back in the news. Most of us know that a Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Abbas, is believed to have planned the 7 October 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship. His group, the Palestinian Liberation Front, demanded that Israel free 50 Palestinian prisoners.

During the hijacking, an American Jewish passenger in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot and thrown into the sea. While Abbas was not on board the ship, the hijacking, taking of hostages, and killing of Mr. Klinghoffer were heinous crimes for which those responsible — whether in the planning or the implementation — should be brought to justice. International law demands that attacks on civilians are prosecuted. Justice demands this is done impartially in all situations.

Above: Mohammed Abu Abbas

While extensive media coverage of the arrest of Abbas in Iraq by US forces has ensured that most of us know about the Achille Lauro, no one seems to recall Hammam-Plage.

On October 1, 1985, one week before the cruise ship was hijacked, Israel launched an air assault on Hammam-Plage, a residential suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. At the time Israel claimed to be seeking out Palestinian leaders given refuge by Tunisia and attacking military targets in the neighborhood.

According to an 2 October 1985 article published by the Guardian, Israel’s attack “brutally signalled its determination to keep the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of the emerging Middle East peace process.” The article noted that one of the buildings bombed by the Israelis was the private residence of PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

The Guardian cites claims by Israeli military leaders that “one of the targets of the raid was the headquarters of Force 17,” an elite military unit.  According to the verbatim record of the 4 October 1985 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, however, Tunisia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Beji Caid Essebsi reminded the Security Council that Israeli officials had, themselves, admitted that the Force 17 headquarters were not located in Tunisia.

Essebsi testified that it was a well-known fact that Tunisia had given refuge to “the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people.” But, he emphasized, there was no Palestinian military base in Tunisia.

While the Hammam-Plage neighborhood did contain political offices of the PLO, Essebsi underlined to the UN that the neighborhood was “a clearly defined urban area, where many Tunisian families live and where a small number of Palestinian civilians had found refuge after their terrible ordeal during the Israeli aggression against Lebanon.”

Essebsi testified that 68 civilians were killed and more than 100 were wounded during the Israeli attack.

The United Nations Security Council considered the raid to be a grievous act of aggression against the sovereign nation of Tunisia, noting “with concern that the Israeli attack has caused heavy loss of human life and extensive material damage.” UN Security Council Resolution 573 frames the Israeli attack as a “threat to peace and security in the Mediterranean region” and vigorously condemned the “flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and norms of conduct.”

Israel’s representative to the United Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu, was defiant in his stance that “we in Israel shall never accept” the Security Council resolution.

The hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer are both examples of unjustifiable acts. Yet supporters of Israel, who are currently working hard to emphasise the Achille Lauro incident as a tool to demonize Palestinians, have a less than glowing record where acts of terrorism committed by their own are concerned, never mind their standard practice of glossing over or justifying acts by the State of Israel that result in massive civilian casualties. The Hammam-Plage raid is an example from around the time of the Achille Lauro, so too was the murder of Alex Odeh.

Above: Alex Odeh with Nikki Abourezk at a Congressional dinner a few months before his murder. (ADC)

Four days after the attack on the Achille Lauro, on 11 October 1985, a bomb demolished the Santa Ana offices of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, killing Alex Odeh, the organization’s regional executive director. Seven others were injured. According to a New York Times article the following day, “The Jewish Defense League, often at odds with the [ADC], denied responsibility for the bombing but praised the action.” The night before his death, Mr. Odeh had appeared on a local news program to comment on the Achille Lauro hijacking. He reportedly denied the PLO’s involvement in the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. Rather than condemn the killing of Mr. Odeh, the official website of the Jewish Defense League confirms that JDL National Chairman Irv Rubin publicly stated that Alex Odeh “got what he deserved.”

The “threat to peace and security in the Mediterranean region” posed by Israel’s aggression goes back further than its attack on Tunisia. In June 1979, the United Nations Security Council condemned Israel’s “acts of violence against Lebanon that have led to the displacement of civilians, including Palestinians, and brought about destruction and loss of innocent lives.” UN Security Council Resolution 450 called upon Israel “to cease forthwith its acts against the territorial integrity, unity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon, in particular its incursions into Lebanon and the assistance it continues to lend to irresponsible armed groups.”

Above: Bodies litter the streets of the Sabra and Shatila camps, Lebanon, 1982.

In violation of this and other UN Security Council Resolutions regarding its acts against the sovereignty of Lebanon, Israel invaded Lebanon on 6 June 1982. Three months later, under the command of Ariel Sharon who was Israel’s minister of defense, Israel transported a special force composed of extremist Lebanese Christian militiamen and members of the Israeli surrogate force, the South Lebanon Army, to Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila.

On 16 September 1982, Israeli soldiers allowed the militiamen into the camps. Israeli soldiers proceeded to encircle and seal off Sabra and Shatila lighting up the camps with flares. For the next two days, while Israeli soldiers stood by, the militiamen raped, maimed, and killed countless unarmed civilians, mostly children, women and the elderly.

Israel officially numbered the dead at 700 but, by 23 September 1982, the International Committee of the Red Cross had counted 2,750 victims killed. The ICRC figure does not include those buried in mass graves, those who were buried under the ruins of houses, or those who were taken alive and never returned. Estimates by Palestinian groups place the death toll as high as 3,500. The United Nations Human Rights Commission strongly condemned what it called “Israel’s responsibility for the large-scale massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which constituted an act of genocide.”

The Achille Lauro hijacking and other attacks by groups of Palestinian militants have certainly caused horrific deaths amongst civilians. But, as noted by the United Nations Security Council, what is more disturbing is the persistent pattern of state-sponsored aggression and acts of terror committed by Israel which have constituted a far greater “threat to peace and security in the Mediterranean region.” The murder of Mr. Klinghoffer was heinous, but no more heinous than the killings of thousands of refugees in Sabra and Shatila, or the victims of those who died in the Israeli air attack on Tunisia the previous week. 

Above: An injured Palestinian is treated in a Bethlehem Hospital, 12 March 2003. (Musa Al-Shaer)

This pattern of Israeli aggression has not subsided. Israel continues to flagrantly disregard United Nations resolutions regarding its occupation of Palestinian territories and its excessive use of force against a defenseless civilian population.

According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), since September 2000, over 2,250 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and armed settlers in Gaza and the West Bank. 430 of these were children, according to Defence for Children International. Another 22,446 Palestinians have been injured, one quarter by live ammunition. In just one example, evoking the Klinghoffer killing, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that two teenage Palestinians, one of them in a wheelchair, were killed in Gaza on 12 January 2003 when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at the taxi in which they were riding.

Mohammed Abu Abbas has already been convicted in absentia in Italy for the attack on the Achille Lauro and should presumably serve his term there. Will Ariel Sharon ever face prosecution for the far greater number of attacks on innocent civilians carried out under his command? The Washington Post reports that Abbas had renounced violence and both the US and Israel dropped their warrants against any members of the PLO prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Above: Leon Klinghoffer and his wife Marilyn are seen in this undated handout photo.

Nevertheless, Mr. Klinghoffer’s daughter told NBC’s Today show that she wants Abbas brought here to the US to serve a life sentence. Sadly, few of those massacred under the command of Ariel Sharon at Qibya or Sabra and Shatila have family members who survived to be able to demand the same justice for their loved ones. And the mother of Rachel Corrie was never invited to speak on any of the major American networks about the killing of her daughter just last month by the driver of an Israeli military bulldozer. Selective memory does none of us justice.

Daniel Jacob Quinn
Washington, DC

Daniel Quinn is a licensed clinical social worker with a local public school system. Last summer, he lived and worked for 2 months in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, volunteering as a clinical consultant with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.