It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the Bus 300 affair recently popped up again in the Israeli media just days after the al-Qaeda terrorist with the U.S. passport, Anwar al-Awlaki, was liquidated by a drone in Yemen, and shortly before the Netanyahu government agreed to release more than a thousand terrorists for the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Many of the points being raised in debate over the killing of al-Awlaki are the same as those long raised regarding the Israeli Bus 300 affair. In both incidents terrorists were summarily executed by the intelligence agencies of democratic nations, without trial and “due process.” Both cases are being exploited by the enemies of those democracies to paint them as inhumane regimes.
In the Bus 300 affair, intelligence agents from Israel’s Shin Bet killed two terrorists captured after hijacking a bus full of civilians, mainly women, and threatening to blow them up.
The al-Awlaki affair is far fresher in everyone’s mind. Many on the left, joined by Ron Paul and some fringe members of the right, are grumbling about how al-Awlaki was liquidated “without proper due processand trial.”
The eminent professor of law from Berkeley, John Yoo, probably made the best case for the killing, writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Yet, from the howls on the left, you would never know that President Barack Obama had won another victory in the war on terror. Even as details of the operation leaked out, critics claimed that our government had “assassinated” an American citizen without due process . Worse yet, they get the rights of a nation at war terribly wrong. Awlaki’s killing in no way violates the prohibition on assassination . [A]ssassination is an act of murder for political purposes. Killing Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy is assassination. Shooting an enemy soldier in wartime is not .
As for the Bus 300 incident, what happened was that on April 12, 1984, four Arab terrorists who had entered the Israeli Negev from Gaza commandeered an Israeli civilian bus filled mostly with women commuters returning home to Ashkelon from their jobs in Tel Aviv. There were pregnant women among the passengers.
The terrorists seized the bus and attempted to drive it toward the Egyptian border. They were armed with knives and explosives, and threatened to blow up the bus with its passengers if stopped. They crashed through roadblocks as they were pursued by military jeeps. The bus eventually was stopped near Gaza City.
The incident took place just a few years after the massacre of bus passengers by terrorists in another incident along Israel’s main coastal road. Holding the Bus 300 passengers as hostages, the terrorists demanded the release by Israel of 500 jailed terrorists and threatened to murder the captives if their demands were not met.
The next morning an Israeli SWAT team stormed Bus 300 and freed the passengers. Two of the terrorists were killed in the operation. One Israeli woman on the bus died in the crossfire and seven others were injured.
The Israeli military announced that all four terrorists had died in the operation. Later it turned outthat two of the four had actually been captured alive and were executed by intelligence agents on the spot. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Syria took credit for the attack, though Israel claimed that Yasir Arafat’s Fatah terror organization was responsible.
The incident turned into a “scandal” when an Israeli newspaper called Hadashot (owned by the leftist Haaretzpublishing house, it has since closed), defied Israel’s military censor and published a photoof one of the captured terrorists being led away.
In the aftermath, several Israeli intelligence officers were indicted for their roles in “covering up” the execution of the two captured terrorists. All officers would be either exonerated in court or granted presidential “pardon” before indictment. But careers were damaged – more by the negative publicity than from formal judicial action.
The head of the Shin Bet at the time was forced to resign. An official commission of inquiry examined activities and procedures of the intelligence agency.
An intelligence officer named Ehud Yatom proudly boasted of his role in eliminating the terrorists. He later served as a member of Knesset.
The Bus 300 affair continues to generate public debate in Israel. It returns to the headlines whenever any of the figures involved are in the news, such as last year when Yatom was to be appointed directorof the Israel Parks Authority or last month when There have been films, documentaries and plays about the incident, in Israel and elsewhere. The latest such production is a Hebrew film recently released titled “A. – Liquidate Them!”
Both the al-Awlaki assassination and the Bus 300 affair serve to illustrate the underlying problem concerning the nature of terrorism. Terrorists are not soldiers, do not behave as soldiers, and when captured are not protected by international treaties regarding prisoners of war. They do not wear uniforms and they explicitly target civilians for purposes of creating mass panic and demoralization. By targeting civilians, they defy all norms of human decency.
At the same time they are not civilian criminals and so are not entitled to the protections and niceties of the judicial system, from Miranda warnings and legal representation to due process in courts. Terrorism is neither a civilian crime nor military activity carried out by soldiers. It is something else, something unique, sui generis.
It is absurd for terrorists to be processed and treated like common criminals and it is just as absurd for them to be treated as prisoners of war. That is why Guantanamo, waterboarding, kidnapping terrorists to third countries, etc., are perfectly sensible anti-terrorism policies, even if they would be prohibited when dealing with common criminals and with military prisoners of war.
To put it bluntly, terrorists should be summarily executed, unless there is some special strategic reason not to kill them (such as extracting intelligence).
Suppose some of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks had been overpowered and captured by security personnel that fateful day and then summarily executed. Or imagine that Osama bin Laden had first been captured alive and only executed by American security forces after intelligence was extracted from him. How many sane people would have objected?
Captured terrorists serve as open invitations to other terrorists to engage in more terrorism in order to gain their release. Summary execution of terrorists makes a moral point – that by their actions terrorists have forfeited any expectation of “due process” in court and of the ordinary protections due to military prisoners of war.
Just as we honor and publicly proclaim the merit of our heroes and role models, so it makes perfect sense for us to exhibit our disgust and revulsion with terrorists by liquidating them.
The Shin Bet agents who summarily executed the two Bus 300 terrorists, captured as they threatened to blow up a bus full of civilians, behaved properly. The terrorists involved were caught red-handed and deserved to be executed. The agents should have been proclaimed heroes, promoted, and awarded medals.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.