The IDF killed 108 civilians, but the Prime Minister asserted: We are not to blame
50 years have passed since a Libyan passenger plane accidentally flew over an IDF base in Sinai and was shot down after it had already turned back. Recently disclosed protocols reveal how Israel refused to accept responsibility, vehemently opposed any investigation and remained entrenched in its view of being right.
By Yaacov Lozowick ** • (translated by Sol Salbe)
It’s interesting how things stick in the memory. The Jerusalem afternoon of 21 February 1973 was grey and cold, but dry. I remember that. In Sinai there was a sandstorm with terrible visibility conditions. I know that. A few years later I served in Sinai and experienced those sandstorms. I have never seen anything like them in an inhabited land.
In the terrible visibility conditions, a French pilot, flying Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114 in a Boeing 727, lost his way. Due to a series of malfunctions, he flew over the Rephidim Air Force base [Bir Gifgafa], when it seemed to him that he was even approaching Cairo. Then, two Israeli fighter jets appeared and confused him further. They approached, signalled something he didn’t understand, and started shooting. What exactly he was thinking in those moments we will never know, but the recordings from the black boxes recorded confusion, great mental stress, and lack of understanding. Then the planes fired, and he crashed. 108 passengers and crew members, all innocent civilians, were killed.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff David “Dado” Elazar hastened to explain that this was a tragic mistake but added that the French-Libyan pilot was to blame. He should not have been there, and if he had been, his duty was to obey the Air Force pilots. His refusal to obey, and the fact that a few minutes earlier he flew over Rephidim, necessitated him being shot down.
From the protocols that have been released for publication, it becomes clear that the downing of the Libyan plane was not the government’s top priority. The cabinet meeting primarily dealt with an IDF operation in Beirut the day before, and only then turned to discussing the international incident.
Years later I asked myself what would have happened if, in February 1973, all three leaders had paid the price and lost their positions. And their replacements would have been appointed with the fear of losing their own position installed into them. Could the Yom Kippur war have been avoided? But all that was later. That evening I lost forever the feeling that our leaders know what they are doing, and that they usually get it right. I realised that if I wanted to continue being a Zionist and a patriot, I would have to look at all our actions, the good and the bad, and live with them all. And I also realised that only I can think morally for myself. The leaders, teachers and rabbis, the media and my friends — almost all of them disclaimed responsibility for the killing of innocent people.
Recently, the State Archives released the records of the government discussions from those days, partly thanks to the request of the Haaretz newspaper. We learned from the disclosure that there were three deliberations that were marked as “top secret” — one on the night of the event, and two following the decoding of the black boxes. The first discussion gave the signal: the government first discussed the IDF operation in Beirut the day before, and only then turned to the subject of the downing of the plane. The attention priority forebode badly.
The ministers were not interested at any point in the identity of the people Israel killed. Names? Ages? Lives Destroyed? Crickets. There was unanimity that the initial conclusions remained valid: it is tragic that we killed civilians, but the pilot is to blame. The discussions lasted for hours, but not even a single minister asked about basic risk management: there was a fear of a spy plane infiltrating Sinai, and there should have been a fear of killing civilians, but how do you weigh the two risks? There were a few voices who commented that the plane was shot down when it had already turned back away away from Israel, but this was in the context of the damage to Israel’s global image.
A few voices particularly stood out. The Solicitor-General*, Meir Shamgar [later, the Chief Justice], reviewed international law, which was based on a 1927 treaty, and opined that a country is allowed to shoot down a civilian plane that enters its territory. From a legal point of view, then, we were covered.
There were those who asked if it was possible that the pilot was drunk, which would explain why he behaved so egregiously to have forced us to kill him. At this point, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan was the most level-headed of the entire cabinet:
“I’ve seen people confused in less serious conditions. He was so confused that he didn’t know what’s what, and with the burden of the whole plane on him and the MiGs around him, a situation may have arisen where they didn’t understand what was happening and what we were signalling to them. It was the flight attendant who actually understood and said that these were Israeli phantom jets… but the captain of the plane was confused. It’s possible that he was unable to understand anything from of we said. They did not read our signal correctly, just as we did not read their signal correctly.”
Did Dayan conclude from this that it might be better not to shoot at a plane that appears to be a civilian, one minute before it leaves Israel’s airspace? No. He only warned that blaming the pilot is not a sound propaganda tactic.
Those who have perused government records from those years would be aware Tourism Minister Moshe Kol of the Independent Liberal Party, sometimes held different positions than the rest of his colleagues. He always made sure to say that the government’s line was acceptable to him, and in this case too he expressed full confidence in the Chief of Staff and the information he brought. Indeed Israel is not to blame for the downing of the plane. But maybe — and here he put himself in splendid isolation — maybe despite everything, we should still appoint an independent commission of inquiry headed by a judge ? Just to learn lessons for the future, you understand. And maybe there should also be a standing order not to shoot at a civilian plane, period? Or if so, only with the approval of the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister, and only in the event that the plane approaches an Israeli city, but certainly not on its way away?
Kol’s proposals were angrily rejected. No one thought that the judicial system should be involved:
The Minister of Health, Victor Shem-Tov [of Mapam — a forerunner of Meretz]: “The proposal for a commission of inquiry doesn’t make sense to me. First of all, I don’t know if it’s wise, given possible future consequences, to create a situation where we set up a commission of inquiry looking at the considerations of a commander in those three or four minutes. It is as if we are not sure in advance that the facts are true.”
Foreign Minister Abba Eban: “I don’t think we need a commission of inquiry, whose deliberations will last many days and weeks, and involve a certain constant public probing every day.”
Solicitor-General Meir Shamgar: “An investigation was carried out, and the results of this investigation should be available to the relevant parties.”
Welfare Minister Michael Hasani [National Religious Party]: “A commission of inquiry will not contribute anything, but will only cause damage. It will not succeed in convincing anyone.”
Treasurer [Finance Minister in the official rendition] Pinchas Sapir [Labour]: “I oppose the appointment of a commission of inquiry. There is nothing to investigate here. Everything that could have been told to the army’s proper bodies, has already told. Everything that needed to be investigated has already been investigated. An investigation should also be composed of a judge and two civilians. What will their powers be? If an investigative commission is appointed, it will be necessary to say that until it finishes its investigation, we still don’t know what happened.”
Prime Minister Meir summarised her position:
“I will resist any hint of accepting blame. I heard the Chief of Staff’s words in response to a journalist… The Chief of Staff said: No responsibility. And when the journalist asked if he should shoot at a civilian air on his way out [of our airspace], the Chief of Staff said: At a civilian airliner, not even upon its entry. Can anyone at this table, completely objectively, think that had our pilots knew, had the commander of the air force knew, had the chief of staff knew, that we had a civilian plane here with about a hundred passengers, or even 10–20 passengers, and yet it they would have decided as it was decided? This is unreasonable. Thinking that way is evil.”
“We do not bear the slightest bit of responsibility. If it is necessary to express sorrow once again, rather. In the message on Wednesday I said: ‘[We express] deep sorrow for the loss of human life, and the government regrets that the pilot did not heed the warnings’. How is this translated by The Washington Post, which is One of the most reputable newspapers in the world? That I dared to lay the blame on the pilot. If I said that the government regrets that the pilot did not heed the warnings, it is interpreted as murder [in English]. No less than that… and regarding compensation, I have no objection to that, there is only the consideration is that it shouldn’t be regarded as admitting blame.”
Lack of acceptance of responsibility for a terrible mistake. Rejection of the possibility of involvement of the judicial system. Acting the victim in the face of a world that insists on not understanding that we are right, a refusal to look for lessons that can be learned from. None of this is new, and none of it has disappeared since then.
The other lesson I learned in those days and since then is that a critical view of Israel’s actions and accepting responsibility for our failures, and even for our wrongdoings, should not unravel my patriotism. Because in the balance of power, and weighing all the contexts, Israel is more right than it is sinful, and even if it is not, there is a possibility that it will correct itself. On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of this conversation that I have had with myself, I fear that the balances that strengthened my Zionism are becoming undone.
* Solicitor-General, rendered as Attorney General in Israeli English but closer to a Westminster Solicitor-General.
** Dr Yaacov Lozowick served as the State Archivist.
Original Haaretz (Hebrew edition) translated by Sol Salbe, Middle East News Service: