The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon allegedly ordered the military to shoot down civilian airliners over the Mediterranean while he was minister of defence in an attempt to kill the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a journalist has claimed.
In an article adapted from his upcoming book, Ronen Bergman says that between November 1982 and January 1983 Sharon ordered fighter jets to be placed on interception alert, scrambling at least five times with plans to blow up commercial planes that may be carrying Arafat.
“The air force drew up a detailed plan. They found a spot over the Mediterranean where there was commercial air traffic but no continuous radar coverage by any nation and where the sea below was three miles deep, making a salvage operation extremely difficult, perhaps impossible,” Bergman writes in the New York Times.
His book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, details the special taskforce set up to assassinate Arafat, codenamed Operation Salt Fish and later Operation Goldfish.
“When [Israel’s intelligence agency] Mossad reported that Arafat was flying more commercial flights, with [his Palestine Liberation Organisation] often buying the entire first-class or business-class cabin for him and his aides, Sharon decided that such flights would be legitimate targets,” he adds.
Bergman says at least three officers who were present told him that some of the targets were commercial airliners, although he adds that Oded Shamir, Sharon’s adjutant at the time, said all were private aircraft.
The plan was never completed as air force commanders intentionally obstructed the operation, Bergman wrote, with senior officers refusing to obey orders they considered illegal.
The former brigadier general Amos Gilboa told Bergman he warned the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt Gen Rafael Eitan, that the mission “could ruin the state internationally if it were known that we downed a civilian airliner”.
The air force operations chief, Aviem Sella, also said he attempted to block the killings, saying he told Eitan: “We do not intend to carry this out. It simply will not happen. I understand that the minister of defence is dominant here. No one dares to stand up to him, and therefore we will make it technically impossible.”
The mission began after Israeli F-15s almost shot down a transport plane that they believed was carrying Arafat from Athens to Cairo in October 1982. That plan was shut down at the last moment when Mossad agents reported that it was Arafat’s lookalike younger brother who was on board.
The plane was also carrying 30 wounded Palestinian children, casualties of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in which Lebanese Christian militia killed hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps overseen by Israel. An Israeli investigation later found Sharon was indirectly responsible for the massacres and he was forced to resign.
Bergman says other plans to assassinate Arafat were drafted, including attempting to convince a Palestinian prisoner to become an assassin. He said the idea was inspired by The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 film in which a US soldier is brainwashed by communists.
In another case, operatives trailed three Israeli journalists who travelled to Lebanon to meet the Palestinian leader. The plan was to bomb the interview, but the team lost track of the reporters, Bergman writes.
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