Israel Tried Really Hard To Assassinate Yasser Arafat, Considered Downing Passenger Plane

Some of the plots to kill the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader sound like action-movie scenes.
A story in The New York Times details former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (right) decades-long attempt to assassinate PLO leader Yasir Arafat (left).
A story in The New York Times details former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (right) decades-long attempt to assassinate PLO leader Yasir Arafat (left).
Handout . / Reuters

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was so intent on assassinating Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat in the 1980s that he considered downing commercial passenger planes, according to a New York Times Magazine article published Tuesday.

Writer Ronen Bergman detailed years of Israeli attempts to kill Arafat ― none successful. The PLO leader evaded bombings and military operations ― either through clandestine means or because the Israeli military called the attempts off, citing the possibility of heavy civilian casualties. Arafat finally died in 2004 at age 75.

The attempts to kill him often verged on the cinematic, according to the Times.

In one instance, Bergman reports that Sharon ordered Israeli agents to plant a “massive set of bombs” under a VIP area at a stadium in Beirut, where the PLO was set to hold a celebration. The explosives were in place, and “with the push of one button, they would achieve the destruction of the entire Palestinian leadership.”

But the plan was called off after senior officials voiced their concerns to then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

In another instance, Sharon considered downing commercial flights that Arafat was scheduled to be aboard, according to the article, citing three Israeli officers familiar with the planning:

“When Mossad reported that Arafat was flying more commercial flights, with the PLO often buying the entire first-class or business-class cabin for him and his aides, Sharon decided that such flights would be legitimate targets. The plane would have to be shot down over the open sea, far from the coast, so that it would take investigators a long time to find the wreckage and establish whether it had been hit by a missile or had crashed because of engine failure.

“Deep water would be preferable, to make recovery even more difficult.”

In 1982, Sharon, then defense minister, ordered a military operation to shoot down an aircraft he believed Arafat was aboard. The air force, acting on information from the Mossad intelligence service, hesitated and soon realized the plane was not carrying Arafat, but his younger brother, Fathi. The passengers also included 30 injured Palestinian children.

“Since World War II, Israel has used assassination and targeted-killing more than any other country in the West, in many cases endangering the lives of civilians,” Bergman wrote. He also said he “discovered a long history of profound ― and often rancorous ― internal debates over how the state should be preserved.”

“Can a nation use the methods of terrorism? Can it harm innocent civilians in the process? What are the costs? Where is the line?”