This September the UN will vote on whether or not Palestine should be officially recognized as a state, an aspiration that first gained international attention two generations ago.
Although statehood would largely just be a technical distinction, Israel is still bracing itself for unrest. The IDF has reportedly begun arming settlers in the West Bank with tear gas and stun grenades and setting “red-lines” for each settlement. The plan is that should any Palestine cross a red-line, IDF soldiers will open fire at their feet. Given the visceral decades-old hatred between Israel and Palestine, violence in one form or another once again seems inevitable.
And should Palestine finally get recognized as a state by the UN, it would bring full-circle a series of events that first ushered the specter of international terrorism onto the world stage. Events that would gather the world, rapt in horror, around the flickering macabre spectacle playing itself out in their darkened living rooms.
Robert Stethem’s body slapped against the pebbled macadam of Beirut’s International Airport as the engines of TWA Flight 847 were brought to a whirring stop by the dark Mediterranean air. Stethem, a diver in the United States Navy, had been a passenger on the Boeing 727 when it was hijacked en route from Athens to Rome by two terrorists tied to various factions within Lebanon.
Stethem was already in bad shape when Flight 847 landed in Beiruit. Earlier during a refueling stop his hands were bound with bungee cords and he was dragged from the airplane for a beating severe enough to break every one of his ribs, a successful attempt to persuade the authorities to refuel the terrorist-controlled plane.
After Stethem’s beating the authorities caved, allowed the plane to be refueled, and it proceeded to skip around the Middle East and North Africa before finally coasting to a stop around two in the morning on one of Beirut International Airport’s runways. At this point the terrorists demanded that reinforcements be allowed to board the plane, but Lebanese officials balked. To prove that they were serious about getting their reinforcements, one of the terrorists pulled Stethem from his seat near the front of the airplane. Moaning from the agony caused by his shattered ribcage being dragged across the floor to an open door on the aircraft, Stethem was shot in the back of his head and tossed unto the tarmac waiting below.
This was enough to convince Lebanese authorities to allow the reinforcements to board the idling Boeing 727. A dozen men got on the plane, but of the twelve bearded boarders only one really bears mentioning.
Imad Mugniyah, who’d been instrumental in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks not even two miles away, ordered the seven passengers who’d been identified by their IDs as members of the American military to be rushed out the back of the plane into trucks along with four more who had Jewish-sounding names. The trucks slipped into the Beirut suburbs, TWA Flight 847 slipped into the early-morning light, and Robert Stethem’s life slipped into memoriam.
TWA Flight 847 rings with none of the notoriety of Pan Am Flight 103 or United 93. And some would say that’s the way it should be, because when it comes down to it Flight 847 ended with almost everyone going home safe. As it will be later explained, this misses the entire point.
For now, however, there is yet another international flight that connected through Rome that’s not mentioned in the same breathe as the most notorious international flights. But it was much more critical to the development of modern Islamic terrorism than any of those more notorious and remembered flights. And almost any other event, really. July 22, 1968 marks what is generally considered the advent of modern, international terrorism – the hijacking an El Al flight en route to Rome. This hijacking was set apart from the eleven other hijackings that’d already occurred that year, and every single hijacking before it, in that it wasn’t one of the “seemingly endless succession of homesick Cubans or sympathetic revolutionaries from other countries commandeering domestic American aircraft simply as a means to travel to Cuba” occurring so often at the time.
It was the start of a new trend. And it’s no coincidence that the world’s first television satellite had been launched into the thermosphere by the United States that same year.
Although the express purpose of the hijacking was to coerce Israel into a prisioner-exchange, El Al’s airplane was targeted because it was Israel’s national airline and so served as “a readily evident national ‘symbol’ of the Israeli state” which was “specifically and deliberately targeted by the terrorists.”1 For the first time the hijacking of a commercial jetliner was an act of Symbolic Terror. The El Al Flight was hijacked by members of the PFLP, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – then one of the six groups which made up Yasir Arafat’s PLO. Diverted to Algiers, the passengers on board waited while the Israeli government negotiated with the terrorists.
This in and of itself was a momentous occurrence, because up until this point the government of Israel had refused communication with any element of the PLO. By forcing communication, the PLO proved its mettle to the people of Palestine and so it was instantly made the preeminent resistance group in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
This “de facto recognition” was fueled by the fact that the terrorists had discovered that “they had the power to create major media events – especially when innocent civilians were involved.” In the words of the PLO’s chief observer at the United Nations, “the first several hijackings aroused the consciousness of the world and awakened the media and world opinion much more – and more effectively – than 20 years of pleading.”2 As with most discoveries, others soon caught on to this novel modus operandi and soon airplane hijackings were the new black on the runways of this modern fashion of terrorism.