Ma’alot is an immigrant town 11 miles east of Nahariya that was founded in 1957 by North African Jews who came to Israel as refugees from Arab nations where they were no longer safe. On May 15, 1974, Israel’s Independence Day, a group of 11th graders on a field trip from Safed spent the night in a school in Ma’alot.
In the early-morning hours of May 15, 1974, three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) infiltrated from Lebanon disguised in Israeli uniforms. As they approached Ma’alot, they encountered a van driven by a Druze resident of Hurfiesh bringing Christian Arab women from the village of Fassuta home from work. One of the terrorists opened fire on the vehicle, killing one woman, and wounding both the driver and other workers, one of whom later died of her wounds.
Reaching Ma'alot, the terrorists knocked on the doors of several homes. Fortuna and Yosef Cohen heard the noise and opened their door. The terrorists shot and killed the couple, their 4-year-old son Eliahu and wounded their 5-year-old daughter Miriam. Fortuna was seven months pregnant. The only one in the family who survived unhurt was their 16-month-old son.
From there, the terrorists headed for the Netiv Meir Elementary School where the students were staying the night. On the way, they met Yaakov Kadosh, a sanitation worker, and asked for directions to the school. They beat and shot him, leaving him for dead.
The terrorists stormed the building. Three of the four teachers in the school escaped through a window, abandoning the children.
The terrorists held 115 hostages, including 105 students, and threatened to kill them if Israel did not release 23 prisoners being held on terror charges, including one of the Japanese terrorists involved in the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre. For more than 12 hours the young Israelis huddled in a booby-trapped classroom.
Tzipi Maimon-Bokris, seen in the accompanying photograph being carried to safety in her brother’s arms, recalled in the documentary Their Eyes Were Dry that throughout the day the children tried to persuade the terrorists not to kill them. “One said, soon you’ll be soldiers — we have to stop you now.”
Israel’s official policy was not to negotiate with terrorists, but the government decided to ask for more time to talk. The terrorists rejected the request.
The Knesset met in an emergency session and agreed to negotiate and to release 26 political prisoners.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur debated whether to stage a rescue operation. There was little time to prepare and Prime Minister Golda Meir feared the terrorists would blow up the school with the children inside.
Fifteen minutes before the terrorist-imposed deadline for starting to kill their hostages, the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit mounted a rescue operation.
Maimon-Bokris said the terrorist leader told the children they were “all going home now” before spraying them with gunfire and hurling a grenade at them.
When it was over all three terrorists were dead, but so were 25 of the hostages, including 22 children who had been murdered by the Arabs. Another 68 were injured.
The man who commanded the operation, Major Gen. (Res.) Amiram Levin, told the documentarians, “The whole operation took 30, 35 seconds…. If we’d been able to do it in 10, how many more could we have saved?”
The following day, Israel retaliated by bombing offices and training bases of the DFLP and PFLP in southern Lebanon killing at least 27 people.
Photos: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.