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Statement to the Knesset by Prime Minister Eshkol, (December 31, 1968)

On 26 December, Palestinian terrorists attacked an Israeli airliner at Athens airport, killing a passenger and injuring other innocent travellers. The terrorists came from Beirut. On 30 December, Israeli forces carried out a raid on Beirut airport, destroying a number of Lebanese civilian airliners. There were no casualties in Beirut airport. In a special statement to the Knesset, the Prime Minister reviewed these events and explained the reasons for the Israeli action:

Mr. Speaker, Members of the Knesset:

My words today come a short time after the events which are the subject of this announcement. The details of the events proper have already been published. Meanwhile, debates were held within the Cabinet, in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, and I have said a few words in public following the Government debate. At this time a debate is being held on these events, not a Knesset debate, but one between us and foreign factors. This debate reverberated in the Security Council, in various newspapers around the world and in political statements made in various capitals.

It is appropriate that we clarify to ourselves and to others the significance of the deed in Athens. On the one hand -we have, to our great sorrow, experienced manifold acts of terrorism, some of which succeeded, others less, some failed. To some extent the senses and emotional reactions to these acts may even have become dulled, especially when these acts fail, more or less. On the other hand, we speak a great deal and rightly so - of somewhat general and abstract principles concerning terrorism in its various manifestations, such as: honouring the security of sovereign nations, freedom of the skies, the right of free and innocent passage, the responsibility of a State for acts committed, planned and directed from within its borders, and the more so - when a State does not attempt to hinder the perpetrators, and, above all, when it aids and abets them.

All these things have their own rationale and are, in themselves, appropriate. Emotional immunity to plots is essential in our situation. The political and legal arguments voiced by us are legitimate and they strengthen and corroborate the nature of our reaction, from both the political and legal points of view. All things considered, however, we must not lose sight of the atrocious nature of the very phenomenon of terrorism, in this particular case - the act committed in Athens.

Therefore I must propose to ourselves - and to the world at large - to exert the imagination and consider what was the actual plot, what would have happened if it had been carried out as schemed. The answer is simple: the fuel in the airplane's tanks would have exploded and the plane would have burned. The passengers could not have escaped because of automatic fire directed at the aircraft's exits. Tens of charred bodies of men, women and children would have been removed from the wreckage of the plane. The passenger list is public knowledge, and it is well known how many women and children were on the plane. To be exact - seventeen women and four small children. Multiply by two and you get the number of the charred little arms and legs which rescue squads would have retrieved from the wreckage of the plane in Athens. I merely raise this picture of horror in order to remove the matter from the level of political parlance to the common human denominator.

I recall a sentence which appeared in one newspaper, a newspaper which has a long-standing tradition of a humane and friendly attitude to the Jewish people. Israel, it wrote to say, has lost the diplomatic advantages which it had as a result of the Athens crime, by its raid in Beirut.

Had the Athens attack come off as its perpetrators planned, what would that paper have said? Would it have claimed that we have gained a tremendous diplomatic advantage? An advantage even greater than that which we gained, according to that newspaper, at the cost of "only" the life of one father of a family and an injured stewardess?

I am not prepared to accept such political and humane logic. If we carry this logic to its conclusion, we might ask whether it would not have been convenient for Israel to lose the Six-Day War, and for the dictators of Egypt and Syria to have carried out their plots, carrying out here what Hitler had begun in Europe. It is quite likely that tremendous waves of sympathy would have borne us sky-high in such an event. I prefer criticism to such sympathy. There is no one in this country, and I would like to think that there is no one in the enlightened world, who would have advised us to choose otherwise.

Only against such a background, the background of simple human experience, are general concepts vested with validity and significance. Otherwise, what is the good of any and all cultural expressions, ranging from "Thou shalt not kill" to international conventions? Only a moral basis can validate such concepts as the freedom of civil aviation and its safeguarding. It must be made clear that such freedom is indivisible. No morality and no law will tolerate unilateral freedom of aviation for the aircraft of Arab States alone, at the time when plots are hatched at their airfields to kill men, women and children who fly in Israeli aircraft.

The Knesset will thus understand why the members of the cabinet who dealt with the misdeed in Athens, were unanimous in their opinion: this must not be ignored. We cannot but exercise our right of self-defence.

Let it be remembered: even under such circumstances we have never envisaged a response like the plot schemed against us, a response entailing loss of life. We have not only averted any blow at civilians, women and children, we have not even touched a hair on the heads of the armed forces of the Lebanese Government, which never bothered to uproot the nests of terrorists in Beirut and other places in Lebanon.

Once again I must ask you to exert your imagination. What does it mean for soldiers and officers during a military operation who risk their own lives and the equipment which brought them and which had to transport them home, to expose themselves to a greatly enhanced risk, both themselves and their equipment, in order not to hit civilians nor, Heaven forbid, the security forces of the enemy. This is a very particular kind of courage, and no words of appreciation expressed so far and to be voiced in future will ever suffice. This is a courage which does not derive from physical strength or operational skills, but from wellsprings of moral bravery - though it took physical strength and operational skills to carry it out.

And what about Lebanon's claim that it has no responsibility for acts of terrorism, that it is not involved in them, and that only an organization bearing this or that name is to shoulder the responsibility?

Any innocent tourist, any apprentice journalist, knows where to find the terrorist organizations in Beirut. If they know it, can the authorities be in ignorance? It is hard to know what source is publishing - and such publications originate from Beirut boastful announcements of terrorists containing far more lies than truth, but braggadocio about murder characterizes them all.

The truth is that there is no desire to know, to reveal and to uproot. Indeed, the Prime Minister of the self-same Lebanon has declared before the events of this week, and in their wake, that he zealously supports the terrorist organizations.

The rules of international law speak quite clearly in this matter, and contain precise definitions. The Soviet definitions, in fact, clearly outline the essence of aggression. They lay down accurately: a country which harbours aggressors is an aggressor. These formulations are nothing but the legal couching of common sense and ordinary decency. No State is entitled to enjoy security and immunity whilst nurturing within its territory violators of these self-same basic rights to another State and its citizens.

In the announcement I made following the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, I stressed that we have no desire to aggravate our relations with Lebanon, and no interest whatever in expanding the frontline of hostilities. But do we expand this frontline? Or rather, is there somebody who thinks that he can rely on our desire for peace in order to use Lebanon, of all nations, as well as bases in Lebanon and the Lebanese border as our Achilles heel? This Government will not neglect the primary duty of any Government throughout the world: the safeguarding of the welfare of its citizens and their safety.

And what about this claim that the Government has no control over acts of terrorism organized within its realm of sovereignty? It seems that the leaders in Lebanon themselves are beginning to feel that this is a futile claim. As already mentioned, the Lebanese Premier has quite recently put his cards on the table. By so doing, he admitted that Lebanon is a belligerent country, with all the implications involved.

Some claim that the statement made by El-Yafi came as a result of weakness, and that his Government does not dispose of the means necessary even to stop two assassins from leaving its central international airport on a mission of murder. If this is so - why does this Government enjoy the support of pious international defence counsels? Only those who distinguish between one act of murder and another, who give preference to Arab property over Jewish blood, are capable of pleading such a defence.

A State which does not wish and is not able to control its citizens and residents so that they do not commit warlike acts from its territory does not comply with its political and fundamental human obligations. The more so, as this is not a case of an invisible underground. Activities are carried out in Beirut and other places in Lebanon with glaring publicity and in full daylight. What defence can there be of Lebanon's "right" to harbour, welcome and encourage belligerent sabotage organizations?

Another accusation was levelled at us, to wit: the operation in Beirut was different in nature and in scope from the act in Athens. Indeed, there is a difference. The main difference is that we have not hurt people and made every effort not to hit any persons, even at the risk of great self-exposure. On the other hand, the assassins in Athens intended to kill - and succeeded as far as they were capable. If this be a discrepancy, we shall accept it Another point: I should like to know exactly what we were to do? To retaliate in kind and in scope would have meant to embark on a campaign of murder or, at any rate, to launch a homicidal war in various places throughout the world. This is possible, and very cheap in fact, particularly when human life has no value. But these are matters the end of which cannot be foreseen.

We shall not turn the entire world and its airports into playgrounds for gangsters. This is an act of which only anarchists are capable. Let common sense avert such evil counsel. Any State bent on its welfare and morale will refrain from it.

I want to make it clear before the world: we demand peace - and the other side rejects it.

We demand peace negotiations - and the other side rejects them.

In the absence of peace, we observe the cease-fire agreement - and the other side violates it.

The acts of the other side point to a very peculiar political doctrine, to wit: Israel is obligated by the cease-fire, whilst the Arab States are free to fight it, by methods of terrorism or other means, without let or hindrance.

We shall not accept such a doctrine, and the enlightened world must not accept it either.

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs