The Bus 300 Affair also known as Kav 300 affair began On April 12, 1984, when four Palestinian terrorists took over the Egged bus, line 300, which made its way from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon with 35 passengers.
The Palestinian hijacked it shortly after it left the station at 7:30 p.m. During the takeover, one of the bus passengers was severely injured. The hijackers forced the bus to change its direction and drive towards the Egyptian border warning the driver and passengers they were armed with knives and a suitcase containing two anti-tank rounds which they threatened to explode.
Shortly after the bus was hijacked, the hijackers released a pregnant woman from the bus south of Ashdod. She hitchhiked to a gas station and from there alerted the authorities to the hijacking. As a result, Israeli military forces began chasing the bus.
The bus smashed through two roadblocks until Israeli soldiers fired at the bus tires and disabled it near the Palestinian refugee camp of Deir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip, only 10 miles north of the Egyptian border. When the bus stopped, some of the passengers managed to escape from the bus through an open door.
In the ensuing stand-off, members of the Israeli media began to gather at the scene. Chief of Staff Moshe Levi, Minister of Defense Moshe Arens, and ISA Director Avraham Shalom were also there.
The hijackers, who were holding the bus passengers hostage, demanded the release of 500 Arab prisoners imprisoned in Israel and free passage to Egypt for themselves. The hijackers stated that they would not hesitate to blow up their explosive-laden suitcase and kill all the passengers on the bus.
As negotiations proceeded, ISA operatives on the scene concluded that the hijackers were behaving like amateurs, one later stating that “it’s a bit ridiculous to call this a hostage-bargaining terrorist attack,” and that the four did not pose a risk.
In Damascus, Bassam Abu Sharif of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed that his organization was responsible for the attack. He said the hijackers demanded the release of 30 prisoners held at Nafha prison in Israel. Israeli sources dismissed these claims and accused Fatah of being responsible.
After lengthy negotiations, at around 7:00 a.m. on April 13, a special force of Sayeret Matkal under the command of brigadier-general Yitzhak Mordechai stormed the bus while shooting at the hijackers through the vehicle’s windows. One passenger, a 19-year-old female soldier, Irit Portuguez, was killed during the fighting and seven were wounded.
Initially it was reported that all four terrorists had been killed. Two, however, survived and were taken for interrogation. They were bound and taken to a nearby field where they were beaten by people who had gathered around them. Shalom and the ISA chief of operations, Ehud Yatom, approached the bound men. Before he left the site, Shalom ordered Yatom to execute them. Yatom and several other agents drove them to an isolated place and beat them to death with rocks and iron bars.
At 8:00 am, the morning after the hijacking, IDF forces began blowing up the houses of the families of the four hijackers.
The Israeli military censor blacked out coverage of the hijacking originally. As a result, initial reports published in Israel and worldwide claimed that all hijackers were killed during the operation. Three days later, however, the Israeli daily newspaper Hadashot quoted a report from the New York Times, thus bypassing the Israeli Military Censor, which stated that two of the hijackers were captured alive. Hadashot subsequently published a front-page photograph in which one of the hijackers was alive and fully conscious as he was taken off the bus. The publication of the photograph caused a public uproar and demanding an investigation into what had happened to the hijackers.
Moshe Arens, who sanctioned the operation, argued after the event that, despite casualties amongst the passengers, the operation was “absolutely necessary.” He said: “It was a long and difficult night and we followed the policy that has been traditionally laid down by Israel that we do not give in to terrorist demands.”
Just over a week after the hijacking, New York Times correspondent David Shipler reported that Hadashot had a photo of one of the hijackers being led away in handcuffs. He was identified as Majdi Abu Jummaa, aged 18.
Hadashot also refuted Arens’ statement that he had not been at the scene of the hijacking by claiming that their photographer had been standing beside him shortly before he took the picture of Majdi Abu Jummaa. Concerns were also raised about a television interview Arens had given before the incident when he said: “Whoever plans terrorist acts in Israel must know that he will not get out alive.” The IDF Chief of Staff, Rafael Eitan, had made a similar statement: “Terrorists must know that they will not come out alive from such an operation.”
Arens set up a committee of inquiry headed by Reserve General Meir Zorea and later by a committee headed by State Attorney Yona Baltman. His report was delivered in secret to the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Security Committee on May 29, 1984. Its findings were not made public but were said to have “stunned the security establishment.”
In November 1985, details of the affair were revealed by three division heads: the terrorists were executed by order of the head of the ISA after they were apprehended and that ISA employees testified falsely about the incident. Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir subsequently demanded that a criminal investigation be opened against Shalom and other ISA employees for their alleged role in the killings and cover-up.
In 1985, Brigadier General Yitzhak Mordechai, who had led the storming of the bus, and eleven others were put on trial for the killing of the two prisoners. They were accused of being amongst a larger group who beat and kicked the prisoners to death. Witnesses described the general hitting the prisoners with a pistol. He was cleared and the charges against the others were dropped.
In the spring of 1986, the deputy chief of ISA, Reuven Hazak, and two officials, Rafi Malka and Peleg Raday, met Prime Minister Shimon Peres and accused their superior, Avraham Shalom, of having ordered the murders and coordinating the testimonies of witnesses in the case against General Mordechai. Peres refused to act on this information and the three officials were dismissed from the ISA. They then gave evidence that led Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir to launch a criminal probe against the senior ISA officials accused of covering up the killings. On hearing the evidence, Zamir opened a police investigation. He was later forced to resign, however, amidst accusations of disregarding national security after refusing to end his investigations.
In June 1986, on the recommendation of the government, President Chaim Herzog granted a pardon to those involved in the affair, although they had not yet been prosecuted. Following this, Shalom resigned and was replaced by the former head of the ISA, Yosef Hermelin.
These pardons were challenged in the Supreme Court. During the appeal, papers were revealed in which Shalom asserted that all his actions were “authorized and approved.” This implicated the prime minister at the time of the killings – Yitzhak Shamir.
On August 6, 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the pardons.
In 1996, retiring ISA officer Ehud Yatom gave an interview to the Yediot Aharonot in which he said he put the men on stretchers into a van. “On the way I received an order from Avraham Shalom to kill the men, so I killed them.” He said, “I smashed their skulls” on orders from Shalom, and “I’m proud of everything I’ve done.”
From 2003 to 2006 Yatom was a Member of the Knesset.
The affair significantly damaged the ISA’s reputation and public image in Israel. It also led to a re-examination of censorship in Israel after it became evident that the censors had contributed to the cover-up of the affair.
As part of the overall investigation of the ISA during the affair it was discovered that the organization routinely used physical force during interrogations which led to the establishment of the Landau Commission to investigate the organization’s interrogation and other procedures.
The ISA found itself in a deep internal crisis that reflected on its values and professionalism. At the same time, the affair brought about a sharp crisis of confidence on the part of the public, law enforcement agencies, the legal system and state institutions. The ISA subsequently formulated new patterns of behavior and work procedures, and the assimilation of the norms of activity within the framework of the law. The lessons of the affair were passed on to ISA employees.
The reevaluation of the ISA ultimately led to the adoption of the in the training frameworks and units. In this framework, the decision to establish an internal auditor’s office within the GSS stood out. Over the years, the revaluations of the agency led to the adoption of the ISA Statute which formalized its roles and responsibilities.