TERROR IN BLACK SEPTEMBER: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT
By David Raab
The multiple, coordinated hijackings precipitated a crisis culminating in battles between Palestinian militias and terrorists on the one hand and the Jordanian Army on the other. On September 16, 1970, Jordan's King Hussein declared martial law. Two days later, Syrian-based forces intervened in the name of the Palestine Liberation Army, prompting Israel to mobilize its forces as a warning that Syrian interference could lead to a wider war. President Richard Nixon ordered an aircraft carrier task force to the region to evacuate U.S. citizens and protect U.S. interests and the Jordanian monarchy. The Jordanian military's victory over the Palestinian and Syrian forces, however, averted wider crisis.
Seventeen-year-old David Raab was on the TWA flight as it was hijacked and was later removed by the terrorists with other Jewish passengers to a safe house in a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman. The following account is based on his forthcoming book, Terror in Black September: The First Eyewitness Account of the Infamous 1970 Hijackings. — The Editors of the Middle East Quarterly.)
In 1967, King Hussein made a disastrous decision. Jordan was moderate, Western-leaning, and, quietly, even on good terms with Israel. But, in June, 1967, at the behest and duplicity of Egypt and Syria, Jordan entered the Six-Day War and promptly lost its West Bank. During the fighting, about 200,000 Palestinian Arabs fled to the East Bank, planning to return, once Jordan won. It did not, and these refugees, instead, joined over half a million others who had fled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence and whose descendants lived there, too. By 1970, Palestinians made up over half the population of Jordan's East Bank, mostly unabsorbed into society, concentrated in refugee camps, awaiting their "return."
After the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967, Palestinians felt abandoned by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria -- nations which now focused on regaining their lost territories rather than destroying Israel. Many Palestinian leaders concluded, as well, that Arab regimes could not destroy Israel, even if their desire to do so resurfaced. They resolved to retake control over their own fate and to promote guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla groups created before the war grew, and new entrepreneurial groups began to proliferate. Some formed around individual leaders or philosophies; others were created by Arab states who wanted to have a hand in the guerrilla movement. Over time, certain groups began to stand out.
Fatah became the largest and most important of the fedayeen organizations. Founded in the late 1950s by Yasir Arafat, Salakh Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and a few colleagues, its message was simple and appealing: Only Palestinians could be entrusted to destroy Israel. In Spring, 1968, Cairo-born, 37-year-old Yasir Arafat was named Fatah's spokesman.
Probably the second largest organization and certainly the key to the story of the Black September hijackings was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Unlike Fatah, it was highly ideological, calling not only for the liberation of Palestine, but also for the creation of a Marxist-Leninist Arab society. Formed in January, 1968, by 41-year-old Dr. George Habash and his second in command, 43-year-old Dr. Wadia Haddad, the PFLP was fiercely independent, although it did receive extensive funding from Iraq and had close ties with Red China. The group was militant and radical. "If [it] is the only way to destroy Israel, Zionism and Arab reaction," Habash asserted in a 1970 interview, "then we want World War III to come." In another interview, he warned, "America is our enemy," and the PFLP was about to "teach the United States a lesson." And, unlike Fatah, which at least officially vowed not to interfere in intra-Arab affairs, the PFLP never hid its intent to replace King Hussein as a first step in liberating Palestine. The group was also fractious, ravaged by intense disputes. Only months after its founding, two important fighters departed to form their own groups. Such disagreements would play an important part in our story, too.
Suddenly, a man and woman, in their late twenties or early thirties, started running up the aisle in coach. "Imshi! Imshi!" they yelled in Arabic. "Move it! Move it!" Someone screamed and people started to point. Rudi Swinkels, the purser, immediately turned around and saw a well-built man in a gray suit with black hair and a thin, black mustache rushing up the aisle with long strides. At first, Swinkels thought the man was fighting with another passenger, so he ran after him. The woman was ahead of him. She was wearing a whitish dress and white shoes with brass buckles. Passenger Dick Morse thought that the man was angry with his wife and was chasing her. A domestic dispute. But in his right hand the man brandished a shiny, nickel-plated revolver and in his left, a hand grenade; the woman was holding two hand grenades.
Hearing the commotion, Bettie McCarthy, a stewardess, stepped slightly out of the galley and met them head on. The man pointed his gun at her and ordered her to let him into the cockpit. Anxiously, she rapped on the cockpit door. Swinkels was now standing between coach and first class. The hijacker turned around and, pointing his pistol at him, shouted very agitatedly, "Get back! Get back!" Swinkels quickly dove behind the bulkhead.
For the cockpit crew, this was supposed to be the final leg of their thirteen-day round-the-world assignment. Captain Carroll D. Woods, 51, a stocky, gentle Kansan and a veteran World War II pilot who had flown for TWA for many years, was in the pilot's seat on the left. Copilot Jim Majer, 37, tall, thin, blond, handsome and even tempered, had been flying for fifteen years since his days in the Navy and with TWA for about five-and-a-half years. He was sitting on the right. Flight engineer Al Kiburis, 45, a resourceful, matter-of-fact person, sat behind Majer facing the instrument panel on the right side of the cockpit. He was closest to the door. The three had met only a few weeks before. Having flown in the previous day from Tel Aviv and slept overnight in Frankfurt, they were happy to be flying home. But there was this banging at their door.
Al Kiburis opened the door. "It's a hijacking!" Bettie McCarthy blurted and quickly ducked out of the way. The man and woman both entered. The man immediately pointed his .38 caliber pistol at Jim Majer. He would keep the pistol trained at Majer on and off throughout the flight. Then he said simply, "I want you to turn the plane around."
Majer's first thought was: "Keep him calm, keep him calm. Live to fight another day." The other two crew members had the same idea. There was no way to subdue the hijackers since they were armed, so the crew put their hands up. The captain calmly told the hijacker:
The hijacker consented, and the crew contacted air traffic control, changing the plane's call sign at the hijacker's insistence from TWA 741 to "Gaza Strip." The hijackers directed the plane to Jordan.
Over the next few days, PFLP terrorists began to interrogate passengers, especially those whom they identified as Jews. André Rochat, the General Delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Middle East, seems not to have reported to the countries the intense and intimidating interrogations of and threats to the Jewish passengers and the confiscation of their personal belongings. Even as we had very little food, he reported that the food condition aboard the plane was "acceptable." Rochat also reported that our morale was "quite high" and that some passengers spoke of being "extremely well treated," obvious fallacies. Rochat asserted that the aircraft were not wired with explosives, even though ICRC personnel had no way to closely inspect the planes.
When confronted with TWA Vice President Dick Wilson's report that six men who had been taken off the plane were still absent, Rochat replied that he had now been "assured" by the PFLP that the six were well and "simply being questioned," although he was unaware of where they were held or their medical condition. Quite amazingly, too, he had not insisted on a list of hostages and their nationalities, though he confessed that compiling such a list was "a basic Red Cross responsibility." And not having resolutely pressed the PFLP for an explanation, he could not account for why so many Swiss air passengers had been released, while most TWA passengers were still at the site. He should have known that no Jews from the TWA plane had been released.
Suddenly, a flashlight was shining in my face. I looked up and saw the copilot, Jim Majer, standing over me. His eyes were elongated from lack of sleep. He had a sad look about him. He had had to bear much more than the rest of the passengers, because he was a member of the crew and had to look out not only for his own good but also for the good of all the other people on board. Now he was forced to be the bearer of bad news.
"David, they want you up front, for questioning." The terrorists wanted to ask about passengers' citizenship, religion, and relationship to Israel.
Petrified, I quickly came to my senses, even though I had just been awakened in the middle of my first decent night's sleep in a week. Immediately, I smelled the foul odors emanating from the hundred human beings who had been living unwashed in these confines for five days, odors that were intensified daily by the heat of the desert and the increasing stench of the plugged-up toilets.
I looked pleadingly at Jim, wanting to ignore what he had just said, but knowing that I had no choice but to obey. His answer to me was a look of sympathy that said that he didn't want to have to tell me to go and he didn't want me to go, but that he, too, had to do what he was told.
I thought to myself that it would be better not to think of what might be in store for me. But I knew I would be taken off the plane in a few minutes, never to see it again. What about my mother, three brothers, and sister who were also on the plane, my father at home nervously wondering and waiting? When would I see them all again? I tried to force these thoughts out of my mind.
I started walking up the aisle, with my mother close behind. I began to shake. I had lost control over my muscles and was twitching violently all over. But I continued walking. The Arabs would not take this as an excuse for my not getting off the plane. One of the men who had been summoned, and who felt equally as bad as I, saw my condition and put his arm around my shoulder, bringing me close to him and thereby stopping my shaking.
We were then told to get off the plane. I turned around and looked at my mother with pleading eyes, and she looked at me with sympathetic ones. We condensed into a short moment the lifetime that we deserved to have as mother and child.
Unable to hold back the tears much longer, I left the plane, leaving my family behind on the plane, slowly descending the ladder from the door of the plane, onto a jeep, and then onto the desert floor. I had a feeling of emptiness — I was being taken away from my family to a place that I didn't know anything about. I had no one to console me except nine other men who felt the same as I did.
Amman, 5:30 AM. And there I was. A seventeen-year-old American kid. An A student, president of my high school honor society, captain of my high school chess team. Supposed to have started college in New York two days earlier. Instead, I was in a minibus in Jordan, huddled with nine other guys, hostage to Palestinian terrorists, being driven in the dead of night to who-knows-where. Scared out of my wits. We were taken to an Arab refugee camp [Wahdat] or, if you will, a refugee section of Amman. We were brought into a small compound.
An urgent cable went out about me from the U.S. State Department to Amman:
State's cable was clearly a memorable one, though, because Hume Horan, then a U.S. Embassy official in Amman, recalled thirty years later: "Among [the hostages] was an American teenager who had decked himself out in the uniform of an Israeli Army major!" 
Later in the day, the PFLP also offered Swiss Ambassador Charles-Albert Dubois a bilateral deal. Dubois urged his government to consider the offer. "In the present situation, it is the only way to save the lives of the remaining [Swiss] passengers and crew." The British Ambassador, John Phillips, urged his government likewise. "Seeing that the united front seems to be crumbling, we should not be left out on a limb." He feared that the British hostages would be lumped with the Israelis and Americans or that the PFLP might "carry out some lunatic action against the hostages." The prospects for us American hostages did not look so good right now.
About a half hour later, in Wahdat, somebody who spoke English pretty well came in and told us to write our names and addresses down and that we could send telegrams.
The U.S. Embassy in Amman refused to receive the letters we wrote to our families, claiming, according to the PFLP, that "we do not care about these letters which say that the U.S. subjects are well treated and are living well." The PFLP promised to get the letters to TWA.
My parents received the actual note I had written, but didn't believe that it was really from me. They didn't recognize my handwriting, as I had written in block letters for legibility, thinking that it would be transcribed to a telegram. And, not wanting to call attention to myself, I had written "DEAR DAD," rather than referring to my father by the Hebrew Abba, as I always did.
London, 7 PM. The British were becoming increasingly frustrated with an "obdurate" Israel and, as a result, disappointed with a United States unwilling to pressure Israel. Exasperated, Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home cabled Ambassador John Freeman in Washington:
Did Rogers, he asked, really believe that a comprehensive solution could be attained without an Israeli release of fedayeen prisoners? And how long could the countries stay united without an Israeli contribution?
Meanwhile, tension between the Jordanian Army and Palestinian militias increased. On September 16, 1970, King Hussein declared martial law. The next day, fighting erupted across Amman between the Jordanian Army and Palestinian fedayeen.
Early in the morning on Jordan Radio, Commander in Chief Habis al-Majali gave the fedayeen one last chance to put down their weapons and leave Jordan's towns "for the front" against Israel. There were no takers, and the Army resumed its disciplined, methodical, albeit snail-paced, advance through the city.
Shooting was particularly intense in the Jabal al-Luweibdeh neighborhood of Amman. The U.S. Embassy took rifle shots through the windows of several offices. The British Embassy was also "getting rocked now and then." British Ambassador John Phillips was "furious and frustrated" that the Embassy was cut off from the Foreign Office for almost twenty-four hours because of the power and communications outages. His Embassy was also unable to reach King Hussein by phone.
Fighting was severe on Jabal Hussein, downtown, and near the First Circle where massive clouds of black smoke billowed upward. A fierce battle raged for control of the Second Circle. The Intercontinental Hotel was rocked by numerous explosions, shattering glass all around. The noise was deafening, the din constant.
Irbid-Ramtha, 6 AM. Fighting was intense in the north as well. At 6 AM, tanks of the Jordanian 40th Armored Brigade began shelling Irbid. A tank battalion was also sent to Ramtha, and a violent battle ensued around the town.
The six Americans in Irbid, recalled Jerry Berkowitz, were far from secure.
Amman, 11 AM. Confusion over the hostages' whereabouts persisted. One "untested source" reported to the United States that the hostages had been moved near to the Iraqi border. Ambassador Phillips telexed, "I simply do not know anything about the fate of the hostages." Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's Ambassador to the United States, would tell Secretary of State William Rogers that Israel had no information on the hostages' whereabouts. At one point this morning, Hussein's palace thought that some of the hostages had been located. "Special units" were detailed to get them out "if they are still alive."
We were still alive. We were, in fact, sitting in one of the epicenters of the fighting, in great danger of being hit by shells or bullets.
Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River, 11:30 AM. A lone U.S. Embassy official walked up to the Allenby Bridge, an unimpressive, steel, and wooden structure spanning the Jordan River at a narrow point between Israel and Jordan. He carried a box marked "special foods for [the Red Crescent] Amman." Inside were canned Israeli goods and a note that read "Kosher food for Rabbi Hutner."
Two days earlier, the American Embassy in Amman learned that Rabbi Isaac Hutner, "a strict adherent to the dietary laws of Judaism, has refused to accept food which he believes to be not kosher." (In fact, eight other hostages, including me, were doing the same.) The Embassy asked other U.S. Embassies in the region to "obtain canned kosher items and forward [them] to Amman as soon as possible for relay to the captors." The next day, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv offered to do so. The Amman Embassy advised it to deliver the food in "inconspicuous packages" to the Jordanian police at the Allenby Bridge and request that it be turned over to the ICRC in Amman. Despite a day-long effort, the Amman Embassy could not reach the ICRC to alert it to the possible arrival of the food.
Now, the official walked across the bridge, hoping to find someone on the Jordanian side willing to accept the package. Finding no one at the Jordanian end of the bridge, he walked about a kilometer into Jordan, where he finally encountered a group of Jordanian soldiers. The corporal in charge was sympathetic but had no clue what to do; he phoned an officer. Instructed not to accept the parcel, the corporal suggested that it might be possible to deliver it in a couple of days, perhaps on Sunday. So, the official returned to the Israeli side and entrusted the parcel to the Bridge Commander, one Captain Ilan, who agreed to hold onto it until new arrangements could be made.
The food never reached Rabbi Hutner.
We would sing every once in a while or talk. Some of the kids talked about drugs, and there were many discussions about religion. Al Kiburis, who was an admitted atheist, got very angry at Yaakov Drillman and Meir Fund about their being religious. He said that, when a community is involved, it is better for the community that you not be religious and that kind of stuff. He said that it was causing an extra heavy burden on Sarah Malka, who had been cooking for everybody in the apartment. She was cooking non-kosher, and yet several people always wanted kosher. But I think what Al failed to realize was that Sarah Malka, herself, kept kosher and that it was he and the rest of the group that was causing the trouble for her, not anybody else.
During the war, when it became very bad, and the shells came very close, we were not really afraid of death. And this was one of the things that kept us going. Because we figured — and I spoke to Ben Feinstein about this — we figured that, if we were blown up, it would not be in vain. You know, many times we joked around about it: We saw forty caissons, each one pulled by a black horse, down Pennsylvania Avenue in a state funeral, etc. (President Kennedy had been assassinated only seven years earlier; images of his funeral procession were still fresh in our minds.) We figured that, if we were to die, Israel and the United States would come in and just wipe out all operations of the guerrillas. We had heard that the Sixth Fleet was off the Israeli coast, and the guerrillas had told us that the United States was going to invade. We knew that, if anything happened to us, they would come in and do something. So we felt that we would be dying for Israel. And that was one of the things that kept us going.
With Israel refusing to release Palestinian terrorists from its prisons, the Swiss accepted a PFLP deal for the release of most, but not all, hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in European jails. The Germans followed quickly behind. The international consensus against making concessions to the hijackers was collapsing. As fighting continued in and around Amman, the Swiss and German governments had essentially decided to cut a deal and leave the Jewish hostages to their fate.
But the hostages' situation remained as unclear and precarious as before. British Ambassador John Phillips cabled: "As regards the hostages, we really are in a helpless position because the Red Cross here are not dealing with this problem." The previous day, the Quai d'Orsay informed the United States that the hostages had been removed from the Amman area before the fighting broke out, were being held in small groups of about six persons each, and were safe. British sources in Beirut indicated that the PFLP might have transferred the hostages to the Iraqi army headquarters outside of Amman.
At our apartment in Ashrafiyeh, the guerrillas came in frantic. They really looked wild. They came in and said that we could be blown up any second. All along during the war, they had said:
Now, they were telling us that "you can be blown up any second, write to the President, write to the Red Cross, write to anybody!" So we wrote! We wrote telegrams to Nixon; we wrote a telegram to the Red Cross; we wrote a telegram to the five powers who were meeting in Bern. We wrote a telegram to the press. We Jews were so desperate, we even wrote a telegram to the Pope. We didn't know what to expect. They took the crew members outside and showed them the area, and they came back really shocked. They saw dead bodies here and there; they saw shells all over the place. They were really shaken. But we were still hoping for our release within a short time.
The end came suddenly. The fighting tipped in balance of the Jordanian Army, and the fedayeen agreed to a ceasefire, although there was still sporadic fighting. Around five o'clock on the 26th, we were told by a guerrilla with a smiling face that we were going to leave. Of course, we all were really happy. He told us that the Red Cross was going to pick us up by car and take us to their headquarters. He told us that our release was unconditional and that we should just impress upon people to make an exchange of prisoners — I don't remember exactly what.
We were taken out into the streets. We were led out behind the house where we were supposed to meet up with the Red Cross cars. Now, of course, in this life-threatening situation, riding on Shabbos would have been completely permissible, but it would have been the first time that I would be desecrating the Sabbath in those three weeks. Of course, it was a matter of necessity, and I had no second thoughts about it. But, for some reason, the Red Cross didn't show up, and we ended up not riding on Shabbos. Apparently, the vehicles that had been sent to our rendezvous point had been fired upon and turned back.
As we walked though the city, we saw fires burning and were told that the bodies of the dead were being burned to halt the threat of disease. George Freda recorded shortly afterward:
Our captors marched us to a warehouse and left us. A couple of hours later, the Red Cross appeared.
In an ironic twist, Israel was a prime beneficiary of the whole episode. Its negotiation strategy of not offering concessions to terrorists was vindicated. But, more importantly, its willingness to engage the Syrian forces who invaded Jordan, though not motivated by pure altruism toward Hussein, enhanced its relationship with both Jordan and the United States. Jordan-Israel relations (though still sub rosa) became appreciably warmer. By the beginning of November, 1970, Hussein had already held several meetings with Israel in London and Tehran. Three years later, in October, 1973, King Hussein secretly flew to Israel to personally warn Prime Minister Golda Meir of the impending attack by Egypt and Syria.
Israel's willingness to cooperate closely with the United States in protecting American interests in the region altered its image in the eyes of many officials in Washington. Israel was now considered a partner, a valuable ally in a vital region during times of crisis. As Rabin later recalled, Kissinger phoned him to convey a message from Nixon.
Israel's conduct launched a "strategic relationship" with the United States, a relationship which persists to this day.
The PFLP failed on a personal level, too. At least fifteen of the seventy-eight American Jews who had boarded our plane decided, over time, to move to Israel. That includes my mother (and father), two siblings, and me. I have lived essentially a normal and successful life, have been married for thirty-three years, have three married children and six grandchildren, but I think about my experience in Jordan almost every day. It bothered me that no book had ever been written fully documenting the month. I have now written that history. It is said that history is written by the victors.
(This article is based on Terror in Black September by David Raab. Copyright © 2007 by the author and reprinted by him with permission of Palgrave MacMillan. Available September, 2007.)
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The foregoing article by David Raab was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Fall, 2007, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-ŕ-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat.
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