Sunday, December 30, 2007

Interview: David Raab, Author of 'Terror in Black September'

by Ezra HaLevi

Author David Raab, who survived one of history's most audacious terrorist acts, spoke with Israel National Radio's Eve Harrow about his new book, "Terror in Black September."

Raab spoke about his decision, years later, to compile archived documents and testimony surrounding the three-week drama of being held as a hostage by PLO terrorists in Jordan in 1970. He also revealed a result of the hijackings the terrorists never intended: Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel).

"The situation in Jordan then was very similar to what was going on in Gaza just a few months ago, with the Palestinian Authority nominally in charge but in fact Hamas running rampant through the streets, running its own checkpoints and basically a state within a state," Raab explains of the political environment surrounding the episode. "In 1970, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were playing [the Hamas] role and King Hussein was at his wits end."

On Sunday, September 6, 1970, 17-year-old Raab, his mother and his four younger siblings boarded a plane in Tel Aviv after spending the summer in Israel. TWA flight 741 was heading back to the US when it had to make a stop in Germany. "In those days planes couldn't make it all the way across the pond so we landed at Frankfurt to refuel and pick up more passengers," Raab recalls. "A few minutes out of Frankfurt we heard a scream from the back and a man and a woman, the woman carrying two hand grenades, ran down the aisle. We had been hijacked and the plane was turned around."

The teenage Raab – he preserves his original memories recorded immediately after the saga by using italics in his book – first recalled a spate of hijackings to Cuba. "My first reaction was that we would be heading for Cuba and would be back on our way to the US after a few cigars," he said. "The female hijacker got on the PA system and said this was the work of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). We knew then that this was not going to be fun."

Raab's book is unique in that it uses the methods of the so-called New Historians in Israel – accessing declassified archives of various governments and officials to piece together the complex nature of the behind-the-scenes tapestry of events - while conveying his perceptions as a victim at the epicenter as well.

"There were a couple of US Defense Department officials sitting nearby who began cutting out sections of classified documents and eating them," Raab recalls, speaking with hindsight of what seemed a bizarre response to the terrorists' announcement at the time. "They were returning from a series of meetings in the Middle East with very classified material."

Raab and the rest of the passengers on the flight began circling over the Jordanian desert, where the terrorists forced the crew to land without a real runway. "We landed on salt flats in the desert," he said. "The pilot was very worried and thought we would crash on landing."

Thus began what Raab terms "a three-week nightmare." The PLO terrorists turned off all the lights on the plane, collected the passengers' passports and asked them to fill out forms with their names, addresses and religions.

"At the time just being in Jordan alone was terrifying to a Jewish person, let alone being held by Palestinians," Raab said. "This was three years after the Six Day War and Jordan was still at war with Israel."

A second plane, this one Swissair, had also been hijacked over Europe on its way to the US and was brought in right behind the first. "It nearly hit us, stopping only 75 feet short of our plane," Raab said.

Two more planes had been successfully hijacked that day in addition to a failed attempt to take an El Al flight - a record that held until the attacks on September 11, 2001. "They hijacked a Pan Am 747 also out of Europe, took it to Cairo and wired it with explosives, lit the fuse while the plane was still in the air, and the plane blew up only seconds after the last passengers had exited," Raab recalls.

The terrorists demanded that Israel release hundreds of convicted terrorists from Israeli jails. "Things don't seem to change very much," Raab mused. "They wanted Britain, Germany and Switzerland to also release a number of terrorists [from] their jails. They wired our planes with explosives and said that if their demands weren't met in 72 hours they would blow up the planes with us on them."

The PLO was an umbrella organization of which PFLP was a part. Yasser Arafat applauded the PFLP for the "spectacular hijack." King Hussein was furious with Arafat. "This was the last straw as it was a real slap in the face to Hussein," Raab said. "These terror groups had now brought hundreds of innocent civilians to his country and he was powerless to do anything about it because we were hostage to these terror organizations."

After a week filled with tension and sheer terror for the passengers – which can only be understood by reading Raab's detailed account -  the planes were blown up and most of the women and children were sent home. The PFLP held on to 54 people, including 38 Americans. Raab was one of them.

"I was 17, Jewish and they claimed that I was an Israeli soldier," he said. The book recounts his family agonizing over how to get rid of a costume IDF uniform they had purchased and photos they had taken with real soldiers.

"They took people off in groups at first. I was taken as part of a group of seven people they claimed were Israeli soldiers, even though we were all Americans. We were all Jewish (except one) and between the ages of 17 and 35. There were only two adult males who were Israeli – and they were dual Israeli-US citizens. One of the miracles of this whole episode were that there were not more, first of all, and that there were no pure adult male Israeli citizens.

"The Palestinians at first thought that it was a bluff. They claimed that there were about 50 Israelis on board. In those days they didn't have automated reservation systems and it took quite a few days until the world realized there were no Israeli citizens on board and they were really all Americans. The US kind of felt flustered because there were no demands placed on it, but its citizens were involved. In other words, its citizens were going to be freed only if Israel did something. Actually, at one point Henry Kissinger wrote a memo to President Nixon saying that the release of our citizens depends on the action of a third country.

"The United States got it, but the European countries became very upset, because they also were kind of dependent on Israel to do something to help get their citizens out, too. So they, during the course of three weeks, became quite upset at Israel at different times – surprise, surprise. But the US was actually pretty stalwart in its support of Israel during the entire three weeks."

Harrow: So how was it resolved?

"Well, I survived," Raab laughed. "How I survived is very interesting, but you'll have to read the book.

"For the last ten days we actually sat in the middle of a civil war. After the PLO and PFLP had blown up the planes and held onto the 54, King Hussein decided the time had come to crack down on the PLO. And this was encouraged by the US, even though it had its citizens sitting there – I guess we were deemed expendable.

"By Wednesday, September 16, we were 32 Americans in a three-room apartment in Amman. We were in a Palestinian enclave. We awoke the next day to the sound of artillery and machine-gun fire. We sat under shelling with no water or electricity for ten days. They brought us some food – I lost 15 pounds in three weeks. At one point I didn't know when the next meal would come and it was very distressing. It was very miraculous that we came out alive. We could have died by mistake."

Harrow: How did all this affect you, a 17-year-old?

"It affected me in a lot of ways, in terms of priorities in life. I became obsessed with Israel," Raab, who now lives in Raanana, admits. "There were 78 American Jews who boarded the plane in Tel Aviv that morning. About 20 percent of them now live in Israel – which is a huge percentage if you think about it. These people left with a feeling that they were a part of Israeli history and their response the Palestinians was to make Israel their home.

For more information or to purchase the book, visit

Click here to listen to Eve Harrow's interview with David Raab on Israel National Radio

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.




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