Despite Tuesday's failure to capture radical Palestinian leaders mistakenly thought to be aboard an intercepted Libyan jet, Israel will not hesitate to take similar initiatives against terrorists in the future, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said today.
"If someone tries to impose terrorism on us, we will not hesitate to react on land, sea or in the air," he said in a speech to the World Zionist Federation.
Israel had hoped that several Palestinian terrorists would be aboard the plane, which was flying from Tripoli, Libya, to Damascus when it was intercepted over the Mediterranean by two Israeli warplanes and forced to land in northern Israel.
But the specific target of the operation, Peres told a closed-door parliamentary committee meeting yesterday, was Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
According to defense correspondents in today's Hebrew-language press, three jets had taken off at about the same time Tuesday from Tripoli, where radical Palestinian and Arab groups had held a two-day meeting. While some Palestinian leaders had boarded one of the planes, the reports said, quoting military sources, Israeli intelligence failure had led to the interception of the wrong one. The downed jet was carrying Syrian and Lebanese officials and politicians, who were released with the plane after being held for several hours.
But apparently none of the planes was carrying Jibril, who gave a news conference last night in Tripoli. Jibril threatened retaliation against U.S. and Israeli civilian airliners for the interception.
A spokesman for El Al said the Israeli airline was taking no extra precautions beyond normally strict security measures. He noted that El Al's flight paths are a long way from Libya, and said that the immediate area around Israel was well protected by its Air Force.
Israel's Foreign Ministry has launched an information campaign, through guidelines issued to its diplomatic missions abroad, explaining the rationale behind the failed operation. Noting that intelligence information had indicated that the plane was carrying terrorists who were planning attacks or had been involved in past attacks against Israel, the guidelines indicated that Israel had intended to put the Palestinian captives on trial here.
The decision to intercept the Libyan executive jet apparently was made by Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, without consulting the rest of the Cabinet. Police Minister Haim Bar-Lev said today that the Cabinet often has discussed methods of fighting terrorism, but that the question of handling captured terrorist leaders was not part of those discussions.