Operation Wooden Leg
|Operation "Wooden Leg"|
|Part of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict|
|Planned by||Israeli Air Force|
|Objective||Destroy PLO headquarters in Hammam Chott, Tunisia|
|Date||October 1, 1985|
|Executed by||Eight F-15 Eagles|
|Outcome||United Nations Security Council Resolution 573.|
UN Security Council voted to condemn the attack as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter; considered Tunisia had right to reparations. United States abstained.
|Casualties||Between 47 and 71 killed|
Operation "Wooden Leg" (Hebrew: מבצע רגל עץ, Mivtza Regel Etz) was an attack by Israel on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Hammam Chott, near Tunis, Tunisia, on October 1, 1985. With a target 1,280 miles (2,060 km) from the operation's starting point, this was the most distant publicly known action undertaken by the Israel Defense Forces since Operation Entebbe in 1976. It has been condemned by the United Nations Security Council.
After being driven out of Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War, the PLO moved its headquarters to Tunisia. On September 25, 1985, three gunmen hijacked an Israeli yacht off the coast of Larnaca, Cyprus, and killed three Israeli tourists on board. The victims were Reuven Paltsur, 53, his wife Esther 50, both of Haifa, and their friend Avraham Avneri, 53, of Arad who had taken a vacation cruise to nearby Cyprus marina, a popular spot for Israelis. Paltsur, who owned the yacht, was described as a dedicated sailor, active in the Sea Scouts and other movements promoting seafaring among Israelis.
The heavily armed perpetrators were Elias Yehiya and Nasif Mahmoud and George Hannah, all who self-identified as Palestinian and committed the act in the name of Palestinian nationalism. The later was identified as British citizen lan Michael Davison who had joined the PLO cause and fought alongside Yasser Arafat two years prior. The other two said they were from Lebanon.
An anonymous caller told the Jerusalem office of Agence France Presse that the attack was carried out by the PLO's elite Force 17 unit. However, PLO officials denied that. The Israelis were allowed to write down their final thoughts before being shot. The nature of the killings provoked widespread shock in Israel. The PLO claimed that the victims were Mossad agents monitoring Palestinian naval traffic out of Cyprus. They said attack was a response for the capture and imprisonment of senior Force 17 commander Faisal Abu Sharah by the Israeli Navy two weeks earlier. Sharah had been sailing on the Opportunity, a small ship that regularly shuttled between Beirut and Larnaca, when it was stopped by an Israeli naval patrol boat with Mossad agents on board. Sharah was arrested, taken to Israel and interrogated. He was then tried and given a heavy prison sentence. Since then, the Israeli Navy and the Mossad had intercepted several other vessels and arrested passengers suspected of terrorist activity.
Israel asked for the extradition of the killers, but Cyprus authorities preferred to have them tried in their country.
The Israeli cabinet and the Israeli Air Force desired immediate retaliation, and chose the Tunis headquarters of the PLO as their target. Intelligence supplied to Israel by Jonathan Pollard on the Tunisian and Libyan air defense systems greatly facilitated the raid. Gordon Thomas claimed in his controversial book Gideon's Spies that many of the subsequent stories in the Arab press warning of Israeli retaliation were planted by LAP, the Mossad's department of psychological warfare.
On the eve of the attack, Tunisia expressed concern to the United States that it might be attacked by Israel. However, the United States, according to a high-ranking Tunisian official, assured Tunisia there was no reason to worry.
The strike was carried out by ten F-15 Eagles, six from 106 "Edge of Spear" Squadron and four from 133 "Knights of the Twin Tail" Squadron. Eight of the jets would attack the target with two remaining as backup. The attack was led by Lieutenant Colonel Avner Naveh. At 07:00 on October 1, the aircraft took off from Tel Nof Airbase. A Boeing 707 heavily modified for refueling operations refueled the F-15s in mid-flight over the Mediterranean Sea in order to allow the operation to be executed over such a distance. The Israeli Navy stationed a helicopter-carrying vessel near Malta to recover downed pilots, but these were never needed. The route was designed to avoid detection by Egyptian and Libyan radars and United States Navy vessels patrolling the Mediterranean. Israeli Air Force commander Amos Lapidot saw little chance of resistance from the Tunisian Air Force or Tunisian air defenses, but believed that on such a long flight, technical problems could arise.
The F-15s flew low over the shore, and fired precision-guided munitions on the PLO headquarters, a cluster of sand-colored buildings along the seaside. The planes attacked the southern location first, so that the northern wind would not pull smoke over the northern targets. The attack lasted for six minutes, after which the F-15s flew back to Israel, refueled again by the Boeing 707.
The PLO headquarters were completely destroyed, although Yasser Arafat, the head of the organization, was not there at the time and escaped unharmed. Israel claimed that some 60 PLO members were killed, including several leaders of Force 17, and several of Arafat's bodyguards. In addition, the operation resulted in casualties among civilian bystanders. According to other sources, 56 Palestinians and 15 Tunisians were killed and about 100 wounded. Hospital sources put the final count at 47 dead and 65 wounded. Amnon Kapeliouk, who was a close friend of Yasser Arafat and a founder of the Israeli advocacy group B’tselem, was the only Israeli reporter allowed to report from the scene.
Because the attack was conducted so far from Israel, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba said in a 1990 article that he believed that attack plan must have been known of by the United States, if not actually involving American collaboration.
The attack provoked a strong outcry, even in the United States, Israel's strongest ally. Though initially labeling the strike a "legitimate response to terror", the Reagan administration later said the attack "cannot be condoned". The attack also harmed relations between the US administration and the Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba. Believing the US knew about the attack, and was possibly involved, Tunisia considered breaking diplomatic ties with the US.
In the United Nations Security Council Resolution 573 (1985), the Security Council voted (with the United States abstaining) to condemn the attack on Tunisian territory as a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter and considered that Tunisia had the right to appropriate reparations.
Following the arrest of Jonathan Pollard in November 1985, it was reported that Israeli reprisal was assisted thanks to satellite images that Pollard transmitted to Israel.
In Pollard's court defense memorandum he stated that his Israeli handlers "stressed the fact that the mission could not have been undertaken without the information I made available."
Within Tunisia, there was public outrage. For a week after the attack, the country's small Jewish community found itself the target of individual acts of antisemitism, such as insults and stone-throwing against Jewish shops. On October 8, 1985, on the island of Djerba, a Tunisian police officer whose brother had been killed at the PLO headquarters fired into the El Ghriba synagogue during Simchat Torah services, killing 5-year-old Yoav Hadad, 14-year-old Yehudit Bucharis and 56-year-old Haim Cohen.
- "Three Israelis Killed In 10-Hour Yacht Siege". AP NEWS. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
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- Black, Edwin (June 20, 2002). "Does Jonathan Pollard Deserve a Life Sentence?". History News Network. Retrieved November 24, 2009.
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- Black, Ian: Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services
- Seale, 1993. p.238
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- United Nations Security Council Resolution S/RES/573(1985) October 4, 1985. Retrieved August 10, 2007.
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