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Israel carried out the world's first airliner hijacking; the BBC needs to acknowledge this

July 14, 2021 at 9:21 am

A general view outside the BBC Studios on 27 May 2021 in England [Nathan Stirk/Getty Images]

The BBC has become embroiled in a fact-checking row with demands for an apology over a presenter’s claims that Libya was the first nation to carry out a state-sponsored hijacking of an airliner in the Middle East. According to the broadcaster’s flagship radio show, “The Long View”, the assertion was based on a hijacking incident in 1971. Counter-claims have emerged, though, pointing out that it was actually Israel which was the first ever state to carry out an act of sky piracy when, in 1954, it hijacked a Syrian civilian airliner.

The 29 June episode of “The Long View” was presented by Jonathan Freedland. He looked at the history of state-sponsored hijackings following a recent well-documented incident in Belarusian air space, involving a Ryanair plane en route from the Greek capital, Athens.

Belarus scrambled a fighter jet to force the Lithuania-bound plane to land in Minsk on 23 May; the pretext was an alleged bomb threat. However, this was simply a ruse to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, who was removed by Belarusian police when passengers disembarked from the aircraft.

Journalist Freedland used the major news story to link to similar historic incidents for the weekly show. However, after the broadcast, several listeners contacted the BBC accusing Freedland of using his platform to conceal Israel’s pioneering role during the programme which, according to the BBC website, explored “the history of state sponsored air-hijacking”. Complainant Mick Napier, one of the co-founders of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, insists that the claim is demonstrably false. “Freedland must have known – half way competent programme researchers would have told him — that 16 years earlier [than the Libyan incident] Israeli warplanes had forced a Syrian Airways scheduled flight over the Mediterranean to divert from international air space to Lydda Airport in Israel.”

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This was on 12 December, 1954: Israeli war planes forced a Syrian Airways Dakota aircraft carrying four passengers and five crewmen to land inside Israel. The passengers were interrogated for two days before international protests, including strong complaints from the US, finally persuaded the Zionist state to release both the aircraft and its passengers.

“I have no reason to doubt the truth of the factual affirmation of the US State Department that our action was without precedent in the history of international practice,” wrote Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, in his diary. “What shocks and worries me is the narrow-mindedness and the short-sightedness of our military leaders. They seem to presume that the state of Israel may — or even must — behave in the realm of international relations according to the laws of the jungle.”

Some observers might claim that Israel still operates in such a manner, as it continually flouts international laws and casually ignores countless UN resolutions. For a state which claims that its legitimacy stems from a UN resolution, this is indeed ironic.

The unprecedented act of aviation piracy was down to Israel’s Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan. He needed hostages to trade for the release of five Israeli soldiers who were caught red-handed and arrested for trying to retrieve tapping devices on telephone wires on the Syrian Golan Heights. Israel expressed outrage at their imprisonment, but despite appeals the government in Damascus refused to release them.

Tensions mounted a month later when one of the Israeli soldiers, Uri Ilan, the son of a former Israeli politician, committed suicide in jail on 13 January, 1955. Although the Israeli media accused Syria of torture, an examination by the UN showed “no signs of physical ill-treatment” of Ilan. Despite his death, Syria still refused to release the remaining prisoners, and accused Israel of holding Syrian civilians as prisoners.

The impasse spiralled out of control in December 1955, when two Israeli paratroop battalions backed by artillery and mortar fire under the command of Ariel Sharon (who went on to be held responsible for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, among other atrocities) attacked Syrian military posts at Buteiha Farm and Koursi near the north-east shore of Lake Tiberias. It was Israel’s largest military raid inside Syria at that time and resulted in 56 Syrians being killed, including three women; many more were wounded.

Sharon’s troops also took 30 prisoners, who were later used by Israel as hostages to exchange for the four Israelis held by Syria. The US expressed its “shock” at the raid and supported a resolution by the UN Security Council that condemned Israel for its “flagrant violation” of the armistice agreement. Clearly, back in the 1950s Israel did not hold sway over Washington as much as it does today.

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That was the fifth time that the Security Council had condemned, censured, called upon and otherwise passed resolutions critical of Israel. Since then, there have been countless more, but the occupation state simply ignores them. The support that it gets from the US means that it gets away with this with alarming frequency.

It’s a mystery why the award-winning Freedland, editor of the Guardian’s opinion pages, appears to have airbrushed this episode from the history of state sponsored hijacking in his programme. Did he allow his own Zionism to dictate his output? Maybe we will never know if the BBC’s dismissive response to Napier’s complaint is anything to go by. That response is available in full in an article that he has written for the SPSC website.

His complaint centres on the “untruthfulness of Freedland’s claim that the 1971 Libyan and not the 1954 Israeli air piracy was ‘the first ever case where a commercial scheduled passenger [aircraft] had been hijacked, taken over by a government’.”

Napier told me that his point is not that the Israeli crime wasn’t highlighted but that the Libyan example was falsely claimed to be “the first ever case” of such an incident. “Freedland ignored Israel’s trailblazing role in state air piracy, and attributing that role to an Arab regime is not indicative of any bias, despite Mr Freedland’s very prominent role defending the Israeli state and attacking its opponents. The programme concealed from the public a historical fact that Israel introduced air piracy into the Middle East and falsely attributed that innovation to Libya. My complaint is that he claimed that Libya rather than Israel introduced the practice (hijacking) into the Middle East; this is false. He is entitled to his own militantly pro-Israel opinions but not to his own facts.”

Napier says that he and others will not let the matter drop until the BBC puts the record straight and issues an apology. At the time of writing, Jonathan Freedland could not be reached for a comment.

The BBC Complaints Department says that it will respond to Napier’s follow up complaint within 20 days. As the veteran pro-Palestine campaigner insists, this is not about trying to change someone’s opinion, but to ensure that facts are presented accurately. That Israel carried out the first state-sponsored hijacking of a civilian airliner isn’t open to interpretation. The BBC needs to acknowledge this history lesson, and issue a correction without delay.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.