Some day, an Israeli intelligence officer will write his memoirs. He will recount his brave deeds and reveal how his cunning strategy thwarted the enemy at every turn. The book will not be banned in Israel. The retired officer will appear on television to promote the book. Some interviewer, whose researcher may have read the book and handed him a few notes, might just lean confidentially toward the author and ask, “Could you tell us about one of your most exciting chapters, how in February 1988, you blew up the Palestinian ‘Ship of Return’?”
The PLO may have lost a unique opportunity to create an issue to show the people inside the territories that their leaders outside were not standing idly by while Israelis shot and beat their children. This opportunity presented itself in January when Israel decided to deport four Palestinians from the territories to Lebanon. The UN Security Council unanimously deplored the action in Resolutions 607 and 608, reminding Israel that deportation was a clear violation of international law, particularly of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a signatory.
Article 49 of the Convention states: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motives.” Israel denies that the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied,” preferring to call them “disputed” territories. They are nothing if not disputed.
The PLO saw in the deportations and the clear international consensus against them a way to make a peaceful protest by sending the deportees back home. They would do it in a way that would take one of the most cherished fables in Israeli mythology away from the Jewish refugees of Europe and give it to the Arab refugees of Palestine. The PLO would send 135 deportees to Israel by sea, pace the Exodus, which in 1947 attempted to carry 4,500 Holocaust survivors from Marseilles to Palestine. The British navy did not allow the Exodus refugees ashore and succeeded in sending them on other ships back to Europe, but the Zionists won the propaganda battle. Jon and David Kimche wrote in The Secret Roads: The “Illegal” Migration of a People, 1938-1948, that “world press comments grew increasingly unfavorable to the British action. This was just what the Mossad had wanted…for the Mossad had never underestimated the power of public opinion, and had always held that the British position in Palestine would become untenable only when world opinion became overwhelmingly hostile to it.”
If the Palestinians were to be turned away by Israel in 1988, they would win a similar propaganda victory. (They would also raise the larger issue of the 3 million other Palestinian exiles — the 1948 and 1967 refugees who dwell outside their homeland.) If Israel allowed the deportees to enter, it would set a valuable precedent. Either way, the Palestinians could not lose. Or could they?
The Haganah, which after 1948 became the Israeli army, organized the Exodus well — putting the refugees silently on the steamship President Warfield in the dead of the night, bribing harbor officials and then making a daring escape from the port when the French tried to prevent the sailing.
The PLO went about its task in the opposite way. It set up shop in Athens, publicly found a ship, the Silver Paloma, and sought the support of scores of trade unions, solidarity committees and European and Israeli MPs. The world’s press became aware of the story’s potential, and more than 200 of us arrived here hoping to accompany the deportees to Haifa.
Several Israeli Knesset members came to Athens to show their support for the right to return. Two people who had been aboard the Exodus in 1947 arrived. One is now a gentle, prim-looking journalist named Miriam El Gazi, who was a child when the British sent her back to Europe. The other was the commander of the Palmach — the Haganah’s elite unit — Yossi Harel. Harel boarded the Silver Paloma before it was withdrawn and told the Israeli newspaper Hadashot, “The PLO people have learned very well from our history, and I foresee that in the near future they will begin to send ships with women and children from the refugee camps to the shores of Israel. From my own experience, I can tell you there is no way to defeat refugees.”
The scheduled departure from Piraeus was February 10. It was to be a marvelous Mediterranean cruise in good weather, but it gradually became clear that the deportees, solidarity committees, Israeli dissidents and journalists were not the only people who had come to Athens. The owners of the Silver Paloma suddenly and mysteriously withdrew from their agreement. The Palestinians scurried around the Piraeus shipping agencies and found four more ships, including the one from Sweden, in succession. Their owners, too, mysteriously changed their minds at the last minute. Something was going wrong.
The press corps, not the most civilized segment of humanity at the best of times, grew impatient. The PLO tried to satiate their appetite for quotes and television “soundbites” with press conferences, two and three a day, at the Inter-Continental Hotel. Most of these news events interfered with a fairly heavy lunch schedule for the overworked scribes, some of whom threatened open rebellion. The free flow of information which marked the early days came to a halt as the PLO realized Mossad was dragging its heels. It became obvious Israel was not planning to wait for the ship to reach Haifa, where the eyes of the world would be upon it. Israel would stop the ship from leaving at all.
“There is a real war going on,” Bassam Abu Sharif of the PLO told one press conference, explaining why he could no longer reveal details about the journey. Abu Sharif is an intelligent Marxist who hijacked airplanes for the PFLP in 1970, fought in Jordan during Black September and in Lebanon in 1982. He is missing several fingers and bears scars on his face from an Israeli letter bomb. When he said the battle was becoming serious, he knew what he was talking about.
Palestinians kept up a flurry of activity in Athens to conceal what was really going on in Cyprus, the Casablanca of the 1980s with spies, smugglers and charlatans galore. Yasser Arafat, who desperately wanted the plan to succeed, sent people to Desdemona’s isle to find a ship. There, about to come up for auction on February 18, was a 40-year old rusty ferry, the Sol Phyrene, which until last November plied the Cyprus-Haifa run and whose owners were badly in debt. Before the auction a Limassol shipping company suddenly paid $600,000 for the ship, more than it was worth.
In Cyprus, the day after the Sol Phyrene had been purchased, a car bomb in Limassol killed the three Palestinians who had been dealing with the shipping company. Despite the bomb, the PLO said it would shortly be sailing from somewhere. On Monday morning, the deportees, sympathizers and journalists were told to go to Athens airport to fly to Larnaca and board an unnamed ship bound for Haifa. Israel would not after all be able to stop the ship, the PLO said. It would sail, probably on Monday night. Some of the deportees and about a quarter of the press corps were by noon at the airport. The rest were milling around the lobby of the Inter-Continental interviewing one another. Then, one of the thousands of ominous rumors which have plagued this enterprise from its inception began to circulate: “The ship’s been blown up.”
Some of the Israeli journalists, who were risking prosecution if they boarded the ship, began comparing the affair not to the Exodus but to another 1947 Jewish refugee ship, the Patria. This was the vessel the Haganah itself blew up when the British refused to permit the refugees to land. More than 200 people died, and the Haganah failed in its attempt to blame the British for the explosion.
Bassam Abu Sharif came down from his room and made a short statement confirming the rumor. In an hour, there would be yet another press conference.
At about the time Bassam was accusing Israel of planting both the car and ship bombs in Limassol, and promising the voyage would still take place, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was speaking to high school students in Tel Aviv. “The State of Israel,” he told the youngsters, “decided it was compelled not to let them achieve their purpose, and we will do that in whatever ways we find.”
Meanwhile, the European sympathizers and Israeli dissidents started drifting away. The press corps gradually dissolved, taking hangovers and large hotel bills back home. The PLO is promising again that some ship will soon set sail. The 130 deportees, each man and woman of whom stands as a physical symbol of their 3 million dispersed countrymen, wait like Odysseus in Calypso’s cave for the day when a fleet ship will carry them safely home across the wine-dark sea.