Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Paragliding fighters flew into Israel. A similar attack happened 35 years ago.

Paragliding fighters flew into Israel. A similar attack happened 35 years ago.

Israeli soldiers could hear but not see the threat humming above them.

Two enemy aircraft took off late on Nov. 25, 1987, near Lebanon’s southern border, intent on invading Israeli airspace. They were not jet fighters, helicopter gunships or even blimps. Palestinian guerrillas were trying to attack a country protected by one of the most powerful militaries in the world — with hang gliders that were scarcely more than kites retrofitted with propellers and engines the size of a lawn mower’s.

Within minutes, one of the two pilot-assassins had crossed into Israel, killed six soldiers and wounded at least seven others before being fatally shot.

The raid would live in infamy as the Night of the Gliders.

That attack more than 35 years ago took on new relevance Saturday morning as Palestinian fighters launched a multipronged attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip, invading the country on motorcycles, pickup trucks, boats — and paragliders.

The scale of the attack dwarfed the Night of Gliders. Combined with rocket strikes, Palestinian militants had killed more than 700 people and wounded thousands of others as of early Monday. Israel formally declared war Sunday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to turn “all of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in … into rubble.” On Monday, it announced a full siege of Gaza, with the defense minister promising “no electricity, no food, no fuel” for the enclave.

Israel will investigate possible security lapses and figure out how the attackers had caught the country’s defense forces by surprise, Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“They prepared a surprise attack. They breached the border fence, they came with paragliders and through the sea,” Herzog said. “There will be sufficient time after the war to investigate what exactly happened.”

In 1987, the Israeli army was similarly caught off guard when two Palestinian guerrillas tried to fly giant red-and-white hang gliders some three miles across the country’s northern border with Lebanon, Time magazine reported. While soldiers heard the engines above them, the helicopter gunships they sent to investigate never found anything.

One of the guerrilla pilots failed to cross the Israeli border, instead landing in a buffer zone of Lebanese territory that Israel controlled as a “security zone.” Troops fatally shot him there, an army spokesman told the New York Times in 1987.

But his compatriot got across, landing in a field of thistles north of Kiryat Shemona in Israel, Time reported. The guerrilla pilot then ran some 500 feet to an army base, armed with a Soviet-made Kalashnikov rifle, a pistol equipped with a suppressor and hand grenades. Once the soldier acting as a lookout fled, the guerrilla entered the camp, threw grenades at and opened fire into the tents of unsuspecting Israeli soldiers.

One of the wounded soldiers, a 20-year-old, fatally shot the Palestinian, ending the attack — the most lethal Israel had seen in nearly a decade, Time reported.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Syria-based terrorist group that carried out dozens of attacks in Europe and the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s, claimed responsibility.

Yasser Arafat, then the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, praised the Popular Front’s efforts, according to Reuters.

“The attack demonstrated that there could be no barriers or obstacles to prevent a guerrilla who has decided to become a martyr,” he said at the time.

Four months later, the 19-year-old who abandoned his lookout post was court-martialed and sentenced to three years in jail. At his sentencing, he was chastised for forsaking his duty to protect his fellow soldiers and denounced for “shameful behavior.”

How a night of dancing and revelry in Israel turned into a massacre

In the aftermath of the attack, Israeli army leaders wondered how, given the country’s military prowess, they had been caught flat-footed by such a technologically unsophisticated strike.

“How did it happen that one terrorist killed six soldiers and wounded seven others?” Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, then the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, asked at the time. “We cannot live with an event like this.”

Nearly 36 years later, Israel finds itself asking similar questions about an attack — but this time, the casualties are far higher.

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