Operation Thunderbolt and the 3 stages of Palestinian PR

The other day I saw the film “Mivtza Yonatan” [Operation Thunderbolt], an Israeli film about the rescue of the Air France plane hijacked to Entebbe in 1976. You can call it a propaganda film, but after all, the story is true. I recommend it highly.

The hijacking was led by a German, Wilfried Böse (Klaus Kinski), a founder of the radical German Revolutionary Cells organization. His was aided by another German, Brigitte Kuhlmann (played in the film as a sadistic murderer by Sybil Danning), and two Palestinians belonging to the PFLP.

One of the most powerful moments in the film came when the hijackers separated the Israelis from the other passengers, a ‘selection’ reminiscent of the Holocaust. A German-speaking hostage asked Kuhlmann something like “how can you, a German woman, do this to Jews?” Kuhlmann answered “wir kämpfen nicht gegen die Juden…” “We are not fighting against the Jews. We are fighting Zionist Imperialism.” But one could see from her behavior that the distinction was less than sharp for her.

Kuhlmann represented the second stage of Palestinian anti-Israel PR (the first was “we are going to drive those Zionists into the sea”. It didn’t get much traction). Here is something I wrote last year which describes the second and third stages:

In the mid-1960’s Yasser Arafat — with Soviet guidance — turned the Palestinian public relations strategy around. David Meir-Levy wrote (History Upside Down, pp. 28-29),

Arafat was particularly struck by Ho Chi Minh’s success in mobilizing left-wing sympathizers in Europe and the United States, where activists on American campuses, enthusiastically following the line of North Vietnamese operatives, had succeeded in reframing the Vietnam war from a Communist assault on the south to a struggle for national liberation.

Ho’s chief strategist, General Giap, made it clear to Arafat and his lieutenants that in order to succeed, they too needed to redefine the terms of their struggle. Giap’s counsel was simple but profound: the PLO needed to work in a way that concealed its real goals, permitted strategic deception, and gave the appearance of moderation:

Stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand.

At the same time that he was getting advice from General Giap, Arafat was also being tutored by Muhammad Yazid, who had been minister of information in two Algerian wartime governments (1958-1962):

Wipe out the argument that Israel is a small state whose existence is threatened by the Arab states, or the reduction of the Palestinian problem to a question of refugees; instead, present the Palestinian struggle as a struggle for liberation like the others. Wipe out the impression …that in the struggle between the Palestinians and the Zionists, the Zionist is the underdog. Now it is the Arab who is oppressed and victimized in his existence because he is not only facing the Zionists but also world imperialism.

The new approach was wildly successful, especially with the moderate Left, which had [until then] generally supported the somewhat socialist state of Israel.

A bit later somebody noticed how successful the strategy of boycott and divestment had been in bringing down the racist, apartheid South African regime. Israel is neither a racist nor an apartheid state — the concepts fit the Arab world much better — but they are tremendously powerful today, and unlike the “colonialist” and “imperialist” labels, are effective on a wide spectrum of the Western population, not just the Left. Thus began the third stage:

At the 2001 UN Durban Conference on Racism, this approach was refined, focused and amplified. Now Israel was presented as not only denying Palestinians their rights, but as doing so out of an essential racism. The false analogy with South African apartheid was pushed and similar remedies were proposed: delegitimization, boycotts, divestment, etc.

Today when we are continually bombarded with the message that the ‘problem’ is the denial of human rights to Palestinians, it’s best to remember that although the message has changed, the intention — the elimination of the Jewish state — hasn’t.

Just as Kuhlmann’s ‘political’ motivation was belied by her pleasure in humiliating Jews, so is the Arab and Iranian concern for Palestinian rights not entirely convincing. And does not the lack of interest in a peace agreement displayed by the Palestinians themselves tell us something about their actual goals?

By the way, another inspiring moment in the film was when the Air France crew insisted on being put with the Israelis at the time of the ‘selection’ — which, for all they knew, could have meant their death. Remember that the next time you are moved to dump on the French!

Loading the Hercules transport planes before leaving for Entebbe

Loading the Hercules transport planes before leaving for Entebbe: IDF Spokesperson photo

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