"The Death of Klinghoffer" juxtaposes, in a brilliantly executed opera, one of the most horrible Palestinian terrorist acts of the 20th Century with the narrative of Palestinian suffering and deaths under the nearly fifty-year-old Israeli occupation. Whether it was out of place to put these two issues together in a single work of art has been a subject of intense controversy.
As with many international crises, there is an intelligence sub-text that is not always well known.
On October 7, 1985, four young members of the PLO-aligned Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro at Port Said, Egypt. They ordered the ship's crew to go to Syria where, however, they were refused landing.
On October 8 at 3 p.m. they shot and killed an elderly passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, simply because he was Jewish, and then threw him overboard while he was still in his wheelchair!
The hijackers also failed to land at Cyprus. Stymied, they then returned to Port Said. By this time PLO chief Yasir Arafat had entered the picture and told PLF chief Abu al-Abbas to go to Egypt to mediate the situation.
At Port Said, the hijackers promised to end the siege if they were allowed safe passage, and the Egyptian authorities agreed. The hostage takers disembarked on October 9.
It was decided to fly the hostages, plus Abu al-Abbas, out of the country aboard an Egyptair plane. However, unbeknownst to the Egyptians, intelligence was obtained by the U.S.
Here the irrepressible Col. Oliver North swung into action, with the result that American fighter jets intercepted the Egyptian airliner and forced it to land at Sigonella NATO airbase in Sicily. However, though the Americans planned to seize the hijackers, after a heated exchange the Italian carabineri would not allow it. (NATO was a tenant there of the Italian Air Force).
The hijackers were taken to Rome, where Abu al-Abbas was allowed to go to Yugoslavia. (Israeli intelligence subsequently confirmed that Abbas was the mastermind of the operation). Three of the four hijackers were subsequently sentenced in Italy for periods ranging from 15 to 30 years, along with 11 accomplices, nine of whom were tried in absentia. The fourth hijacker, a 17-year-old, was tried separately.
Although it was not a wholly satisfactory operation by the U.S., it did reflect the reach of intelligence capabilities, and it gave some degree of closure to the ghastly crime that the terrorists had committed.