When shots rang out again, we knew we had to storm the bus
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When shots rang out again, we knew we had to storm the bus

30 years ago, as a member of the Yamam counter-terrorism unit, I helped rescue the 'Mothers Bus' hostages: Here's how we pulled off that mission

The "Mothers Bus" hostage rescue mission carried out by Yamam special anti-terrorist unit, near Dimona, March 7, 1988 (IDF Southern Command, Intelligence Section, Publications)
The "Mothers Bus" hostage rescue mission carried out by Yamam special anti-terrorist unit, near Dimona, March 7, 1988 (IDF Southern Command, Intelligence Section, Publications)
Minutes after the firing stopped, Yamam operatives extracting the hostages from the “Mothers Bus.” (Photo: IDF Southern Command)

On March 7, 1988, the Yamam anti-terrorism unit of the Israel Police rescued eight Israeli civilian hostages being held by terrorists on a bus near Dimona. Today the Yamam is famous for a variety of difficult and audacious missions that it has undertaken in the seemingly endless fight against terrorism, and it is highly respected. But that drizzly March morning in the desert was the first time the Yamam had executed a classic hostage rescue mission, and its success propelled the unit from relative obscurity to worldwide fame. I was a member of the rescue team. This is my personal account of that day.

A year after the Mothers Bus attack and the rescue, there was a memorial service for the three employees of the Nuclear Research Institute who had lost their lives – Victor Ram, Rina Shiratzky and Miriam Ben-Yair. It was held in a large auditorium in Beersheva and many people were gathered there – family members, co-workers, and others connected with the Institute and its work. A senior police officer, Commissioner David Kraus, was invited to speak as the police representative “whose men had executed the rescue,” or so said the compere. But, as far as I know, officially no members of the actual rescue team were present. Officially.

In fact, one of the rescuers was there. Israel being Israel, “it just so happened” that an uncle of mine was the head of the welfare department at the Institute and he thought it would be meaningful for some of the rescued hostages to meet at least one of the rescuers. I was no longer in the Yamam by this time, so my attendance was purely in a private capacity. Very few people knew, and certainly no-one announced it. And so it was that I was smuggled in and got to pay my own respects to the people who had died that day. And to meet some of the people I had helped to rescue.

A small twist of fate had tied me to one of the hostages quite publicly. Back in my Yamam days, before I was married, I shared a flat in a town near Jerusalem with an old friend, Zaq. The morning after the rescue, Zaq phoned me while he was on his way to work. Zaq knew what I did for a living and what I had done the previous day, and he asked me if I had rescued a woman in a turquoise sweater in the bus takedown. I told him I had, but how the hell did he know? He said that he had picked up a newspaper at a stand at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and that there was a photo of this woman and me on the front page of Yediot Aharonot, one of the big dailies. I was alarmed – our identities were supposed to be secret!

Zaq told me not to worry, the paper had put a thick black line across my eyes. But how had he recognized me? Apparently, my blond moustache was a big giveaway. So, while my friends all knew what I had done that day, no-one else did. On reflection, I suppose that that wasn’t such a terrible situation at all.

The writer’s saved clipping of the photo of the writer with a rescued hostage, that appeared on the cover page of Yediot Aharonot, the day after the rescue. Photo: IDF (Southern Command)/Yediot Aharonot)

My uncle knew. He told me that the woman seen holding my hand in a photo on the front page of Israel’s most popular newspaper was called Ronit, she lived in Omer, and she wanted to meet me. After the memorial ceremony, my uncle took me to Omer to meet privately with Ronit and with another one of the rescued hostages, Rachel Matza, in Rachel’s home. The three of us relaxed in Rachel’s living room and talked over coffee.

I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember what Ronit and Rachel told me about how the rescue had unfolded for them. It was like a thunderbolt. They said that they heard a quick fusillade of shots, then there was a brief moment of panic, and suddenly there were “soldiers” everywhere. Of course, that’s how it should have been. Total surprise.

As for my own perspective? This is it.

The Alert

Monday, March 7, 1988, was a rare sleep-in morning in the Yamam’s base, “somewhere in the centre of the country.” All the men in my troop, Number 3 Troop, were snoozing in our beds. We had all been up late the night before, enjoying the unit’s Purim party. The party hadn’t been a booze-up – that wasn’t our style and two troops were in any case on stand-by and were spending the night on the base. Instead, all the unit’s personnel, together with wives and girlfriends, had enjoyed an inter-troop comedy sketch competition.

But our planned lie-in that Monday morning was interrupted by the shrill ringing of the base’s emergency alarm bells. When those bells go off, you get dressed as fast as you can and run down to the vans. It’s something you do without thinking, just another drill. You don’t worry about brushing your teeth or applying deodorant – your next customers aren’t expected tp be too offended by your toilette. And you don’t worry about the briefing – you get that by radio while you’re on your way to wherever the emergency is. The important thing is: get on the road as soon as you can.

The vans we used were aging Dodge Rams. They weren’t quite falling apart – yet – but all too frequently one would refuse to start, and we would all have to get out and give the thing a push. Their replacements, GMCs, were already on order, but meanwhile we had to endure. Murphy’s Law dictated that on this day of all days, all three of our troop’s Rams and, I believe, all three of Number One Troop’s Rams decided not to start. Everyone got out to jump-start the Rams and for a few minutes we looked more like the Keystone Kops than the vaunted Yamam Special Counter-Terrorism Unit.

Our team’s Dodge Ram. With Yosef A. and the writer. (Photo: Mark Granat)

Very quickly all the engines were running, and we were on the move. Drama followed drama as someone shouted that we were one man short. Danny K.  had not slept in like the rest of us but had gone for a run and hadn’t yet come back. No surprise, really. Danny was an immigrant from the USSR and was a physical fitness fanatic. We were all exceptionally fit – it was a requirement of the job – but he took fitness to another level. He wouldn’t miss a scheduled workout, no matter how late he had gone to bed. He had been a judo champion back in Russia, and in the IDF he had served as an officer in Sayeret Golani. He was the most Type A person I had ever met. People were nervous about waking him up in the morning because he would often react by physically attacking you. When it was my turn, I would prod him with a broomstick to stay out of range. He had been in some disciplinary trouble in the army and when I asked him what it was about, he had responded with one word, “violence.” When he was actually awake we got along really well. He was extraordinarily intelligent and well-read. We found him running along a road near the base, his team bundled him aboard their Ram, and off we all went.

Danny K is no longer alive. He served with the Yamam and then other Border Guard units until his death in 2004, at the age of 41. He died from a cardiac arrest during a weights workout in the gym.

The Journey

Over the radios, we very quickly learned what the flap was about. Some terrorists had crossed the Egyptian border from the Sinai desert, hijacked a car, and were on the loose somewhere down south. Roadblocks were being set up, but at this point there was no way to tell how the situation would develop.

Charlie Chelouche sat in the commander’s chair in my van. He came from a sleepy moshav in the north and had been on my Yamam course in 1986. He combined deep kindness and sensitivity with exceptional combat skills and was seen as a future leader. I often acted as his deputy which meant we worked together a great deal. He used to worship the singer Shlomo Artzi. Wherever we drove, a particular Shlomo Artzi cassette was being played so much that we joked that the cassette player could play all the songs by itself, without the cassette. But there was no Shlomo Artzi right now. Charlie was busy on the radio trying to get as much information as he could.

In October 1990, shortly before he was due to complete officer training, Charlie tried to stop the murderous rampage of a knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist in Baka, Jerusalem, and was killed. His widow, Yael, gave birth to a daughter two weeks later.

In the back with me was my roommate, Itzik P. He was from Sderot. He and his friend Rafi C. had grown up together and joined the Yamam together and all of us, including Charlie, had been on the same Yamam course. He was another fitness fanatic and ran everywhere. If we had to take a journey of a few kilometres, he would often strip to his shorts and run while the rest of us rode in the vans. He had the physique of a male model. With all that macho, he had strong empathetic qualities and enormous sensitivity. He cracked me up a lot because he was always trying to work out schemes to defeat the national lottery and win big. He was a highly-rated operative, and one of my closest friends.

Our driver was my third roommate, Avi D, from Rehovot. He was tall, dark, and very chatty and amiable. Avi loved driving, and he would grab the wheel at every opportunity. He was also a motorcycle fanatic. Just the previous year he had owned a shiny Kawasaki 500cc bike which he had totalled in a head-on collision with a car. He himself had been flung into a nearby wheat field where it had taken the emergency teams half an hour just to find him! Miraculously, he escaped with just some busted vertebrae but no spinal cord damage and, six weeks later, he was back at work. He then took the insurance money from the totalled Kawasaki 500, and bought himself a Kawasaki 1000! Well of course! If you don’t succeed in killing yourself with a Kawasaki 500, you double the engine size and thus double the chances! Some of us thought of taking life insurance out on him, with ourselves named as beneficiaries. I think that some seven of us were interested in this “investment.” Money in the bank, we thought. But before our plans could come to fruition, Avi’s brand new bike was stolen from outside his flat.

And the bike was not insured.

So Avi lived (he is still alive today) and we are all still poor.

With all that, Avi was an amazing driver and gave an astonishing performance on that day. When we hit the Beersheva rush hour traffic with our lights flashing and our sirens blaring, he drove the Ram like he was riding his bike, weaving and dodging and finding spaces that none of us believed existed between the cars. He was exactly the right driver for that crucial moment.

By this time the situation had changed. The terrorists had hijacked a “tour bus,” we were told, near Aro’er junction south of Dimona, and were holding hostages. This was now classic Yamam work.

(We only later found out what had actually happened. Near the Nafkha prison, the terrorists had ambushed a car carrying a group of three IDF officers and two officer cadets who were on their way to an orienteering competition. The soldiers, who were unarmed, were able to escape from the car and hide from the terrorists. The terrorists took the car and drove off. The senior officer of the five raised the alarm. The police set up some roadblocks, but the terrorists shot their way through at least one of these. Eventually, they came across a roadblock that consisted of a semi-trailer truck that the police had used to block the road. A little further north was a bus that had stopped in the road. This bus was taking workers to the Nuclear Research Institute in Dimona. The bus was one specially laid on for employees who were parents and who had to see their children off to school and so left Beersheva after eight o’clock in the morning. Most of the passengers were mothers, with one exception, a widower called Victor Ram. The terrorists leapt out of their car firing wildly and ran for the bus. Thankfully the bus driver was well switched on. He clocked what was going on, and immediately flung the doors open and shouted for everyone to run. Many passengers were able to escape but ten women, and Victor Ram, were trapped by the terrorists on the bus.)

After Beer Sheva, we continued south on the desert road. At one point I looked out of the window to the west and I spotted at least one air force CH-53 Sea Stallion Yasur helicopter flying parallel to us, very low. “Uh oh, look over there,” I said to the team. “It’s Sayeret Matkal.” I didn’t know for certain that it was Sayeret Matkal (this means “General Staff Reconnaissance Unit”), which was the army’s hostage rescue unit (HRU), but it made sense, given the chopper’s altitude and heading and the fact that Sayeret Matkal had easy access to helicopter lift capabilities. It turned out later I was right.

The relationship between the Yamam and Sayeret Matkal was a complex one. Sayeret Matkal was, and is, the army’s premier special operations unit. Selected from the physically most robust and psychologically most unflappable recruits that arrive at the induction centre, there was no question that Sayeret Matkal’s soldiers were in a class of their own. They were superb at their main role of strategic reconnaissance and special missions behind enemy lines and, given the unparalleled quality of their personnel, they were also traditionally the authorities’ unit of choice for domestic hostage rescue missions.

But their performance record in hostage rescue was mixed. On the one hand, they were responsible for the imaginative takedown of the Sabena 571 aircraft at Lod Airport in May 1972 (in which both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak had taken part). It’s hard to believe that they had never before actually practiced aircraft takedowns until they arrived at the airport on that day, but they were masters of improvisation. And of course, no-one can forget the success of Operation Thunderbolt on July 3-4, 1976, in which Sayeret Matkal operatives, backed up by other support units, carried out the spectacular rescue of Israeli hostages held at Entebbe, in hostile territory more than two thousand miles from home. The creativity and courage of the planners turned the impossible into the feasible, and the skill and mental agility of the operatives on the ground turned around early errors into a stellar result.

But things hadn’t always gone their way. In May 1974, three Palestinian terrorists who had entered Israel from South Lebanon went on a murderous rampage in Ma’alot, ending up in the Netiv Meir school, where they took some one hundred and fifteen hostages – high school students from Safed on a school trip with their teachers. Sayeret Matkal’s takedown attempt lost the critical element of surprise and the terrorists had time to kill twenty-two high school students and three adults and wound over fifty of the other hostages before they themselves were eventually killed. The success of hostage rescue missions is always on a knife-edge – that is why militaries the world over assign only their best personnel to attempt them – so you must be careful when judging a failed takedown. But I don’t think it’s too harsh to observe that both the planning and the execution were flawed. The public was upset, and the policy-makers wanted to show that they were doing all they could to avoid another Ma’alot.

And so, the Yamam was raised. The idea was to create a specialist unit made up of career professionals that would be the takeover unit for any future domestic hostage incident. Administratively, the logical location for such a unit was the Border Guard, the paramilitary armed wing or gendarmerie of the Israel Police, which already employed career paramilitary policemen in non-command, active roles. In the IDF, long-service regulars were either officers, or warrant officers in staff or desk positions. There were no career private soldiers. But the Border Guard had forty-year-old professional fighting men.

So much for the theory. The Yamam, which was still a fledgling unit, took no part in the terrorist hostage situation at the Savoy Hotel in 1975, nor later at Misgav Am in 1980. Then came the Yamam’s first real chance in April 1984, at a little-known place in the Gaza Strip called Deir el-Balah. This event became known to the world as the Bus 300 Affair.

The Bus 300 Affair achieved unusual prominence due to the extrajudicial killing, well after the rescue had been completed, of the two terrorists who were captured alive. That part of the affair created a media storm that was felt throughout the country. At the same time, another aspect of the affair had enormous implications for the Yamam and its operatives.

Four terrorist hijackers, armed with knives and a suitcase containing an IED, seized control of the Number 300 bus that departed at 7:30pm from Tel Aviv, on its way to Ashkelon. They ordered the driver to make for the Egyptian border. Following a dramatic car chase and shootout, the bus ended up disabled at Deir el-Balah, a Palestinian refugee camp.

The Yamam was the first qualified unit to deploy at the scene. Indeed, one of the Yamam’s three assault troops had been practicing bus takedowns just earlier the same day! It was night time and the Yamam operatives were able to deploy close to the bus and were ready to take it down. Confidence was high. The Yamam had always placed a great reliance on the lavish use of snipers, and at Deir el-Balah several snipers were deployed and were reporting that they had targets in their sights. The Yamam commander was certain that the whole incident could be wrapped up with a one-word order and a sniper volley (backed up, of course, by a full assault, but that should have been just to confirm the snipers had succeeded in taking out the four terrorists).

However, the police had declared the area a closed military zone and handed responsibility over to the military. I don’t know who the army commander was, but it was explained to us later that, while he was aware of the existence of the Yamam and what its mission was supposed to be, he was not familiar with the unit’s capabilities and did not know any of its personnel.

He ordered the Yamam to stand down, and Sayeret Matkal took over the task of the rescue. Two of the four terrorists and one hostage were killed by the rescuers’ gunfire, and the other two terrorists were captured. And the Yamam blokes stood by and could do nothing.

To be robbed of the first real chance of executing a takedown, after all the years of training and preparation for just such a moment, caused deep bitterness among many Yamam operatives. The intense disappointment was compounded by the fact that some of the blokes had had to turn over certain items from their specialised kit to the Sayeret Matkal operatives, so they could execute their own operational plan. The feeling was: If they don’t even have this kit, as good as they are, how could they be better prepared to perform this type of rescue than we are?

Some of the blokes decided there and then to resign and not extend their contracts, sensing that the Yamam would never be assigned a real takedown. But others, including the unit’s command, did not give up. They resolved to invest in a major PR campaign to convince decision-makers and stakeholders of all kinds that the Yamam was a world-class unit that could and indeed should be entrusted with solving any domestic hostage situation.

It was in the middle of this PR campaign that I joined the unit. When my course finished in November 1986, almost all its graduates joined Number 3 Troop, under the command of Inspector Aharon Eksol. Curly-haired and almost always grinning, Eksol was good-humoured and flamboyant. He was as new a troop leader as we were operatives, but he had a lot of experience and had been with us for most of our training. Everyone had confidence in him.

There were only three other members of the troop: the troop sergeant, Itzik A., and two troop sappers, Y., and Sasson Mordoch. Eventually, Mordoch became troop sergeant. The sappers used to entertain themselves by using their skills to booby trap other people’s belongings. Detonators were put on toilet seats, in cigarettes, under beds, in all sorts of places. One of the sappers – I think it was Mordoch – once got involved in a “feud” with one of the blokes, Yosi. He set a small detonator to go off when Yosi opened the cupboard in his room. Yosi hit back by gluing the sapper’s boots to the floor when he was asleep. The sapper then bided his time, and on a quiet day he hid an electrically-detonated thunderflash in the dirt near Yosi’s car and rigged it to the car’s cabin lighting. When Yosi went out to put his things in the car he didn’t notice that half the blokes were looking on from the main gate, giggling like schoolgirls. He opened the car boot and boom! Yosi jumped out of his skin and the feud was over. Pranks aside, in Number 3 Troop Mordoch was life and soul of the party, at the same time as being supremely professional.

Eksol went on to reach high rank in the police, retiring two years ago from his last position as the Head of the Operations Wing, with the rank of Deputy Commissioner.

Mordoch is dead. In October 1992 he led a sweep into a house in a village near Jenin, and his team was ambushed by the terrorist they were seeking. Mordoch was shot and killed, and three others were seriously wounded.

We then entered the standard cycle of training, interrupted by frequent operations, the news of only a few of which were ever made public. Many of these operations were undercover raids or intelligence-gathering in the Territories, missions of the type made famous years later by the TV show Fauda. Indeed, the Yamam pioneered many of these undercover techniques and were often assigned the trickiest and most dangerous undercover missions. I believe that is still true today.

And there was, of course, one other commitment: capability demonstrations. As part of the intense PR campaign, the Yamam’s troops found themselves frequently giving capability demonstrations to government ministers, politicians, army commanders, police commanders, and other members of the security establishment. These demos involved showing the guests a variety of the unit’s capabilities. There were technical displays of sniping, close quarters shooting, physical fitness, abseiling, demolitions, and many other skills and capabilities. The climax of the best demos was usually a full-scale takedown exercise, with some of the visitors playing the hostages, while others observed proceedings from the point of view of the operatives and the commanders.

While these demos were in many ways not much different from normal training exercises, after a while they became a bit of a joke. Some operatives developed a cynical attitude and began to refer to the Yamam as “The Theatre Unit.” Yaakov B-G, an immigrant from France, joined our troop at this time. Before enlisting in the IDF paratroops, he had served as an officer in the French army, teaching guerrilla warfare to Legionnaires. A fanatical climber and scuba diver, he was a natural prankster and thus he fit very well into the culture of the unit. He had an unusual handlebar moustache which made him look more French than Israeli, and there were times when we would be lying at a jump-off point for a simulated takedown during one of these demonstrations, and he would grin under that moustache and wink at us and say in an atrocious French accent, “Hakol blof,” which can be loosely translated as, “it’s all fake,” or “it’s all a joke.” It was always funny. Some blokes more cynically joked that we should add a stage to our takedown training in which we hand over our jump-off positions to Sayeret Matkal. That wasn’t funny at all. But Hakol blof? That got us laughing every time. It became our troop’s unofficial motto.

Left to right: Aharon Eksol, Yaakov B-G, Avi D. (Photo: Mark Granat)

Whether or not the demos helped, it’s impossible to say. As we drove south, and I watched that Sea Stallion disappear over the horizon in the direction of Dimona, it was anyone’s guess as to which unit would be selected to carry out the takedown. Would the operation go to whoever was deployed first? And even if we did deploy first, would we have to surrender the operation to Sayeret Matkal anyway? We didn’t know. Avi drove on.

Shortly after, we arrived at Aro’er junction and we drove to a spot just a couple of hundred metres from the target, just out of sight.

The Briefing

We were in a big hurry when we jumped out of the Ram and ran to the back to draw the bags which contained our personal kit. I rummaged through mine to decide what to take. While there is a doctrine regarding what kit is required, operatives can take extra items either if they are ordered to, or if they themselves feel a situation might develop in such a way that may make that extra kit come in handy.

The first priority is weapons, and the basic firearm for a bus takedown is the pistol. This is because once you are either next to a bus or actually on it, the ranges are very short, and pistols are ideal weapons in confined spaces. A bus is about 12 metres or so in length, and every Yamam operative is trained to hit small targets at that range, even firing one-handed. Indeed, the very first thing in Yamam training was an intensive three-week pistol course, and there was a lot of rivalry among the operatives to see who was the most skilled with a pistol. In the public mind also, Yamam operatives were often associated with a high level of capability with pistols. We were issued with the venerable Browning GP35 in 9mm (known is Israel as the “FN,” after the factory in Belgium which got the first manufacturing license). The Browning was the gold standard of service pistols at the time, like the Glock is today, even though the design was already some fifty-plus years old. They weren’t in our bags as we had to carry them at all times, except when out doing sports. I wondered if Danny K. had managed to bring his.

The writer posing with his Browning. (Photo: Mark Granat)

The standard primary weapon – except for bus takedowns – was the Uzi submachine gun. We were all issued the regular Uzi fitted with the outdated wooden stocks instead of the more modern collapsible metal ones because they made less noise. Since we were all trained to move in such a way that we could, in a pitch-dark room, walk right up to someone without being heard, this was eminently sensible.

We had all just been issued with the new Mini-Uzi, in addition to the regular Uzis. The Mini-Uzi was a compact version of its big brother with a simpler, quieter folding stock. It had a very high cyclic rate on automatic fire, but we were trained to use just semi-auto, firing accurate single shots. Some operatives took their full-sized Uzis instead. I didn’t anticipate needing it, but I took my Mini-Uzi anyway.

The writer training with the Mini-Uzi. (Photo: Mark Granat)

Each operative’s bag contained a wide variety of weapons and other items, some of them quite exotic, like sound suppressors, target illumination systems, and the like. None of these refinements were of value in a daylight bus takedown and we just left all that stuff behind.

For protective kit, we all had helmets and soft body armour. I was one of a very small number of operatives who had been issued with an additional ceramic armour vest, with instructions to try it out if I ever thought it could be useful. Soft body armour is good only for stopping low-velocity rounds like those fired from pistols. Ceramic armour will reliably stop full power 7.62mm NATO rounds, so it would have no trouble with the slower and slightly lighter Soviet Kalashnikov 7.62mm rounds, which I imagined the terrorists had. I thought, yes, we are about to face bad guys with AKs, you’ll never find a better time to try out the ceramic vest. It was heavy and cumbersome, but I didn’t expect to be running very far with it, so I put it on, tucked my Browning into the vest’s integral holster, and pushed a couple of spare Uzi magazines and a stun grenade into its pouches. I took my camouflage net, which is also standard for bus takedowns, and I went and joined the other members of my troop with Eksol at his command jeep for the Immediate Action (IA) briefing.

As soon as it arrives on the scene, an HRU needs to work on two takedown plans in parallel. One plan is the deliberate option. This plan assumes that the unit has as much time as needed to gather intelligence and examine approach routes and it can sometimes involve having operatives train on a similar target nearby. Once prepared, the deliberate option is initiated by the unit’s commanders at the optimum moment. The other is the IA plan, which is triggered if and when the terrorists decide that the game is up, and they begin to massacre the hostages. Since this could happen at any moment, the IA plan has to be drawn up as soon as the unit arrives on the scene, and the operatives need to be deployed accordingly straight away. As time goes by, incoming intelligence is used to refine the IA plan as well as provide critical data for the developing deliberate option.

When the target is a building or a similarly complex structure, the deliberate option could involve all kinds of refinements like covert approaches, abseiling from rooftops, elaborate distraction ruses and more. On the other hand, initial IA plans for any target are simple, and usually involve not much more than designating which teams go to which entrances, assigning the fastest possible approach routes, and defining each team’s objectives within the target building. If the target is a bus, the difference between the IA plan and the deliberate option is much subtler, since all buses are pretty much the same, and the drills to storm a bus and take out the terrorists are fairly standard.

Eksol quickly cued us in. The target bus was on the main road, which ran roughly north-west to south-east, a few hundred metres south-east of the junction, facing south-east. One troop would assault from each side of the bus. Eksol’s Number 3 Troop was assigned the south-west side of the bus, including breaching the doors, while Inspector Avshalom Peled’s Number 1 Troop was assigned the north-east side. As Number 2 Troop’s operatives arrived from their homes, they could be assigned to either one of the deployed troops. Eksol simply created ad-hoc teams and assigned each team to a different part of the bus. He didn’t need to say anything else since we knew all these drills instinctively.

As he was talking, Chief Inspector Menashe Arbiv arrived on the scene. We called him “Menash.” He had been my course commander and I was enormously impressed by him. His record in the Yamam showed unquestionably that he was highly resourceful and possessed tremendous courage. A man of small stature but big personality, he had the rugged face of a combat veteran. Although he was senior to Eksol, as a member of the unit staff – he was R&D Officer – he was not in Number 3 Troop and joined us as a supernumerary. Eksol assigned him command of the front door team, with me as one of the assaulters in that team.

After a command career in the Border Guard and then in the police, Menash became commander of the Lahav 433 unit, responsible for investigating corruption and organised crime, but had to retire after he was allegedly involved in some shady dealings with a certain Rabbi Pinto. For me, he had been an exemplary commander, and I will never forget how helpful he was when I had some personal problems during the initial Yamam course.

The hijacked bus was at the end of a shallow road cutting, which meant that we from the south-west side could approach it without being observed from inside the bus. Number 1 Troop’s approach was more difficult, because on their side the cutting ended just level with the rear of the bus, and the terrorists had a better field of view. Had the bus been fifty metres further south, the terrorists inside would have had a commanding view of the surrounding terrain for hundreds of metres in all directions. This would have made our approach much more difficult. There are techniques which enable an assault to be carried out even under those circumstances, but they carry greater risk. With the bus where it was, Avshi’s Number 1 Troop could get reasonably close to the rear of the bus, but it was dodgy. We in Number 3 Troop could get very close to the side of the bus, without being seen.

But the closer we got, the more difficult it was going to be to raise our heads to see what was going on. There was no foliage or other cover, just the slope of the terrain and the row of rocks at the edge of the cutting. Additionally, the snipers who deployed with the two assault troops on either side of the bus were going to find it quite difficult to set up, because of the lack of good cover. In the event, three snipers hid themselves under a police jeep on the main road about a hundred metres south-east of the bus and were able to sight down its length through its windscreen. Others, particularly on the north-east side with Number 1 Troop, were also able to deploy and sight in.

Before we began our final belly-crawl approach to positions as close to the bus as we could get, Menash assigned us our tasks. Again, since these drills were so well rehearsed, he just needed to say a few words for each operative to know precisely what his task was. Menash eyed me and said, “Mark, since you have the ceramic vest, you are the point man in the door.” It hadn’t occurred to me that by choosing the ceramic vest I would set myself up for the riskiest job, so for a moment I was surprised. But then I thought, that’s just fine. It’s what I signed up for. I knew what to do and I knew that, if we were indeed given the order, we would win.

The Deployment

On the east side of the road, Avshi’s Number 1 Troop was getting ready just like we were, and one of the blokes, Doron M., was in trouble. Doron had graduated from my own Yamam course and had later joined the K-9 Troop. The Yamam had its own dogs and dog handlers they were cross-attached to the assault troops. Doron was now assigned to work with Avshi’s men. I don’t know where his dog was, but we didn’t generally use them in bus takedowns, so Doron was just another assaulter. Doron was an earnest man with a gentle demeanour, which served well to mask the fact that he was a genuine martial arts specialist, which is saying something in a unit full of people highly trained in martial arts. Many of my course’s members got married during the early years of their service, and I believe that Doron was the first of us to do so. After the Purim party the previous night, Doron was so tired that he crashed on his bed even though he had felt that he badly needed to go to the loo. Poor Doron. The next morning there was no opportunity for him to find his desired relief, as we had all been woken by the alarm bell which sent us scampering to the Rams and zooming off down south. He suffered throughout the entire journey.

Number 1 Troop had deployed and crawled as close to the target as they could without becoming exposed. Now, lying waiting on the hard sand in on-and-off drizzle, Doron could put off his urge no longer. He dropped his trousers and did what he had to do. At one point the operatives were called back a little way in order to get some last-second information. When they started to return to their earlier jump-off positions, the expected heightened alertness of the terrorists meant that they had to keep lower than ever, and in the featureless, flat terrain, they weren’t sure of their exact location with respect to the bus. No matter. Doron’s pile of pungent poo provided a perfect placement marker for them, and they redeployed in exactly the right position.

Doron was seriously wounded in 1992 the same action near Jenin in which Mordoch was killed. It took him a while to recover from his wounds, and he subsequently suffered from PTSD, which troubled him for some years after.

Meanwhile, we in Number 3 Troop were kitten-crawling ever closer to the edge of the cutting. There was a large rock about 80 cm high and a metre or more wide that sat isolated about ten metres back from the line of rocks that marked the edge of the cutting. We hadn’t got close to that line yet so Menash ordered me, as first in the door, to try to get behind the rock. I inched my way forward until I was comfortably placed behind it and peered cautiously around it. Not thirty metres away I could see the roof of the bus and the tops of the side windows. I couldn’t raise my head to see much more because, at that range, the terrorists could spot me and let me have their opinion. And set off the IA. And start to kill the hostages. I tucked myself in and got ready.

We were all trying to see as much as we could, so we would know what to expect. I could see that both doors were open and so I passed this intel on. Someone else reported that they had seen movement that might have been one of the terrorists preparing a trip-wire on one of the doors, but there wasn’t a lot of detail. Trip-wires – connected, of course, to IEDs –  were an added complication, but we were trained to deal with them. It was just something else we needed to know.

We were now settled down. I could slow down and think.

I wondered if my parents, my brother, or any of the people I had known in England where I grew up, could even imagine me where I was right now, lying in the dirt with my Browning in my hand, barely a grenade arc away from armed terrorists. I had grown up on a council estate in the borough of Hackney in London. Being Jewish, I was always aware that I was different from most people around me. My parents had therefore sent me to Jewish schools and for my secondary school years I won a scholarship to Carmel College, the Jewish “public” – i.e. private – school, sometimes known as “the Jewish Eton.” It was a fee-paying institution and many of my schoolmates were from very wealthy families and again, being from a working-class background, I found myself a bit different from the mainstream. Still, Carmel was a good place for me and I soon found my niche. The school provided many avenues for the pupils to pursue non-academic activities, especially in sports, and I took advantage. I was a good runner, and also a member of the rowing club. I had always been a keen military buff and I studied history, tactics, weapons, and other military subjects. As I got older I became more aware of my father’s background. He was a Holocaust survivor, and his parents and one of his brothers had been murdered by the Nazis in France in 1943. Carmel didn’t exactly push Zionism, but I learned about Israel, and I became acutely aware of the importance of a strong Israel to prevent anything like the Holocaust ever happening to us again. The idea of me living in Israel and playing a role in Israel’s defence began to form in my mind.

After I flunked out of university after just one year in 1982, I decided to emigrate to Israel. One of my friends had emigrated earlier and had fought in the Lebanon War and it seemed that I was wasting my time in England while people my own age were facing very real challenges. So, in 1983 I made my move, and in November that year I joined the IDF as an infantryman in the Golani Brigade. My first attempt at joining a special operations unit failed, as I was not accepted by Sayeret Golani – I was too immature. But I suppose I was a good soldier since I won the award for “Most Exemplary Recruit” in my company at the end of basic training. I made good friends and had terrific leaders too but, as an immigrant, again I felt a bit different. But I was used to it now, and I quickly found my place. When I finished my conscript service in 1985 I got a letter inviting me to apply to join the Yamam. Here was another chance to get into special operations in the Israeli forces, and I took it. I passed the Yamam selection, and then their course. And in November 1986, I joined Number 3 Troop. I was finally at the tip of the spear. Still, as almost the only Ashkenazi in a group of men of largely North African origin, and an Englishman at that, I was again a little out of place. I didn’t care. I was sure I would soon adapt. I was where I wanted to be.

The Wait

When you storm a target with terrorists holding hostages, you have to do it with thunderclap surprise. That’s what a hostage rescue is all about. Give the terrorists a moment, and they can start to slaughter all the hostages. If the terrorists have an IED, they can instantly kill or wound just about everyone on the site. You use ruses, cover, darkness if you have it, and every trick you can think of to get the assaulters as close as possible to the target without being seen, and you try to get as many snipers sighted onto the terrorists – all this so that at the precise moment the commander gives the order, the terrorists get absolutely zero chance to react. Failure to do so doesn’t necessarily mean that the mission is going to be a disaster. Sometimes the terrorists may be confused, or lack determination, or they may decide to try to shoot at the assaulting operatives instead of at the hostages. But the faster the HRU can engage and eliminate them, the greater the chances of a successful takedown.

This is all so difficult to achieve that a country will assign its best personnel to perform these missions. The commanders and planners have to be imaginative and experienced. The snipers must be able to hit tiny targets at any ranges, often from less-than-ideal positions. The assaulters have to be lightning fast on their feet, as agile as monkeys and must be able to distinguish between a terrorist and a hostage with the briefest glance. They must be able to shoot so well that they can hit a terrorist who is using a hostage as a shield, without hitting the hostage. The best equipment must be acquired, and the personnel need to master it all. The HRU must have superb ancillary personnel: sappers, dog handlers with their dogs, specialists in a dozen different fields. And the HRU needs to train on many different kinds of vehicles and buildings which could be the target of a terrorist hostage situation: schools, planes, buses, banks, apartments, public buildings, libraries, supermarkets, private cars – the list is almost endless.

All members of the Yamam are ex-soldiers, with at least one command course and some command experience under their belts. In those days, most applicants were from the infantry battalions with a few from more specialized units like Sayeret Golani or Sayeret Tzanhanim (respectively, the Golani and Parachute Brigades’ recce companies), which at the time had extensive hostage rescue training. Even fewer were from non-infantry units. Avshi Peled, the commander of Number 1 Troop, had been an officer in the Armoured Corps. Igor P., a Russian immigrant who was in my course and who became a truly outstanding Yamam operative, had not even been a combat soldier. In my intake in 1986, well over a hundred men started the selection process which lasted several gruelling days. While selection is designed to challenge extensively a man’s physical strength and endurance and reveal his combat instincts and his aptitude for acquiring the operational skills that would be taught, it mainly explored the applicant’s drive, his will to win. At the end, less than a quarter passed selection to start the course. At the end of the course, there were about a dozen of us. That’s an attrition rate of about ninety percent.

The merciless selection process followed by the intense course turned out operatives who were utterly professional and highly dedicated. We knew that people’s lives depended on our skills to be honed to the finest edge, and we worked hard to be the best. Many of my intake, me included, had not been in the IDF for the Lebanon War and had no war experience, but at least we had had a minor taste of combat from small contacts in Lebanon during the post-war occupation. And we had operational experience with the Yamam in all kinds of situations. Only one of us, the new CO, Chief Superintendent Alik Ron, had actually ever taken part in a real hostage rescue against terrorists. He had been at Entebbe with Sayeret Matkal. Since he was our CO, it wasn’t exactly his job to go kicking in windows and shooting terrorists on this particular day. Having said that, he was no armchair leader and on at least one occasion during his tenure as Yamam CO, he himself killed a terrorist in a shootout. Enviably good-looking and always softly spoken, he was universally respected.

Alik rose in the ranks of the Border Guard and then the regular police. He retired from the police in 2001 with the rank of Deputy Commissioner. As OC Northern District, his performance during the October 2000 riots was heavily criticized. In spite of that, he was undeniably a legendary and inspiring special forces operative.

While we were lying in the wet sand trying to make ourselves inconspicuous, senior officers had arrived on the scene. The Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Dan Shomron was there, as was his deputy, Major General Ehud Barak, and also the Head of Southern Command, Major General Yitzhak Mordechai. I remember being told later that operational command of the unfolding event was given to Barak, although I read somewhere that Mordechai was actually in command. Whoever it was, they were quite happy to leave the takedown in the hands of the Yamam. As it was, the Sayeret Matkal people in the Sea Stallion helicopter I had spotted during our journey had landed some distance away, either by mistake or because the pilot was not supposed to land his heavy-lift helicopter too near a live hostage site in such open terrain. Whichever, it took them some time to cover the distance to the site with all their kit and, by the time they got near, we were already deployed. When I was studying in university some years later, I met a fellow student who was a former Sayeret Matkal officer and had been on the ground with the command group at Aro’er junction. He told me that his perception was that Sayeret Matkal was the senior unit and as such expected to deploy and take over the rescue as they had done at Deir el-Balah four years earlier. But they never got anywhere near. From where I lay behind my rock, I never saw any of them. There was no time. By now the situation had started to deteriorate. The terrorists had executed one of the hostages.

While we were carefully trying to keep our noses to the earth, the police negotiation team had been talking to the terrorists through a megaphone. They were off over to my left somewhere, toward the rear of the bus, but I couldn’t see them. Their job was to try to calm the terrorists down and maybe, just maybe, to persuade them to surrender. They were also to keep the terrorists busy while we in the assault teams got ready. I don’t know if this was anything to do with the negotiations, or maybe it was something else, but at some point, you could hear the terrorists get more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand a word of what was going on – it was all in Arabic – but it was clear they were pissed off. Then they made Victor Ram stand up and they shot him.

We heard the burst of fire from where we lay. Your first instinct when that happens is to get up and begin the assault, using the IA contingency plan. However, it had been drummed into us that the execution of a single hostage by the terrorists, to show they mean business, was not necessarily considered a sufficient excuse to activate the IA. But it did change the situation. There would be no surrender. We just sat tight and waited for the assault order which we now knew would be not long coming.

By now two of the members of my front door team, Menash and a Number 2 Troop man, Ronen Y., had been able to inch past me to the rocks at the edge of the cutting. I couldn’t leave the rock to move up with them without becoming exposed. Unless I could crawl directly backwards from the rock and then find another route to take me to the edge of the cutting, I would lose my position as the lead and my role as point man in the door would be gone. But that manoeuvre would take too long. The assault order was imminent and going backwards was not an option. OK. Number three in the door was fine. The rear-door team were nearby. There was Itzik and Rafi and Yaakov B-G. We all knew what to do. I drew my stun grenade and made sure my Browning was ready. Any minute now, and we would go.

There was another burst of fire in the bus. Was it another execution? A negligent discharge? Had they opened fire on any of us? We had no idea. But we knew that this was it. The order would come at any second.

And then Yaakov turned to the three of us, grinning behind that silly moustache and said, just loud enough for us to hear, “Hakol blof!

The Number 3 Troop motto.

Even though we were highly-trained professionals, the tension was palpable, and Yaakov read the moment to perfection. Hakol blof! We stifled our giggles and I suddenly felt calm and supremely confident. I knew, I just knew, that we were going to succeed.

The Assault

Suddenly Rafi, who had one of the radios, called out the code word. Assault! Thought ended. Instinct and training prevailed. I don’t remember even hearing the sniper volley that rang out at the precise moment. I just leapt up and was running, like all the others, with one thing on my mind – my task. Speed! Get to the bus. Get to the front door. Get up the stairs and do the job as number three man.

As I ran I pulled the pin on my stun grenade and tossed it at the front door of the bus but when it went off I didn’t really notice – I had just reached the cutting and, hell! That slope was steep and high, but I focused and scrambled down it anyway and out of the corner of my eye I saw an operative drop to one knee and aim his Uzi at the bus, but I couldn’t see any clear targets myself. And in these moments, there were shots, a lot of shots, but nothing coming our way.

Menash and Ronen Y. were already through the front door and inside – there had been no trip wires – and it seemed that Menash was firing at something with his Uzi Pistol and I followed them up the little stairway, took up my position and pointed my Browning in the classic two-handed stance down the bus, but it was all nearly over. A terrorist was lying across the back seat of the bus and one of the officers, N., was poking through the window furthest back on our side of the bus while being held aloft by one of his men. At the same time, two other operatives had mounted an assault ladder by the window furthest back on the other side of the bus. These two and N. fired many rounds into this terrorist, killing him. Closer to me, by the rear door toward the centre of the bus, other operatives were firing shots into the supine bodies of the other two terrorists. These two had been taken down by the initial sniper volley – three snipers out in front of the bus, together with one from Number 1 Troop’s side, who had all fired at precisely the moment we had been given the order to go. The two terrorists had had no idea what hit them. Then Menash had shot them when he was first in. And then the rear door team made sure. The whole thing had taken perhaps ten to twelve seconds.

The assault ends. Note the jeep on the right, under which three snipers hid. Note also the semi-trailer truck used by the police to block the road. (Photo: IDF Southern Command, Intelligence Section, Publications)

When the firing stopped the next moments seemed chaotic as we tried to get all the hostages out of the bus. There was still the possibility of booby traps, so some of the blokes were trying to get the women out through the windows. I holstered my Browning and got off the bus to help. I found myself holding one of the hostages by the hand, a woman in a turquoise sweater. Our job was to get the hostages away from there, so I took her and ran toward the command group. As we ran she turned to me and said, “You know, I have a son serving in the Nahal brigade.” Here I was, all sparked up and sweating adrenaline, and there was this woman, just having been through the most terrifying experience of her life, and she was chatting as calmly as if we were in the queue at the supermarket! That was some kind of cool. I then recognized Udi, the psychologist from the sappers, and I thought that this lady might need a psychologist. Maybe he wasn’t a clinical psychologist, but I was too busy to be fussy just then. I handed the woman over and then I ran back to the bus.

Very quickly Mordoch and the other sappers confirmed that there were no explosives or booby traps. I saw Magen David Adom (MDA) teams, two of them, working on casualties. One team was trying to resuscitate a woman on a gurney, but it didn’t look good. Then some of the blokes pulled the terrorists corpses off the bus. They were wearing tee-shirts with the word “Palestine” on the front. Mordoch had their weapons. The terrorist on the back seat had been armed with a Karl Gustav submachine gun. The other two had Kalashnikovs. They must have been having trouble with one of them because when we found it, it was disassembled. We made our own weapons safe and collected our kit.

By now, personnel not from the Yamam were swarming round, some with legitimate tasks, others just to gawk. It was time for us to disappear. The rescue was over.

The moments after all the hostages were extracted. (Photo: Sivan Farage, IDF Archives)

The Aftermath

I don’t remember much after that. I remember Itzik P. coming up to me as we made our way back to the vans, grinning from ear to ear and then we shook hands. And in the next moment I realised that my body had received all kinds of blows and scratches from the crawl, the run, and the mad charge into the bus, so without even thinking I leaned down and used my hands to check my limbs for wounds. And I burst out laughing when I saw Itzik doing the same! You can go through all that and, because of the adrenaline, you could get shot somewhere and not even notice. As it was, no one in the assault teams was wounded.

The next thing I remember is the preliminary debriefing in a community centre in Beersheva. We sat in the tip-up seats in a large auditorium, each of the operatives in the assault gave an account of what he saw and did, and then the commanders took their turn. We learned that at the very moment that Alik had given the order to go, the terrorist at the back of the bus who had been well sighted by at least two snipers, had suddenly lay down and dropped out of sight. So in the event only four snipers fired, at the two terrorists in the centre of the bus. We further learned that the two women who had been wounded and who I had seen being treated by the MDA medics had died. It appeared that one of them, Rina Shiratzky, had been hit when Victor Ram had been shot and that she had just sat and remained silent despite her wounds.

At the time I had the impression that we didn’t really know the origin of the second burst of fire we heard, or how the other fatality, Miriam Ben-Yair, had been wounded. But later one of the other hostages, Rachel Matsa, told the press that Ben Yair had also been deliberately shot by the terrorists, which explained the second burst of fire. Rachel Matsa herself had been shot in the shin. She was probably hit by a stray bullet of ours during the assault. There are many accounts that claim that there were eight hostages wounded. This is rubbish. Eight hostages in total survived the ordeal, and the one I took from the bus was certainly unwounded. I think some of the others may have been scratched up by broken glass, but as far as I know only Rachel Matsa was wounded by gunshots. Even though the three deaths were caused before we launched our assault, our pride at the Yamam’s first successful takedown was tempered by the knowledge that three good people, parents of children, had lost their lives.

I was engaged to be married at the time and my fiancée, Elaine, was on a bus in Jerusalem when the news came over the radio. The announcer summed up the terror attack and reported that the security forces had stormed the bus and rescued the hostages. Elaine knew it must have been us, and she jumped off the bus to find a pay phone. The office in the unit had been flooded with calls like this since the news broke, and their answers were well rehearsed, “Don’t worry, he’s OK.” At that moment Elaine felt enormous relief. As the day went on and talk of the rescue was on everyone’s lips, she just felt pride. If getting accepted into the Yamam was tough enough for the applicants, then being in the Yamam was possibly tougher for the wives and girlfriends who had to get used to their menfolk disappearing to do all kinds of dangerous nonsense at a moment’s notice whenever those beepers went off. The wives and girlfriends supported each other and kept in touch with each other during these many times of crisis, but it was always a strain. The unit did its best to accommodate them. Wives and girlfriends came to all the parties, and married men who were on stand-by and had to be on the base over the weekend could invite their wives – and children, if they had any – to stay at the base with them, and the unit made everyone welcome.

After the debriefing we drove back to the base and Number 3 Troop’s members went home, as originally planned, just a bit later. That night Elaine and I went out to dinner with a friend of hers, also as planned. Life goes on. I went home early to catch the report of the rescue on the television news. They interviewed Alik with his back to the camera. I know. That was for security reasons, but I thought it was a damn good thing. If they ever showed his face, people would think we were all that hunky. No one would ever believe that the rest of us, ugly buggers all, were in the Yamam too.

Ugly buggers, that’s right.

The Yamam was made up of young men from all over Israel, and from all its different sectors. What made us one unit was our shared desire to be part of the spearhead of the Israeli forces and devote all our energies and creativity to the seemingly endless fight against terrorism. Some were in for longer periods, others for less. But while we were there, our dedication was never open to question.

The Purim party the night before the rescue. Number 3 Troop’s sketch. Left to right: Avi D., Aharon Eksol, Ofer S., Charlie Chelouche z”l. (Photo: Mark Granat)

Today the Yamam is better than ever. Over the years its methods and equipment have evolved, and its ever-growing reputation has attracted an even higher level of candidate than in my day. The Mothers Bus rescue was the last major hostage siege to take place in Israel. There are probably many reasons for this, but surely one of them must be the existence of a skilled takedown unit like the Yamam, and the readiness of our leaders to use it as they did on March 7, 1988.

There were no heroes on that day. You only get heroes when things go wrong, and someone has to step up and save the day. But things went right. Intelligent drills, creative planning and months and months of training and rehearsal produced a swift operation that got the job done.

That’s what it was for us – a job. We were just a bunch of ordinary blokes. Sure, we had passed an insane selection and training programme, but each of us still had his loves and hates, his dreams and fears. It was the job – together with the accident of circumstance and the imperative of necessity – that made those quite ordinary men do quite extraordinary things.

In 1998 I took my family to show them the site of the rescue. Here, my kids and I are sitting on “my” rock. Since this photo was taken, a road-widening scheme has destroyed the original topography and many of the features no longer exist. (Photo: Mark Granat)

Notes

 
[1] The name Yamam is an acronym – ימ”מ. The full name of the unit is officially Hayehida HaMeyuhedet LeLohama BaTerror, which means The Special Counter Terrorism Unit. But that name isn’t represented by the acronym! Even while I was serving in the unit, no-one was really sure what the acronym actually stood for, although the most commonly accepted version was Yehida Meyuhedet Mishtartit – Police Special Unit – which is not terribly descriptive. [Back]

[2] This article is not history. It is not based on scholarly research. It is a personal memoir. It is based on my own memories of a dramatic event that happened thirty years ago. I hope that it will be used to contribute to any scholarship there may be regarding the Yamam in general or the rescue specifically. While there may be errors here and there, and other participants may remember things somewhat differently, I will say this: I have not tried to embellish my own role in any way. I was a professional and fought as part of a professional team. It was the team that did the work and achieved the result. [Back]

[3] I have generally used British military and police terminology and UK rank equivalents. I have adopted the UK Special Forces convention and used the word “troop” exclusively to describe the Yamam’s basic operational sub-unit at the time, which in Hebrew was a mahlakah. Individuals who serve in the Yamam are part of the Border Guard, which is a branch of the Israel Police. In Hebrew they are called either shotrim (“policemen”) or lohamim (“fighters” or “warriors”). Neither “warrior” nor “fighter” are contextually appropriate terms in English and “policeman” seemed too banal a term to describe a member of the Yamam, given what he was typically expected to do. I have chosen to use the American term for an individual in a special operations unit – “operative.” [Back]

[4] I have used full names of officers and operatives only if I know that their participation in the Mothers Bus rescue is in the public domain. Otherwise, I have used either a first name, or an initial, or both. I have kept to this rule whether the individual is alive or dead. Our identities were protected at the time, and it is not my place to decide to reveal anyone. [Back]

[5] Many accounts say that there were only four IDF personnel in the car. However, the officer in command gave a television interview about the incident on Israel’s Channel 2 network, and he says that he drove with two other officers, and two cadets. You can see this interview here. [Back]

[6] I have in some places read claims that the terrorists had targeted that particular bus in advance because of the sensitive nature of its passengers. I do not believe there is any truth in these claims. The way the situation unfolded seems to indicate that the terrorists happened upon the bus by chance. [Back]

[7] The reason we even still had the full-sized Uzis was that the latest production run of Mini-Uzis was flawed. The folding stock’s hinge could unlock slightly while shooting. This flaw did not exist in earlier production runs. IMI were due to collect all the affected weapons and fix them. I felt that I could shoot OK even with this flaw, but others were not so sure. [Back]

[8] Each operative had a dizzying array of weaponry. For example, I had a closed bolt, semi-auto-only Uzi with a threaded barrel that took a large suppressor, plus subsonic ammunition to make it even quieter. In a separate box, I had a 20-inch barrel M16A1 with a M203 grenade launcher attached. Other operatives had Uzi Pistols with folding stocks, Beretta .22s with large sound suppressors, or Remington 870 shotguns. Snipers had their specialist rifles: either a Galil Sniper Rifle or a Steyr-Mannlicher SSG-69, both in 7.62mm. [Back]

[9] I read in an account somewhere that Alik was one of the first men onto the bus during the takedown. While that was certainly his style, it wasn’t his job. As commander, it was up to him to supply the brains, make the plans and give the orders. It was up to us heavies to carry them out. I can’t categorically say that he wasn’t one of the first to storm the bus, but I don’t remember it being mentioned in any of the debriefings. [Back]

[10] In many accounts you can read that it took 30-40 seconds. This is not true. The shooting was over in about twelve seconds from the moment the assault order was given, and it took several minutes to get everyone off the bus. [Back]

[11] Some may cite the attempted rescue of Nachshon Wachsman in 1997 as the last hostage rescue, but since the terrorists were hiding and did not deliberately set up a siege, I view that incident as a kidnapping more than it was a hostage situation. [Back]

[12] While there were moments of great drama in the Mothers Bus event for the individuals involved, it cannot compete with the Entebbe hostage crisis for its national drama. Playing out over several days, Entebbe gripped the world. Given the grandstanding of Idi Amin, the tension of the release of the non-Israeli hostages, the pressure placed on the government to negotiate, the utter audacity of the decision to launch a rescue more than two thousand miles from home, the success of that rescue, and the death of one of its leaders, it is no surprise that Entebbe has been the subject of books, documentaries, and no less than four full length movies. The Mothers Bus event lasted a few hours from start to finish, and the actual combat took perhaps twelve seconds. By the time the public heard about it, it was over. No-one will be making any feature films about the Mothers Bus rescue. Nonetheless, it was a historic event. I have tried to recount the events as best as I remember them using two main sources: things that I saw myself, and things that I remember being told at the time. If there are any errors in the narrative, the responsibility for them is mine and mine alone. [Back]

Mark Granat works as a technical writer for a Tel Aviv hi-tech firm and also runs a small localization company. He is married and has three children and three stepchildren.

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