This Week In History: The Lod Airport Massacre

PFLP attacked Israel’s airport using Japanese Red Army, killing 26 people, including 17 Christian pilgrims.

Arrivals board at Ben-Gurion Airport 370 (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Arrivals board at Ben-Gurion Airport 370
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
On May 30, 1972, Israel’s only international airport was shaken by its first deadly terrorist attack, shattering the foundation of the state’s security. The massacre was significant not only for Israel, but also for Puerto Rico, whose nation was hit for the first time by the phenomenon of terrorism, losing many citizens in the attack.
On that day, 40 years ago, three inconspicuous Japanese men dressed in business suits disembarked Air France Flight 132 from Rome and strolled into the baggage claim area. After retrieving what appeared to be violin cases, the men pulled out machine guns, opened fire and threw grenades indiscriminately at the crowds of people. One of the three, Tsuyoshi Okudaira, ran out onto the tarmac and began shooting at passengers descending the stairs from an El Al plane before taking his own life.
The gunmen killed 26 people: 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico, one Canadian citizen, and eight Israelis, and 80 people were injured. Among the Israelis killed was renowned scientist Aharon Katzir, whose brother, Ephraim Katzier became president a few years later. Gunman Yasuyuki Yasuda was also shot dead during the attack - it is unclear whether by his own weapon or that of his partners or security forces. The lone surviving gunman, Kozo Okomato, was injured, arrested by security forces and given a life sentence. He was later freed in the 1985 prisoner swap known as the Gibril Deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a document cited by Puerto Rican online newspaper Primera Hora, Pablo Tirado related that his father, who was injured in the attack, “came out of the baggage claim area and walked to the bathroom,” while Camelo Calderon Molina, who was killed in the massacre, “was waiting in the baggage claim area with others standing nearby.” He said the terrorists ran through the airport shooting and throwing grenades until they ran out of ammunition.
Molina’s daughter Ruth Calderon Cordona cried as she gave her testimony, 37 years after losing her father: “He always told us he didn’t want to die until he saw the land where Jesus walked - but he never saw it, because he died in the airport,” Primera Hora quoted her as saying.
The assailants, members of communist group the Japanese Red Army (JRA), were enlisted by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), after the group successfully hijacked a Japanese plane earlier that year and to exploit their Japanese identities, which would diminish attention from airport security. While security forces were always alert to potential Palestinian attackers, the use of Japanese men caught them off guard. The attack forever changed security attitudes in Israel, opening authorities’ eyes to the possibility that any person, of any nationality, may pose a threat.
“[The PFLP] first wanted to hijack an El Al plane,” said Director of Shurat HaDin (The Israel Law Center) Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who sued North Korea for its part in the assault. “But when they realized that would not be possible, they planned to kill Israelis in a terror attack.” The Japanese terrorists trained in Lebanon, sponsored by the PFLP. The latter claimed responsibility for the attack in a letter which referred to the attack as Operation Deir Yassin, indicating that it was revenge for the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre, in which Jewish militias from the Irgun Zva’I Leumi and Lehi underground groups killed some 107 residents of the village.
Puerto Rican victim Molina’s eight children - along with Tirado whose father Pablo Tirado Ayala was injured in the attack - filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the government of North Korea. Shurat Ha Din together with Puerto Rican attorney Manuel de San Juan represented the families, charging North Korea with involvement in the attack as a sponsor of the PFLP via the JRA. The result was a $378 million judgement against North Korea.
Beyond legal steps, Puerto Rico immortalized the Lod Airport Massacre into the public memory. In 2006 the Puerto Rican government passed a law declaring May 30th as the annual “Remembrance Day for the Massacre of Lod.” The law states that the attack - a generation before September 11 - set the tone for future events. “These humble religious, Puerto Ricans were victims of a supposedly revolutionary alliance, that in reality was blinded by fanaticism that uses anti-Semitic discourse to expand the scale of terrorist violence unleashed against Jewish and non-Jewish targets throughout the world,” the law reads.
The reason for establishing the memorial day was that the event, which had a huge impact on Puerto Rican society, had almost disappeared from collective memory. The law stresses the importance of remembering the event to illustrate to future generations that “violence against innocents is morally abhorrent,” to remember the victims and to honor the survivors. In Israel, the Lod Airport Massacre is known for being a turning point for the state’s airport security. Now named after David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, the airport is internationally acclaimed for being one of the most secure airports in the world. It is also, however, criticized for using controversial profiling techniques to achieve this. Israel established an entirely new security system specific to the airport and introduced new methods of security checks. Another response, which was also prompted by the Munich massacre later that year, was government resolution 411, which specifies the division of responsibilities for the security of the state’s institutions between the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Israel Police.
The Lod Airport Massacre shocked Israel into making serious changes in its airport security system and there have not been any successful terrorist attacks within the airport grounds since. The meticulous security measures serve as a constant reminder to the Israeli public of past tragedies, while half way across the world, the Puerto Ricans commemorate yearly the victims they lost at the hands of international terrorism.
Joanna Paraszczuk contributed to this report