Israeli government says mid-air incident was act of terror

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government on Monday said security agents aboard an El Al Airlines jet foiled a "terrorist attack" when they wrestled a passenger to the floor during a struggle shortly before the plane landed in Turkey.

Members of the flight crew and passengers said Tawfiq Fukra, a 23-year-old Israel Arab, rushed the cockpit after arguing with a flight attendant. They said he had a pocket knife.

Officials at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, who are responsible for passenger security, played down the confrontation, saying the suspect did not brandish a knife but had one in his pocket. Relatives said Fukra, a social worker, had a simple argument with a flight attendant.

The government statement was the first official description of the incident that began late Sunday when Fukra drew suspicion -- accounts vary about what he did -- and was overcome by El-Al security men on board the Boeing 727 flying from Tel Aviv. None of the 170 passengers on board was harmed, and the plane landed safely in Istanbul.

The Israeli government statement said Fukra told the guards holding him afterward: "Today is the day I die, and I do this because they killed brothers," an ambiguous declaration that could have referred either to family or other Arabs.

Brandished a knife

Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, have expressed growing sympathy for Palestinians during two years of violence.

Earlier Monday, a Turkish television report said that Fukra brandished a knife, tried to hijack the plane and carry out a Sept. 11-style attack on Tel Aviv. The report could not be confirmed, but the Israeli government statement said the incident was similar to the suicide hijackings in the United States.

In the several versions of what took place, all agree that Fukra had a pocket knife, but it was not clear if he produced it as a weapon.

The Israeli Airports Authority, with responsibility for security screening of passengers, said Fukra was not holding a knife during the encounter with the flight attendant.

"The small knife that the passenger had in his possession was not the reason the security guards acted on the plane," spokesman Pini Schiff said.

Israel Radio reported that Fukra, sitting in the coach section, had entered the business class section twice to ask a flight attendant for water. On the third time, he was told to sit down because the plane was landing. He then pushed the flight attendant and a guard jumped on him, the radio said.

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