JERUSALEM – Israeli officials praised the swift work of an El Al security guard and suggested Friday that the shooting he stopped at Los Angeles International Airport was motivated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The attacker, identified by the FBI as Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, 41, from Irvine, Calif., was shot to death after he opened fire at the Israeli airline's ticket counter on the Fourth of July, killing two people.
"As far as we're concerned this is not an isolated incident," Israeli Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said. Israel is embroiled in a 21-month-long conflict with the Palestinians.
Speaking on Israel Radio, Sneh restated Israel's position that the shooting was an act of terror. The FBI was withholding judgment on whether to label the shooting an act of terror or a hate crime.
El Al said security checks of passengers, air crew and El Al planes worldwide had recently been increased, but that it had received no specific threats to operations in Los Angeles.
Amos Shapira, director-general of El Al, said security moves were made "in accordance with information that we got from our sources and from, of course, the American authorities."
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres praised "the swift reaction and the courage" of El Al agents in Los Angeles.
Shapira said: "You could imagine how many more people would have been killed if not for the quick reaction of our staff."
El Al is widely regarded as the best protected airline in the world, but also one of the most threatened. From the late 1960s into the 1980s, El Al planes and passengers were subjected to shooting attacks, hijacking and bombing attempts.
The airline's formidable security includes armed guards at check-in, on-board marshals and extensive searches of luggage. Passengers are told to arrive three hours ahead of flights to make time for the security checks.
Separately Friday, an El Al pilot flying over Ukraine reported seeing a missile fired from the ground, officials said. They said the missile exploded a few miles away from the plane.
Sneh said he talked to the pilot and concluded that the missile wasn't intentionally aimed at the plane.
The Ukrainian government said the military had not fired a missile.
"At that time there was no military training with shooting in Ukraine," Defense Ministry spokesman Kostiantyn Khivrenko said. "Nobody shot even from cannons and automatic rifles, not only in that direction, but in all Ukraine."
An errant missile shot down a Sibir Airlines plan over the Ukraine country on Oct 4, killing all 78 people on board, most of them immigrants to Israel.
Since then, "all missile exercises in Ukraine have been banned," Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said Friday.
Israeli security know-how has been very much in demand in the United States, especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Most of the Israelis marketing the expertise have served in the Israeli army or security services.
The first and last hijacking of an El Al plane was in July 1968, when a flight from Rome was hijacked by members of the extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and forced to land in Algiers. Passengers and crew were held hostage there, with the last of them not released until December that year.
A later September 1970 hijacking attempt failed when sky marshals shot and killed one hijacker and captured his accomplice.
After that, Palestinian groups hijacked other airliners flying to and from Israel, including an Air France plane that was forced to land at Entebbe, Uganda, in June 1976. The hijacking ended in a spectacular rescue operation carried out by Israeli commandos.
Tight security has also thwarted attempts to put bombs aboard El Al planes.
In April 1986, a Jordanian, Nezar Hindawi, planted a bomb in the hand luggage of his pregnant Irish fiancée as she was about to board an El Al plane at London's Heathrow airport. The bomb was detected by El Al security.
Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and Britain broke diplomatic relations with Syria, which it blamed for the attempt.
It is shooting attacks, like the one at the Los Angeles airport, that El Al has found most difficult to prevent.
In May 1972, three members of the radical Japanese Red Army group arrived on a flight at Tel Aviv airport and opened fire with automatic weapons in the arrival lounge, killing 24 people, mostly pilgrims from Puerto Rico.
Two attackers were killed and one was captured. There was a major shake-up in security at the airport in the wake of the attack.
In December 1985, Palestinians opened fire and threw grenades at passengers at the El Al check-in counters at airports in Rome and Vienna, killing 18 people.
Palestinian gunmen also opened fire with automatic weapons at El Al planes at Athens airport in 1968 and Zurich airport in 1969.
One passenger was killed in the Athens attack and a trainee pilot died in the Zurich shooting. In Zurich, sky marshal Mordechai Rachamim jumped from the plane and killed one of the attackers with a pistol.