JERUSALEM – A struggle aboard an El Al Airlines jet in which security agents wrestled an Arab-Israeli to the floor was "to all appearances a terror attack," the Israeli government said Monday in a statement.
Airline officials concurred and said their security guards prevented a hijacking, but officials at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv played down the confrontation. Relatives said the passenger, Tawfiq Fukra, 23, had a simple argument with a flight attendant.
It was the first official Israeli description of the incident late Sunday that began 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 to Istanbul, Turkey. None of the 170 passengers on board was harmed, and the plane landed safely.
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 (my) brothers," an ambiguous declaration that could have referred either to family or other Arabs.
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. It said Fukra's actions were "not spontaneous."
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 and threatened anyone.
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 on his possession was not the reason the security guards acted on the plane," authority spokesman Pini Schiff said in a news release in Tel Aviv. "When the passenger was being overpowered, he was not holding any object in his hand."
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.
A second guard who helped overpower Fukra noticed he had a small knife in his possession, the radio said.
Earlier, El Al general manager Amos Shapira had said the passenger "tried to reach the cockpit with what we assume now is a small pocket knife."
An initial investigation showed that the security apparatus at Ben Gurion Airport had operated satisfactorily, Schiff said. But officials were still checking how the suspect managed to get the knife onto the plane.
Turkey's NTV television said Fukra told interrogators he wanted to force the plane to return to Tel Aviv, where he intended to crash it into a building. Turkey's Anatolia news agency quoted Fukra as telling interrogators he had "carried out the action to protest" against Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
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, one successful hijacking, several that failed and attempted bombings.
The successful hijacking was in July 1968, when a flight from Rome was seized 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 five months later.
El Al's security includes armed guards at check-in, on-board marshals and extensive luggage searches. Passengers are told to arrive three hours ahead of flights to allow time for the security checks.
In northern Israel, police searched the home of Fukra's father, confiscated a computer and questioned several relatives who were all later released, Israel's Army Radio said.
Fukra's father, Salah, said his son was not a hijacker. He said his son was going to Turkey for vacation.
Okay Cakirlar, an official at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport, said El Al Flight 581 sent out a hijacking signal as it approached Istanbul, and Fukra was seen being taken away in handcuffs by plainclothes police.
Nehama Snelzo, an Israeli tourist, said the man looked frightened when he was overpowered.
"He seemed to be very scared, he started saying 'I'm going to Istanbul to see a friend, I'm not a threat,"' Snelzo said.
Another passenger, Viv Gulmez, said the man was sitting just in front of her and that he looked suspicious.
"He was going to toilet very often, and once he made a telephone call from the plane," Gulmez told private CNN-Turk television.
Snelzo said after the incident, the flight attendants made an announcement, telling "us not to get scared, to sit down, not to get up and be calm."