Reading the morning news on Saturday, I exploded in tears. Hamas had launched a deadly surprise attack into Israel, killing hundreds and taking hostages. Israel quickly declared war against the Gaza-based militant group.
Though it’s been over five decades, these events are all too familiar.
In September 1970, I was taken hostage. Headed home to New York after a summer in Israel, I’d boarded TWA Flight 741 in Tel Aviv. I was 20 years old and traveling alone.
Three hours into the flight, an armed couple dashed down the aisle, forcing their way into the cockpit. The hijackers were from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group I’d never heard of. I was confused and worried, but not panicked. I didn’t know enough to be afraid.
The plane was redirected to a barren desert region of Jordan where torches in oil drums lined a makeshift runway of hardened sand.
A crowd of guerrillas, heads swathed in scarves with only their eyes visible, awaited us. When the hijackers descended a wooden ladder, cheers rang out from the jubilant crowd. That’s when a shiver ran down my spine.
A PFLP commando informed us we’d be staying on the plane for a day or two. I wondered how I could manage; the plane reeked of cigarette smoke, dirty diapers, and nervous sweat. Babies bawled and mothers demanded milk and food.
The following day, mothers with babies and toddlers, non-Americans, and many non-Jewish passengers were released. Others, like me, sat on the plane for six days and nights with no flushable toilets, running water, or air conditioning.
Amidst a sea of conservatively dressed orthodox Jewish women, my green minidress brought unwanted attention to my body.
Daytime temperatures inside soared to well over 100 degrees. Shivering at night, sleep came in fragments, with snoring and children’s cries wafting through the air. Two other planes were hijacked and parked nearby.
After our captors discovered an Israeli army shirt in my backpack, they interrogated me at gunpoint. Scared for my life, my voice narrowed to a whisper as I explained the shirt was a gift, and I was an American college student.
Convinced I was an Israeli soldier and a Zionist, I was pegged as an enemy of the Palestinian people.
The PFLP demanded that Israel and several European countries release imprisoned Palestinians. In exchange, they would release the hostages. If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the planes with passengers onboard.
But they took us off the planes, and we hostages watched as the militants wired explosives and lit the fuses. Explosion after explosion in rapid succession destroyed sections of the planes. Acrid smoke stung my nostrils, and my mouth tasted bitter and metallic. Amidst the ashes of the planes, the Palestinian militants danced and cheered.
Thirty-two passengers, five of us women, were taken by bus and kept as prisoners of war in a cramped apartment in Amman.
During the first few days, two female PFLP members talked to the women hostages about what they hoped to achieve with the hijackings.
They wanted us to understand their frustrations—how they had lived as refugees in Jordan for over twenty years with few rights and limited opportunities. They had hijacked the planes in a desperate attempt to tell the world about their plight.
“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to get our rightful homeland back,” a female PFLP member told us. “No matter how long we have to fight.”
As an American Jew, that was the first time I’d heard Middle East history discussed in such personal terms and from a non-Israeli perspective.
Within days, a violent civil war erupted between the PFLP and the army of King Hussein of Jordan. Over the next two weeks, thousands of Palestinians and Jordanian soldiers were killed, and the city of Amman lay in ruins.
As explosions and bombs moved closer to our location, we sheltered by lying on the concrete floor, praying for our survival. When our own deaths seemed imminent, we were suddenly freed. If we hostages had been killed in the civil war, the PFLP would have lost all their bargaining chips.
Miraculously, we hostages all came home alive.
When I arrived home in Brooklyn, my parents didn’t ask many questions. Believing I should put my fears behind me, they encouraged me to return to college, forget about the hijacking, and move on with my life.
This may sound naïve today, but in the 1970s even soldiers who returned from combat in the Vietnam War were supposed to quickly adapt. It would be another decade before PTSD became recognized as a diagnostic category.
I was socialized, like many women born in the 1950s, to not talk about my problems, to hide what did not seem “normal.” We were awash with secrets.
When I returned to school, I felt disconnected from many of my close friends. Engaged in anti-Vietnam war activism, they thought my experience with “real revolutionaries” was “far out.”
Certain that no one could understand my ordeal, I buried those weeks of my life, rarely speaking of my experience, caught in a liminal space between captivity and freedom. Recurring nightmares of bombs and explosions plagued me. Loud noises and small spaces made me edgy. Yet even in therapy, I never spoke of it.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve realized that buried trauma doesn’t just go away. I’ve been a hostage to my own painful memories, keeping them sealed in silence. Talking and writing about my experience has been a way of finally addressing and processing the pain.
Since 1970, the desperation of the Palestinians half a century ago that drove them to meticulously coordinate the hijackings of four planes has only intensified. The violence of the recent attacks came as a surprise to Israel’s security forces, just as the hijackings had.
The stated goal of Hamas for taking hostages is to force Israel to release imprisoned Palestinians; this is the same goal as the PFLP espoused fifty years ago.
And just as the hostage-taking by the PFLP in Jordan resulted in a civil war, the recent attack on Israel has resulted in the declaration of war on Hamas, on Gaza. While the outcome remains unclear, the death toll will continue to swell.
My heart is with the hostages: The men, women, and children who were violently seized from the safety of their homes and from the streets of Israel.
I understand what it means to be taken, the agony of the long days in captivity, and the grieving and invisible pain that follows. And I pray for all the families and loved ones of the hostages who are now living with the crippling fear and terror of the unknown.
Mimi Nichter, Ph.D. is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. She is currently completely a memoir on the hijacking, Hostage: A Memoir of Terrorism, Trauma, and Resilience.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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