Bound for resort, hijacked Iranians get taste of Israel

JERUSALEM — Mahshid Bayat, a 22-year-old university student from Tehran, was looking forward to a brief holiday before returning to school next week.

Bayat, along with 173 other passengers on Kish Air's flight 707, never dreamed their planned shopping spree on the Persian Gulf island of Kish would turn into a 30-hour odyssey at an Israeli air force base.

The travelers' holiday plans were rudely altered Sept. 19, shortly before landing on Kish Island, when a gun-toting flight attendant hijacked their Boeing jet.

The hijacker demanded to fly to Europe. But the plane, which was short on fuel, arrived in Israel after both Jordan and Saudi Arabia refused its request to land.

"We saw a military plane that had the sign of Israel, a star, and after that, the plane landed," said Sayedali Sahihonata, a civil engineer, who was traveling with his wife and 22-month-old son.

The plane was directed to the Ovda military air base, in the Negev desert near Eilat.

There, the passengers disembarked and were taken into the terminal. The men and women sat separately in the large room. They were quietly apprehensive, fearing what might happen next.

Persian-speaking Israelis were brought in to break the ice, and as curious reporters also began milling around the terminal, conversations began.

Although Israel and Iran are implacable foes, Israeli soldiers at the terminal had been directed to roll out the welcome carpet for the Iranians.

Hot and cold beverages were served, as well as hot lunches, courtesy of the army kitchen at the adjacent base.

The passengers were grateful for the food — and also for the fact that the hijacking ordeal was over.

"We're safe, we're glad it's over," said one woman.

Asked for her impressions of what it was like to be in Israel, she said, "This is an airport, it's not a city, I don't know what it's like."

She then added, "We don't know much about Israel, just what we hear from the government, that it is the enemy of Iran."

Like the rest of the women in the group, she wore a chador, the traditional black garment that covered her from head to toe. But, modern clothing peeked out from underneath it: jeans, silver-toned leather shoes, gold jewelry.

Menashe Amir, director of Israel Radio's Farsi language broadcasts and an expert on Iran, said that a number of the passengers were in fact familiar with the radio's overseas broadcasts about Israel, the Middle East and Iran.

When he went into the terminal to speak with the passengers, many recognized the voice of the veteran reporter. "I have the feeling that at least half of them were loyal listeners to the Israel Radio broadcasts," he said. "Some of them said they had already visited Israel and Eilat many times."

He added that some of the passengers asked him, "Please, let us visit the holy places, let us go to Jerusalem, let us go to the beach of Eilat." He noted that one of the passengers asked him to let them shop in the duty-free shop.

As the hours passed Tuesday of last week, Israeli security officials interviewed the male passengers.

The children, who initially sat close to their parents in the chairs, started running around the room.

At five o'clock, a group of men gathered at one end of the room for prayers. After finding the direction of Mecca, they used army blankets and paper towels for makeshift prayer rugs.

Two hours later, the Israeli hosts served a buffet supper: cut vegetables, cheeses, breads, tea and coffee. Female soldiers passed around cigarettess; they gave dolls, balls and puzzles to the children.

But despite the efforts to make the group comfortable, apprehensions grew as the hours passed.

"Why are they keeping us here?" Sahihonata asked. "We are innocent civilians. If (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin wants to show Iran that Israelis are not terrorists, then he must let us go."

At 11 p.m., the group was told that they would not be flying out that night. Instead, rooms had been prepared for them at the nearby air force base. Buses took the group to the barracks.

The passengers were brought back to the terminal in the morning. At 11 a.m., just over 24 hours after their ordeal began, they learned that they would be leaving in a few hours.

But the departure was delayed for hours by technical difficulties. The plane finally took off for Iran at around 7:20 p.m.