The State Department documents also make clear that Washington was aware, at the time, of Arafat’s involvement in the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel, his deputy chief of mission, George Moore, and Belgian charge d’affaires Guy Eid, during a terrorist hostage-taking in Khartoum in March 1973.
“The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the head of Fatah,” said one of the documents released by the State Department’s Office of the Historian.
“When the terrorists became convinced that their demands would not be met and after they reportedly had received orders from Fatah headquarters in Beirut, they killed the two U.S. officials and the Belgian Charge,” it said.
“Thirty-four hours later, upon receipt of orders from Arafat in Beirut, the terrorists released the other hostages unharmed and surrendered to Sudanese authorities.”
Another of the released documents recorded a meeting in Washington, two months later, between President Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban.
“During the Khartoum incident, someone suggested we ask you [Israelis] for help,” Kissinger remarked to Eban. “You would have blown up Beirut.”
Eban: “You know that it was from Beirut that the phone call went to finish them off.”
Kissinger: “We know that.”
Less than two years after the attack, the Ford administration allowed Arafat to enter the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
(Under a 1947 “headquarters agreement” establishing the permanent seat of the U.N. in New York City, the U.S. agreed not to prevent foreign delegates from entering a demarcated zone for U.N. activities – but Arafat did not represent a U.N. member state, so their was no U.S. obligation to allow him in. In 1988, the Reagan administration did deny Arafat a visa, citing “associations with terrorism.” The General Assembly reacted by holding a special session in Geneva, which Arafat then addressed.)
Despite having the blood of Noel and Moore on his hands, the PLO and Fatah leader was on the long road to international acceptability that saw the George H.W. Bush administration open talks with the PLO in 1989 in a quest for a Mideast peace deal.
When news broke that year that the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia had met twice with a PLO official accused of masterminding the Khartoum operation, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) made a bid to bar contacts with the PLO unless the president could certify that the Palestinians involved in the talks had no links to terror attacks in which Americans were killed, injured or kidnapped.
The White House opposed Helms’ move as an unconstitutional intrusion into the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and the Democratic-controlled Senate voted it down.
Before he died in 2004, Arafat prepared the way for his successor’s imminent bid for U.N. recognition of “Palestine,” and when Mahmoud Abbas does so later this month he is expected to do so in Arafat’s memory.
According to a State Department list of significant terrorist incidents, released shortly after 9/11, Noel and the others were killed in Khartoum in 1973 by “members of the Black September organization.”
“Black September” – which also claimed the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics six months before the Khartoum attack – was said by its own members, including Munich planner Abu Daoud, to have been merely a label of convenience used by Fatah terrorists.
The Khartoum attack began on the night of March 1, during a reception at the Saudi Embassy in the Sudanese capital.
Eight Palestinian gunmen seized Cleo, Moore and Eid along with a Saudi and a Jordanian diplomat. They demanded the release of a number of prisoners, mostly Palestinians, being held in Jordan, Israel and the U.S. Among them were Abu Daoud, incarcerated in Jordan at the time, and Sirhan Sirhan, Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassin, imprisoned in California.
After Nixon refused to negotiate the gunmen killed the three Westerners.
In a 1990 book, Inside the PLO, researchers Neil Livingstone and David Halevy wrote that the diplomats were taken to the embassy basement and shot: “The terrorists fired from the floor upward, to prolong their agony of their victims by striking them first in the feet and legs, before administering the coup de grace.”
The terrorists surrendered to the Sudanese – “upon receipt of orders from Arafat in Beirut,” according to the documents released by the Office of the Historian.
Livingstone and Halevy quoted Arafat as telling the gunmen, “Your mission has ended. Release Saudi and Jordanian diplomats. Submit in courage to Sudanese authorities to explain your just cause to [the] great Sudanese Arab masses and international opinion. We are with you on the same road.”
Two of the eight terrorists were released. The other six went on trial, during which the leader, Salim Rizak, told the Sudanese court: “We carried out this operation on the orders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and should only be questioned by that organization.”
In June 1973, the six were found guilty of murdering the three diplomats and sentenced to life imprisonment. Hours later the Sudanese government commuted their sentences to seven years’ imprisonment and flew them out of the country, handing them over to the PLO.
The Nixon administration downgraded relations and withdrew its new ambassador to Khartoum in protest. After Nixon resigned, the Ford administration began a gradual process of normalizing relations with Sudan.
In their book, Livingstone and Halevy wrote that messages between PLO headquarters in Beirut and the besieged Saudi Embassy during the hostage-taking incident were intercepted by the Israelis and the information shared with the U.S. government.