In 1988, Algeria and Tunisia Were Terrified of Israeli Air Raids
Both countries scrambled to defend PLO meetings
Late on the morning of Oct. 1, 1985, a formation of 10 Israeli air force F-15 fighters approached the Mediterranean coast of Tunisia at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
In front were six F-15Bs and F-15Ds from No. 106 “Spearhead” Squadron. Each of the aircraft was carrying one U.S.-made, GBU-15 electro-optically guided bomb, the pod necessary for the guidance of such weapons and four AIM-7 Sparrow missiles.
In the rear were two F-15Cs from No. 133 ‘Twin Tail’ Squadron, armed with AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, but also six Mk.82 bombs mounted on a multiple-ejector rack, installed under the centerline hardpoint.
Shortly before entering Tunisian airspace, the formation split into two flights of four, separated by four minutes. Two of F-15s experienced various avionics failures and were forced to abort the mission. The other crews thus had to re-distribute targets between them.
The first three Eagles released their GBU-15s from around 15 miles away from their target. The second flight began its attack, with two F-15B/Ds releasing their GBU-15s.
These were then followed by two F-15Cs, one of which dropped its Mk.82s on the first run. The other made a circle and then re-attacked from a different direction because of dense smoke covering the target.
Prepared with help of intelligence provided by Jonathan Pollard, an officer with the U.S. Navy’s Naval Intelligence Command — who was arrested by the FBI in November 1985 — the operation in question was code-named “Wooden Leg.”
It targeted the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Hammam Chott, near the city of Tunis – around 1,280 miles from its launching point, Tel Nof air base, in Israel.
Sources differ significantly regarding casualties. While the Israelis claimed that up to 75 people were killed — around 60 of whom were PLO members — others claimed up to 56 Palestinians and 215 Tunisians were killed, and about 100 wounded. Official Tunisian sources put the final count at 47 dead and 65 wounded.
Above — strike camera photograph of the Israeli attack on the PLO H.Q. in Hammam Chott on Oct. 1. 1985. At top — a rear look at an Israeli F-15B during take-off. IDF photos
According to a retired Tunisian air force officer, three years later the Israelis attempted something similar.
The Israeli air strike on the PLO headquarters in Hammam Chott enraged the Tunisians. Convincing themselves that the Israelis flew this attack from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Tunisians decided to buy Soviet-made air-defense equipment.
“At the time of this attack, we only had one civilian radar – and this was out of service,” the officer said. “Afterwards, our air force considered the possibility of buying a Soviet air-defense system. We sent a delegation to Algeria to study their equipment.”
“The Algerians offered us to deploy one of their SA-3 batteries to Tunis, on temporary basis. However, when the Algerians informed us about the limited capabilities of this system, we cancelled the idea.”
The Tunisians’ anger cooled down before any kind of SAMs were acquired from Moscow. Nevertheless, when the PLO decided to hold its next congress, in November 1988, it selected Algiers, instead.
“Initially, the PLO wanted to hold this congress in Baghdad,” the same source continued. “The war with Iran was over and thus the place was considered safe enough. However, the Palestinians received a warning that Israel would attack, no matter where the congress took place. Therefore, they picked Algiers. This was considered a safer place.”
The Algerians went to great extensions to protect the site of the congress, held at the Club des Pins Hotel, around 12 miles west of Algiers on the Mediterranean coast.
Front view of an Israeli F-15B carrying two massive GBU-8 guided bombs on its underwing pylons. IDF photo
“Everybody was 100-percent sure ‘they’ [the Israelis] would come to attack again! Therefore, the Algerians deployed one of their SA-6 sites nearby, and established a no-fly zone within circle of 20 kilometers around Club des Pins. A pair of MiG-25s was flying a combat air patrol at high altitude, and a pair of MiG-21s did so at medium altitude, every time top Palestinian representatives were meeting. Additional interceptors were on standing alert at their bases.”
As expected, “they” came. On Nov. 10, 1988, Algerian early-warning radars picked up a formation of suspect radar contacts approaching from the east.
“An Algerian radar detected a number of contacts far in the east, approaching at medium level,” the retired Tunisian officer said. “Immediately, a pair each of MiG-23s and MiG-25s was scrambled to reinforce four MiGs that were already on CAP over Club des Pins.
“The Algerians did not vector them to intercept — the Israelis were still much too far away. They ordered their MiGs to climb, and take a position in front of incoming aircraft. Due to Algerian activity, we went on alert, too, and our radars then picked up two groups of aircraft, at the time and place there was no commercial or any military activity expected or announced.”
The tension in the skies and on the ground began to rise. Over the following minutes, more and more Algerian and Tunisians radar stations turned on and began tracking the incoming formation. According to the retired Tunisian officer, alertness of the Algerian air defenses eventually had an effect.
“It is only a guess, but I think they detected all this electromagnetic activity. They followed a radial course for a while, then returned back east. They were not afraid of us, or the Algerians. But for their raid to succeed, they wanted to hit the PLO while suffering zero losses. That’s why they decided to cancel their attack.”
According to this and other available sources, the two formations of aircraft in question were never positively identified. The main reason they were probably Israelis is that they approached Tunisian and Algerian airspace from an eastern direction at an altitude of 40,000 feet and at relatively high speed.
The aircraft in question turned away well before any of them could be seen or identified by other means.