On 15 May 1974, three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the United States had designated a terrorist organization, disguised themselves as Israeli soldiers, snuck across the border from Lebanon, and killed 25 hostages, including 22 children, and injured 68 hostages in Ma'a lot, Israel after taking them as hostages. The attack coincided with the 26th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel.
When the terrorists reached Ma'alot, located on a plateau in the hills of the Western Galilee region of Israel, they knocked on the door of the Cohen family, and upon entering immediately killed the parents, Yosef and Fortuna, and their 4-year-old son Eliahu, and wounded their 5-year-old daughter Miriam. The family's 16-month-old son was uninjured.
The terrorists then proceeded to Netiv Meir Elementary School, which was hosting more than 100 teenagers and teachers from a religious school in Safed for the night, and held students and teachers hostage, threatening to kill them if Israel did not release 23 Palestinian prisoners held on terror charges. The terrorists immediately murdered one security guard, another person, and a student. While twenty hostages managed to escape, ninety or so students and some teachers were held prisoner.
Survivor Tzipi Maimon-Bokris recalled that throughout the day, the children tried to persuade the terrorists not to kill them, to which one responded, “Soon you’ll be soldiers; we have to stop you now.”
While official Israeli policy was not to negotiate with terrorists, the government decided to ask for more time in order to negotiate for the release of the students in exchange for the Palestinian prisoners, but the terrorists denied the request.
Prime Minister Golda Meir feared the terrorists would blow up the school. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur debated whether to stage a rescue operation by the elite special forces Sayeret Matkal.
Shortly before the terrorist-imposed deadline, Israel special forces did attempt to rescue the hostages. However, the mission was ultimately unsuccessful, as a terrorist hurled a grenade and shot at the students, killing 25 hostages, including 22 children, and injuring 68 hostages.
Five days after the massacre, Prime Minister Meir addressed the Knesset to outline the government’s response to the crisis, announce the creation of a commission of inquiry and to comfort the nation. Concluding her remarks, Meir called for unity, saying, “These attacks underline Israel's true solidarity, which transcends differences and contradictions. Terrorism will not weaken our spirit. We must be fully prepared if we are to succeed in preventing terrorist activity and in overcoming it.”
Years later, Major Gen. Amiram Levin, who had commanded the failed operation, reflected on it, saying, “The whole operation took 30, 35 seconds…. If we’d been able to do it in 10, how many more could we have saved?”