BEIRUT (AP) — An aging Japanese militant who spent more than a decade in an Israeli prison for his part in a deadly attack on Tel Aviv’s airport showed up in Beirut on Monday at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack.
Kozo Okamoto, 74, served 12 years in an Israeli lockup for a May 30, 1972 attack on the international airport outside Tel Aviv that was thought to be carried out by members of the Japanese Red Army guerrilla group. Twenty-six people were killed, including Christian pilgrims.
Okamoto was freed in 1985 in a prisoner exchange between Israel and Palestinian guerrillas and has since gained political asylum in Lebanon where he has been living quietly for decades.
The ceremony at a Beirut cemetery where many Palestinian militants are buried was organized by a radical Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It was attended by a few dozen people and officials from Lebanese and Palestinian factions including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The participants gathered around a memorial for four pro-Palestinian Japanese nationals.
The 1972 attack on the airport was suspected to be a joint operation between the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army.
Donning a Palestinian flag around his neck and the slogan of the PFLP, Okamoto looked frail as he walked toward the grave with the help of several men. He did not speak during his 30-minute visit to the cemetery and sometimes smiled and waved.
Okamoto’s rare public appearance came two days after Fusako Shigenobu, who co-founded the Japanese Red Army, was released from prison in Japan after serving a 20-year sentence and apologizing for hurting innocent people.
The Japanese Red Army, a violent ultra-leftist group that had links to Palestinian militants, was formed in 1971 and took responsibility for several international attacks, including the takeover of the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1975. The group is also suspected in the 1972 machine-gun and grenade assault on the airport known at the time as Lod airport.
The PFLP is a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and gained notoriety after the simultaneous hijackings of four Western airliners in 1970 and the seizure of an Air France flight to Entebbe, Uganda.
PFLP official Marwan Abdul-Aal told The Associated Press that Palestinians have always faced a double standard because when they resist Israeli occupation forces they are called terrorists. Meanwhile, Western countries now support Ukrainian resistance against invading Russian troops, he said.
“The world is not fair and this is what those people used to say,” Abdul-Aal said about Japanese fighters who supported the Palestinians.
In the 1972 attack, Okamoto and two of his colleagues arrived in Tel Aviv on a flight from Europe, then collected their bags, in which they had packed rifles and grenades and opened fire, killing and wounding dozens, according to AP reports.
The two Japanese with Okamoto were killed in the attack while he was wounded. Okamoto was later put on trial in Israel and sentenced to life in prison.
Okamoto and four other Japanese were arrested by Lebanese authorities in 1997 in eastern Lebanon after spending years illegally in the country, protected by Palestinian and Lebanese leftist groups during the chaotic days of the 1975-90 civil war. They were put on trial and the four were handed over to Japan in 2000 while Okamoto became the first person to get political asylum in Lebanon.
Japan has been demanding for years that Okamoto be handed over by Lebanon but Beirut has repeatedly rejected the demand. He is considered a hero by many in Lebanon and the Arab world for championing the Palestinian cause and opposing Israel.
During the opening session of his trial in Lebanon in 1997, Okamoto was asked if he had used a forged passport to enter Lebanon and he told the Beirut Criminal Court: ″I don’t understand why I am facing a charge of using a forged passport.”
“I am an Arab resistance fighter,″ he said. ″I did it for the Palestinian cause.″