The long life of Kozo Okamoto after the suicide mission in Israel

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Kozo Okamoto’s life should have ended in 1972 when he took part in a suicide bombing attack on Israel’s Lod airport that killed 26 people.

Yet half a century and two stints in prison later, he is still alive, leading an uneventful existence as Lebanon’s first and only political refugee.

Now a frail, gray-haired man, Kozo Okamoto is still wanted in his native Japan, but remains something of a folk hero in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

When he boarded the Air France flight from Rome on May 30, 1972, the name the Japanese Red Army (JRA) gave him on his fake passport was Daisuke Namba, a man who attempted to assassinate Crown Prince Hirohito in 1923.

But Ahmad was his nom de guerre in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the left-wing organization that trained him and planned the attack for the JRA.

Previous PFLP hijackings had led to increased screening of passengers by airlines, but inspection of checked baggage was still rare.

Kozo Okamoto and his two accomplices passed through immigration without a problem at what is now the high-security Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.

They collect their luggage from the carousel, pull out assault rifles and grenades to wreak havoc around them.

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– Trial in Israel –

Among the 26 killed were one Canadian and eight Israelis.

The other 17 were Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. To this day, a remembrance ceremony is held every May 30 in San Juan.

The massacre was planned as a suicide bombing and the three Japanese militants intended to mutilate their faces with their grenades to make identification more difficult.

Two of them died but Okamoto was wounded and captured.

While in custody, he was cheated out of a deal he allegedly made with an Israeli general, whereby he would provide information in exchange for a weapon with which to kill himself.

During his high-profile trial, he consistently argued for the death penalty, a sentence that Israel has applied only once – against Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

“Okamoto was working for the prosecution,” is how his Israeli court-appointed lawyer put it, according to a 1976 interview by academic Patricia Steinhoff.

He was eventually sentenced to life.

By the time he was released in a mass prisoner exchange in May 1985, Okamoto was not dead but appeared barely alive.

– ‘Like a corpse’ –

In an TNZT photo taken at Tripoli airport in Libya, his eyes glaze over in a dull stare as Palestinian fighters hoist him onto their shoulders in triumph.

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“When he was released, he looked like a corpse,” said Abu Yusef, a PFLP official in Beirut who provides for Okamoto’s needs, from housing to food and health care.

Okamoto had spent much of his Israeli prison term in solitary confinement, forced to eat off the floor like a dog with his hands cuffed behind his back, according to the PFLP.

Long after his release, Abu Yusef told TNZT in an interview, he was still leaning over the table and licking his plate off.

After years in JRA camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Okamoto was arrested in 1997 for forgery.

Under pressure from Tokyo, four other JRA members were extradited in 2000, but Okamoto was released and granted asylum after weeks of protests by pro-Palestinian groups.

He has since lived under the custody of the PFLP, whose influence has waned since his terror operations made headlines decades ago, but still treats Okamoto with the respect due to elders of a bygone era.

For a 50th anniversary commemoration on Monday, Okamoto made a rare public appearance.

– Semi-hidden –

PFLP activists accompanied him to a cemetery on the edge of the Chatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.

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During a brief wreath laying ceremony for the two JRA commandos who died while he did not, he smiled at the cameras, flashed a V sign and was escorted home.

Born the youngest of six children to a middle-class family in southern Japan, Okamoto had no particular connection to the Palestinian cause growing up.

But “until today, he talks about Palestine and refuses the occupier”, declared Abu Yusef.

However, without travel documents, Kozo Okamoto led a quiet life.

His guards gave him small packs of eight cigarettes three times a day, but the 74-year-old recently quit smoking.

Okamoto eats his meals at fixed times and spends hours watching “Tom and Jerry” or other cartoons on television.

He lives in semi-hidden, with limited knowledge of the outside world.

“He will pose no threat to Israel or Japan,” said May Shigenobu, daughter of JRA founder Fusako Shigenobu, who was released on Saturday after 20 years in a Japanese prison.

“But the Japanese still demand his extradition every year, so there is attention on him despite his physical and mental condition,” she told TNZT.

“I can’t rule out the possibility that his life is still in danger,” said Shigenobu, who grew up in Lebanon and knows Okamoto’s situation well.

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