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Israel's Wars & Operations:
Operation Isotope

(May 8, 1972)


Wars & Operations: Table of Contents | Six-Day War | Yom Kippur War


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Operation Isotope is the codename for an IDF special forces raid on a passenger airliner which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. It was the first successful raid of a hijacked airplane in history.

- Hijacking
- Message & Negotiations
- Executing Operation Isotope
- Aftermath

Hijacking

In the early 1970's, Palestinian terrorist organizations, vowing to recover honor lost by Israel's resounding victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, began ruthlessly targeting Israeli citizens in attacks around the world. One of the first such attacks took place aboard a passenger airliner scheduled from Vienna to Tel Aviv operated by the Belgian national airliner, Sabena.

On May 8, 1972, four terrorists — Ahmed Awad, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Theresa Khalsa and Rima Tannous — belonging to the Palestinian "Black September" terrorist group under the direction of Ali Hassan Salameh, boarded Sabena flight 571 in Vienna with 90 other passengers and a small crew.  Approximately twenty minutes after takeoff, the terrorists attempted to rush the cockpit in order to take control of the plane. Captain Reginald Levy, later hailed as a hero for his actions during the sequence of events that followed, attempted to calm the passengers, telling them "as you can see, we have friends aboard" and talking about various unrelated topics to keep their focus off the hijackers.

Message & Negotiations

Shorty after the terrorists took control of the plane, demanding that Captain Levy maintain course and land at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv, Levy was able to send a secret distress signal to Israel which were received by Security Minister Moshe Dayan.  Immediately, Dayan began negotations with the terrorists while simultaneously begining to plan a cover rescue operation.


The commandos storm Sabena flight 571

When they landed in Israel, the terrorists made clear their demands that Israel release 315 convicted Palestinians terrorists from their jails or else they would blow up the plane and kill everyone on board. At the hijackers request, teams from the International Red Cross were used to ferry messages between the plane and Dayan

Meanwhile, Israeli agents used the cover of darkness to creep under the plane in order to deflate the tires and disconnet hydraulic equipment, thus preventing the terrorists from taking off again.  It was at this point, when the terrorists finally realized they could not take off, that Captain Levy says he began talking with them about "everything under the sun, from navigation to sex" in order to calm them down and not make any rash decisions.

Captain Levy was later sent off the plane to show the Israeli's a sample of the terrorists explosives to convince them of the real and imminent threat.  According to Israeli security officials, Levy also described the hijackers appearances, their positions in the plane, and that there were no seats blocking the emergency exits.

Executing Operation Isotope

On May 9, Dayan set the rescue operation in motion.  According to Captain Levy, the ruses that the Israeli's played worked because of the gullability of the hijackers.

While Dayan showed the hijackers a group of bogus Palestinian prisoners boarding another plane at the airport which was supposedly fueled and ready to leave for Cairo, he also promised to send a group of technicians to their plane in order to fix the problems which would then allow them to take off again.

Around 4 p.m. that afternoon, a team of 16 commandos from Israel's elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, led by future Prime Minister Ehud Barak (and included future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), dressed in white worker overalls disguised as the promised technicians, quickly approached the plane. The soldiers were split into five teams, which burst into the plane through five openings — the main door, the rear door, the emergency door and the two wings of the plane — shooting and killing the two male hijackers and capturing the two female hijackers. In the rescue attempt, two passengers were injured, one of them fatally.

According to a film about the operation, Netanyahu grabbed Khalsa and asked her where the explosives were in English. “Marko Ashkenazi, who thought he knew how to handle the situation better, approached her with a loaded gun to startle her,” Netanyahu said during the premiere. When Ashkenazi hit Khalsa, 18-year-old at the time, his gun went off, and a bullet passed through the terrorist and hit Netanyahu’s bicep, leaving him the only commando injured in the operation.


Ehud Barak (third from left, with handgun) and the Israeli commando's after the successful operation

Two other future prime ministers were also involved. Ariel Sharon, the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, and Shimon Peres, then transportation minister.

Aftermath

The two surviving female terrorists were subsequently convicted in Israeli court and sentenced to life imprisonment but were released years later in a prisoner exchange deal following the 1982 Lebanon War.

The terrorist group they belonged to, "Black September," which had only been formed two years prior, was now on the international radar. Later that year, in the fall of 1972, members of "Black September" infiltrated the athlete's village at the Munich Olympics and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. Over the following years, Israel successfully hunted down leaders of the organization, culminating in the successful Operation Spring of Youth in which commando's raided their headquarters in Beirut.

Ali Hassan Salameh, who planned the Sabena operation as well as the Munich Massacre, was killed by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut in 1979.

Sayeret Matkal and other Israeli special forces units quickly adapted to the new tactics of terrorism and soon become some of the best counter-terror units in the entire world.

The hijacked airplane itself was actually put back into immediate service by Sabena and was later purchased by Israel Aircraft Industries who eventually sold the relic to the Israeli Air Force where it served as a spy plane for a number of years.

Captain Levy was welcomed as a hero in Israel, where Prime Minister Golda Meir held a dinner in honor of the successful operation and honored Levy and his wife, who unbeknowst to the hijackers, was aboard the same flight to Israel.  Captain Levy retired from his piloting job with Sabena in 1982 and on August 4, 2010, he passed away at the age of 88. The hijacking actually took place on his 50th birthday.


Sources: “Men in White: The Raid of Sabena Flight 571,” IDF Spokesperson, (May 8, 2012).
“Sabena Flight 571 Hijacking,” Wikipedia.
Dennis Hevesi, “Reginald Levy is Dead at 88, Hailed as Hero in a '72 Hijacking,” New York Times, (August 4, 2010).
“Pilot's Story: Terrorists Didn't Know His Wife Was Passenger on Plane,” JTA, (May 11, 1972).
“Operation Isotope (1972),” Shadow Spear: Special Operations.
Judah Ari Gross, “When the prime ministers took down the hijackers,” Times of Israel, (August 13, 2015).

 

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