Operation Gift: The IDF Commando Operation in Beirut Airport
(December 28-29, 1968)
On 22 July 1968, terrorists hijacked an El Al plane on its way from Israel to Rome, and forced the pilot to land in Algiers. About four months later, in the early afternoon of 26 November, two terrorists who had arrived in Athens from Beirut Airport, fired at an El Al plane about to take off from the Athens Airport. As a result, an Israeli citizen was killed, a stewardess was wounded, and the plane damaged. Thanks to the quick intervention of Israeli security guards, who captured the terrorists, a greater tragedy was averted. The spokesman of the "People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose headquarters was in Beirut, announced that the operation was carried out by his organization. Beirut, at that time was a center for Arab terrorism.
In response, the IDF decided to attack aircraft belonging to Arab airlines, that were at the Beirut Airport for an airborne commando operation.
Beirut International Airport is located approximately 90 kms (55 miles) north of Rosh-Hanikra, on the Israeli-Lebanon border. It is situated south of the city of Beirut, and approximately two kms eastward from sea. The airport is comprised of two runways crisscrossing scissor-like, in north-south direction. Between the two lanes lies the passenger terminal and in front of it, an open area. At the north-eastern and the south-western edges of the runways, were hangars, parking and maintenance areas for the planes. South of the terminal was the standby emergency services pavilion of the airport, where fire and first-aid stations were located.
In the airport there were only about 90 security men armed primarily with handguns. They worked in three shifts. A Lebanese Army commando company was deployed three kms from the airport, standing by at five-minute alert status. Lebanese Gendarmes and Police in the Beirut area could arrive at the airport in an half hour, and the Armored Car Mobile Gendarmes Unit and other military forces could arrive within an hour after receiving an order. Our air and naval forces did not expect any Lebanese air and naval forces activity, nor did they expect that our activity would be detected by Lebanese radar.
Planning and Preparation
Planning for "Operation Gift" commenced following the plane hijacking on 22 July. The initial intention was to hijack planes in Beirut. Since a basic plan existed, an order went out to IDF General Staff Operations immediately following the Athens plane attack, to revise the Operation Gift contingency plan for the possibility of destroying and not hijacking the aircraft. A similar order was issued to the Israel Air Force, whose aircraft were immediately placed on alert and their serviceability was increased. Two days later, on Saturday, 28 December, the operational task force assembled in Ramat-David Airbase, fully trained and ready for action. An air-head was established in Betzet Airport to enable helicopters to land there in case they should run out of fuel. The mission, which every task force member knew to the letter was: To sabotage the maximum number of airplanes belonging to Arab airlines at Beirut International Airport, while avoiding harm to civilians and damage to aircraft belonging to other airlines; to damage installations, and if the number of planes be small - to sabotage military aircraft that might be in the military area of the airport.
The operational plan was as follows (for the map click here):
The airport was divided into three primary operational sectors: the eastern sector, the western sector and the terminal area sector. Each sector was assigned a force of 20-22 fighters. They were commanded from a forward command group headed by the then Chief Paratrooper and Infantry Officer, Brig. Gen. Rafael Eitan, "Raful". The forward command group consisted of 12 fighters, including the Head of the General Staff Operations Branch, Nadal, who was deputy commander of the operation.
A 22-man force from an elite unit under the command of Lt. Col. Uzi ("Uzi Force") was ordered to land in a Super-Frelon helicopter in the north-western edge of the runway. They were to sabotage aircraft on the western part of the airport up to the boundary of the force's sector of operations, the north western corner of the passenger terminal. The force was to then proceed to the "London" evacuation point which was at the intersection of the two runways.
The second force of that unit, comprised of 20 men under the command of the elite unit commander, Maj. Digli ("Digli Force"), was ordered to land in a Super-Frelon south of the area of the main building, and to sabotage the planes there. The troops were then to precede to the "London" evacuation point after completing their mission. They would stand by, and in the event that evacuation would take place by sea, they would secure a bridge head on the shore.
The third force, comprised of 22 men of the 35th Brigade's Reconnaissance Company, commanded by the company commander, Capt. Negbi ("Negbi Force"), was ordered to land in a Super-Frelon on the northern edge of the eastern runway and to sabotage planes situated from that point southward to its sector boundary, the passenger terminal, and to then evacuate in the same manner as the other two forces.
The Helicopter Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Eliezer "Cheetah" Cohen, who was in a light helicopter along with a Paratroop officer, a flight surgeon and flight mechanic, was ordered to block the area of operations eastward and northward from the air.
It was decided that the sabotage of the aircraft belonging to Arab countries would be effected by two charges, one which would be placed in the landing gear under the aircraft's nose and the second, which would be placed in the landing gear of one of the wings. This would immobilize the aircraft and set it aflame. Each aircraft would be prepared for a separate explosion, although it would be possible to link charges by means of a switch, and to blow up several planes simultaneously dependent upon the conditions on the ground and providing t`hat non-Arab planes would not be damaged.
Evacuation would be carried out by one of the following alternative routes in accordance with conditions in the field:
If a mishap were to take place, the force would be evacuated by naval commandos or with the support of 36 soldiers from a special forces battalion, who were standing by to be flown out from Ramat-David Airbase to Beirut Airport.
The entire operation was to last 30 minutes from the landing of the first helicopter until the take-off of the last helicopter for Israel.
"H" hour, which had been set for 22:00 hrs on the 28 December, was advanced by three quarters of an hour following updated intelligence which arrived on Saturday afternoon, 28 December, that the number of aircraft at 21:15 hrs would be greater than that three quarters of an hour later.
The IAF and Israel Navy's Role
The operational plan assigned six Super-Frelon helicopters and two additional helicopters as reserve, for landing the force in three different locations and evacuating them from the point of evacuation.
Seven Bell helicopters (and an additional one in reserve) were tasked: five to serve as the rescue or evacuation force, one for the forward command group, and another for patrol and transmission.
Four Nord aircraft (and additional one in reserve) were tasked: two to evacuate the force, and an additional two for dropping flares, transmission, and naval rescue. Two Boeings would serve for transmission. Two skyhawks and four Vautours were in reserve for illumination and attack, should need arise.
According to the operational plan for the Navy, two Torpedo boats four Saar class missile boats and thirteen rubber dinghies as well as naval commandos were to be in stand-by in the event that naval - air rescue operations would be required. The naval forces were to group at "H" hour six nautical miles off "Rome Beach" and at "H" + thirty minutes, half of the force was to deploy 1,500 meters off the beach. The Torpedo boats were to stand-by 12 nautical miles off the coast. One opposite Tyre and the second opposite Sidon. The naval forces were to reach their objectives by proceeding north twenty-five miles west of the coast, then to reach a point twenty miles off their objectives and then to approach slowly to the coast. The trip from Haifa port to the objective was to last about three and a half hours.
The helicopters took off from Ramat David Air Base at 20:37 hours. The calculated times to target were 45 minutes for the Super Frelon helicopters and 53 minutes for the Bells. They grouped about twelve kilometers west of Rosh Hanikra and from there approached the coast flying northward. When they approached the airport, the helicopters dropped to 200 - 300 feet, and as of 21:18 hours, three Super Frelons landed at intervals of several minutes. At "H" + 5 minutes, the Bell forward command post landed and the second Bell hovered above, opposite the international airport on a patrol and blocking mission.
Lt. Col. Eliezer (Cheetah) Cohen at the controls of the Bell helicopter was responsible for carrying out the blocking mission. On his first and second passes he dropped 95 smoke grenades and twenty smoke flares which created a heavy smoke screen on the eastern and northern perimeters of the airfield. The helicopter then dropped nails on the roads leading to the airport. This succeeded in halting six cars traveling to the airport. Vehicles in the airport trying to escape northwards to Beirut city and police and fire brigade vehicles traveling to the airport created a traffic jam which in itself constituted an effective block. In addition, Cheetah's helicopter fired warning shots at vehicles trying to enter the airport. When Cheetah spotted what appeared to be a military truck attempting to enter the airport by bypassing the traffic jam, he opened fire at it and the vehicle came to a halt.
Supported by the blocking helicopter, Uzi Digli Negbi forces proceeded to carry out their missions.
Uzi force which landed as planned in the northern edge of the western runway, confronted three groups of aircraft: The first comprised of five planes, the second of two to three planes, and the third of three. Since the planes of the latter group of aircraft were in close proximity to each other, the force blew them up collectively. The troops then secured the area and began to plant explosive charges working from north to south and proceeded to blow up each plane individually. The force avoided entering the military area of the airport where the lights went out as soon as the force landed. Thus, the force did not sabotage a number of planes that were undergoing servicing there.
In total, the force destroyed four planes in the first group while a fifth, a "Dakota" was intentionally spared. The second group was left untouched, while the third group was completely destroyed. In total, six Jets were destroyed.
As the force was planting explosive devices, a vehicle approached the scene. LTC Uzi fired several warning shots over it and it vanished. Warning shots were also fired over the heads of workers who approached and immediately fled the area as they were ordered by LTC Uzi. The force was not hampered as it made its way to the evacuation point.
Digli force which landed South of the open area, moved northwards towards it and detached a force across the airport emergency services building. The force saw four aircraft in the well-lit area. The force positively identified three as Lebanese aircraft. However, the fourth was difficult to identify as it faced the force.
The force thus decided to deal with the three positively identified craft and destroyed three planes. Two squads were ordered to approach two planes, plant explosive charges and when they called out "ready" they received the order to operate the devices, as the force receded so as to not get hurt from the explosion.
Later, an additional squad was sent to the third plane. During the operation, light fire was directed at the squad from a passenger building. The two remaining squads fired warning shots at the building, so as not to injure civilians. This allowed for the first squad to sabatoge the third aircraft. The force later moved on to the evacuation point.
Negbi force landed in its designated point and from there moved south along the eastern lane. The advance squad reported all Lebanese planes it encountered, after which a demolition team was sent to it. Four planes were identified, one of which was discovered inside a hanger. Capt. Negbi intended to destroy all four planes simultaneously, which is why he waited till all devices were planted. He then gave the order to blow up the planes. However, the order which was issued by megaphone was not heard inside the hanger. Only when the squad members noticed the rest of the force members were receding, did they detonate the devices and pull out. Apparently, the aircraft in the hangar did not blow up. However, to avoid complications, the force withdrew southward to the airport fuel installation which was behind and east of the passenger building. The force requested to sabotage the fuel depot but was refused permission by the forward command group. Therefore, the force proceeded to the evacuation point.
Since Negbi force was the first to reach the evacuation point, it prepared two trapezes as a sign for the evacuating helicopters. At 21:47 hrs, the first helicopter landed to evacuate the force, and fifteen minutes later, the third ? helicopter took off from Beirut International Airport on its way south to Israel.
The Naval Force
The naval force which left Haifa at "H" -three-and-a-half hours sailed northwards towards Sidon. En routte it was forced to return one of the torpedo boats (the one that was supposed to be positioned across Tyre) due to a motor failure in the craft. The force (with the exception of the single torpedo boat which positioned itself between Tyre and Sidon) stood by 1.5 Kms off the Beirut Coast and observed the destruction of the aircraft. After it received a report that the ground force was evacuated safely, the naval force returned to Haifa Naval Base.
In Operation Gift, a total of 14 planes belonging to Middle East Airlines (MEA) and Air Libea were destroyed (two Boeing 707; three Commet C - 4; Caravel; Viscount planes; and 1V.C. -10). Estimated damage was 42 - 44 million dollars.