An El Al Boeing 707 at Orly Airport, circa 1965
On July 23, 1968, a Boeing 707, El Al flight 426, en route from Rome to Tel Aviv, was hijacked and flown to Algeria – the first and only successful hijacking of an El Al plane. The flight had 38 passengers and a crew of 10. Four of them were in the cockpit: chief pilot Oded Abarbanell, flight engineer Yonah Lichtman, training pilot Avner Slapak and first officer Maoz Poraz.
Three terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were also on board. Shortly after takeoff, two men burst into the cockpit with guns. Slapak disconnected the autopilot, and the aircraft began climbing, apparently with the intention of shaking up and disorienting the hijackers. Abarbanell was afraid, however, the terrorists might shoot or detonate a hand grenade and ordered Slapak to turn the autopilot back on.
The hijackers ordered the crew to fly to Dar El-Beida Airport in Algiers. When they landed two hours later, the crew and passengers were allowed to disembark and taken into custody by Algerian authorities. Within 24 hours, all the non-Israeli passengers, 23 people, were flown back to Rome and released. On July 27, 10 women – Israeli passengers, crew, and three children – were released, leaving 12 Israeli men (seven crew and five passengers, two of them airline employees), as prisoners of the Algerian government. The PFLP, through the Algerians, demanded the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The Israelis were moved to a private villa two weeks after they were taken and learned that efforts were underway to secure their release. They did not konw that Israel prepared a rescue plan, which ultimately proved unnecessary when Algeria gave into pressure resulting from a global boycott of the country by the international pilots’ federation. Israel agreed to release 16 Palestinian prisoners as a “humanitarian gesture” in exchange for its citizens.
On September 1, 1968, the 12 Israeli hostages were flown first to Rome, then Tel Aviv, and the plane returned to Israel. There was no loss of life during the 39-day standoff, but the attack marked the beginning of the age of air piracy.
Source: David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History / The First and Only El Al Hijacking,” Haaretz, (July 23, 2013).
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.