Operation Gift is the codename for an Israel Defense Forces raid at the Beirut Airport in response to multiple terror attacks against Israel’s national airline, El Al. In the raid, IDF special forces destroyed numerous airplanes belonging to various Arab airlines; no casualties were reported.
On July 22, 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 55 miles north of Rosh Hanikra, on the Israeli-Lebanon border. It is situated south of the city of Beirut, roughly 1.2 miles 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 roughly two miles from the airport on five-minute alert status. Lebanese gendarmes and police in the Beirut area could arrive at the airport in a half hour, and the Armored Car Mobile Gendarmes Unit and other military forces could arrive within an hour after receiving an order. Israeli air and naval forces did not expect any Lebanese air and naval forces activity, nor did they expect that its activity would be detected by Lebanese radar.
The operational plan was as follows:
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 “Raful” Eitan. 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.
while ensuring that 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:
- From the intersection point of the two runways, code-named “London,” where the forces were to assemble after completing their mission. Three Super-Frelon helicopters would be tasked to evacuate the forces.
- From a point on the seacoast, code-named “Rome.” The evacuation would take place by Israel Navy missile boats and naval commando.
- From the main runway of the airport, by two Nord aircraft which would land there.
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 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 stand-by if 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 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 near 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 several 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 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 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,” were ordered to detonate the devices as the force moved out of the area.
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 sabotage 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 which left Haifa at “H” – three-and-a-half hours sailed northwards towards Sidon. En route 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 (except for 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.
A total of 14 planes belonging to Middle East Airlines (MEA) and Air Libya were destroyed (two Boeing 707; three Commet C4; Caravel; Viscount planes; and 1V.C. -10). Estimated damage was 42 - 44 million dollars. There were no casualties reported during the operation on either side.