Before Operation Thunderbolt in Entebbe there was Operation Isotope.
On May 8, 1972, four Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Belgian Sabena Airlines’ flight 571 as it flew from Vienna to Tel Aviv.
The plane landed in what was then known as Lod Airport, now Ben Gurion International. A 30-hour standoff between the hijackers and the Israeli government followed, before members of the crack Sayeret Matkal unit stormed the plane and took down the terrorists, killing two and capturing two.
Some 43 years later, Keshet Broadcasting has created a new film about the episode, with interviews from those who took part on both sides of the kidnapping, archival footage and modern dramatizations of the events.
The operation was led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, who commanded Sayeret Matkal at the time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a team leader in the unit, was injured by friendly fire in the assault.
Though the film will not be broadcast in Israel until September 8, it premiered Tuesday evening in Jerusalem’s Cinema City, with many of the individuals who took part in the operation on hand, including Barak, Netanyahu, and then-transportation minister Shimon Peres.
“This film really moved me,” Netanyahu told reporters at the event. “It brought me back more than 40 years into the past.”
As the more famous Israeli hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, so-called Operation Thunderbolt, has already been portrayed in several films and mini-series, the film’s creator and producer Nati Dinner determined that the Sabena rescue operation, code-named Isotope, deserved a film of its own.
Though it wasn’t the first hijacking of an airplane by Palestinian terrorists — two others had been carried out, the first successfully in 1968 and the second in 1969 thwarted only by the quick thinking of the Israeli pilot who took the plane into a nosedive, knocking the terrorists off balance and allowing passengers to incapacitate them — the Sabena hijacking was the first in which Israeli forces were able to carry out a rescue operation.
Four prime ministers
Shortly into the flight from Vienna, Ahmed Awad, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Theresa Khalsa and Rima Tannous rushed the cockpit of Sabena flight 571 armed with explosives and pistols.
The four members of the Black September terrorist group, named for the deaths and expulsions of thousands of Palestinians in Jordan in September 1970, demanded the release of 315 terrorists in exchange for the 97 passengers and crew.
The terrorists, as they had done in the past and would do in future plane hijackings, separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers from the non-Jews.
Khalsa, who was 18 years old at the time of the hijacking, says in an interview in the film, “I wanted to blow up the plane. That’s the truth.”
Just a few months later, at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, other members of the Black September organization would murder 11 Israeli athletes.
With the plane sitting on the runway in Israel, defense minister Moshe Dayan began conducting negotiations with the terrorists while Barak’s Sayeret Matkal soldiers began preparing a plan.
Also on the scene that day was the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, Ariel Sharon.
All told, four of the last five Israeli prime ministers — Netanyahu, Sharon, Barak, Peres — played some role in the operation.
At 4 p.m. on May 8, 1972, nearly 24 hours after the plane landed at Lod airport, Sayeret Matkal sprang into action.
The soldiers were split into five teams and dressed as mechanics in white coveralls, under the guise of refueling and resupplying the airplane.
The teams then 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.
In addition, Netanyahu recounts in the film, once he and his team came in through the emergency door and captured Khalsa, they attempted to locate the explosives. At first, Netanyahu grabbed Khalsa and asked her where the explosives were in English, but a fellow soldier had another idea.
“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.
Ashkenazi struck Khalsa with the gun, which went off. The bullet struck her, but passed through — straight into Netanyahu’s bicep.
Netanyahu was the only commando injured in the operation.
Peres, who served as transportation minister in 1972, said at the premiere, “Sabena was not a miracle [that just happened]. With soldiers like these you can create miracles and stratagems. I salute you.”
Khalsa and Rima Tannous, the second female terrorist, would be released from prison just over a decade later as part of the First Lebanon War.
Playing the prime minister
Actor Avi Kornik plays Netanyahu in the film’s dramatizations.
“The guy was a little skinny. I wasn’t heavy, but I was — how would you say it? — ‘bulky,'” Netanyahu joked with reporters at the event.
But his wife, Sara Netanyahu, was quick to point out that the part of Benjamin Netanyahu almost went to someone else — their son.
Avner Netanyahu, however, who joined the army last year, refused the part, his mother said. “I’m not going to play my father. I am me,” Sara Netanyahu quoted him as saying.
Rani Sa’ar, who directed the hit Israeli television show “Zaguri Empire,” directed the film.
The script was written by Moshe Zonder, a screenwriter for the political thriller television series “Fauda.”
The film was financed by the Keshet Media Group, which controls Channel 2, and the New Fund for Cinema and TV.