Fifty years after Palestinian terrorists hijacked Belgian Sabena Airlines flight 571, the Defense Ministry on Thursday published the military’s official logbook from the tense standoff that culminated in the passengers’ rescue.
The documents describe the chain of events, exactly as they occurred on May 8 and 9, 1972, when Israel’s top officials huddled in the control tower of Lod Airport, now Ben Gurion International, as members of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit disguised as mechanics stormed the plane and took down the terrorists, killing two and capturing two.
According to the logs, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan was in a helicopter returning from a tour in the Sinai Peninsula — held at the time by Israel — to a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
Shortly after Sabena flight 571’s trip from Vienna to Tel Aviv began, Ahmed Awad, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Theresa Khalsa and Rima Tannous rushed the cockpit, armed with explosives and pistols.
“A report was received of hijacking ‘Sabena’ and of it landing in Lod, Moshe was ordered to land in Lod,” reads the opening of the logbook. The initial entry was not given a timestamp, but the hijacked plane had landed at 5:15 p.m.
Dayan, then-transportation minister Shimon Peres, then-chief of the military David Elazar, and other defense officials gathered in Lod Airport’s control tower to handle the hijacking, in an effort later codenamed “Operation Isotope.”
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 members.
“They are reading the names of terror detainees and continue to read them even now, so far they have read 130 names,” said the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate at the time, Eli Zeira, at 7:40 p.m.
“They said they had explosives and if [we] did not do what they want, they will blow them up, and that no one should approach the plane,” Dayan said at the same moment in a phone call with then-prime minister Golda Meir, according to the logs.
“Take them very seriously. If they do not receive a power unit immediately, they will take off immediately,” the pilot of the flight, Captain Reginald Levy, responded to the officials in the control tower. An aircraft ground power unit is designed to keep all functions of a plane operational without wasting fuel.
Dayan approved handing over a power unit, but the hijackers got annoyed when they saw the mechanic was talking to the control tower — some three kilometers away — over a radio.
As negotiations continued into the night, the officials at one point mulled handing over the terror detainees in exchange for the passengers. “What do we want — to take over [the plane] or exchange prisoners with captives? I’m against a swap,” said Elazar.
At 8:30 p.m., Dayan had a question for the hijackers: “What do you want to do with the terrorists?” to which they responded via the pilot that they intended to fly them to Cairo. “Ask them what they will do with the passengers, how will they return?” Dayan asked.
The hijackers demanded the release of the entire list of terror detainees. “It should not be a problem to bring them to Lod. They are all in Ramla Prison, near the field,” they said, according to the log.
The hijackers were prepared to leave, after a refueling.
But Israeli officials bought time by convincing the hijackers that there was an issue with the plane after it landed, and that it would not be able to take off before mechanics take a look, according to the log.
The hijackers initially agreed to accept the fuel and mechanics, but Levy warned the control tower at 10:30 p.m.: “The hijackers informed me of an explosive device that will explode in one hour. Everything must be sorted out within 60 minutes.”
Dayan responded over the radio: “We will not refuel so long as there is a bomb with a loaded activation mechanism, and make it clear to them, once and for all, that they cannot take off.”
At 10:50 p.m., one of the male hijackers who went by “Captain Rafat” demanded the refueling and mechanic team “come without anything, without a walkie-talkie,” the logs read.
“Tell him it will take time to arrange a mechanic, it will take at least an hour,” Dayan said. “I understand you are dragging your feet,” Rafat responded.
“Warn again more explicitly — the plane is unable to take off,” Dayan said.
“We do not want to fly, but I am pressured to take off,” Levy responded, fearing the bomb the hijackers had threatened to use.
Levy and the officials in the tower argued for several minutes. “We are ready to take off despite the issues. Send us fuel immediately,” Levy said. “God forbid you dare. We won’t refuel until the plane has been checked by a mechanic,” came the response from the tower.
“Don’t act smart in advising us, when you are sitting in the control tower and I’m in the cockpit with guns and grenades threatening me,” Levy responded, according to the logs.
Just after midnight, Levy asked to remove the power unit so they could get ready for takeoff. “I can’t convince them to wait and be more patient. What’s happening with the fuel?” he asked.
The Israeli officials again told the hijackers via Levy that they were willing to refuel the plane — “just know that the plane can’t take off,” the logs read.
Eventually, after hours of negotiations, the hijackers finally agreed to have the Israeli mechanics fix the plane in the morning, when a Red Cross representative would also be available to facilitate a prisoner swap.
“Plan an operation of taking over [the plane] by force. We must inform them that we are making preparations for making the repairs,” read a log entry at 2:10 a.m., summarizing a meeting between the officials.
At 2:20 a.m., Elazar presented Dayan with the operational plan to storm the plane, and minutes later Dayan phoned up the prime minister for approval.
“[Elazar] suggested a forced-entry operation. The overall operating conditions are good. The captain of the plane informed us that he had left the pilot’s door open. I cannot guarantee it will end without casualties. If we do not do this — it may be a missed opportunity,” Dayan said to Meir in the 2:30 a.m. call.
Later, in a morning phone call with Dayan, Peres said he was against the operation, but would not veto it.
By 12:15 p.m., Levy was allowed to leave the plane to meet with Dayan to finalize negotiations to hold a prisoner swap, despite the intention to storm the aircraft in the coming hours. “I want to tell you that…” Dayan said, before being interrupted by Levy. “I want to tell you that the situation is serious,” the pilot said.
“Let me talk. I’m the general here, and you’re just a captain,” said Dayan.
“I’m ready to swap roles with you right away, you’ll be the captain of the plane, and I’ll be the general here… Thank you, sorry we are meeting under such circumstances,” Levy said, according to the logs.
“They have two packages with explosives. My impression is that they are terribly ‘dedicated’ to their goal,” the pilot continued. “They will not go home without performing the task.”
Levy then returned to the plane and told the hijackers that Israel had agreed to release the listed terror detainees. “They promised me they will send food and technicians to repair the plane,” Levy told Rafat, according to a 1 p.m. entry. “Okay, thanks,” Rafat responded.
“The defense minister goes to the control tower to listen to the plane’s communication and to maintain eye contact with what is happening,” a 3 p.m. entry read.
At 3:30 p.m., the control tower notified the hijackers: “The mechanics are en route. There are 17 people.”
At 4:20 p.m., dressed as mechanics in white coveralls, the members of the special forces, led by former prime minister Ehud Barak — who commanded Sayeret Matkal at the time — were under the plane.
Rehavam Ze’evi, a general who was part of the team that planned the assault, said at 4:23 p.m., “The youth are on the wings of the plane,” using a codename for the commandos.
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.
“Shots are heard from the plane. Instructing ambulances and fire trucks to head toward the aircraft immediately,” another 4:23 p.m. log entry read. One passenger was killed and two others were hurt in the exchange of fire. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a team leader in the unit, was also injured, by friendly fire.
“People are seen jumping off the plane from the back door,” read an entry a minute later, as Israel’s top officials drove at top speed down the runway toward the plane.
Moments after the operation ended, Dayan inspected the bodies of the two terrorists, questioned one who was arrested, and found Levy, according to the final entry in the logbook. He invited Levy and his wife — who was also on the flight — to dinner. The British-born pilot told Dayan he had sought to have dinner with his wife in Tel Aviv, to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Some of the details in the logbook were censored due to security concerns.
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.
Just a few months later, at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, other members of the Black September organization would murder 11 Israeli athletes.
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