Theresa Khalsa, one of four terrorists who in 1972 hijacked the Belgian Sabena Airlines’ flight 571 as it flew from Vienna to Tel Aviv, has died in Jordan at the age of 65. She was the final surviving hijacker.
Khalsa was born into a Christian family in the northern Israel coastal city of Acre. She told the Haaretz daily that her family had close relations with their Jewish neighbors until the 1967 Six Day War.
“We lived very close to the Jews. I had Jewish friends,” she said “We lived with them. On Saturday, they asked us to come in and turn on the gas and electricity in their house [on the Sabbath]. We came in and left like a family.”
After 1967 she joined the Black September terrorist group and took part in the hijacking.
Shortly into the flight from Vienna, Ahmed Awad, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, 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, said in an interview in a film in 2015, “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.
The plane landed on May 8, 1972 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, including Khalsa.
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.
Nearly 24 hours after the plane landed, 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.
Netanyahu has said that 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 in 2015.
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.
Khalsa and Tannous, the second female terrorist, would be released from prison just over a decade later as part of a prisoner deal after the First Lebanon War.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.