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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Operation Isotope ~ this day 47 years ago ! and the 2 Prime Ministers

Payanam (Journey), titled Gaganam (Sky) in Telugu,  directed by Radha Mohan hit Tamil & Telugu screens in 2011.  The plot of the film was  flight hijacking incident. Nagarjuna played the role of a commando. There was another hijacking incident - Operation Isotope  that occurred on this day 47 years back -  all the more remarkable for the fact that two  future Prime ministers –were among the commandos.

                  The scene shifts back to Tel Aviv Port, year -1972, a team of commandos – including a young Binyamin Netanyahu – stormed a plane to rescue it from Black September hijackers. During the 30 hours in whichTheresa Halsa and her accomplices held 90 passengers and 10 crew at gunpoint, she recalls, she expected to die. “I thought I would be shot by Israeli soldiers. Or we were going to blow up the plane if our demands weren’t met. I was ready to die because I wanted to make the Europeans and Americans realise that there was a Palestinian people and that they had been treated unjustly by the Israelis.”

Six months before the hijacking, shereportedly  crossed the Israeli-Lebanese border and took part in training at a camp near Beirut, learning how to use a handgun, explosion belts and grenades. Early in 1972, she and three other Palestinian members of the Black September group were chosen to hijack flight 571. The four – Ali Taha Abu Snina, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Rima Tannous and Halsa – only met the day before they seized flight 571, and posed as two young couples. They flew from Lebanon on forged passports to Rome, where they were provided with forged Italian passports, before flying to Frankfurt, then Brussels,  from where they journeded to Israel.

Twenty minutes after takeoff from Vienna, they seized control of the plane. At that point, the captain laconically remarked to passengers over the PA: “As you can see, we have friends aboard.” The four men and women were armed with two handguns, two hand grenades and two explosion belts.The hijackers told Levy to fly to Lod airport near Tel Aviv. Once on the runway, they issued their demands to ground control staff. Soon after, the defence minister Moshe Dayan and the transport minister (and future PM and president) Shimon Peres arrived to oversee negotiations.

General Staff Reconnaissance Unit or Unit 269, more commonly known as SayeretMatkal is the prime sayeret unit of the Israel Defense Forces.A  field intelligence-gathering unit, conducting deep reconnaissance behind enemy lines to obtain strategic intelligence, SayeretMatkal is also tasked with counter-terrorism and hostage rescue beyond Israel's borders.

Sabena Flight 571 was a scheduled passenger flight from Brussels to Lod via Vienna operated by the Belgian national airline, Sabena. On 8 May 1972 a Boeing 707 passenger aircraft operating that service, captained by British pilot Reginald Levy, was hijacked by four members of the Black September Organization, a Palestinian terrorist group. Following their instructions, Captain Levy landed the plane at Lod Airport (later Ben Gurion International Airport.  The attack as stated earlier, was carried out by a group of two men and two women who pretended to be two couples. 

Soon after taking command, the hijackers separated the Jewish hostages from the others and sent them to the back of the aircraft.  When the plane had landed, the hijackers demanded the release of 315 convicted Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel, and threatened to blow up the airplane with its passengers. Captain Levy managed to send the Israelis a coded message requesting help. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Transport Minister Shimon Peres, who would become Prime Minister and later President of Israel, conducted negotiations with the hijackers while preparing a rescue operation, code-named "Operation Isotope."

A day later, the rescue operation began: a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, led by Ehud Barak and including Benjamin Netanyahu, (both of them later became Prime Ministers of Israel) approached the aircraft  disguised as aircraft technicians in white coveralls.  The aircraft was stormed and both male hijackers were killed  within two minutes; the women were captured – all 90 passengers were rescued.   A  22-year-old passenger wounded in fire exchange later died of her injuries. Netanyahu was also wounded during the rescue when another commando, Marko Ashkenazi, accidentally discharged his gun as he used it to hit Theresa Halsa. The bullet passed through her and penetrated Netanyahu’s bicep.

Halsa and Rima Tannous were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment—Halsa for 220 years. They were however freed in Nov 1983, in a prisoner exchange after the 1982 Lebanon War. Sabena continued to operate the aircraft for another five years, until it was purchased by Israel Aircraft Industries. Captain Levy, a Royal Air Force veteran who took part in strategic bombing missions over Germany during World War II and also in the Berlin airlift, had joined Sabena in 1952. He retired in 1982 and passed away in 2010.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
8th May 2019.

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