Operation Isotope

When Four Israeli Prime Ministers Totally Owned Four Arab Terrorists

Hijacking is a lost art in these days of Sky Marshals and the TSA. However, in the 1970s terrorists commandeering civilian aircraft seemed commonplace.

The 1970s represented the Golden Age of aerial piracy. The first recorded aircraft hijacking took place in Mexico in 1929. By the 1970s terrorists had raised it to an art form. The world’s security services eventually devised successful countermeasures against the sordid practice, but in 1972 it was a seller’s market. Everybody was a potential victim, but the Israelis drew more than their fair share.

Sabena Flight 571 was a Belgian Boeing 707 that was seized enroute to Lod, Israel.

Sabena Flight 571 was a scheduled passenger flight between Brussels, Belgium, and Lod, Israel, with a brief stop in Vienna. This particular Boeing 707 was piloted by a British Captain named Reginald Levy. Flight 571 carried 94 passengers and 7 crewmembers.

The Palestinian terror group Black September arose under the umbrella of the PLO. The two model citizens in the foreground are wielding an RPD light machinegun and a French MAT-49 SMG.

Though they had only met the day prior, two men and two women among the passengers masqueraded as couples. They were members of the infamous Palestinian terror group Black September. Among them they had smuggled aboard two grenades, two handguns, and two explosive belts. Twenty minutes out from Vienna these terrorists seized control of the aircraft. The plane ultimately landed near Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Utmost Delicacy

This is Leila Khaled, an infamous Palestinian National Liberation Front terrorist captured during a different 1970 hijacking attempt. The PLO frequently made use of female operators in its terror missions.

Ali Taha Abu Snina, Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Rima Tannous, and Theresa Halsa were the four terrorists. They separated the Jews from the rest of the hostages and secured them in the rear of the plane. They then demanded the release of some 315 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Captain Reginald Levy was an English Jew and an experienced WW2 combat pilot. The Sabena Flight 571 hostage rescue unfolded on his fiftieth birthday.

Captain Levy tried his best to remain upbeat. He conversed openly with the hijackers on subjects ranging from aerial navigation to sex in an effort at gaining their trust. Whenever possible he passed on coded messages to the Israeli authorities. Throughout it all he never revealed that his wife Dora was among the passengers in the cabin of the aircraft.

This grainy shot shows disabled Flight 571 on the ground just prior to the assault to retake the plane.

After nightfall of the first day on the ground Israeli security operators slipped up to the aircraft, deflated the tires, and disabled the hydraulic system. In this state the plane was no longer flyable. The terrorists were livid, but Captain Levy kept things from getting out of hand.

The IDF’s Sayeret Matkal is one of the world’s premiere direct action special forces units. Their primary task is covert strategic reconnaissance.

At 1600 hours on May 8, 1972, the Israeli Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal stood ready to assault the plane. They had been given less than 24 hours to prepare. The mission was titled Operation Isotope.

The Assets

The British SAS was once the only show in town as regards Western counter-terrorist units. Organized in 1957, Sayeret Matkal was originally patterned on the SAS.

In the early 1970s, Sayeret Matkal and the British SAS were really the only seriously capable Western counter-terror units. Black September launched the attack on the Israeli contingent at the Munich Olympics some four months after the Sabena 571 hijacking. German authorities refused Israeli permission to launch a rescue, but that’s a tale for another day.

As Transportation Minister, Shimon Peres played a critical role in support of Operation isotope.
General Ariel Sharon helmed the IDF’s Southern Command during the operation.
Major Ehud Barak commanded the Sayeret Matkal assault team.
Lieutenant Benjamin Netanyahu was one of Barak’s primary hitters.

With the hijacked plane successfully immobilized on the tarmac the Israeli government was fully energized. Transportation Secretary Shimon Peres was present. Ariel Sharon, the General in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command was onsite as well. A sixteen-man Sayeret Matkal team commanded by Major Ehud Barak stood ready to assault the plane, while a young Lieutenant named Benjamin Netanyahu was one of Barak’s assaulters. Each of these four men played a critical role in the operation, and each went on to serve as Prime Minister of Israel.

Captain Levy kept a cool head throughout and played a critical part in the successful resolution of the crisis.

In the hours since the plane had landed Captain Levy was allowed off the aircraft temporarily to verify that the terrorists’ explosives were genuine. During this time the former RAF bomber pilot briefed IDF military planners on the appearance of the hijackers, documented their relative locations within the cabin, and verified that there were no seats blocking the emergency exits. This information was critical for what came next.

The Sayeret Matkal assault team approached the aircraft without being recognized.

 The team had determined dead spaces where they could maneuver around the exterior of the plane without being seen. They carried their weapons concealed so as not to arouse suspicion. With all the pieces in place, Barak’s unit got the green light to execute.

Sayeret Matkal was the recognized master of aircraft takedowns. They stacked outside five different breach points on the Sabena 707 airliner.

Dressed in white maintenance coveralls the sixteen-man team approached the plane with the ostensible purpose of repairing the hydraulic system per the terrorists’ demands. Once underneath the aircraft, they positioned themselves to breach the plane at five separate entry points. With contingents stacked outside the main entrance door, the rear door, the emergency exit, and both over-wing doors the team struck simultaneously.

The Weapons

The Israeli soldier on the right is carrying a fixed-stock Kalashnikov. The man on the left with the autoloading handgun is the unit commander Major Ehud Barak.

The terrorists were purportedly armed with revolvers but I was unable to ascertain what sort. Captain Levy’s account of the assault stated that most of the team members wielded Uzis. Photographs of the immediate aftermath of the attack showed at least one Israeli soldier armed with a fixed-stock AK47. The autoloading handgun carried by Major Barak appears to be a Browning Hi-Power.

The Uzi submachine gun is a staple of armed conflict worldwide.

The Uzi was designed in the late 1940’s by Major Uziel Gal and first saw service in 1954. An open-bolt, selective-fire 9mm submachine gun, the Uzi was produced predominantly of heavy steel pressings that could be churned out en masse by semiskilled workers. The Uzi was intended to provide the fledgling state of Israel with a reliable domestically-produced Infantry combat weapon whose availability was not dependent upon arms embargoes.

The Uzi is compact but heavy. Unlike those of many other contemporary SMGs, the collapsible stock on the Uzi provides a rigid firing platform.

The Uzi is the most produced SMG in history with some ten million copies extant. It has seen service around the globe. The gun remains in production in various forms even today.

The Uzi’s prodigious mass combined with a relatively sedate rate of fire make it unusually controllable.

At 7.72 lbs empty the Uzi is heavy. However, the overhung bolt keeps the length short, while the weapon’s mass makes it eminently controllable. The gun feeds from either 25 or 32-round box magazines and cycles at around 600 rounds per minute.

The ubiquitous Kalashnikov rifle is the most prolific firearm in human history. Rugged, lightweight, and effective, the AK is quite literally everywhere. This is a stamped-receiver Chicom Type 56.

The history of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov’s AK47 has been exhaustively reviewed in this venue previously. While the ergonomics are yesterday’s news, the utilitarian AK sets the international standard for reliability among military weapons. Throughout my shooting career I have induced a few stoppages on AK rifles but not many.

Shayetet 13, the IDF maritime commando force equivalent to the US Navy SEALs, purportedly still uses Kalashnikov rifles operationally.

There are upwards of 100 million copies in service. Israel’s Navy SEALs, Shayetet 13, are known to use AK rifles operationally even today. Israel captured untold thousands of AK rifles during its sundry wars with the Arabs, so they have plenty from which to draw.

The Browning Hi-Power inspired almost every modern autoloading handgun on the planet.

The P-35 Browning Hi-Power was a collaborative effort between American firearms luminary John Moses Browning and the esteemed Belgian designer Dieudonne Saive. The P-35 pioneered the double column, single feed high-capacity magazine as well as the short recoil operating system. Today almost every major combat handgun on the planet uses this rugged and reliable method of operation.

The Assault

The four terrorists onboard Sabena Flight 571 were ready to die for their cause. This still came from the movie Sabena Hijacking: My Version that documents the event.

In 1972 counter-terror operations were in their infancy, but the Israeli Sayeret Matkal represented the state of the art. Famed one-eyed IDF General Moshe Dayan coordinated the operation. He had even arranged for a contingent of Israeli soldiers to be dressed as Palestinians and placed on a nearby airplane ostensibly to comply with the hijackers’ demands.

The aircraft takedown was brief, bloody, and chaotic.

Captain Levy said that the unit simultaneously burst into the cabin at multiple points and cleared it in teams of two moving back-to-back while wielding Uzis. The two male terrorists were killed immediately. The two female terrorists were subdued. Two passengers were wounded in the exchange of fire. One, a 22-year-old woman named Miriam Anderson, was shot in the head and killed.

LT Benjamin Netanyahu caught a round in the bicep during the exchange and was the only Israeli military casualty. He is seen here immediately after the attack with his arm in a sling being congratulated by former Israeli President Zalman Shazar.

With the primary shooters neutralized, the first task was to locate and disarm the explosives. Lieutenant Netanyahu shouted at Halsa in English demanding to know where the explosives were planted. Dissatisfied with the pace of this ad hoc interrogation another IDF commando named Marko Ashkenazi struck the woman with his handgun. The weapon discharged and the bullet passed through the female terrorist and into Netanyahu’s bicep. LT Netanyahu was the only Israeli commando injured in the operation. The explosive belts were eventually located and disarmed.

The Rest of the Story

The two female terrorists survived the assault and were sentenced to long prison terms. Theresa Halsa is seen on the right during her sentencing.

The two surviving female hijackers were sentenced to 220 years in prison but were both released as part of a prisoner swap with the PLO in 1983. Theresa Halsa, an Israeli-born Arab nurse, eventually married and had two sons and a daughter. She lived peacefully in Jordan for years working as a care worker for disabled people. Halsa died in March of 2020 at age 65.

The Boeing 707 that was the subject of Operation Isotope ended up with a long career in the Israeli Air Force after its commercial service was complete. Here the plane is shown decommissioned in Israel.

Sabena put the 707 back into service as soon as it could be cleaned up. The plane flew for another five years until it was purchased by Israel Aircraft Industries. The jet was later transferred by the Israeli Air Force and used as a spy plane.

Reginald Levy had to move his family out of Belgium after Operation Isotope due to ongoing threats from Black September. They lived for a time in South Africa before returning to Britain. Levy died of a heart attack in England at age 88.

Captain Levy was a Jew and a veteran of both long-range bombing missions over Germany during the Second World War as well as the relief operations of the Berlin Airlift. He was heralded as a hero by the nation of Israel. He turned fifty on the day of the rescue. Captain Levy retired from flying in 1982 and died in Dover, England, in 2010.

Jonathan Netanyahu, shown here in the center flanked by his brothers Benjamin on the left and Iddo, was the only Israeli military casualty of Operation Thunderbolt, the daring IDF rescue at Entebbe.

While lying wounded on the tarmac Benjamin Netanyahu was supported by his older brother, Jonathan, himself also a member of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. Jonathan commanded the team that four years later rescued 102 Jewish hostages from PLO terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. He was the mission’s only KIA. His brother Benjamin serves as Prime Minister of Israel today.

Benjamin Netanyahu, now 70 years old, serves as Prime Minister of Israel today. He was indicted in November of 2019 on charges of corruption. Netanyahu maintains his innocence. His trial, originally slated for May of 2020, has been postponed due to coronavirus and is ongoing as of this writing.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Ej harbet April 12, 2021, 3:45 pm

    Bibi is the real deal badarse!
    For as long as he is righteous may his sword prosper and may those who come against him be brought low

  • Leslie Hepler Reynolds March 30, 2021, 8:24 am

    As much as I love our American elite fighting forces, I don’t think there’s any group that fights more fiercely determined than the Israelis.

  • Shanz March 30, 2021, 2:34 am

    Man, Jews are bad asses.

  • Hatchetman March 29, 2021, 8:51 pm

    Fascinating, always learn something new from these articles, keep up the good work!

  • Lance March 29, 2021, 3:04 pm

    Love those Israelis! Great people, sharp and tough. Superb article!

  • Derrick S. March 29, 2021, 1:41 pm

    More great history…thank you!

  • Mike B March 29, 2021, 12:39 pm

    Another great article, Will! I look forward to your narratives and always learn something.
    One correction: the photo of “Transportation Minister, Ariel Sharon“ is, of course, actually Transportation Minister Shimon Peres.

  • Alan S March 29, 2021, 11:50 am

    Another interesting and outstanding story sir. Thank you.

    My take away is “Don’t Fu*k with Israel “!

  • Barbara L Dunham March 29, 2021, 11:05 am

    Very interesting.

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