“Sabena Hijacking: My Version”

A Terrorist Siege

Amos Lassen

On May 8, 1972, the Palestinian group, Black September, seized control of Sabena Flight 971 shortly after takeoff from Vienna en route to Tel Aviv. The next day, Israeli Special Forces began a daring operation to rescue the passengers and retake the plane. This film gives us a moment-by-moment restaging of that nerve-racking time. The captain was held at gunpoint and Jewish passengers were separated from the others and the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane unless Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners. In the film, we hear from passengers who recall the events and we listen to newly discovered audio recordings of British pilot Reginald Levy, and an interview with the sole surviving hijacker. Also featured are future Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who both took part in the raid, as well as Transport Minister Shimon Peres. Through striking reenactments and harrowing testimonies, this is a riveting look at the true story of a terrorist siege that forever shaped the State of Israel. “Sabena Hijacking: My Version” is both captivating and filled with suspense even with us knowing in advance how it all ends. The film juxtaposes Israeli and Palestinian narratives to pose hard questions about the seeds and legacy of political terrorism.

While hijackings are rare, El Al is always a target. In the film we see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two former Prime Ministers, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, as young men experiencing one of the most dramatic and difficult events of their lives. “Sabena Hijacking – My Version,” is a documentary and moment-by-moment reenactment of the hijacking of a Sabena Flight 971 by four armed members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist organization on May 8, 1972, and the storming of the jet by the Israeli Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal. The film includes a dramatic and precise reenactment of the events of that day interspersed with testimonial interviews from all sides – the passengers, the Israeli soldiers and even one of the hijackers, as well as archival footage from the time. Among those interviewed are Peres, who was Minister of Transportation and Communications, Barak, who commanded Sayeret Matkal, and Netanyahu, a member of Sayeret Matkal and a member of the team that stormed the plane. Netanyahu was shot in the arm when Marco Ashkenazi, a fellow soldier hit a female terrorist in the head with his gun and accidentally pulled the trigger. One especially dramatic moment in the film features Netanyahu describing a dispute he and his older brother Yoni (who was killed on the far more famous hijacked aircraft raid in Entebbe four years later). Yoni wanted to be on the team storming the Sabena plane together with his brother’s unit. The younger Netanyahu insisted that they couldn’t both risk their lives entering a plane filled with explosives. “What will we tell our parents?” Benjamin asked. But Yoni insisted, saying “My life belongs to me, and so does my death.” Reaching a stalemate, they referred the dispute to their commander Ehud Barak, who agreed with the younger brother and ordered Yoni, despite his protests, to step down.

Netanyahu tells us what took place after he was injured. As he lay on the asphalt, he saw someone run to him from far away and he recognized his brother Yoni. As he came closer, he saw his brother’s clothing was stained with blood. In a moment (after realizing his brother’s injury was minor) his face changed and he told you that he shouldn’t have gone.

In the 1970’s when terrorists were like animals of prey, grabbing planes, kidnapping passengers and threatening to kill them and sometimes succeeded in doing so. The lesson of this era, for Israel was that it was not merely sophisticated military expertise but determination and daring against those who threatened Israel with this kind us of terrorism. Today, terror has become more widespread and is the product of terrorist states and disintegrating state entities. It is important that Israel has the resolve and to defend itself and what is true of Sabena is still true today.

The Sabena aircraft was piloted by Reginald Levy, a British Jew, who died in 2010 and on whose memoirs much of the film’s drama was based. It was taken over en route from Vienna to Tel Aviv by armed hijackers with the demand that Israel release 300 political prisoners. If Israel did not comply, they threatened to blow up the plane. They separated the Israeli passengers from the others, and landed the plane in Israel, where a waiting game ensued. The plane was secretly sabotaged and negotiators directed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stalled for time, as they formulated a plan, which entailed the commandos dressing up as aircraft technicians, allowing them to approach the plane without arousing the suspicion of the hijackers.

Of all the interviewees, the most riveting testimony was from Acre-born Therese Halsa, one of the Palestinian hijackers, who was 18 at the time of the hijacking. She is the only surviving hijacker; the two male members were shot and killed. She and her female accomplice who were wearing explosive triggers, survived the storming of the plane and were sentenced to prison terms. Despite the fact that the two female hijackers were sentenced to life, one was released after serving only seven years and Halsa after serving thirteen and she now lives in Jordan.

The film shows Halsa and the other hijackers as human and complex. One moment she was devotedly tending to the hostages, even administering an insulin shot to a passenger with diabetes, while in the next, she shows her sincere regret that she was foiled in her mission to blow up the plane after it was invaded by the Israel Defense Force commandos and her comrades were shot. She says that she really wanted to blow up that plane.

The film was created and produced by Nati Dinnar, who after reading detailed accounts of the hostage rescue, realized that it was as compelling, if not more so, than any fictional drama. He felt that this is an important story to tell since there is much in it to learn about terror. Dinnar said that it had been crucial to him to tell the stories from the perspectives of all participants, which is why he included extensive interviews with Bassam Abu Sharif, a former senior adviser to Yasser Arafat and leading cadre of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who personally knew the Black September member, who led the hijacking operation and served as his voice in the film. He, like Halsa, are portrayed sympathetically in the film, not as a cold killer but as a desperate and conflicted man trying to be a freedom fighter who was outwitted and outmatched by the Israelis. Today, with suicide bombers and video beheadings, the behavior of the Black September terrorists as they waited patiently for their demands to be met feels quite restrained. They may have been threatening to take the lives of the plane’s passengers, but showed little thirst for blood.

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