What was Operation Isotope?

“We have friends aboard…”

On May 8, 1972, Sabena Airlines’ flight 571 was on its way from Vienna, Austria to Tel Aviv with ninety passengers aboard. Sabena was the Belgian national airline. About twenty minutes out of Vienna, four passengers─two men and two women who actually were members of the Black September Organization (a Palestinian terrorist group)─ entered the cockpit to hijack the flight. When the plane’s British-born Captain Reginald Levy saw what was happening, he calmly told the passengers: “As you can see we have friends aboard.” He concealed from the hijackers that his wife was among the passengers.

The terrorists were armed with two handguns, two hand grenades and two belts of explosives. Holding the ninety passengers at gunpoint and forcing the plane to land at Lod Airport (later Ben Gurion International Airport), they demanded the release of 315 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, threatening to blow up the plane if their demands were not met. Also, the terrorists separated the Jewish hostages from the others and sent them to the back of the aircraft.

As a response, Israel planned and executed an extraordinary rescue mission called Operation Isotope. Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and Transport Minister Shimon Peres conducted negotiations with the terrorists. Then, with the hijackers being distracted, sixteen Israeli commanders from the Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal disguised themselves as aircraft technicians to board the plane. The team included two future Prime Ministers: Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The commandos stormed the plane and overpowered the hijackers in two minutes. Tragically, one of the three wounded passengers died. All others and crew were safely returned home. (Reference: on-line resources)

 

 

 

Left: Benjamin Netanyahu, who was wounded in his arm, being congratulated after the rescue. Below: The plane, Sabena 707.