Daily Israel Report

Reliving the Sabena Rescue

Deputy-commander Danny Yatom recalls famous rescue of hijacked plane. Then-soldiers Barak and Netanyahu played key roles.
By Maayana Miskin
First Publish: 5/11/2012, 1:35 PM

Sabena rescue
Sabena rescue
Government photo

This week marked 40 years since the rescue of hijacked Sabena Flight 571. The deputy commander of the rescue mission, Danny Yatom, recalled the successful operation in an interview with Arutz Sheva.

The rescue of the Sabena plane was led by Ehud Barak, now the Defense Minister, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was then one of the elite soldiers chosen to carry out the mission.

The hijacking was carried out by the pre-Palestinian Authority terror group Black September. The group held the passenger aircraft hostage, demanding the release of 315 Arab terrorists.

“They decided to let the terrorists land the plane in Lod after they threatened to blow it up over Tel Aviv,” Yatom recalled. “We knew about the hijacking shortly after it occurred. I was in training in the Negev, and I got orders to gather all the crews and get to the airport as quickly as possible.”

Commanders Form Groundbreaking Rescue Strategy
The rescue mission was the first of its kind, Yatom said. “We had to plan the whole mission from zero, with no similar experience from the past.”

Commanders decided to first buy time by sabotaging the planes, ensuring that they could not take off again. “On the night between May 8 and May 9 we reached the plane three times with El Al technicians… At the same time, we organized the mission to free the hostages,” he said.

At first, soldiers considered forming a human pyramid to allow them to reach the wings and doors of the aircraft. They left twice to begin the mission, but were called back.

Finally, it was decided to trick the terrorists into thinking their demands had been met. Commanders informed the Black September group that the 315 terrorist prisoners were waiting on buses, but that El Al technicians would need to check the plane before it could take off.

Terrorists Dead 'Within 90 Seconds'
“They gave us two hours to get ready,” Yatom said. “We disguised ourselves as aircraft technicians and went out on platforms pulled by tractors. Ehud Barak was commanding the mission. He blew his whistle and we all stormed up the ladders.

“Within 90 seconds we killed the terrorists and captured two female terrorists before they could set off their explosives or throw grenades.”

During the mission one passenger was killed, and two soldiers were wounded – among them future two-time Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“To this very day it is considered the most successful rescue operation,” Yatom declared. Rescue missions “are a very complicated type of mission,” he added.

Daring Rescues Continue Today
Then, as today, terrorists were targeting Jewish and Israeli targets worldwide. The Sabena rescue “caused a dramatic increase in national morale,” said Yatom.

Some may believe that Israel no longer conducts daring rescues like that of 1970 – if so, said Yatom, they are mistaken. “Most missions are secret and they are much more daring…. There are even other units that know how to carry out missions that are far more complex,” he reported.

Israel must work constantly to deter terrorism, he added. “Deterrence doesn’t last forever. Every time there is terrorism it shows that our deterrence is no longer functioning… it means we need to build it up again.”

Sabena passengers rescued
Chief of Staff David Elazar with Sabena captain, IAF commander Mordechai Hod
Elite soldiers surround the aircraft