Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former prime minister Ehud Barak took part in a joint interview on Army Radio on Thursday, marking the release of a docu-drama on the rescue of the Sabena airline passengers in 1972 in which they both took part in.
Barak, in reply to a question, said the Sabena precedent did not come up when the two men discussed the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange some 40 years later, when Netanyahu was prime minister and Barak his defense minister.
“I didn’t think about Sabena,” Barak said when discussing deliberations about the prisoner exchange for Schalit. “I look forward, not back; I think about the problem that is before us.”
Barak said that if Israel had sufficient information about Schalit’s whereabouts, a responsible plan could have been drawn up and a rescue operation carried out.
“But there was no such thing,” he said.
The Sabena rescue operation took place during the period when Israel’s policy was that there would be no negotiations with hostage-holding terrorists.
The Sabena hijackers were demanding the release of some 300 terrorists in Israeli jails in return for the release of the Sabena passengers and crew.
Barak added that in the years that passed from the Sabena operation – in which a General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) force, which included Netanyahu as an officer, stormed the Belgian airplane, killed two terrorists, and took two other hostages while freeing the passengers – various governments took a number of different decisions that led to the exchange of hundreds of terrorists for Israeli captives or bodies. Barak was the General Staff Reconnaissance commander at the time.
Barak said that the policy of exchanging terrorists for Israelis could not be changed at the expense of Schalit, whom everyone in the country came to know. He said that his position was that immediately after the Schalit exchange, Israel should have adopted a policy similar to the US and British models of only engaging in one-for-one prisoner exchanges.
During the interview, Netanyahu described an injury he sustained from a bullet mistakenly discharged from one of his soldier’s guns.
On May 8, 1972, four Palestinian terrorists from Black September boarded Sabena Flight 571 from Vienna to Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after taking off from the scheduled stop in Vienna (the flight had begun in Brussels), the hijackers took control of the plane and instructed the captain to continue as planned to Lod Airport (now Ben-Gurion Airport).
Less than 24 hours later, the Israeli commandos conducted a daring operation to rescue the passengers and crew and retake the aircraft.
Netanyahu, Barak and former president Shimon Peres attended the premiere in the capital earlier this week of Nati Dinar and Rani Saar’s movie Sabena that tells the story of the operation.
“I stood on the wing of the Sabena aircraft with my soldiers. We smashed into the plane and stormed in,” Netanyahu told Army Radio.
“A woman was lying down with a bullet in her head and bullets were whistling around us. We saw the terrorists running to the front of the plane after they shot at us and I ran after them. Mordechai Rahamim killed one terrorist and another terrorist was killed by a different soldier,” the prime minister recounted.
Netanyahu said the entire operation lasted only 90 seconds.
“We were looking for two female terrorists and our big concern was that they would detonate their explosives and the plane would blow up,” he said.
“During the search for one of the terrorists, one of the passengers got my attention and showed me where she [the terrorist] was. I found the terrorist, grabbed her by her hair, pulled off her wig and demanded to know where the explosives were. Marco Ashkenazi ran to help with his gun cocked in order to help pressure the terrorist.
He slapped her on the face and as a result a bullet discharged from his gun that hit me and the terrorist,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said that this rescue operation, as well as the Entebbe mission four years later in which his brother Yonatan died, had a huge impact on ending the scourge of hijackings that plagued the international airline industry in the 1970s.