35 years after Sabena hijacking, rescuer returns pilot's cap

Commando who took part in Sabena op. returns pilot's cap to daughter.

October 22, 2007 01:15
4 minute read.
35 years after Sabena hijacking, rescuer returns pilot's cap

sabena pilots cap hat 22. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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In a daring Israeli rescue of a hijacked Belgian airliner in 1972, the British pilot, Capt. Reginald Levy, was one of the 140 people saved. Levy emerged from the jet in one piece, but one thing was missing: his blue Sabena cap. On Sunday, it was finally returned to his family by a former commando. A beaming Eliezer Sacks, 55, came to the offices of The Jerusalem Post to hand the cap over to Levy's daughter, editorial assistant Linda Lipschitz. He also gave Lipschitz a letter for her 85-year-old father, who lives in England. "I want to apologize for the long time - 35 years - that I forgot to give your hat back," Sacks told Levy in the letter written in English. "I hope the hat will find its way back to your head, and more important, find you in good health." On May 9, 1972, a dozen Israeli commandos stormed the Belgian aircraft hijacked by Palestinian terrorists to Lod Airport. (The airport was renamed in honor of prime minister David Ben-Gurion the following year.) Sacks recalled that just after the rescue, Levy had placed the cap on the head of one of the commandos, but didn't know which one. Led by Ehud Barak (now defense minister and Labor chairman), they included current Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, Danny Yatom, currently a Labor MK; and Uzi Dayan, now Tafnit party chairman. "I remember that your father gave us the hat, and here you can see his initials, 'R.L.,'" Sacks said, showing Lipschitz the lining of the cap. "It's in good condition after 35 years," she replied, laughing. "I remember that Sabena made my dad pay for a new cap when he returned without it." In a telephone conversation to England, an excited Sacks told Levy, with whom he was speaking for the first time since the hijacking: "I gave Linda your hat. We kept it for the last 35 years." "That's very nice," Levy replied. "I'm sure Linda will look after it. It's very kind of you to give it back. Thank you very much." The Sabena plane had been hijacked by Black September, a PLO splinter group, after leaving Vienna, where it had stopped on a flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv. Levy was ordered to fly the plane to Tel Aviv, where the gunmen offered to free the passengers in exchange for 100 Arab prisoners held by Israel. At the airport, commandos deflated the aircraft's tires, and then, posing as maintenance staff, they burst onto the plane and rescued the hostages after a brief gun fight. Two male hijackers were killed and their two female companions were captured. One passenger, Marie Holzberg, sustained fatal wounds. Netanyahu and six passengers were also wounded. The hijacking occurred on Levy's 50th birthday. He had taken his wife with him on the flight to celebrate his birthday in Tel Aviv. "Every one of us is lucky to be alive," a relieved Levy said after the rescue. "I have had some tough times, but this was my toughest." Sacks said that everyone involved told a different version of the rescue, but that it later served as an inspiration for other daring missions, including the one at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. "It was over very quickly, in seconds, and everyone saw something else," he told Lipschitz. "But I remember that your father behaved like an officer and a gentleman." In the letter to Levy, Sacks said he had been sure that the pilot's cap had been kept in a safe place in a storage room at his kibbutz, Givat Brenner, near Rehovot, together with the blonde wig worn by one of the female terrorists. Some years ago, he had been invited to a party in Israel in which Levy was due to be guest of honor and he had planned to give him the cap then. "I went back to the kibbutz and spent long hours looking for the lost hat," he wrote. "The only thing I found was an old blonde wig full of bugs. Of course I did not attend the party!" He recently discovered, however, that the cap had been safeguarded by a good friend from the army, Shmari Dimmand from Kibbutz Hagoshrim, near Kiryat Shmona. When Sacks told Dimmand that he had located Levy's daughter in Jerusalem, "he was happy to hand the hat back to you." Today Sacks, who is married with two daughters, lives in the northern community of Katzir and runs a small Tel Aviv-based company that publishes travel and leisure books. He said he remained in touch with the other former commandos, who later carried out a series of operations together, including one in Lebanon and another in Ma'alot, but he would never forget the Sabena rescue. "We were very young. It was very exciting, and we signed a pledge not to talk about it for 25 years," he said, smiling. "Returning the hat was something I have wanted to do for 35 years. For me, it was the closure of a circle."

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