50 years since Sabena Flight 571 to Israel was hijacked

Following the rescue, Capt. Levy was hailed as a hero by Israel but blamed by the PLO for aiding the Israelis, and the family was ultimately sent to South Africa by Sabena to protect them.

 IDF commandos, including Ehud Barak (left), rescue hostages on the hijacked Sabena plane. (photo credit: IDF)
IDF commandos, including Ehud Barak (left), rescue hostages on the hijacked Sabena plane.
(photo credit: IDF)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

On May 8, 1972, a day before the Black September Organization’s hijacking of Sabena Flight 571 from Brussels via Vienna to Lod, Capt. Reginald Levy called his daughter, Linda, who worked as a flight attendant for British Caledonian. He told her that he was flying to Tel Aviv with her mother, Dora, on his 50th birthday and had booked a table “at a lovely restaurant near the Dan Hotel” to celebrate.

When Levy’s family heard about the hijack, they gathered in their Brussels home – Linda, 26, her sister, 15, and two brothers, the older one with his wife and three-year-old daughter. “It really turned our lives upside down,” Linda recalls. “We knew nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Shortly after takeoff from Vienna, two male terrorists armed with pistols and grenades broke into the cockpit, while their comrades – two women carrying plastic explosives – remained in the cabin. Levy managed to relay a message to Israel requesting help, and after landing conveyed the hijackers’ demand for a Palestinian prisoner release to Israeli officials.

A day later, in what was dubbed Operation Isotope, a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos led by Ehud Barak – including Benjamin Netanyahu and Danny Yatom – approached the plane disguised as mechanics in white overalls, stormed it, shot dead two male hijackers, captured two female hijackers, and rescued the 90 passengers. A pregnant passenger wounded in the exchange of fire later died of her injuries.

 Capt. Levy and Dora with the Sabena crew in the Boeing 747 lounge after his last flight for Sabena in 1981. (credit: Courtesy Linda Lipschitz) Capt. Levy and Dora with the Sabena crew in the Boeing 747 lounge after his last flight for Sabena in 1981. (credit: Courtesy Linda Lipschitz)

Following the rescue, Capt. Levy was hailed as a hero by Israel but blamed by the PLO for aiding the Israelis, and the family was ultimately sent to South Africa by Sabena to protect them. They rented the home of the Lipschitz family in Johannesburg after the latter made aliyah. 

Linda joined them, met the Lipschitz son who stayed behind – Stanley – and flew with him to Ben-Gurion Airport in 1974. “I fell in love with Israel the first time I set foot in the country,” she recalls. “Although my father was Jewish, I converted to Judaism, married Stanley, had two children – and now have five grandchildren.”

A few years after the hijack, Reginald and Dora Levy were invited to a Sabena celebration at the Dan Hotel. The night before, Dora told Linda that although it was nice meeting Israeli dignitaries, her dream was to meet the “baby-faced soldier” who reassured her so calmly when she was lying on the floor of the plane that “everything’s gonna be alright.”

At the gala dinner, Gen. Ehud Barak entered the room and greeted Capt. Levy. When Dora saw him, she let go of Linda’s arm, exclaimed “It’s him!” and threw her arms around Barak. Linda remembers it well: “He said, ‘Yes, it’s me. The last time I saw you you were lying on the floor!’ She was so happy.”

Linda was a founding member of The Jerusalem Report established by Hirsh Goodman in 1990. “One of our covers featured Ehud Barak on the wing of Sabena with some hostages,” she says. “We had a young intern from Canada working with us who saw it and said, ‘That’s my grandmother!’ I was blown away!”

Capt. Levy  came to Israel on numerous occasions with Dora to visit Linda and family. Five years after he died in 2010 at 88, his grandson Alex L. Schiphorst published his memoir, From Night Flak to Hijack. It features a letter written by a passenger on the hijacked plane, Rafi Bar-Am, thanking him for his bravery, coolness and “grace under pressure.”

Asked what she feels 50 years following the dramatic rescue, Linda Lipschitz says: “The Israeli commandos executed their jobs so well. We have this amazing army who know what they’re doing, and I feel safe here in Israel.”