Read about what one man, highly trained and dedicated to the mission can do with a .22 pistol… Here’s the story of Mordechai Rahamim who in 1972 helped raid a hijacked plane. In the end most of the hijackers didn’t survive and they only lost a couple of passengers and crew.
“I was convinced that I would not return from this mission alive,” says Mordechai Rahamim with excitement in his voice. “When I met my good friend Shmulik, a Mossad man, near the hijacked plane, I said to him ‘If anything should happen to me, take care of my parents.’ I was the one who took care of them all those years and I was afraid there would be no one around to care for them if I died. But apparently it is not that easy to bring me down.”
It happened more than 43 years ago, on May 8, 1972. Four terrorists belonging to the Black September Organization — two men and two women — boarded Belgian airline Sabena’s Flight 571 from Brussels to Tel Aviv through Vienna. There were 99 passengers and 10 crew members aboard the Boeing 707 aircraft.
The head of the terrorist cell was Ali Taha, a native of Hebron, who worked as a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cell included Abed al-Aziz Atrash, of Druze origin, Rima Tannous, a native of Bethlehem and resident of Jordan and Theresa Khalsa, an Israeli Arab born in Acre. All four were fluent in Hebrew and used forged Israeli passports to board the flight.
The plane took off from Vienna at 2:30 p.m. At around 5:30 p.m., while the aircraft was somewhere over the former Yugoslavia, Ali Taha entered the cockpit, put a gun to the pilot’s head and declared the hijacking. The hijackers demanded the release of 315 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, or they would land the plane in Tel Aviv and blow it up.
At 6:15 p.m., about an hour before the plane landed in Israel, the airport’s traffic control tower received a message that a hijacked aircraft was on its way to Israel. The message prompted the entire top echelon of the Israeli defense establishment to immediately report to the scene, including then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, then-IDF chief Lt. Gen. David Elazar, Maj. Gens. Israel Tal (who was the deputy chief of staff) and Aharon Yariv (who served as the head of Military Intelligence) as well as then-Sayeret Matkal commander Ehud Barak, who was tasked with confronting the terrorists. Along with Barak came one of his team leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rahamim, who had served in Sayeret Matkal in the mid-1960s, had begun working as one of the first air marshals upon completing his service. In February 1969, he single-handedly freed 28 hostages — 17 passengers and 11 crew members — when a plane was hijacked in Zurich on its way to Israel. One terrorist was killed, and three others were apprehended.
“I became a hero overnight,” he says. “My name and picture were plastered all over the media.”
Rahamim was 26 years old when the Sabena flight was hijacked. He was busy earning his bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University at the time. But because of his rich background, bringing him in was a no-brainer.
I meet Rahamim at his home in an agricultural community outside Yavne. He has a big house with a manicured yard and a pool, masking the fact that he lost most of his money in recent years in a botched effort to sell his successful security company.
The reason for our meeting is the recently released docudrama “Sabena” — a dramatization of the hijacking. Rahamim doesn’t want to be labeled a hero; he says he is uncomfortable with superlatives. But a review of the events reveals that he played a crucial role in subduing the terrorists. Without him, the operation may have ended differently.
“I don’t like that word — hero. I did what I was trained to do and what I was expected to do. I did enter the aircraft first, but we all worked together as a team,” he says.
Rahamim is 69 years old, but he hardly looks it. He towers over me at 6 feet 2 inches, has a full head of graying hair and a very gentle voice. He takes out his Beretta .22 caliber handgun, the same gun he used while confronting two sets of hijackers, and it takes him back in time to an era when he was “little Mordoch” — as his fellow soldiers used to call him — a Sayeret Matkal fighter and a legendary air marshal, whose actions saved many lives.
Rahamim immigrated to Israel as a child from Kurdistan with his parents and two brothers. “My parents were busy with the everyday survival of the family. But even though we had nothing, we lacked nothing,” he says.
At his high school, most of the teachers were Holocaust survivors. “The obligation to protect Jews wherever they may be really struck a chord with me. It became my mission.”
When a friend suggested that he should enlist in Sayeret Matkal, one of the most prestigious units in the IDF, he didn’t hesitate for a minute. “At that time, you could only enlist to the unit if someone vouched for you. A friend recommended me and I got in.”
Three months before he completed his service in Sayeret Matkal, an El Al aircraft flying from Rome to Israel was hijacked and rerouted to Algeria. The hostages were only released after Israel agreed to release 24 terrorists in exchange. The Shin Bet security service realized that a new era of terrorism had begun and a secret unit of special air marshals was promptly established. Only soldiers who had served in the most elite IDF units were recruited for these special missions.
Rahamim, who needed money for university tuition, was eager to enlist. “I only had the 3,000-lira [the Israeli currency before the shekel] army grant, and I knew that I would be able to save up some money for school doing this work.”
The first two-week training course included 16 cadets. The cadets were trained by Dave Beckerman, a Jewish-American who had served in elite U.S. Army units and immigrated to Israel in 1948. “Dave was a wiz at face-to-face combat. He also introduced the art of fighting with a handgun, which was not taught in the IDF until then. Beyond Krav Maga [contact fighting], he taught us how to respond to having a gun held to your head or to your back, and other streetwise tricks.
“My job as air marshal was to sit on the plane in a strategic point in relation to the cockpit. At first, because of security issues and international flight guidelines we were not permitted to carry weapons on planes, so all we had was a pencil, tear gas and a small club. That is all we could use to confront potential terrorists.”
“Beckerman taught us a trick that may sound simple, but can save lives: We always had a handkerchief in our jacket pockets. He told us to fill them with sand, and when a hijacker or terrorist is standing in front of us, simply pull out the handkerchief and throw the sand into the hijacker’s eyes. It sounds funny but it works. It saves lives.”
After heroically rescuing the hostages aboard the El Al aircraft in Zurich, Rahamim received a job offer he could not refuse: to be Prime Minister Golda Meir’s personal body guard. But that career was very short-lived.
“During one of the ceremonies that I was working she approached me, called me by name, and said that she was glad that I was her bodyguard. Unfortunately, a reporter that was at the ceremony published a picture of Golda shaking my hand with a caption saying that I was the air marshal from the hijacked plane in Zurich. The moment my identity was made public I had to quit.
“As a token of appreciation and compensation, the Defense Ministry gave me a full scholarship to earn my bachelor’s degree at Tel Aviv University.”
When the Sabena flight was hijacked, Rahamim was in the midst of another gruelling day of studying at the university. “I came home, turned on my radio and monitored the reports closely. But because I hadn’t trained for three years I didn’t think to offer my services.”
Immediately after the Sabena aircraft landed at the Ben-Gurion International Airport, Israel’s leadership decided not to yield to the terrorists’ demands. At the same time, the forces in the field were instructed to sabotage the plane to prevent it from taking off. That way, even if the decision were to change, fixing the plane would buy some time for action.
To that end, the oil was removed from the wheels, rendering them useless. The entire time, Shin Bet negotiator Victor Cohen talked to the hijackers in an effort to wear them out. During the negotiations, with a communications channel open, the pilot managed to hint to Cohen that the emergency hatch in the cockpit was open.
At 10:30 p.m. it was decided that the rescue mission would involve openly charging into the plane. The Sayeret Matkal fighters were sent to a big warehouse housing an aircraft similar to the hijacked plane where they practiced their mission.
At 1:00 a.m. the fighters were waiting for a green light outside the hijacked aircraft, but it never came. Dayan had vetoed the mission, arguing that openly charging the plane would risk too many casualties among the hostages. He wanted to try other avenues first. At 4 a.m., just before dawn, the soldiers were ordered back into the terminal.
The following day, Rahamim went to class as he always did. But then, “in the middle of Professor Shimon Shamir’s class, I got a note saying ‘come to the airport quick.’
“I left the lecture hall in a hurry, ran home to Ramat Gan, took my gun and drove my Volkswagen Beetle to the airport.”
When Rahamim arrived, the plane was already parked in a remote area, surrounded by Border Police, Paratroopers and IDF sappers. The contingency plan titled “Isotope” — drawn up in 1970 for the event of a hostile aircraft at the Israeli airport — was on the table. Sayeret Matkal commander Barak was tasked with entering the aircraft and freeing the hostages.
The plan, initially thought up by GOC Central Command Rehavam Zeevi, called for appearing to agree to all of the hijackers’ demands and then taking advantage of the fact that Israeli technicians would have to approach the plane to repair it.
The long hours that had passed, the hijackers’ exhaustion and the passengers’ palpable fear began to take a toll. The hijackers demanded that a Red Cross representative be invited to ensure that Israel fulfills their demands. They threatened to blow up the plane otherwise. The negotiations continued until noon, with the Red Cross trying to strike a compromise on the release of the Palestinian prisoners.
The terrorists declared that they would not accept Israel’s demand to leave the Sabena plane on the ground in exchange for a different aircraft that would take them and the released Palestinian prisoners to Egypt. Israel insisted that this was not negotiable.
At 12 noon, the hijackers sent the pilot, Reginald Levy, out of the aircraft, accompanied by the Red Cross representative. He was carrying a sample of the kind of explosives that the terrorists had. The objective was to show the Israeli authorities that they were serious. But Levy took the opportunity to provide information regarding the goings on inside the plane.
“He told us that two male hijackers were armed with guns and that the women hijackers had explosives and hand grenades,” Rahamim recalls. “He also told us that one of the women was in the front of the plane on the left, approximately at row 6, and that she apparently had the explosives. The other woman was in the back of the plane.
“He gave us two more key pieces of information. One, that there were no additional seats beyond the emergency exits, which would allow us to break the doors in from the outside, and two, that the terrorists opened the emergency doors in the back of the plane from time to time to air out the cabin.
“It was already decided in the morning that we would approach the plane disguised as aircraft technicians, dressed in white coveralls. The negotiations gave us time to practice taking over a similar aircraft that was in an El Al hangar.
“Since most of the team was not familiar with combat in a plane, Ehud Barak explained to them that it was a lot like combat in a canal: Run in a single file and if the first soldier falls, the second soldier goes around him to the front. If you need to reload your weapon, you cling to the side wall and the soldier behind you advances, then you return to the line.
“Since I had experience shooting a handgun and had been in a hijacking, it was decided that I would go in first through the front left emergency exit. My mission was to turn left toward the front of the aircraft and neutralize the bomb that we believed was there before the terrorists got a chance to set it off.
“We purposely armed ourselves with handguns, because if we had tried to bring large rifles onto the plane, the terrorists would notice them under our coveralls. In addition, handguns are far more accurate and efficient in a situation involving hostages. It makes all the difference between completing a mission with almost zero casualties and sustaining multiple casualties. Even though the Beretta has relatively small bullets, it can be rather accurate and kill even from a distance of 50 meters [160 feet].”
The fighters, divided into six squads, prepared for the execution of the mission. The squad under the command of Danny Yatom, then the deputy commander of Sayeret Matkal, was to break in through the front door and through a hatch in the bottom of the plane, at the nose. Omer Eran’s squad was to charge in through the left rear door. Danny Brunner’s squad, which included Rahamim, was to charge in through the front left door. Uzi Dayan’s squad was to charge in through the rear door. Netanyahu’s squad was to charge in through the front right door and Arik Tal’s squad was to charge in through the rear right door.
The mission was set to begin at 4 p.m. All the teams were ready, wearing their white coveralls. A bus carrying 50 Israeli soldiers dressed up as Palestinian prisoners was parked alongside the plane, to convince the hijackers that their demand had been met.
“Minutes before the mission was to begin, the chief of staff, Dado [David Elazar], put a hand on my shoulder and said to me ‘Mordoch, don’t forget: As soon as you enter you run to the left so that they won’t detonate the bomb.’ I remember to this day the anxiety in his voice. I thought to myself that I don’t envy him. He had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. After all, if the mission were to fail, he would be blamed. If the mission succeeds, someone else would get the accolades.”
A minute before go time, with all the soldiers in position, the hijackers demanded that the Red Cross representative check the “technicians” for weapons. “The moment we realized that they wanted to frisk us, we told everyone to move their weapons to their backs,” says Rahamim. “I remember that the Red Cross man realized that something was happening, but he didn’t let on.”
After the squads climbed the ladders and positioned themselves outside the doors of the plane, there was another unexpected delay. “Yaakov Tzur, who worked security for El Al, had just landed from a flight he had worked and was immediately whisked to join the mission without having time to go to the bathroom. A second before we took our positions, he asked to go to the bathroom.”
When Tzur returned from the bathroom, the teams signaled to Barak, who waited below, that everyone was in position. The time was 4:24 p.m. “It was agreed that the signal to go ahead would be Ehud’s loud whistle. Ehud whistled but not everyone heard it, and there was a slight delay from behind.
“When I heard the whistle I hit the door hard and within a second it caved inward. One of the terrorists began firing at me the second I stepped on the plane. Luckily, two bullets missed my head by mere millimeters. Omer Eran, who was behind me, shot the terrorist and killed him.
“I saw the passengers sitting there curled up in balls, but I don’t remember if there was yelling. In my mind there was silence. I immediately turned left the way we planned, and then I sustained fire from the direction of the cockpit.”
“As I was advancing, repeating to myself in my head that I had to get to row six fast, I waged a gun battle. I remember saying to one of the passengers in English, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be okay.’ Afterwards I found out that the passenger was the pilot’s wife.”
Q: At any point, did you and the terrorist look each other in the eye-
“Yes, there was one such moment during the gun battle when he looked at me with a terrified look on his face and then started shooting all over the place. He apparently felt that he was losing it.
“Suddenly I ran out of bullets. Like we did in the drill, I clung to the left wall, reloaded, and came running back toward the terrorist who fired at me. Danny Brunner was behind me, but he later told me that I reloaded so fast that he didn’t have time to take my spot. Luckily for me, the terrorist also had to reload. He ducked into a lavatory for cover. I opened the door and fired in. He was killed and he fell out.”
There were still two female terrorists on board. According to the pilot’s reports, they had the explosives.
“After I killed the terrorist, the passengers on the right signaled to me fearfully where Theresa Khalsa was. She was sitting in the front of the plane. Her shirt was open and batteries were sticking out of her bra. At the moment of truth she was supposed to run toward the bomb, attach the batteries and detonate. I managed to subdue her. Then Netanyahu and Marco Ashkenazi came and I handed her over to them.
“We were anxious. We realized that the bomb was hidden somewhere, and we were afraid that they would detonate it. Ashkenazi and Netanyahu interrogated Khalsa and tried to get the information out of her as quickly as possible. Ashkenazi wanted to slap her, and he accidentally fired his gun, hitting her collarbone and grazing Netanyahu’s hand.”
At that point Rahamim disembarked. Later he learned that the delay in Uzi Dayan’s squad was due to difficulty in opening the rear emergency door, which had been stuck.
“As soon as Dayan managed to open the door and enter the plane, one of the passengers jumped in front of him with joy. Dayan thought he was a terrorist and shot him in the gut. Fortunately, he survived.”
“The fourth terrorist, Rima Tannous, stood behind the wounded passenger. She was holding a grenade with the pin pulled out. If the grenade had exploded, all the explosives on the plane would have detonated. Fortunately she yielded, and Uzi gently took the grenade from her.”
The mission lasted less than seven minutes. The bombs were revealed to be fake. One passenger, 22-year-old Miriam Holzberg Andersen from Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, was seriously wounded during the operation and succumbed to her injuries 10 days later. The rest of the passengers survived.
“I was filled with a sense of joy,” says Rahamim. “I don’t think it can be described in words. The body is full of adrenaline and exhausted at the same time.”
A day after the event, Rahamim was called into the Shin Bet offices for a debriefing. “Savinoam Avivi, who was the head of the Shin Bet Protection Division, called me and casually said, ‘Make up a story that will calm down Dave Beckerman’ — Beckerman was my instructor in the air marshals course.
“When I arrived for the debriefing I learned that Dave had wanted to carry out the rescue mission himself with his air marshals, who were trained for such missions. He was just waiting to prove their capabilities. When it was decided that Sayeret Matkal would execute the mission, and he heard that I was part of the team even though I hadn’t trained in three years, he was livid.
“When I met him, I told him, ‘You know, when the terrorist stood in front of me and fired at me, I could tell immediately that he wasn’t trained by you.’ That was enough to calm his anger.”
Unlike the Zurich operation, the Sabena heroes remained anonymous for a long time. “We weren’t praised openly. We didn’t get any love from the public, but our friends knew. When I went back to the university, I realized that everyone had put two and two together and realized that when I had left abruptly two days prior I had gone to the airport to free the hostages.
“When the story became public two years later we received a lot of love. Even today, 43 years later, people still recognize me and praise me. It warms my heart.”
Rahamim has met the members of the Sayeret Matkal team many times since, in the reserves. They still meet in organized unit get-togethers. “I don’t have a close relationship with most of them, but when we meet it is like we were never apart. There is something that binds people together when your fate becomes linked to theirs. That will always be there.”
Q: Have you met with any of the passengers?
“No. Don’t forget that immediately after the operation I went home, and for two years our identity was kept secret so that they wouldn’t exact revenge.
“I met Linda Lipschitz, the pilot’s daughter, during the screening of the film ‘Sabena.’ There was a special screening just for us. She told me that after the hijacking, Sabena had sent her father to work in South Africa because the terrorists, who believed that he played a role in the success of the operation, had threatened to kill him and his family. I told her that I had calmed her mother when I boarded the plane. I was sad to hear that both her parents had passed away.”
Rahamim is married to Tzipi, 63, father to David, 39, Elad, 38, Omer, 30, and Alona, 28, and proud grandfather to five grandchildren, one of them born just recently.