Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Yatom took part in Sabena mission, in which the Sayeret Matkal freed a hijacked passenger plane
"On most nights, the Sayeret Matkal is engaged in covert intelligence operations," Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Yatom, a former Sayeret Matkal member, said this week, on the 40th anniversary of the Sabena counter-terrorist operation.
As it was carried out in the light of day in the heart of the country, the Sayeret Matkal's successful rescue of the passengers of hijacked Sabena Flight 571 at Lod (now Ben-Gurion) Airport provided a rare glimpse of the activities of a unit which time and time again has dared - and won.
On May 8, 1972, deep in the Negev Desert, Yatom, then the deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal, was overseeing training exercises when he received the order to gather his soldiers and return to base. On the way, they were ordered to change direction and head toward Israel's international airport at Lod.
"From the moment I heard that there was a hijacking, I had no doubt that the mission of freeing the passengers would fall on us," Yatom said.
Counter-terrorism operations were not unfamiliar to the Sayeret Matkal. The unit had already carried out many such operations. An example of a previous mission was a raid on Beirut Airport, during which Sayeret Matkal fighters destroyed Lebanese aircraft.
"When I arrived at Lod Airport, I met with [Ehud] Barak, the unit commander, and there was great tumult there," Yatom said. "We arrived just before the landing. We had no idea how many terrorists there were. The one thing we knew was that most of the passengers were Jews or Israelis."
After landing, the plane was towed to an isolated corner of the airport. The terrorists threatened to blow up the plane if hundreds of Fatah terrorists were not released.
"You have to understand that with all of our experience dealing with complex and complicated cases, this was an unusual scenario that we had not trained for," Yatom said. "An aircraft is a scene that is very narrow and complicated. From scratch, we created within hours doctrine and training. The lack of knowledge did not change the fighters. No one thought of giving into the terrorists' demands. Our responsibility was to prepare a military operation, to conduct it, and to succeed. That is what interested and guided us. That is how we were educated."
The next day, on two separate occasions, the Sayeret Matkal soldiers were summoned to prepare for action, but were called back at the last moment.
"It was a tense atmosphere because of the amount of question marks, difficulties, and the level of uncertainty on matters such as what the inside of the plane would look like, or if the terrorists would detonate explosive belts…but as on many previous missions, this did not occupy us," Yatom said. "What we focused on was doing it in the best way possible."
At 14:00 in the afternoon, as government officials conducted negotiations with the terrorists to wear them down, a decision was made to change the nature of the operation. Dressed as technicians, the Sayeret Matkal fighters would approach the plane to "check it so it could take off after the exchange of prisoners". The terrorists agreed. The Sayeret Matkal soldiers moved toward the plane on luggage trolleys, with their pistols hidden underneath their technician uniforms.
Photo: Sayeret Matkal fighters dressed as technicians at Lod Airport
At 16:00, the whistle of Barak pierced the air. Each team of soldiers jumped into position and began to attempt to break into the aircraft. The plan was that whichever team succeeded in entering first would neutralize the terrorists. In his book "Sayeret Matkal", Moshe Zunder described how Mordechai Rahamim, a veteran aviation security man and Sayeret Matkal reservist, entered the plane first and began to exchange fire with the terrorists as the rest of his squad yelled at passengers to get down. Rahamim advanced row by row before closing on one of the terrorists and shooting him from close range. At the front of the plane, the first soldier in Yatom's team was wounded in the hand and fell off the ladder. Yatom took his place to enter the plane.
Through a window, Yatom saw one of the terrorists.
"I understood that this was an opportunity and opened fire," Yatom said. The bullet broke the first pane of the double-paned windows but did not get through the second.
Yatom and his soldiers struggled to open the door.
"I don’t remember what happened around me during those seconds, I was focused on the mission," Yatom said. "The adrenaline was pounding in my temples, everybody wanted to get inside [the aircraft]".
Eventually, Rahamim opened the door for them from inside. They captured the female terrorists who were holding grenades without pins and began to question them.
Within 90 seconds of Barak's whistle, two terrorists were dead, two female terrorists were captured, and the threat of explosive belts was neutralized. Before the passengers even understood what had happened, the Sayeret Matkal had completed the first ever military rescue of passengers from a hijacked plane, in a mission that is still thought of as one of the best of its kind ever conducted.
Photo: Female terrorist taken off plane
"Morale was very high," Yatom said. "After a minute and a half, it was already clear that it had been a great success. It was a feeling of deep satisfaction after the level of uncertainty. You were ready to risk your life to save people who were going to be executed just because they were Jews and Israelis. Beyond protecting civilians, children, and women, we felt that we made a great contribution to the IDF's deterrent capabilities."
'What can be learned today from that operation touches on the issue of spirit," Yatom said. "The will to perform the mission at any cost, the creativity in building the plan, the imagination. In the end, it was a matter of being ready to run with an exposed chest toward the enemy, and of the ability to adapt quickly to changes."
Even after this famed operation, the Sayeret Matkal was not given time to rest.
"Immediately after [Sabena], we returned to very intensive and very diverse operations," Yatom said. "Operation followed operation."
"Almost everything was something that had not been done before," Yatom continued, saying that some these operations matched and even surpassed the boldness of the unprecedented Sabena mission.