Sabena Flight 571

Sabena Flight 571 was a scheduled passenger flight from Brussels to Lod via Vienna operated by the Belgian national airline, Sabena. On 8 May 1972 a Boeing 707 passenger aircraft operating that service, captained by British pilot Reginald Levy, DFC,[1] was hijacked by four members of the Black September Organization, a Palestinian terrorist group. Following their instructions, Captain Levy landed the plane at Lod Airport (later Ben Gurion International Airport).[1] The hijackers demanded that Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages. The standoff was ended by an Israeli commando raid in which all of the hijackers were killed or captured.

Sabena Flight 571
Sabena Flight 571. I.jpg
Israeli soldiers rescuing hostages on the plane
Date8 May 1972
SiteTel Aviv-Lod International Airport (TLV), Lod, Israel
32°00′34″N 34°52′37″E / 32.0094°N 34.8769°E / 32.0094; 34.8769Coordinates: 32°00′34″N 34°52′37″E / 32.0094°N 34.8769°E / 32.0094; 34.8769
Aircraft typeBoeing 707-329
Flight originWien-Schwechat International Airport (VIE/LOWW)
DestinationTel Aviv-Lod International Airport (TLV), Lod, Israel
Passengers94 (inc. 4 hijackers)
Fatalities3 (1 passenger, 2 hijackers)
Injuries3 (2 passengers, 1 commando)
Survivors98 (inc. 2 hijackers)


The attack, planned by Ali Hassan Salameh, was carried out by a group of two men and two women who pretended to be two couples: the group’s leader Ali Taha Abu Snina, plus Abed al-Aziz Atrash, Rima Tannous and Theresa Halsa.[2] They were armed with two handguns, two hand grenades and two belts of explosives. Twenty minutes out of Vienna, the hijackers entered the cockpit. "As you can see," Captain Levy told the 90 passengers, "we have friends aboard." He concealed from the hijackers that his wife was a passenger on the plane.[2]

Soon after taking command, the hijackers separated the Jewish hostages from the others and sent them to the back of the aircraft.[3] When the plane had landed, the hijackers demanded the release of 315 convicted Palestinian terrorists[4] imprisoned in Israel, and threatened to blow up the airplane with its passengers. Captain Levy managed to send the Israelis a coded message requesting help. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Transport Minister Shimon Peres, who would become Prime Minister and later President of Israel, conducted negotiations with the hijackers while preparing a rescue operation, code-named "Operation Isotope."[5] Captain Levy said he talked to the hijackers about everything "from navigation to sex" while the passengers and crew waited to be rescued.[6]

On 9 May 1972 at 4:00 p.m. the rescue operation began: a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, led by Ehud Barak[1] and including Benjamin Netanyahu,[1] both future Israeli Prime Ministers, approached the aircraft[7] disguised as aircraft technicians in white coveralls.[1] Having immobilized it during the preceding night, they convinced the hijackers that its hydraulic system needed repair. They then stormed the aircraft,[2] killing both male hijackers within two minutes.[8] They also captured the two female hijackers[1] and rescued all 90 remaining passengers. Three passengers were wounded in the exchange of fire, one of whom later died of her injuries. Netanyahu was also wounded during the rescue when another commando, Marko Ashkenazi, accidentally discharged his gun as he used it to hit Theresa Halsa. The bullet passed through her and penetrated Netanyahu's bicep.[2]


The incident aircraft at Heathrow on 7 June 1976

Halsa and Rima Tannous were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment—Halsa for 220 years.[2] They were freed in November 1983, in a prisoner exchange after the 1982 Lebanon War.[2]

Sabena continued to operate the aircraft for another five years, until it was purchased by Israel Aircraft Industries. It was eventually sold to the Israeli Air Force, and served as a spy plane for many years, participating in most of the Air Force's long-range operations.[9][10]

Captain Levy, a Royal Air Force veteran who took part in strategic bombing missions over Germany during World War II[1] and also in the Berlin airlift,[1] had joined Sabena in 1952.[1] He retired in 1982[1] and died of a heart attack, at a hospital near his home in Dover on 1 August 2010.[1] The hijacking took place on his 50th birthday.[1]

In media

  • From Night Flak to Hijack: It's a Small World, autobiography by Captain Reginald Levy DFC.
  • Sabena Hijacking: My Version, Israeli docudrama depicting the hijacking and rescue, in which three Prime Ministers of Israel were involved.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hevesi, Dennis (5 August 2010). "Reginald Levy Is Dead at 88; Hailed as a Hero in a '72 Hijacking". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jeffries, Stuart (11 November 2015). "Four hijackers and three Israeli PMs: the incredible story of Sabena flight 571". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
  3. ^ "Two Passengers on Hijacked Plane Seriously Wounded; Terrorists Separate Jews from Non-jews on Plane". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 11 May 1972. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  4. ^ Klein, Aaron J. (2005). Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response. New York: Random House. p. 16. ISBN 1-920769-80-3.
  5. ^ Judah Ari Gross (13 August 2015). "When the prime ministers took down the hijackers". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  6. ^ "Pilot's Story: Terrorists Didn't Know His Wife Was Passenger on Plane". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 11 May 1972. Retrieved 8 May 2012.
  7. ^ Sontag, Deborah (20 April 1999). "2 Who Share a Past Are Rivals for Israel's Future". The New York Times. pp. Section A, Page 3, Column 1.
  8. ^ Fountain, Nigel (23 August 2010). "Reginal Levy obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
  9. ^ "Operation Isotope". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 9 July 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ "באר שבע - ה'בואינג' שנחטף בדרך לחצרים" [Be'er Sheva - a Boeing hijacked on the way to the premises]. Mynet (in Hebrew). Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 9 July 2021.

External links