New Film on Sabena Hijacking Has Three Israeli Prime Ministers Feeling Nostalgic

'Sabena' paints a vivid picture of the 1972 plane hijacking and storming of the plane by Israeli commandos - including Benjamin Netanyahu.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Jerusalem
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Scene from the film SabenaCredit: Sabena, a documentary on 1972 plane hijacking and the subsequent saving of passengers by Israeli commandos, paints a vivid picture of the events by shining a light on the humanity of all sides.
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Jerusalem

It wasn’t a sight you see every day. Sitting in the plush red seats of a Jerusalem movie theater Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two former Prime Ministers, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, were sitting in a row riveted to the screen, watching themselves depicted as young men experiencing one of the most dramatic and difficult events of their lives.

The occasion was the premiere screening of “Sabena Hijacking – My Version,” a documentary and moment-by-moment reenactment of the hijacking of a Sabena Flight 971 by four armed members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist organization on May 8, 1972, and the storming of the jet by the Israeli special forces unit Sayeret Matkal.

The film includes a dramatic and precise reenactment of the events of that day interspersed with testimonial interviews from all sides - the passengers, the Israeli soldiers and even one of the hijackers, as well as archival footage from the time. Among those interviewed were Peres, who was Minister of Transportation and Communications, Barak, who commanded Sayeret Matkal, and Netanyahu, a member of Sayeret Matkal and a member of the team that stormed the plane. Netanyahu was shot in the arm when Marco Ashkenazi, a fellow soldier hit a female terrorist in the head with his gun and accidentally pulled the trigger.

When Netanyahu took the stage after the screening, he said the film taught him “several interesting details I never knew before.”

One especially dramatic moment in the film features Netanyahu describing a dispute he and his older brother Yoni - who was killed on the far more famous hijacked aircraft raid in Entebbe four years later. Yoni wanted to be on the team storming the Sabena plane together with his brother’s unit. The younger Netanyahu insisted that they couldn’t both risk their lives entering a plane laden with explosives. “What will we tell our parents?” Benjamin asid. But Yoni insisted, saying “My life belongs to me, and so does my death.” At a stalemate, they referred the dispute to their commander Ehud Barak, who agreed with the younger brother and ordered Yoni, despite his protests, to stand down. “I said I wasn’t sending them in together,” Barak recounted in the film. “No way.”

After the screening, Netanyahu recounted what had taken place after he was injured. “I lay on the asphalt and I saw someone run to me from far away and I recognized my brother Yoni. He ran to me, his face was very worried. He came closer. He saw me laying there with my white overalls stained with blood. In a moment (after realizing his brother’s injury was minor) his face changed and he said, ‘You see, I told you that you shouldn’t have gone!’”

Speaking in a far more hushed and emotional tone than he uses in his political speeches, Netanyahu confessed that “Sabena was a painful experience for me. The hardest moment was when I stood on the wing of the plane, broke into it and the bullets rang out around us and we saw the woman who was shot slumped in front of us and we stepped over her and began fighting. “

Netanyahu recalled the “era of airplane hijacking” in the 1970’s when “terrorists were like preying animals, grabbing planes, kidnapping passengers and threatening to kill them and sometimes doing so.” The “most important lesson” of this era, as far as Israel was concerned,” he said, “is that it was not merely sophisticated military expertise but our determination and our daring against those who threaten us that curbed this particular form of terrorism.” Without mentioning ISIS or Iran by name, he said that since this era, terror has become more widespread and is the product of “terrorist states and disintegrating state entities.”

With that, he declared, “Let no one doubt the resolve and determination of the state of Israel to defend itself. What is true of Sabena is true today.”

The Sabena aircraft, piloted by Reginald Levy, a British Jew, who died in 2010 and on whose memoirs much of the film’s drama was based, was taken over en route from Vienna to Tel Aviv by armed hijackers demanding that Israel release 300 political prisoners. If not, they threatened, they would blow up the plane. They separated the Israeli passengers from the others, and landed the plane in Ben Gorion, where an agonizing waiting game ensued.

The plane was secretly sabotaged and negotiators directed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stalled for time, while formulating a plan, which entailed the commandos dressing up as aircraft technicians, allowing them to approach the plane without arousing the suspicion of the hijackers.

Of all the interviewees, the most riveting testimony was Acre-born Therese Halsa, one of the Palestinian hijackers, who was 18 at the time of the hijacking. She is the only surviving hijacker - the two male members were shot and killed. She and her female accomplice, still wearing explosive triggers, survived the storming of the plane and were sentenced to prison terms. Despite the fact that the two female hijackers were sentenced to life, one was released after serving only seven years and Halsa after serving 13 - she now lives in Jordan.

Netanyahu speaking at the Sabena screening in a Jerusalem theater, August 13, 2015.Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

The film depicted Halsa and the other hijackers were depicted as human and complex. One moment she was devotedly tending to the hostages, even administering an insulin shot to a passenger with diabetes, the next, expressing her sincere regret that she was foiled in her mission to blow up the plane after it was invaded by the IDF commandos and her comrades were shot. “I really wanted to blow up that plane. That’s the truth.”

The film was created and produced by Nati Dinnar, who after reading detailed accounts of the hostage rescue, realized that it was as compelling, if not more so, than any fictional drama like “Homeland.” It will be broadcast on Israeli television by the Keshet network on September 8, and will likely be screened internationally as well.

“I thought it was an important story to tell, “ he said. “There is much in it to learn about terror.” The hybrid of dramatization and documentary “is what I saw in my mind when I imagined the story being told.”

“If we had done a dramatic movie without the interviews, some of the stories were so amazing they wouldn’t be believable - people would say  - this couldn’t have really happened, it was made up. The interviewees make it credible, telling us that yes, this is what really happened.”

Dinnar said that it had been crucial to him important to tell the stories from the perspectives of all participants, which is why he included extensive interviews with Bassam Abu Sharif - a former senior adviser to Yasser Arafat and leading cadre of the Palestine Liberation Organization a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who personally knew the Black September member, who led the hijacking operation and served as his voice in the film. He, like Halsa, was portrayed sympathetically in the film, not as a cold killer but as a desperate and conflicted man trying to be a freedom fighter, outwitted and outmatched by the Israelis. And in today’s era of suicide bombers and video beheadings, the behavior of the Black September terrorists as they waited patiently for their demands to be met as the drama plays out feels incredibly restrained. They may have been threatening to take the lives of the plane’s passengers, but showed little bloodthirst.

“They didn’t see themselves as terrorists,” said Dinnar. “After all, is there any person in the world who would say they were a terrorist?”