Background / Hijackings Are Rare, but El Al Is Always a Target

Sunday night's attempt to hijack a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul is the first known attempt in which an Israeli citizen was involved. It was also the first hijacking attempt carried out aboard an El Al flight since 1976.

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Yossi Melman
Ha'aretz Correspondent

Sunday night's attempt to hijack an El Al plane flying from Tel Aviv to Istanbul is, as far as is known, the first such attempt in which an Israeli citizen was involved, and an Israeli Arab specifically. This was the first hijacking attempt carried out aboard an El Al flight since 1976.

The attempts to hijack El Al planes and other planes flying to and from Israel, which began in 1968, have decreased over the years, as security measures have improved. The last successful hijacking was in July 1976, when an Air France plane, flying from Ben-Gurion to Paris via Athens, was hijacked by a splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by Wadia Hadad. The plane landed at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Since then, as a result to the reputation that resulted from airport security in Israel, Palestinian terror organizations ceased attempts to hijack planes. Instead, they focused on attempts to plant explosives on planes, to attack Israeli travelers at airports, to fire missiles at Israeli planes during landing and takeoff and to assassinate El Al crew members.

One of the more serious cases took place in 1986, at Heathrow Airport in London. Naizer Hindawa, an agent of Syrian intelligence, sent his Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight, who was possessing, without her knowledge, an explosive device that was set to blow up the jumbo jet in mid-air. Suspicions of the security guards led to the bomb being discovered.

Other known cases happened in Rome in 1969 - when Mossad information prevented an attempt to fire a missile at an El Al plane - and in Nairobi, similar information brought to the attention of Kenyan security officials, led to the arrest of a German couple also planning to fire a missile at an El Al plane.

Despite the numerous instances of such cases, the number of hijackings is small. Only in 1968 did the Middle East first become acquainted with this method, when an El Al flight from Rome was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists an landed in Algiers. Some of the passengers and crew were held captive, and released in exchnage of the release of terrorists held in Israeli prisons.

In 1970, terrorists from the PFLP attempted to hijack an El Al plane that took off from London, but security members and the crew overpowered them and foiled the hijacking attempt. Two years later, a plane from the Belgian airline Sabena was hijacked and landed in Lod. The IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal - in a rescue operation that for years became the model to imitate in similar operations - stormed the plane and released the travelers and crew.

The Israeli security doctrine - which was first developed following the hijacking to Algiers, became more sophisticated over the years and was also adopted by many airlines and airports in the world - is based on two central principles: the system of circles and the doctrine for discerning suspects.

The system of circles is based on intelligence information received in advance as a first circle of defense to prevent hijacking and revealing in advance intent to harm passengers. The second circle is discerning, at teh center o fwhich stands the system of questions known to all passengers to and from Israel. This is based on the profile of the potential hijacker, which is put together by the Shin Bet, according to which Israelis are less suspicious than foreigners, Jewish Israelis less suspicious than Arab Israelis