When Plane Hijackings Were Palestinian Terrorists' Weapon of Choice

The hijacking of an EgyptAir aircraft to Cyprus recalls a previous era when hijackings were a regular occurrence.

AP

Tuesday's hijacking of an Egyptair aircraft on a domestic flight from Alexandria to Cairo took the world by surprise in part because, particularly since the September 11th attacks in the United States in 2001, security on passenger flights around the world has been substantially increased. 

The 1960s and 1970s saw a large number of hijackings carried out by Palestinian terrorist groups. El Al Israel Airlines quickly developed a reputation for its stringent airline safety. The first and last successful hijacking of an El Al aircraft took place in 1968. 

The hijackings during the period included the following:

1968: El Al Flight from Rome to Tel Aviv turns into a hair-raising ordeal in Algeria

On July 23, 1968, El Al flight 426, en route from Rome to Tel Aviv, was hijacked and flown to Algeria. Originally scheduled to depart Rome on the afternoon of July 22, engine problems delayed the flight's departure and in the end, there were only 38 passengers on board – seven of them El Al employees or their family members – in addition to a crew of 10.  Shortly after takeoff, two of the three hijackers burst into the cockpit with guns. The hijackers were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had been founded in 1967 by George Habash. 

The plane landed in Algiers, Algeria, where the aircraft and its passengers became captives of Algerian officials, starting a more than month-long ordeal for many of the passengers and crew. The 23 non-Israeli passengers were released first. On July 27, the 10 remaining women, passengers, crew, as well as three children, were set free. But the remaining 12 Israeli men (seven crew and five passengers, two of them airline employees) remained prisoners of the Algerian government until September 1, more than 40 days later. They were released following an international aviation boycott of Algeria and the release by Israel of 16 Palestinian prisoners.

A patrol from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on patrol east of the Jordan River, 1969.
Thomas R. Koeniges / LOOK Magazine

1970: Nearly simultaneous hijackings of five planes 

One set of hijackings that captured particular attention around the world was the plot by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to commandeer five planes, four bound for New York and one for London. On September 6, the hijackers, who demanded the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails, managed to take control of three planes and force them to land at Dawson's Field, a remote former British airstrip in Jordan. The planes were operated by TWA, Swissair and BOAC, the predecessor to British Airways. A fourth plane, a Pan Am aircraft, was flown to Cairo and blown up after the passengers disembarked. 

The fifth aircraft was an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to New York with a stop in Amsterdam. The two hijackers, a Nicaraguan American man and a Palestinian woman, Leila Khaled, attempted to take over the plane after it took off from Amsterdam. The El Al pilot refused to accede to the demands of the hijackers. The male hijacker was shot by an onboard sky marshal and later died of his injuries while Khaled was overpowered. The plane landed at Heathrow airport in London. 

Norman Shanks, a former director of airport security at Heathrow, told the New York Times that following the coordinated series of hijackings, the international aviation community took action to prevent hijackings.

1972: Sabena hijacking - involving two future Israeli prime ministers 

A flight operated by the Belgian airlines Sabena from Vienna to Tel Aviv and piloted by a British-Jewish pilot, Reginald Levy, was taken over by four members of the Palestinian Black September movement. At their direction, Levy landed the plane at Lod airport near Tel Aviv, now known as Ben-Gurion International Airport. The hijackers reportedly separated Jewish from non-Jewish passengers, and when the aircraft landed demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel or the plane would be blown up.

The following day, a commando team from the IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal unit approached the aircraft disguised as aviation technicians. They killed the two male hijackers and captured the two female hijackers. In an exchange of gunfire, a woman passenger was hit and later died of her wounds. The commando raid was commanded by Ehud Barak, who was later to become prime minister of Israel. One of the other commandos, who was wounded in the operation, was Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister.

1976:  An Air France plane is hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda

The Entebbe hijacking saga began on June 27, 1976, when two members of the Popular Front for Palestine and two from Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, hijacked an Air France plane on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, with a stop in Athens, to Entebbe airport in Uganda. It arrived in Uganda the next day after a stop in Libya. The hijackers boarded the plane in Athens. They were joined by reinforcements in Uganda and the Ugandan dictator at the time, Idi Amin, expressed support for the hijacking. 

Families reunite with hostages released by the Israel Defense Forces' elite Sayeret Matkal unit during the Entebbe operation, on July 4, 1976.
Yaacov Saar / GPO

On July 1, some of the passengers were released but about 100 remained, including all the Israelis and the members of the crew. The hijackers set a deadline by which their demands, the release of prisoners in Israel and elsewhere, would be met or they would kill the passengers. The hijackers' plans were foiled early on July 4, when a daring Israeli commando team that had landed at the airport rescued most of the passengers. 

The commando unit commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel's current prime minister, was killed in the operation, as were three hostages and all of the hijackers. A fourth passenger, Dora Bloch, who had been removed from the airport and taken to a Ugandan hospital prior to the rescue mission, was reportedly shot and killed by Ugandan forces.