July 23, 1968, is the date that El Al flight 426, en route from Rome to Tel Aviv, was hijacked and flown to Algeria – the first and only successful hijacking of an El Al plane.
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Flight 426, a Boeing 707, had originally been scheduled to depart Rome on the afternoon of July 22. Engine problems with the aircraft, however, required a replacement plane, and that only arrived at Leonardo da Vinci airport from Tel Aviv in the late evening. By the time the return flight to Tel Aviv took off, it was already after midnight, and there were only 38 passengers on board – seven of them El Al employees or their family members – in addition to a crew of 10. Four of them were in the cockpit: chief pilot Oded Abarbanell, flight engineer Yonah Lichtman, training pilot Avner Slapak and first officer Maoz Poraz.
Shortly after takeoff, as the plane flew along the western coast of Italy, and was passing Naples, two men burst into the cockpit with guns. They began to assault Poraz. According to Abarbanell, who began posting his fascinating, detailed recollections of the experience online earlier this year, the training pilot immediately disconnected the plane’s auto-pilot, and began climbing precipitously, apparently with the intention of shaking up and disorienting the hijackers. Abarbanell, convinced that the clearly nervous skyjackers would respond by firing their guns, or even detonating a hand grenade, ordered Slapak to return the aircraft to the automatic mode, and tried speaking with the hijackers instead.
The three hijackers on Flight 426 were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Marxist terror organization founded a year earlier by George Habash. This was the first of the PFLP’s actions against an airline, though in the years that immediately followed, it carried out numerous armed attacks on El Al and other international carriers.
The hijackers on board the plane had instructions to redirect it to Dar El-Beida Airport, in Algiers, which is where it indeed landed two hours later. There, Flight 426 was handed over to the captivity of Algerian officials.
In his blog, Abarbanell describes how the crew members were ordered to alight from the plane before the passengers. When he saw how disheveled his colleagues were as they began to descend the stairs, writes the pilot, he “ordered all of them to return back to the airplane, comb their hair, put some make-up on, and put their uniforms on exactly as dictated by the company’s directives,” so that they would not “give the impression of war-beaten civilians.”
That was the beginning of a more than month-long ordeal, in which the pilot, as commanding officer, required his crew and passengers to behave as if they were prisoners of the war (Israel was in fact in a formal state of war with Algeria), and established a regimen of behavior that elicited civil and proper treatment from their captors while maintaining the proper distance from them.
Within 24 hours, all of the non-Israeli passengers, 23 people, were flown back to Rome and released. On July 27, the 10 remaining females – Israeli passengers, crew, and the three children who had also been on board – were released, meaning that only 12 Israeli men (seven crew and five passengers, two of them airline employees), remained as prisoners of the Algerian government.
After two weeks (during which they received a brief visit from a man Abarbanell recognized as George Habash), the Israelis were transferred to a private villa with much better conditions – including a tennis court and equipment. With access to both newspapers and a radio, they understood that a variety of international efforts – by the UN, Italy and the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations were underway to secure their release. The Algerians were demanding the release of all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
At the same time, Abarbanell later learned, Israel began planning a military operation to free the hostages. Under the orders of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and the direction of Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and Air Force Commander Mordechai Hod, a rescue plan was designed. According to Abarbanell, so that the Algerians would be “taught a lesson,” the Israeli raiders intended to use the opportunity to destroy all the Air Algerie aircraft parked at the airport.
Initially, the PFLP, with Algerian backing, demanded the release of more than 1,000 prisoners by Israel. Eventually, after the imposition of a global boycott of Algeria by the international pilots' federation, a deal was agreed to at the end of August by which Israel released 16 Palestinian prisoners. Israel defined its action as a “humanitarian gesture/” The government was apparently also motivated to act by an incident at the Suez Canal on August 29, in which Palestinian guerrillas attacked an Israeli patrol, killing two soldiers and taking prisoner a third.
On September 1, 1968, the 12 Israeli hostages were flown to Rome and then, within hours, on to Tel Aviv. The $6 million Boeing 707 was also returned to the Israelis. No one had lost their lives in the 39-day ordeal. But the era of political hijackings and other terror attacks had just begun.