New Movie on 1972 Skyjacking Dims Aura of Elite IDF Unit

By showing Palestinian perspective, 'Sabena Hijacking – My Version' tempers the heroism of the elite Sayeret Matkal commandos who were involved in the rescue operation.

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About a month ago the debut screening of “Sabena Hijacking – My Version” took place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Along with the filmmakers and actors attending the event with their families were the heroes of the film – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and another former prime minister and president, Shimon Peres.

The movie, which is to be aired today on Channel 2's Keshet franchise, tells the story of the hijacking of Sabena Flight 971 from Vienna to Tel Aviv on May 8, 1972 by four armed terrorists from the Black September movement.

At the end of the screening the three heroes got up to sing the praises of the elite Israel Defense Forces Sayeret Matkal commando unit – which rescued the captured passengers and killed some of the terrorists – and to stress the importance of the war against terror. Netanyahu pulled yet another speech out of his sleeve, regarding the determined effort to fight those who seek to kill us Israelis; Barak, for his part, described the security challenges that lie ahead for the country.

Moshe Zonder, the scriptwriter of the film, sat in the hall and felt sad. As far as he’s concerned, the senior politicians missed the point.

“It was very disappointing to hear what they said,” says Zonder. “They spoke only about the unique spirit of the Sayeret Matkal as demonstrated in the film, but they didn’t say a word about rapprochement or future negotiations with the Palestinians. The strategy of the State of Israel vis-a-vis the hijackers during the Sabena operation was one of deception, but that can’t be a country’s strategy for years on end.”

“Sabena” will make for an unusual TV viewing experience: a full-length thriller (an hour and 40 minutes) based on a true incident, which combines archival photographed materials, interviews, and scripted and staged footage.

The decision that 70 percent of the film would consist of such footage stemmed from the filmmakers' desire to bring the full story of the hijackers and the hostages to the screen – but with an emphasis on a dual narrative incorporating the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

Daniel Tchetchik

Although one can easily identify here with the hostages, who almost lost their lives, the film also gives voice to the hijackers, who regard themselves as Palestinian freedom fighters. Thus in one film we hear the testimony of an incumbent prime minister alongside that of hijacker Therese Halsa, who spent 13 years in prison and now lives in Jordan.

Another equally fascinating aspect of the story portrayed in the film is the recorded testimony of the pilot, Captain Reginald Levy, a British Jew (who died in 2010), who lends the film a neutral tone that acts as a bridge between the various parts of the political map.

“During the first stage, we had to decide who the hero of the story is,” says director Rani Sa'ar. “We started to edit the filmed interviews, and then the dramatic human aspect of the story became clear. There are heroes on the Israeli side, but on the Palestinian side as well. There is also the captain, who on his 50th birthday wants to rescue his wife, who is on the plane, and the other passengers. It was important to us to show the heroes on each side.”

Zonder: “I was always under the impression that Captain Levy was on Israel’s side in this story, because he provided Israeli decision-makers with intelligence about what was happening on the plane. When you hear the [original] recordings, though, you realize that he was exclusively on the side of his passengers. All he wanted was to preserve their lives. He found it hard to believe that they would all survive, and in fact there was someone who paid with her life.” (When the commandos stormed the plane, three passengers were wounded and one died of her wounds.)

'Juxtaposed narratives'

“After hearing all the testimony, we decided to base the script on the juxtaposition of the Israeli narrative alongside the Palestinian one,” says Zonder.

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Daniel Bar-On

“Once as a journalist," he continues, "I interviewed the head of the Fatah squad that kidnapped eight IDF Nahal Brigade soldiers during the first Lebanon War. He became an officer in the Palestinian police force and we met in Ramallah. It was fascinating to hear his unfamiliar angle, of a fighter fighting for his beliefs. We only hear the Israeli narrative and miss the other side.

“In this case, Therese Halsa, one of the hijackers, is a Christian Israeli Arab who is originally from Acre, who looks and sounds like my Jewish neighbor. It takes you a moment to realize that she’s supposed to be the bad guy, but until you realize that, you have already developed a different attitude toward her. I really believe that there are no good guys and bad guys in this neighborhood called the State of Israel or Palestine, but two tribes fighting over the same piece of land.”

Making contact with Halsa was no simple feat. As opposed to the swift approval by various diplomatic and political leaders, the Jordanian government was loath to approve entry of the Israeli film crew.

“We traveled to see her in Amman,” Zonder explains. “She spent 13 years in an Israeli prison and was then expelled from Israel to Jordan, where she married and started a family. She immediately agreed to be interviewed, but we had problems with visas to Jordan. She told us that her two sons opposed the interview, and her daughter was sure that we were Mossad espionage agents who had come to settle accounts with her.

“Her daughter did her makeup because she was sure that our cosmetician’s makeup would be poisoned. In light of the way Mossad agents tried to kill [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal in Amman, her behavior may be understandable. Therese was and remains an independent and courageous woman. We interviewed her for five hours and we have enough material for another fascinating film focusing only her story.”

Sa'ar, who has directed successful TV series such as “Zaguri Empire” and “Asfur,” admits that he learned a lot from the actors as well as those who offered testimony. “I was surprised to discover that the Arab actors were disturbed by term ‘terrorists’ in the script. They claimed that they consider themselves hijackers, not to say freedom fighters.

“At first it wasn’t clear that squad leader Abu Sneineh would be one of the heroes. That was a result of the outstanding acting by George Iskander. An actor has to love, understand and identify with the character he plays. George, an Israeli Arab from Haifa, was able to empathize with Abu Sneineh, a tour guide from Jerusalem. At the start of the film he lacks humanity, but toward the end he arouses empathy and identification.

“One of the Jewish actresses, who has right-wing views, told me that due to the rehearsals and the encounter with the Arab actors she was able to see things she hadn’t seen before. During the 30 hours of the hijacking the personal communication between the hijackers and their victims inside the plane was humane, and above all possible.”

In many senses the film reflects a situation in which we are still hostages in the same plane together with the rescuers.

Zonder: “I agree. Several times I thought that it’s shame that Reginald Levy didn’t become the prime minister of Israel at a certain point. There’s a scene in which he confronts legendary defense minister, Moshe Dayan, which like most of our filmed scenes is closely based on the reality. Reginald tells Dayan that he is responsible for his passengers and for them only.

“In many senses, Israeli prime ministers don’t always take care of their 'passengers' ... which in effect means that the captain is avoiding responsibility for the passengers’ lives. The prime minister decides that he doesn’t have the strength to deal with the kidnapping of a soldier as in the case of Gilad Shalit, and its consequences. So, in effect, he may allow a kidnapped soldier to be killed together with his captors. In that sense Reginald did the maximum to protect his passengers against all odds.”

From your interviews with Netanyahu, Barak, Danny Yatom and Uzi Dayan [also involved in the 1972 operation], to what extent do you think that the hijacking was a significant milestone in their lives?

Zonder: “It was a significant moment for everyone who was there, including [Sayeret Matkal members] Barak, Yatom and Dayan, for example, who all underwent difficult experiences about a year and a half later, during the Yom Kippur War. All the senior officers who fought in the battles are shell shocked on a certain level. Anyone who killed people, saw his friends killed alongside him, and was facing death cannot fail to be profoundly affected by that for the rest of his life.”

Sa'ar: “I think that those who were most affected to this day are the hostages and the hijackers. Itche Mizrahi, who was one of the hostages and is interviewed in the film, experiences it as though it happened yesterday morning. Every day anew.”