As Israeli commandos stormed the Sabena Flight 571 hijacked by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at Lod Airport (modern Ben Gurion International Airport), their brother organization, the hard left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was planning another attack on Israel, this time directly at the airport itself. The operation was financed with the ransom money the PFLP received from the West German government after successfully hijacking a Lufthansa airplane in February.
After the Sabena hijacking, security to get into Lod Airport was tight. To bypass this, the PFLP planned to fly in from a different airport and attack the terminal from within. Additionally, the PFLP recruited three members of the Japanese Red Army to carry out the attack. They were training with the PFLP at one of their camps in Syria. Their ethnicity was thought to make it easier for them bypass security and avoid suspicion.
On 30 May 1972, the three Japanese men in business suits arrived at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport on an Air France flight from Paris. They strolled over to the baggage claim with the rest of the passengers. Once they claimed their bags, specifically their violin cases, they pulled out sawed off Czech assault rifles, and opened fire on the people in the terminal. One ran out on the tarmac and opened fire on the people descending the stairway off of an El Al flight that had just landed. 26 were killed, including the head of the Israeli National Academy of Science, and 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. 80 more people of many nationalities were wounded.
One gunman ran out of ammunition and was killed by his comrades. A second ran out of ammunition and killed himself with a grenade. The third was captured when he tried to escape. Kozo Okamoto was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was eventually exchanged with the PLO in 1983. He currently lives in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
On 8 May 1972, a Sabena Boeing 707, Flight 571, took off from Vienna for Tel Aviv. 45 minutes into the flight, two men and two women of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September hijacked the plane. Despite having the cabin stormed mere seconds before, the pilot made a calm announcement to the passengers and crew that “We have friends on board”.
Capt. Reginald Levy was a former member of the RAF and a veteran of both the Second World War and the Berlin Airlift. 8 May was his 50th birthday. By all accounts, he’s also the guy everyone wanted to have a pint with, and the only reason the terrorists didn’t kill any passengers. When the flight landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport (Ben Gurion International Airport), the terrorists made demands for the release of 315 convicted Palestinians held in Israeli jails. But thanks to coded messages sent by Levy to the air traffic controllers, the Israelis were already prepared.
They chartered a flight to Egypt filled with 315 fake prisoners that was to take off in the morning. That night, agents snuck onto the tarmac and cut the hydraulic lines in the landing gear and slashed the tires, preventing the plane from departing. The terrorists were furious, but Levy calmed them down by talking to them to keep them occupied, especially after they separated the Jewish passengers and sent them to the back of the plane. He, “spoke of everything, from navigation to sex”. They trusted him enough that they sent him off the plane with some explosives, to show the Israelis they meant business. Of course, Levy gave all the information that the Sayeret Matkal, the elite Israeli Special Forces, needed to storm the plane. Levy returned with photographs of the bogus prisoner transfer, and assurance that mechanics would fix the plane.
At 4 pm, 16 “mechanics” drove up to the plane dressed in all white coveralls. The disguised commandos breached the plane in five places: the main door, the rear door, the emergency door, and over the two wings of the plane. They killed the male terrorists, and captured the two female terrorists. Two passengers were wounded, one of whom died of her wounds, and one commando was wounded.
Operation Isotope was the first successful operation to seize a hijacked plane. There would be many more. Two of the commandos were future Prime Ministers of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the only commando wounded in the operation.