HOW INES WAS TOLD OF OUR HIGHJACKING. THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT TRIES TO ORGANIZE AN EMBARGO ON ALGERIA. THE IDF PREPARES A RAID ON ALGIERS’ INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT TO RELEASE US.
After we were released, my wife, Ines, told me what happened in Israel after our hijacking. Ines and the girls slept deeply that night. The fact that I did not return from my flight did not disturb them. They knew that even if I shall be delayed and we will not go on our vacation the next day, then we shall go the day after. At about 6 AM somebody rang the door bell and Ines woke up to see who it was. Captain Reuven Narunsky who was Deputy Chief Pilot was standing at the door. When she saw him, Ines understood immediately that an accident had happened. Reuven was a South-African by birth and his Hebrew was very poor at that time, yet he chose to speak Hebrew and not English. Furthermore, when Reuven was excited his voice trembled due to excess adrenalin. Reuven started and said,
“A terrible thing happened! But everybody is OK.”
“What happened? Oded was killed?” Ines asked.
“No. They were hijacked. Oded is OK,” Reuven replied.
After Reuven departed, and as soon as Ines calmed down, she called El-Al’s head office and from then on she maintained contact with Benny Davidai, who was Principal-Deputy-President and had taken over the position of Deputy-President of Operations from Captain Tom Jones. The wives and mothers of the other members of my crew used to get together almost every afternoon at our house and Ines used to pass on to them all the information she’d received about us that day. Ines had quite a few more adventures tied to our hijacking, which I shall tell you about later. My daughters, who were naturally disappointed to lose our planned vacation, received the news with a lot of concern, but remained quiet and disciplined throughout this difficult period.
About one week after our hijacking, Lashmi arrived in the morning, accompanied by two armed soldiers and said that he had to take all of us to a meeting with a group of people who’d come to see us. It was impossible to understand anything he said. It seemed he himself did not have any specifics. We were led to the small building in which we spent our first night in Algiers. When we entered, I saw three men from the directorate of IFALPA (The International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations) accompanied by the official of the Algerian Civil Aviation Department, and an assistant or secretary who kept a record of everything which was said. Near them was the smartly dressed fellow who, as we were told a few days ago when the children and women were released, was the “Secretary” of the Algerian Secret Service. We were asked to sit down. The small salon contained enough chairs now. The conversation was carried out in English. At the head of the trio was the Vice-President of Finance of IFALPA who was an Irishman who flew as Captain with the Irish National Airline. With him were two other Vice-Presidents which held other portfolios. I knew this Irishman well from the days, not long ago, when I was President of IALPA (the Israel Airline Pilots’ Association) and attended numerous meetings of IFALPA. Our relations with IFALPA and especially with the Irish representatives were especially close and warm at that time (they turned sour many years later). I was very happy to meet them here. During the last few days, I told my men that I believed that IFALPA would try to act towards our release. Yona Lichtman was very skeptical. He did not have much faith in all types of international organizations including the UN. Yona asked me what IFALPA could do for us, and I explained that they could declare an embargo on all flights to and from Algeria. Yona said this is not as easy as it sounds and I agreed that it would be a complicated operation, but it could be done. I did not expect a delegation to come over to visit us and now that they did, after we met, I reminded Yona about it.
The IFALPA members were interested mainly in our well-being: whether our lodgings were adequate, if we are getting enough to eat, if we had all we needed under the present situation. They told us that IFALPA was dealing with our release, but as soon as I requested details, I understood that they were not interested in revealing what decisions had been taken. They told us that in addition to this visit with us, they asked to meet with the Algerian Prime-Minister and Foreign Minister (Bumedien and Buteflika), and hoped that their request will be granted. The Algerians invited all of us to lunch and a large table was brought in. The meal was somewhat more “European” than the one we were getting from the soldiers-mess. While we were eating, we continued our conversation about our situation and living conditions. By this time I understood that this trio came here mainly in order to ascertain that we are being treated well and as soon as I told them that we were not treated badly they were satisfied. The Civil Aviation Department official said, “Listen, gentlemen, we are not Nazis or savage animals, and as a matter of fact you should not worry about them. They are used to hard living conditions and adapted themselves quite well here!” The Irishman and I exchanged meaningful looks. The visit was not particularly long and after lunch the trio departed.
This visit was very meaningful and it helped confirm the assumptions I had been relying upon when analyzing our situation. I had presumed that, as a result of this hijacking, the Algerians found themselves in a tougher position than they and the Arab terrorist organization leaders expected. I would later learn that only a handful of the Algerian leaders—the prime minister, the foreign minister, and two-three cabinet members—knew in advance about the hijacking and the possibility that the plane would end up in Algiers. As soon as we arrived and the fact became widely known, an opposition arose to this act and to our continued detention. This came not only from the small opposition in the Algerian Parliament (which was led by Ben-Jadid), but also from quite a few members of the ruling party and even some government ministers. The opposers reminded everyone of the hijacking of Tshombe and the detention of the two British pilots, and pointed to the damage this had caused Algeria. They contended that an additional hijacking, and the associated detention of the crew and passengers as prisoners to be bartered for Palestinian terrorists, such a short time after the last hijacking would incite the anger of the whole free world. They worried that harsh measures would be taken against Algeria, which already suffered from economic and diplomatic troubles. And while I didn’t know any of this for sure, since I had firsthand knowledge of Tshombe’s hijacking, to me, this political situation seemed quite certain. Sure enough, it was indeed the reaction in Algeria to our hijacking.
To further aggravate this revolting situation, the hijackers caught the least suitable man for their purpose. I was not a young man and not very active as an IAF reserve pilot. On the other hand, as the founder of the Israel Airline Pilots Association and its first president, I personally knew all of IFALPA’s officers. IFALPA had already expressed its displeasure with Algeria when it held the two British pilots, and had an open grievance with the Algerians, which was not at all convenient. This made the hijacking personal: the fact that discussions in IFALPA were conducted about the hijacking of “Oded whom we all know,” a good friend of many of the Federation’s officers and not some unknown Captain—this was beneficial to us and embarrassing to the Algerians. I knew that it would take a long time for IFALPA and the other organizations, such as the General Workers Organization of Israel, the World Labour Organization, the International Federation of Stevedores (at seaports and airports), the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers to enact sanctions against Algeria, but that when they would do so, these would be harsh and damaging. The takeaway for us was that we needed a lot patience. Time was in our favor, not the Algerians’.
Our days turned to routine. The only newspaper which we received was the Algerian newspaper “El-Mujahid” which was a meager and poor newspaper both in size and the material which it contained. There was absolutely nothing in it which concerned us. However, the radio was of great interest to us. We were mentioned daily in the news programs of various radio stations, not only the Voice of Israel to the Diaspora. They recounted the repeated appeals of the UN Secretary (U-Thant) and of heads of state to the government of Algeria to release us forthwith, and of the discussions of the Israeli government and its diplomatic actions. Algeria’s president and foreign minister, Houari Bumedien and Abdelaziz Buteflika, who were both radicals and descendants of the Berber sea-pirates, had decided to pay no regard to international opinion. They viewed our hijacking as an opportune moment to demonstrate to the whole Arab world that Algeria, not Egypt, was its leading nation. To do so, they insisted that the El-Al airplane, its crew, and Israel passengers would be held until the Israeli government agreed to free all terrorists detained in Israeli prisons.
At the time, we did not know what was really going on behind the scenes. Since we had been hijacked from Italian airspace, the Italians considered the hijacking a violation of Italian sovereignty and security. The diplomatic relations between Italy and Algeria had been good, unlike those between Algeria and France, Britain, and the USA. The Italians considered Algeria a “good neighbor,” so, immediately following the hijacking, the Italians conveyed a complaint via diplomatic channels. Then, when, Israel approached Italy (the Israeli Ambassador was on vacation and therefore the Israeli Foreign Ministry sent Aviezer Chelouch, an old acquaintance of mine, to Rome), the Italians immediately agreed to mediate between Israel and Algeria. I was of course ignorant of all this and only told of it after my release. Had this hijacking occurred four years later when I studied Air and Space Law at the School of Law of University College London, I would have most probably come to the conclusion that no one but the Italians would be suitable for discussions with the Algerians.
After my return home, I found out that, in addition to acting via traditional diplomatic channels within the UN and with other Western powers to apply pressure on Algeria for our release, the Israeli government acted more practically and teamed up with the Italian government to hold negotiations with the Algerians. The Algerian demands were immense and were not acceptable by the Israeli government. Primarily, Israel felt time pressure to release the airplane, which was parked on a taxiway at a distance of about 200 meters from the building in which we were held, and whose tail, which bore our national flag, we could see every time we looked out through the corridor windows. This was mid-summer and the airplane was highly demanded by “El-Al” to carry out the many flights which were scheduled during these months. Holding this airplane caused “El-Al” and the State of Israel great financial damage. As to us, the men, the State could, leaving humanitarian feelings aside, wait a long time, until the Algerians reduced their demands. The Algerians of course knew all this, and dragged their feet, claiming that the delay was just so they could complete all necessary procedures required investigating this peculiar case. This was the same response they gave us when we asked them, several times, why our release was taking so long.
“A cause des formalites,” they’d respond.
This was a lie. The Israeli government had to try to force the Algerians to accelerate the negotiations and reduce their demands. This could be achieved in two ways: Via an international boycott of Algeria–a measure which was very hard to attain and organize and would need a lot of time to achieve–or via a powerful military operation by the IDF, which would release the airplane and the men as well.
While our Foreign Office and Ministry of Transport were busy organizing the boycott, the Minister of Defence, Moshe Dayan, himself a hawk, ordered the IDF to prepare a detailed proposal for a military operation. We must not forget that this was 1968, eight years before Operation Entebbe, five years before the Yom-Kipur War. The arms available to the IDF—especially the aircraft–were not as advanced as those that were available in 1976. Regardless of this fact, and of the fact that Algiers is 3080 kilometers from Tel-Aviv as the crow flies, a brilliant military operation was planned. Its main purpose was the release of the airplane and of us men. But when it became clear that Algeria’s leaders intended to attempt to squeeze as much political gain from this hijacking as possible, and that the reasons they gave for delaying our release were bogus, it was decided that they should be taught a lesson. In addition to returning the plane and freeing us, the commandos would, as part of the operation, destroy all the airplanes of Air Algerie that would be parked at the airport during the operation.
Once the necessary intelligence was collected, and detailed planning of the operation completed, special units were assigned to carry out the operation, which was given the name “Operation Rooty”. They started training on accurate models of the building in which we were kept, and of the other establishments nearby which were chosen as targets of this operation. When the assigned force was ready for action, a full presentation was carried out in the presence of the Commander in Chief (CIC) of the IDF, Haim Barlev, and the Commanding Officer of the IAF, Motty Hod. Both were very satisfied with what they saw and the CIC reported to the Minister of Defence, Moshe Dayan, that the IDF was ready to carry out “Operation Rooty”.
Meanwhile, for us, the days went by. Since the children, women, and stewardesses were released, Sergeant Lashmi came each day before lunch to take us for an hour-long walk outside. We used to walk to the pool while an armed soldier walked behind us. We used to take a stroll around it and Monsieur Jacques used to have a pleasant talk with Lashmi on this and that. We had concluded during our first week in captivity that Lashmi was not a Sergeant but a minor Intelligence Officer holding the rank of Lieutenant or Second-Lieutenant whose duty was to get friendly with us and have us talk to him on subjects which were of special interest to our captors. Once we came to this conclusion, we were very careful as to what we said at all times. One day, we found to our surprise that the pool was full of water, and some of the men decided to swim. I remembered the goat droppings that were in it when we first saw it and warned the men that the water might be contaminated–it certainly was not purified with chloride. I nevertheless decided not to forbid anyone who wanted to have a swim from doing so. Two days later the pool was again dry. It sometimes happened that Lashmi did not appear in the morning to take us on our daily walk. When this happened, I asked Monsieur Jacques to tell Lashmi when he next comes that I insisted that they enable us to go out daily according to the 4th Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War which stipulated that we should spend several hours every day outside of our barracks. I acted this way since I had previously decided I shall conduct myself with the Algerians as if we were prisoners-of-war and they were our captors. Every time that I used to say or that Monsieur Jacques used to quote me saying that as prisoners-of-war we were entitled to one thing or another the Algerians used to hastily object, “But you are not prisoners-of-war at all. You are only held in house-arrest!” (“Tenues-en-vue” in French.)
Every week, we handed Lashmi a small list asking for more cigarettes, soap or toothpaste, and received our requested items one or two days later. Several days after we received the radio receiver we decided to ask for a few batteries so as to have them on hand if the radio went dead. We received these extra batteries as well. The money in the “Captain’s Fund” was diminishing, so I thought that it would maybe be wise if we saved the money for more urgent or important needs since we didn’t know what lay in store for us: We might, in the future, need expensive medicines or we might have to bribe someone. I will not deny that I had thoughts of trying to escape, as well, and I assumed that the others had them too. These thoughts did not preoccupy me much, and were not detailed, nor had I reached any decisions. Every time that I had thoughts about escape, I reached the conclusion that it was too soon and that it should be left to a much later date, if we found ourselves still here in Algeria in several months time. Then, we would come to know the situation and our captors better, as well as what was going on in this airport and various other important details. Also, every time I thought of escape, I encountered the problem of command: As Captain of this flight and as Senior Officer of this group of prisoners, I could not escape as long as others were left captive and so it was of no use to think about it.
We even instituted a plan to move and maintain the airplane. One week after our landing at Algiers, Flight-Engineer Yona Lichtman told me that it was not good for the airplane to be parked long without any movement while the outside air temperature was seasonally high. The primary concern in these conditions is that the wheel tires would oblate from the airplane’s weight. Lichtman asked me if I thought it was advisable to explain this to the Algerians and get permission for him to go out to the airplane once a week in order to move the airplane about a foot forward or backward to change the contact point of the tires with the ground. Whilst doing this, he would also check if there were any oil leaks from the engines or leaks of hydraulic fluid from the undercarriage system, brakes, or any other system. I thought this was a good idea. After all, we had no idea as to the airplane’s destiny and, in the meantime, I was responsible for it, and it had not been moved, examined or maintained since our arrival. The steward Ran Shligersky, whom I appointed to carry out observations of the airport and the sky above by looking through the corridor windows, reported to me during the middle of the first week that some Algerians boarded the airplane, stayed there about two hours, then disembarked and went away without moving it. I presumed that they carried out a thorough search but did not find anything incriminating. I told Monsieur Jacques to tell Lashmi that I request permission for Yona Lichtman to go out to the airplane in order to service it as required once every week. Lashmi reported my request and returned next day with two armed soldiers who escorted Yona to the airplane, which was already connected to the tug operated by a driver. Yona moved the airplane, performed a complete outside-check, and found everything in order. He returned to our room about 45 minutes later and reported to me.