Hijacked to Algiers — Part 9


After my return to Israel, I found out more about the plans for our rescue operation. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had rented a cargo ship and dismantled the entire deck. 6 AB-205 helicopters were loaded within the empty hull. Two of them were armed with two 30 milimeter cannons similar to those of the “Mirage” fighter-airplane, as well as a large amount of ammunition and various additional combat equipment. These helicopters would provide aerial support for the attack, then, when it was complete, they were to evacuate us, six in each helicopter. The other four helicopters carried 36 commando fighters (nine in each helicopter), which had been training for some time in a model of Dar-el-Beida Airport, which had been constructed especially to train for this operation. The commandos would return on the same four helicopters. The ship, which served as base for these six helicopters was to carry a load of fuel to refuel them if needed. It would be anchored 100 nautical-miles from Algiers’ Airport. In addition to rescuing us, the operation had a secondary goal: the destruction of all airplanes of Air Algerie which were to be found at the airport, as reprisal. Only one logistical problem remained unsolved: whether it would be possible to return our Boeing 707. Its parking place was known but it was not clear if all its four engines will start after they had lain there dead and drying in the hot sun for so long. Nor was it known whether it had enough fuel to reach an airport in Spain, France, or Italy (there was actually enough fuel in it for another 35 minutes plus the usual reserve, which would have enabled us to get as far as Palma de Majorca and even Valencia in Spain but not much further). Finally, who would operate and fly it out of there? No final decision had been reached as to whether to attempt to fly it out of Algeria, to leave it there, or to blow it up.

The IDF was aware that the Algerian intelligence services, which were quite good, had found out–probably via French sources which provided intelligence both to Israel and Algeria–that Israel was organizing a large operation for our release (the French were divided since the 6 Day War of 1967: Some of them were against us whilst some were for us). However, the Algerians did not know any details. Consequently, it was decided to carry out several clever exercises of deception. The first deception was intended to fool the Algerians into thinking Israel would steal a De-Havilland “Comet” jet airliner from the Beirut airport as barter for our 707 airliner. Two Israeli Air Force (IAF) transport pilots were assigned to the phantom mission. At nights when an aircraft of this type from one of the foreign airlines parked at Ben-Gurion Airport, they would secretly board the plane and study the cockpit and interior to familiarize themselves with its instruments and systems. They were even sent as passengers on one of the schedule flights of the British airline BOAC from Tel Aviv to London, and the Israeli Aviation Industries requested that BOAC have them seated in the cockpit for the duration of the entire flight to watch the pilots’ operation. The two pilots and everyone else involved was never told that the mission was a fake-out, and the details of the exercise were leaked to the Algerians.

The second deception, which was organized shortly thereafter, was intended to feed Algerians misleading information about the military operation itself. For a week, two crews trained in a 707 simulator at Ben Gurion Airport to land and take off from Dar-El-Beida Airport. Then, one night, at around midnight, the crew were brought to the airport and boarded two El Al 707 airliners which had been loaded with 100 armed and specially trained paratroopers. Both the crews and the paratroopers were briefed. Their destination was to be Algiers. They would fly there and approach and land, identifying themselves as belonging to a certain European airline. Once landed, the paratroopers would operate as they’d been instructed so as to release all 12 of us, then board the two airliners and depart for Israel. The two crews and all the paratroopers remained in these two airplanes all night, and only at daybreak were they told that the “operation was postponed” and released. Again, our intelligence services made sure that the exercise would gain the attention of the Algerians.

As you might imagine, all this information led to a great deal of confusion and anxiety on the part of the Algerians. Moreover, the reputation of our military might was immense at the time and the Algerians were quite fearful of an Israeli operation. They knew only one thing for sure: One of these days in the very near future, they’d likely be submitted to some harmful Israeli trickery that would make them the laughing stock of the world. They were eager to prevent this and were in a hurry to carry out negotiations via the Italians, with newly curtailed demands. In the meantime, this was also one of the reasons why they’d changed our place of detention.

Back at the villa, we maintained our routine as the days wore on. My birthday, which is on August 16th, was approaching, and I thought this would be a good occasion to see how far the Algerians would go in accommodating us. I asked Monsieur Jacques to tell the Chef that I would like him to bake a cake for my birthday, and to bring us two or three bottles of cognac or liqueur, as well as some black coffee. Monsieur Jacques passed on my request, and, as soon as we finished lunch, the Chef came over and asked permission to talk to me. He explained that although he was a baker, he could not bake me a cake since he did not have the necessary ingredients. If I would arrange for him to get them, he would bake me a beautiful and tasty cake. I thanked him and asked Monsieur Jacques to turn-over my request to the Duty-Officer. I also took this opportunity to follow up on behalf of our passenger Mr. Marco Cahiri, who required medicine to treat a chronic disease. It was running low, and while I had requested it as soon as we’d arrived at the villa, we had not received it yet. I went on asking for it each day, to no avail.

On our tenth night at the villa, before dinner, we were told to pack our belongings. When we asked where we were going, we were immediately told that we were returning to the barracks at Dar-El-Beida. This time, the news did not worry us. We were already blasé! We were driven back down the hill in the same bus, and, after half-an-hour, we found ourselves in the same building and same room which we had left 10 days before. We found that the bedclothes on our beds were dirty and appeared to have been used while we were gone. Yona said that we should not use them and I asked Monsieur Jacques to ask the guards to have them changed. Shortly afterwards fresh bedclothes made of the same Arab material were brought to us. It was already past 9 PM when our supper was brought to us and we found out that there were only four portions instead of 12. Yona begged us not to make a fuss about it and divide the four portions amongst all of us but I did not want it to become a precedent that would lead to our living conditions worsening. I therefore ordered to return the food we received and tell the soldiers who brought it that we should be getting food for 12 men and not four. Ten minutes later a Lieutenant who must have been the Duty-Officer came running and explained that since the present Chef was not warned of our arrival and since supper was over a long while ago, they were not left with enough portions for all of us, but that they are preparing some food for us and it would shortly be served. And, indeed, fifteen minutes later we received 12 portions of omelets, vegetable salad, bread and fruit.

On the morning after our return from the villa to the barracks, two young Lieutenants came and stopped at the door to our room. They called my name out and when I approached them they saluted me and said in French, “We were sent by headquarters in order to wish you a happy 42nd birthday and many healthy and happy years to come.” Two soldiers followed them in and laid on the table a carton containing a large and tasty almond cake, as well as several bottles of French cognac, liqueurs and aperitifs. There was an inscription in French on the carton’s lid: Patisserie Vienoise – Alger (I have kept the lid as a souvenir). We all had a drink and a slice of the tasty cake. It was a very pleasant surprise, as we were all sure that due to our return from the villa to the airport barracks, the Algerians had forgotten my request.

Marco Cahiri’s medicine ran out completely and Monsieur Jacques asked once more that it be brought urgently. When I asked to see the Commandant about it, I was told that he was in Oran (West Algeria) and will be back in 3 days time. We therefore decided that if we will not receive Marco’s medicine by the next day, we would start a hunger strike until he gets it. This decision was carried unanimously and very quietly. That same evening, some of the crew remembered that they had stickers with letters on them which served to stick the owners name on his baggage. Since we felt ourselves already quite at home, they decided to stick on the open door to our room and on the wardrobe door the letters: “Hotel Dar El Beida”. The next morning, after breakfast, the Captain who was the Commandant’s deputy stormed into our room. I didn’t like this man. He had an evil face and his eyes glared with hate towards us. His personality and the way he treated us were in complete reverse to the Commandant’s. He tore the stickers furiously off the doors to the room and the wardrobe and turning towards me he shouted in badly pronounced French, “Do you think that if you start a hunger strike you will get anything?” then, still seething with rage, he left the room. These words set off an alarm in my mind, as it proved that our apprehension about being listened-to was justified. I decided to question all crewmembers and passengers and find out if any of them spoke with any Algerian. I took one by one to the washroom, opened the taps of the washbasin all the way and while both of us leaned down close to them asked each one if he was sure that he had not absent-mindedly blurted anything out about our intended hunger strike while one of the Algerians was nearby. Everybody was sure that they did not, and since I believed them, this ascertained my suspicion that we were constantly spied upon. I therefore told the men that we should cut-down on our conversations.

After our return to the barracks, we were visited again by “Sergeant” Lashmi at least once, and sometimes even twice a day. Then, shortly after our return, a very serious incident happened. Lashmi went to Monsieur Jacques and complained that passenger Elkana Shemen cursed him in Arabic, “Inaan-Abu-Dinek,” which means “a curse on the Father of your religion.” For Muslims, this is a terrible curse, perhaps the worst and most serious of them all. Monsieur Jacques was stunned and asked how it happened, and Lashmi said that Shemen asked him several times to bring him a tube of toothpaste and, when Lashmi didn’t, he cursed him. Lashmi had no authority to respond to individual requests from us, but, rather, we made requests, together, in an orderly fashion, once each week as I’ve already described. Therefore, he did not accommodate Shemen. I called Shemen and confirmed that he had cursed Lashmi, then decided that I could not let this incident pass without taking appropriate action. I therefore told Elkana Shemen in front of all the crewmembers and passengers that, as punishment, I forbade him to go out of the room except to the washroom and toilet. He was not to go out with us on our daily walk which we resumed from the very first day of our return to the barracks, and if we would have meetings with visitors elsewhere, I would not allow him to join us. This punishment would start as of the next day and would last seven days. I also asked Monsieur Jacques to add to the list of items which we would ask for this week the tube of toothpaste for Shemen.

The next day, the Commandant came back from his travels and I suggested that we postpone our hunger strike until after my meeting with him. The meeting took place in his office as always. The first issue I raised was the delay in receiving Cahiri’s medicine and he explained to me that it was not available in Algeria. They had ordered it abroad but for some reason, it had not been received yet. He promised to do everything possible in order to hasten its arrival. Then, I handed him the list of our requests and complained that we did not even get the cigarettes which we had asked for, and that this made life for those of us who smoke very hard indeed. He promised to provide them immediately. I then said, “The summer will end soon and temperatures will drop with the coming of winter. I suggest that we start thinking about warm clothing such as warm underwear, warm winter socks, pullovers, long woolen trousers and since the floor is a tile floor it would be worth-while to provide us with warm bootees as well. I also request that as soon as winter starts the heating system in our room be activated. I saw that the room has central-heating radiators and therfore beleive that if the system is activated it will be posible to keep a proper temperature in the room. We shall also need hot water for showers and shaving.”
The Commandant listened to me patiently and seriously and said, “Everything you are asking for is OK. These would be the things which I too, had I been in your position, would have asked for, but you will not be here anymore when winter comes.”
But I was not through yet and said, “Mon Commandant, there is another and much more important problem: Next month is the month of the Jewish High-Holidays: Rosh-Hashana (New-Year), Yom-Kipur (Day-of-Atonement) and Succoth (the Feast-of Tabernacles). We will somehow manage to observe Rosh-Hashana and Succoth in our room without going to the Synagogue but not Yom-Kipur which as you know is our most holy day. We will all be fasting and since we are obliged to pray before the Holy-Ark and we are not allowed to travel on Yom-Kipur we will have to be driven to the Synagogue before the fast starts and leave us there until after the fast ends. I suggest that you pass this request of ours to your superiors so that they will have enough time to organize this matter. I must advise you that as far as Yom-Kipur is concerned, we will not be able to compromise at all.”
“I know”, the Commandant replied and added, “I will pass your request on tomorrow, but I am certain that you will pass the High-Holidays at home with your families.”
So as not to leave the Commandant with a feeling that we had a somewhat hard conversation I said, “Tell me please, Mon Commandant, how come that you speak such fluent French?”
He smiled and said: “I am a graduate of the Military Academy of Saint-Cyre. I spent many years in France.” He was the second person whom I met at a difficult period of my life and who was a graduate of Saint-Cyre. The previous one was the Colonel who served as Adjutant to the Commanding Officer of the Yugoslav Air Force Base at Mostar, where I was brought after I had crashed on a mountainside near Ziemly in 1948. But that is a story for another time.

The day after this meeting, three days after our return from the villa to our room at the barracks, Lashmi arrived with two armed soldiers and invited us to the small salon in the small building where we had our meeting with the IFALPA representatives 28 days earlier. Elkana Shemen, who had not joined us on our daily walk since I’d punished him, remained in our room this time too, and looked very angry about it. We entered the small building and were met by a large delegation of IFALPA and of the SNPL (the French Airline Pilots’ Association). The delegation was headed by Captain Jan Bartelsky, who flew with the Dutch National Airline KLM and who was President of IFALPA. I was not very fond of Jan Bartelsky. He was a Pole who had emigrated to Holland and whom I knew was not very fond of Israeli Jews. His Principal Deputy, Vitaly Nikolayev, who did not come to this meeting and who was a Boeing 707 Captain with the French National Airline “Air France” was originally a White Russian who emigrated to France, and was notorious for being an extreme antisemite. Since 1967, when these two were elected to their positions with IFALPA, the relations between the Israel Airline Pilots Association and the International Federation had cooled off. During the discussions which were held in IFALPA about the steps which had to be taken against Algeria in response to our highjacking, these two gentlemen voted for “non-intervention”. They argued that this highjacking was a clearly political matter between Arab freedom-fighters and the State of Israel and was not an air-safety matter or industrial matter, and, therefore, the Federation should have nothing to do with it. But when the members of the conference and the IFALPA Council itself disagreed, Bartelsky and his Principal Deputy had no choice but to agree to the decision of the majority and carry out the policy which was accepted or else resign. And so, IFALPA declared a strict boycott on Algeria, and were soon joined by the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers as well as all the other many trade unions which were incorporated within the WLO (World Labour Organization).

Four weeks earlier, when the limited IFALPA delegation which visited us had asked to meet with the Algerian Prime-Minister and Foreign-Minister, they were denied. This time, they didn’t need to ask: the IFALPA President received an invitation to come to Algiers so as to meet with the Foreign-Minister and the Minister of Transportation. Bartelsky brought along two of his Vice-Presidents, and with them came the President of the SNPL with two of his deputies. These last three, and mainly the President of SNPL, Captain Landrajen, were at the head of those who demanded IFALPA take strong measures against Algeria. Besides these six men, there were also: the same gentleman who was present at the previous IFALPA meeting and who seemed to be a senior official of Civil Aviation or the Algerian Ministry of Transportation and spoke fluent English, a fellow who kept a protocol of the meeting, our notorious “Lover-Boy”, and the man who conducted my personal investigation.

Once the polite back-and-forth chatter regarding our well-being was over, Bartelsky told us that the negotiations with the Algerian Government concerning our release were at their final stages. The Israeli Government agreed to an act of “good-will” in exchange for our release, which would take place very soon. I immediately said that we, the prisoners, were asking of our Government not to release any terrorists in exchange for our release, since such an act might create a dangerous precedent and lead to more terrorism. Bartelsky replied that it was a conventional practice in such cases–a kind of “exchange of prisoners”–and that the main problem here was a humanitarian problem, not a military or political one. Nevertheless, he promised to deliver my request to the Israeli Government. Landrajen told us that they had met with the Foreign-Minister, Buteflika, and with the Algerian Minister of Transportation that morning. Both requested of IFALPA to cancel the boycott due to the fact that the negotiations were concluding and our release was imminent, but IFALA replied that until we were returned home in good health, the boycott would not be rescinded. Landrajen told us that after their meeting with the Algerians, they were invited to a meeting with the French Ambassador to Algeria, who told them that one should not trust a single word the Algerians said, and that they are a bunch of liars and crooks of the lowest order. I was stupefied to hear Landrajen say this, in French, in front of the Algerians, who not only understood every word, but were recording this tirade in the meeting’s protocol. I looked into Landrajen’s eyes when he got up from his chair at the end of the meeting to shake my hand warmly. He looked back and repeated in a loud voice, “Yes, Yes. One should not believe a single word said by these cheats!” The Algerians acted as if they heard nothing. The meeting ended and we returned to our room.

The situation was clear. The boycott hurt Algeria and the Algerians were in a hurry to put an end to this revolting situation quickly and honorably. They were also worried about the possibility of an Israeli military action, so they wanted to get rid of us as if we were the black plague. At the same time, those who were really concerned about our well-being and safety, and who knew what villainy the Algerians were capable of were concerned that the Algerians might, at the very last minute, try nonetheless to damage Israel and gain fame and power among the Arab countries. This was why the French pilots stood fast against canceling the boycott and demanded that it be made more severe, to the detriment of Bartelsky, who wanted a diplomatic and noncommittal meeting in Algeria.

The following week would turn out to be our last week in captivity. It would prove to be a very difficult one. The men were tense because of everything they’d heard, and the time crept on. The news on the many radio stations to which we so intently listened to, even on the Voice of Zion to the Diaspora, dealt primarily with the Soviet invasion of Prague in Czechoslovakia; we were not mentioned. The Algerians, who believed that we’d be imminently released, neglected us as well. We received neither Marco Cahiri’s medicine nor cigarettes, and even the ever-patient Monsieur Jacques started to lose his cool over the silence which descended upon us after our second meeting with the delegates of IFALPA.


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