“FESTIVAL ALGERIA”. BACK TO STICK AND RUDDER.
When we arrived at the parking area in front of the Terminal, I was asked to be the first to disembark. The door was opened and the AOC, Major-General Motty Hod stood there. I saluted him and we shook hands. All around us was a huge crowd of people. It looked as if every soul present at the Airport at this early hour of the morning had come to the airplane to welcome us. The crowd shouted loudly several times: “Long live Captain Abarbanell!” These were the El-Al employees. My wife, Ines, with my three daughters, was standing about 10 meters from the stairs and next to her were my parents and her parents, but when I got to the bottom of the stairs a large crowd pressed forward with outstretched arms and embraced me so that I could not get to my dear ones. Suddenly, Steward Eli Jubran, who was standing 15 meters away, pushed his way through the crowd forcefully, reached me, caught me strongly around my loins, lifted me from the ground, and carried me quickly towards them, putting me down right in front of them. Eli, who was a seaman before he became an aircrew-member, was a man of immense strength. He and his exceptionally muscular body always reminded me of Popey the Sailor Man. Had it not being for him, it would have taken me a long time to get to my family. When I finally did, we embraced and kissed and cried with joy. I noticed immediately that Ines had lost a lot of weight during my absence. When I picked up Tammy and held her in my arms she started crying with excitement. My second daughter, Iris was standing close to me holding my free hand, her face full of defiance, and my eldest daughter Debbie stood quietly as usual, but her excitement was apparent. My friends Alik Tcherikover and Elizur Orial came, too, to welcome me. My parents and in-laws, who were also very excited, finally led us home, and we drove to Tsahala with Alik and Elizur, who came along in case we needed any help.
A large crowd of paparazzi were crowded near our house and started raining questions upon us. In order to be rid of all these nags, I begged their mercy and told them that I was very tired and wanted to spend time quietly with my family, then entered our house. This was Sunday the 1st of September 1968. Six-year-old Tammy was about to start her first year in school at Tsahala. The school was on a street not far from ours. Ines asked me to please shave-off the mustache which I had grown, as all the fellows had right after the “Police de Etrangers” ended their investigation, two days after our highjacking, and lined us up, holding numbered cartons, in order to take mug-shots of us. I promised her that I would, but first took Tammy to school along with Iris and Debbie, who went to the same school. Tammy was very happy that daddy was taking her to school. The Headmaster asked me to say a few words to the pupils after he finished welcoming me on my return home. I agreed and said, “We will not be scared by highjackings and other criminal acts. On the contrary: We shall get stronger and continue to build and develop our country despite all difficulties.” I went from school directly to the barber in our suburb. He shaved my mustache and gave me a far better haircut then the one which I had received at Dar-El-Beida.
My aunt, Esther, the youngest sister of my father, arrived from Haifa weeping with excitement. She had no children of her own and I was very dear to her. She wanted to help my wife with the cooking and baking and general preparation of goodies for the many guests that were expected. Shortly afterwards, Mordechai Ben-Ari phoned me to tell me that he was coming to pick me up and go to Jerusalem to attend the Government’s meeting. I showered, changed my clothes and we drove to Jerusalem. Everybody was already at the Prime-Ministers Office. I was ushered first into Mr. Levi Eshkol’s Bureau. He greeted me and I gave him the Bible out of which we read every evening and in which we all signed our names. The Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, the Chief of the Mossad and the Chief of the Shabak were already present. We all went in to the Government’s meeting. Our release was first on the agenda. The Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, asked me several questions. He asked me, inter-alia, what would have happened in this case if we, the operating-crew would have been armed with pistols. I replied that in my opinion we would have killed both highjackers who broke into the cockpit, but that the big problem was with the third highjacker who had remained in the passenger-cabin and who was armed with a pistol as well as with a hand-grenade from which he had already removed the safety-pin. I took the occasion to say that we were all sorry to hear that terrorists were released in exchange for our release for fear that this might lead to more skyjackings. Moshe Dayan and Prime-Minister Levi Eshkol asked me not to worry about it since the Government will take all necessary steps to prevent any such mishaps in future. Mordechai Ben-Ari and I then left the meeting and returned to Tel-Aviv. I was home by lunchtime and Ines prepared all the dishes which I loved best.
This was a tiring morning. I managed to sleep a little before the many guests started arriving. My parents, my brother and his wife, my sister-in-law and her husband, and all my other relatives–uncles, aunts and cousins–all came. Our neighbors, friends and acquaintances came as well. The refrigerator was laden with bottles of champagne and everybody toasted Lehayim (to life). Ezer Weizman, who at that time was Head of Operations of the General-Staff of the IDF (later he would serve as the seventh president of Israel from 1993-2000) and his wife Reuma. The list is so long that it would take quite a few lines to name everyone who came. The house was full from one end to the other with beautiful garlands of flowers. Greeting telegrams kept arriving from every corner of Israel as well as from many places abroad. There was a lot of excitement and it was only late that evening that everybody left and our house became quiet again. Our daughters went to bed earlier and finally we did too.
On Wednesday a special Government meeting was held which dealt solely with the problem of security within our civil aviation. I went to Jerusalem again with Mordechai Ben-Ari. A very lively and interesting discussion was held concerning this subject and I was again asked if it would be worthwhile to arm the operating-crew. Since our hijacking, I had thought a lot about this subject and concluded that the pilot sitting in the right-hand seat (the co-pilot’s seat) was in a very good position to draw and shoot fast with a pistol at anyone who entered through the cockpit door. I remembered clearly our situation during the skyjacking. I remembered well the distances and angles and, having been very well trained in the past in using revolvers and pistols, I was confident that I could have hit and neutralized both highjackers if I had had a gun. I passed on these conclusions to the members of the Government during this meeting. It seemed to me that Moshe Dayan was satisfied with my opinion. There were, apparently, Government members who were against arming the crew. The summing-up of this discussion was not done in my presence or in Mordechai Ben-Ari’s presence. We left the meeting before that. Motty Hod also left with us and asked me how I came from Tel-Aviv and how I was returning and when I told him that I was trevelling with Mordechai Ben-Ari in his chauffeured car, Motty suggested that I return with him in the helicopter which he flew from Dov Airfield to the Government House Heliport. I was happy to accept this invitation and took leave of Mordechai. We took-off in an Alouette, which was a five-seat helicopter produced by the French Sud-Aviation manufacturer. Motty Hod made several turns over the old-city which presented itself in a most beautiful and moving panorama, and then we proceeded to Dov Airfield. This was my first flight in a helicopter.
Ben-Ari told me that Foreign-Minister Aba Even called and invited me to have tea with him at his house next day at 5 o’clock. I was driven by car to Jerusalem and spent a very pleasant and very British afternoon. Aba Even told me some very interesting details concerning the diplomatic steps which were carried-out by the Israeli Foreign-Ministry during our Algerian visit. He also told me that he invited the Italian Foreign-Minister to visit Israel and he was expected to arrive the next day. Before I left Aba Even said that he would like me to join him and the Italian Foreign-Minister for lunch at the Hotel King David two days later. I accepted, and when the day came, I was driven to Jerusalem again. We had lunch on the terrace and I was treated to a most fascinating story by the Italian diplomat which proved to me that the Italians were no less shrewd than the Israelis.
The whole month of September turned to be an “Algerian Festival”. There was hardly a day during this month which didn’t involve some event related to our return from captivity. I will only recount the important ones: On one of the first days of this month, the whole crew was invited to a reception at the Executive Offices of the General Labor Orgnization. The Labor Organization had acted extensively toward our release, especially by exercising its connections with the WLO (World Labor Organization) and the unions of the stevedores and other workers. These had connections with the Algerian land, sea and air means of transportation, all of whom were of utmost importance. The Israeli Labor Organization asked all of them to join the boycot of Algeria and most of them did. The Secretary of the Labor Organization at that time was Yeruham Meshel and he headed this reception which was given us. When I arrived and Mordechai Ben-Ari presented me to Meshel and told him that I was the Captain of the highjacked flight, Meshel asked me, “What is your name?” I then gave a speech praising the solidarity and the immense efforts made on behalf of our release by the Labor Organization and which had prevented the use of force and bloodshed. During all my speech, I prayed silently for a miracle that would stop these old members of the Left from looking at me and treating me as if I was a member of the Extreme-Right. Among the people present was Beba Idelson who was the Secretary of the Women Workers Organization. She was a member of the Executive of the Labor Organization and a Member of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). Beba Idelson was very excited to meet us not only because we were released from captivity, but because meeting Israeli-Jewish pilots and aircrew was new to her and therefore very exciting. She approached me, took both my hands in hers and did not release them for a long while, looking at me and talking to me vividly about myself and about my activity as a Hebrew pilot in Eretz-Israel. I was surprised to find out that she was familiar with my personal details, my entire life story, and that she had quite a sound knowledge of early Hebrew aviation in Israel. She explained to me that her excitement was borne of the fact that this was the first time that the “story” about Israeli pilots presented itself to her in “reality”. She never previously had the chance to meet people of our profession.
El-Al organized a big celebration for all it’s employees at the Roman amphitheater in Cesarea on the second Saturday night of September to celebrate our return from captivity. At the same time the “Sharon” Hotel in Herzlia invited us to spend a wekend at the hotel. This was an excellent occasion to get away from the many visitors which we had and enable Ines to rest a little from the last hard two months which she endured so valiantly. We drove to the hotel at Friday noon. This gave me a chance to hear from Ines about her troubles and tribulations during the period that I was away. She praised warmly Benny Davidai who was the Deputy-President of El-Al and who took care of her and of all the families of the highjacked crew and passengers. He was almost in daily-contact with Ines, passing-on to her all the news and caring for everything which she needed. On the Saturday on which we were freed Davidai and his family spent the morning at the swimming-pool of Hotel “Hasharon” in Herzlia and as soon as he received the news about our departure from Dar-El-Beida with “Alitalia” he hurried to our house in Tsahala in order to give Ines the good news. Libby Dolar who was my Trainee when he joined El-Al and upgraded to First-Officer on Boeing 707s came several times to our house to see if Ines and the girls were alright, to get the latest news and ask if he could be of any help. Libby was a first-class pilot who was shot-down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile during the Yom-Kippur War (1973) while he was flying his fighter airplane in combat. I will never forget this warm-hearted young man and his impeccable good-manners. Another pilot who kept interested and worried about Ines and the girls was my old friend Herbie Rothenberg. So as to cheer-up Ines as much as possible during this difficult period he sent her a huge and most beautiful buquet of flowers with a note of encouragement.
Saturday night we drove from the “Sharon” Hotel to the amphiteatre in Cesarea which was chock-a-block full of El-Al employees as well as many invited guests. The airline arranged a beautiful and successful program called “El-Al is my concern” and my eldest daughter, Debbie, was asked, as part of the program, to read-out a poem by Haim Heffer. She read it wonderfully well and won tremenduous applause.The whole crew and the two employees which were held captive got up on the stage and were given beautiful bronze medals which marked our captivity. It was an exciting evening.
In addition to our weekend at Hotel “Hasharon” El-Al offered us to stay one week in any Israeli hotel of our choice. I chose the “Dan” Hotel in Haifa. Mordechai Ben-Ari said that this was an excellent choice. Haifa was where my aunt Esther and uncle Dr. Nahum Zimna lived. They had no children of their own and they loved us very much.I wanted to give them a chance to spend some time with us and to pamper us and the girls. This week on Mount Carmel was really beautiful and enjoyable. We took walks on the mountain and in the city and neighbourhood and for Ines this was really a rest which she needed badly.
Towards the end of the month we were invited by the “Interline Club” to have dinner in the garden of the American Zionists House. I was asked to speak.Using this opportunity which was now given to me to speak to the employees of foreign airlines which belonged to foreign countries who had no conflict with the Arabs I tried to convince my listeners about the danger that lurked in the skyjacking of airplanes and I argued that there was no doubt in my mind that no airline of any country will remain immune from such skyjackings unless all countries enlist to fight this sick phenomenon right away. I pointed out that neither will the airlines of the Eastern Block be immune from this trouble. To my great sorrow the world countries were very slow and hesitatng in getting organized against this danger and during the 10 years since our skyjacking there hardly remained a single country that did not suffer the skyjacking of at least one of its airliners if not by Arab terrorists then by other terrorists or criminals.
I was asked by the Division of Flight-Operations when would I be able to return to work. I felt that I was due to get the month of leave which I planned with my family and which was foiled by our highjacking and therefore told them that I will return to work on October 1st. I requested that these 30 days of September be deducted from my annual leave but the company President decided that I should not be debited at all and that this month should be regarded as if I was on duty and employed on the ground.
The most interesting and personally satisfieng event took place during the last week of September: Mordechai Ben-Ari told me that the Israeli newspaper editors invited me to a reception at the House of Journalists. Mordechai said: “You can tell them everything without fear. They will not publish any secrets. I understood that this invitation came because of my refusal to be interviewed by any journalists whatsoever after my return home, and due to the fact that the other crewmembers and passengers, except Elkana Shemen and Yaakov Weiss, were not interviewed and did not chatter to the media. I plannd a small surprise and did not reveal it to Mordechai Ben-Ari. I came there with him at the appointed time. All the notable Israeli newspaper editors were there. Not even one was missing. After greeting me briefly they asked that I tell them about the highjacking and incarceration. I rose and said: “No comments.” and left the hall. Several minutes later Mordechai Ben-Ari came out as well. He said nothing to me but I saw a naughty twinkle in his eyes
During the last week of this month, I went to the airport and entered the offices of the Flight-Operations Division. I spoke to several supervisors and said that I would like to fly in one of the training flights which were scheduled ahead so as to refresh myself. George Katz who was Chief-Pilot said that it was not at all necessary for me but if I insisted they will call me to join the next training flight. Such a flight took place on the 29th in a Boeing 720B and I joined it. I was mainly interested in flying as an observer in order to refresh my memory with the various procedures as well as the feeling during various stages of the flight. I found out that I did not forget anything, that everything looked very familiar to me and that I felt very comfortable. The month came to an end and I prepared to return energetically to scheduled flights.
When we were released, I still had enough money in the “Captain’s Fund” so as to reimburse the four passengers the money which they contributed. During our flight to Rome with “Alitalia” I told Yona Lichtman that I was entrusting him with a last assignment on this flight. I asked him to tell the company’s President, Mordechai Ben-Ari that I am asking that the company reimburse the crew with the sums which each contributed to the “Captain’s Fund” as well as the full salaries, the payement due for excess time away from home and per-diem for the months of July and August, all as detailed by our working contract. Yona felt uneasy about it and I told him right away that I will not waive one penny from the money which the company owed us for the negligence of some of its senior employees in dealing with this situation. I already decided that I will not act as others would probably do by asking for an advancement in rank or duty. I decided not to ask for any appointment to any supervisory or managerial job but insist in getting paid what was due to me. I told Yona that if he does not want to do it, I will do it myself, but then I may also consider suing the company for sorrow and distress. I also told Yona that if we fail to present this demand, we will cause a dangerous precedent in our working conditions and that our families as well as us have suffered enough in order not to waive our rightful dues. Yona was then convinced, met Ben-Ari after our return to Israel and presented him with my demand. Ben-Ari said that this was a just and fair demand and ordered that these payements be made immediately.
A while later, I found out that both Mordechai Ben-Ari and Benny Davidai were surprised that I did not demand to be appointed as Manager of Flight-Operations Division. They were not the only ones to be surprised for there were many who feared that they would lose their jobs in my favour. I never wanted to command or direct anybody. Flying was my media. I felt wonderful when I was flying and I did it quite well. I also wanted to teach as many Israeli men and women to fly. Our country was besieged on all sides except the West and flying in and out of it was the best and fastest way to help it to grow, progress and become stronger and gain more freedom.