My cousin Therese hijacked a Boeing 707. On May 8, 1972, she boarded Sabena Flight 571, scheduled to fly from Brussels to Tel Aviv. She wore a girdle stuffed with two and a half kilos of high explosives. She later made the bizarre claim that she wore it for her bad back. She had used similar girdles to ease the suffering of patients while she was a student nurse at the English Hospital in Nazareth. Her father told the Jerusalem Post that everyone in their home town of Acre knew that Therese suffered from agonizing back pain. Back pain runs in our family and has been made an excuse for all kinds of wild behavior, but nobody before Therese had tried to use it to hijack a plane.
In 1972, she was 18 years old. She was not typically beautiful; her broad, plain features ran on my father’s side of our family, and like many Arab young women her age, she felt the social pressure to get married. The Munich massacres were still to come, and hijacking was much in vogue. For the guerrilla group Al Fatah, or any of the other terrorist groups joined under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), there was gold to be mined in the skies above their heads. Two months earlier, Ali Taha Abu Snina, whose code name was Kamal Rafat, the “captain” or senior officer in charge of Therese’s hijacking, had secured a $5 million ransom from the West German government for a Lufthansa B-747 that had been hijacked and forced to land in South Yemen while en route from New Delhi to Athens.
To match the girdle Therese wore, like a revolutionary’s twinset, a battery-operated detonator in her bra. She had also concealed a hand grenade in a box of talcum powder in her carry-on luggage.
When she left Beirut the first week of May, no one had bothered to tell her what her mission would be. Three months training in an Al Fatah camp had taught her to obey orders. But she had an inkling that she would be involved in “some sort of hijack operation or an act of sabotage against the Jews or maybe the Americans.” A clue was provided by Abdul Aziz Al-Atrash, a member of her revolutionary cell, whom she knew only by the name in his stolen Israeli passport, Zachariah; when they flew together from Beirut, he asked if she would be afraid if they attempted to seize an airplane. He called her by her code name, Samira.
On Monday afternoon, May 8, the men in Therese’s cell, armed with automatic weapons, and the women, wearing girdles full of explosives and carrying grenades — Rima, the only other woman with Therese, had hidden hers in her vanity makeup case — waited in line to be searched at Brussels Airport. Back then, security was practically nonexistent, and the group had already successfully smuggled several kilos of high explosives, two grenades, and two automatic weapons undetected on previous flights. They boarded the aircraft and took their assigned seats, among 65 other passengers, on the flight, whose final destination was to be Tel Aviv. When the plane stopped in Vienna, 25 people came aboard. The flight was nearly full.
Fifteen minutes after takeoff, Therese went to the lavatory, removed her girdle, and extracted her grenade. Rima did the same. Back in the seats, they waited five minutes, after which Zachariah went forward into the cockpit. Rafat and Therese walked to the front of the passengers’ compartment, where Rafat, brandishing his automatic pistol, said in a calm, slightly accented English that they were hijacking the plane. He told them nobody would get hurt as long as they did what they were told. A voice over the loudspeaker announced they were flying over Sarajevo.
At the rear of the plane, Rima was connecting the battery and detonator to the girdles they had taken off. When she was finished, she held a bare wire in each hand near the battery. It had been agreed that, on Rafat’s signal — two thumbs up — she would cross the wires, which would then close the battery circuit and set off the bomb, one of the first uses of the plastic explosive Semtex in a terrorist operation. She shouted out that they were members of Al Fatah, but Rafat interrupted her and said they were Black September.
At 6:55 p.m., 90 minutes after the hijackers had seized control of the plane, Flight 571 landed at Tel Aviv’s busy Lod airport and taxied two kilometers away from the main terminal to an isolated part of the runway, where a fleet of fire engines and ambulances stood by. For the next three hours, the passengers were not allowed to move from their seats. Negotiations had begun.
Over the cockpit radio, Rafat read out a list of the names of 106 Palestinian prisoners he wanted in exchange for the passengers. It was to be a straightforward transaction, but the reactions of the Israeli negotiator, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and the man behind him, Transport Minister Shimon Peres, caught Rafat off guard. The Israelis didn’t believe the hijacker.
Rafat put the aircraft’s pilot, Reginald Levy, on the radio. Levy had served in the British Royal Air Force and recognized a bomb when he saw one. “I want you to know that all the technical arrangements to blow up the plane are made.” He added, with emphasis, “And made properly.”
Finally, Rafat received the news he had been waiting for. The Palestinian prisoners had been put onto another Boeing 707 that would soon join them on the runway. Elated, the hijackers kissed and hugged each other. In jaunty Sabena crew hats, Therese and Rima went up and down the aisle, shaking hands with non-Jewish passengers.
Their celebrations were premature. There was another Boeing, but instead of Palestinian detainees, Dayan had filled it with 36 volunteers dressed in prison uniforms. While three Red Cross delegates chatted with Rafat through the cockpit window, eighteen mechanics arrived on two trolleys alongside Flight 571.
The mechanics were a team of Israeli soldiers, headed by Ehud Barak, who would go on to become the prime minister of Israel. Without warning, they took out guns hidden in their boots and stormed the aircraft. Within two minutes, Rafat and Zachariah were shot dead. More soldiers, rushing through the plane’s side emergency exits, fatally wounded 22-year-old passenger Miriam Anderson. Before Rima could set off the bomb at the back of the plane, a passenger grabbed her hand.
Therese was shot in the armpit by one of the soldiers who had entered through a rear passenger door. The bullet went through her and into the upper arm of another soldier, Benjamin Netanyahu, (the current prime minister of Israel). When he grabbed Therese by the hair, her wig came off. The bullet had severed one of Therese’s arteries. She was bleeding profusely, but she was not allowed to die. As the hostages slid down a wing to safety, Therese was taken to Sheba Hospital and given blood transfusions.
As reported in the press: when she recovered consciousness a day later and was told where she was and that her life had been saved, she said, “Now that I have been given Jewish blood, I want to become Jewish.”
The hijacking was front-page news across the Middle East and also in New York and Washington, DC, but not in Akron, Ohio, where my father, uncles, and aunts had settled after emigrating from Jordan. The family back home and in Palestine told them about it. The Halasa, Halsas, and Hales were a large, noisy Christian tribe whose extended relatives, as was the custom then, often intermarried.
What the trial transcripts later showed was that Therese was truly a daughter of the Arab world. When the police witness read from her confession that she and Zachariah had “slept in one room like a married couple,” she literally jumped out of her seat to stress that she had not had sexual relations with Zachariah. More important than the hijacking or even the death of her comrades were her honor and virginity. My aunts, thousands of miles away, would have applauded her indignation. Ever since I could remember, they were always trying to teach me a similar obedience to custom. To them, any slur against a girl’s reputation was a scar for life.
I was a year younger than Therese, the first of my clan to be born in the United States. Despite my aunts’ advice — and probably to rebel against advice like it — I was an outgoing American teenager. Saturday nights were spent cruising the mall with my girlfriends and sneaking the occasional cigarette.
When I went away to Barnard College in New York, the only Arab culture available was seeing Edward Said eating at a Chinese restaurant on Broadway. However, over the phone in hushed tones, my father and I obsessively discussed Middle East politics, like members of a dysfunctional family whose relations were only terrorists or dictators. I was embarrassed, but I was also curious.
After I graduated and was working as an editorial assistant at a magazine in New York, I had aspirations to write, and I wanted to find a story myself. My father suggested I interview PLO leader Yasser Arafat. In 1979, Therese was serving the seventh year of her 220-year sentence in Neve Tirza, an Israeli women’s prison in Ramle. She cooked and cleaned for the guards until the inmates demanded they should be treated as political prisoners. The rest of her time was spent reading economics and psychology textbooks, even Marxist works. My cousin’s reputation would secure my passage into the hierarchy of Palestinian guerrilla groups.
I made my way to Beirut to see the revolution in action. Friends of my father had arranged for me to stay with one of their distant relatives, who organized a full itinerary for me: a tour of the schools in Beirut and of refugee camps in the surrounding area and a trip to the south.
My breaking of the rules began when I accepted an invitation from a writer and translator of political pamphlets, who went by the code name Jahlal, to go out for a beer in Damascus. I didn’t realize the loaded cultural implications until I saw no women drinking in public. Because I had agreed to go, my companion could have gotten the impression I was a “loose, Western woman,” although Jahlal never once propositioned me, like many Arab men seemed to do as a matter of course.
I had met Jahlal in the offices of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Marxist splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The 1967 Six-Day War had not only galvanized women, it had radicalized Palestinian intellectuals, who, disillusioned by the Arab regimes and the PLO’s reliance on them, adopted the kind of liberation philosophies espoused by Che Guevara and Mao. Contrary to my expectations, Jahlal didn’t take himself so seriously. His face was open, his trousers flared. As a writer, he was bored with generalizations about the plight of his people. He was also a secular Muslim. It was a persuasive combination. He argued that the Palestinian revolution couldn’t be viewed in a fishbowl. If I really wanted to know how it worked, I had to experience it myself.
I saw how dangerous it was to get caught up in the romance of the resistance, yet I too found myself charmed and intrigued by it. Jahlal and I spent time in the apartment, took a day trip to the mountains, and made plans. Homeland, which had been for most of my life primarily a state of mind, was becoming more concrete, and I thought I could see myself living there.
It was very late when it was suddenly offered that they bring me to Arafat. The chairman was known to work until dawn. We drove for 40 minutes to a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings and stopped outside one of them. The PLO had a saying: “The heat of the day belonged to Israel, the night is ours.”
Arafat had many different offices at his disposal and for security reasons constantly moved between them. Not even his immediate entourage knew where the chairman would work on a given evening. In the hallway, three bodyguards slept with Kalashnikov rifles across their laps.
I was shown into a plush, red office where the chairman sat, bald without his familiar checkered headdress. Puffy around the eyes, as if he had just woken up, he recounted my cousin’s exploits in the manner of a proud uncle.
She had risked her life and given up her freedom for her political beliefs, he said. There could be no greater sacrifice. He was not only grateful but in her debt. Total dedication was the only means by which the armed struggle could succeed.
“George Washington was called a terrorist by the British Empire, the Algerian revolution too by the French.” His words flowed in a well-rehearsed stream.
He smiled mischievously, and asked me: Did I not find Beirut to my liking, or was Damascus, in some way, more pleasing?
I explained I had made friends, but my voice trailed off. It was only good manners not to mention Jahlal’s Front, the sworn enemy of Arafat’s own group, Al Fatah.
The chairman leaned forward. “I’m Abu Ammar, father of all my people. When I knock, no door in Beirut is shut to me.” His statement encapsulated the schizophrenia of the Palestinian resistance, where women who hijacked planes worried about their reputation.
He made a final, last point. “We Palestinians have many brave and handsome men among us. A young girl like you should consider marriage. It is important to be part of any family,” he winked again, “even the DFLP.”
He was the father of all the people, myself included. He knew where I had been staying and with whom. I could hear my aunt in my head: “A woman’s honor is never her own. It belongs to the family.”
In the years since, many in the DFLP marginalized themselves by eschewing the peace process. With the rise of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah in the 2000s, a shift in the balance of power has taken place, and grand-scale hijackings, once the norm, are no longer in vogue. The female hijacker has been replaced by the suicide bomber.
As for Therese, she nearly died during a nine-month-long prison strike in 1983, but five and a half months into it, a guard nonchalantly strolled into her cell and ordered her to pack her things. She walked out into streets filled with cheering and singing Palestinians. On November 24, 1983, Therese was traded, along with 4,700 political detainees, for six Israeli airmen captured by Al Fatah and the PFLP. Today she is married, lives in Amman, and works as a caretaker for the disabled. Now and then, I think of going to see her. I still have Jahlal’s letters.
Malu Halasa is a writer based in London whose first novel, Mother of All Pigs, takes place in the Middle East.