Operation Gift - December 28, 1968

Background


On July 22, 1968, terrorists hijacked an El Al airliner on its way from Israel to Rome, and forced the pilot to land in Algiers. Four months later, in November 26, 1968, two terrorists, who had arrived to Athens from the Beirut international Airport, fired at an El Al airliner about to take off from Athens Airport. As a result, an Israeli citizen was killed, a stewardess was wounded and the plane damaged.

As Beirut was a major center for Arab terrorism activity, the IDF decided to attack Arab airlines aircrafts at the Beirut Airport in an airborne commando raid, in retaliation to these attacks on Israeli civilian airliners. The raid, officially known as Operation Gift, is one of Israel's most famous CT operations.

Sayeret MATKAL personnel armed with AK47 during the operation.

Target


The Beirut International Airport is located about 90 kilometers from the Israeli-Lebanese border. It is situated south of the city of Beirut, and about two kilometers eastward from sea.

At the time of the raid there were 90 security personnel at the airport, armed primarily with handguns. A more potent Lebanese Army commando company was deployed three kilometer from the airport, standing by at five-minute alert status. Lebanese Gendarmes and Police in the Beirut area could also arrive at the airport in a half hour, and the Armored Gendarmes Unit and Lebanese military forces could arrive within an hour after receiving an order.

Preparation


The Planning for operation commenced following the El Al airplane hijacking on July 22, 1968. The initial intention was to hijack planes in Beirut. Since such a basic drawer plan existed, following the airplane attack in November 26, 1968, an order went out to the IDF to immediately revise the Operation Gift contingency plan for the possibility of destroying aircrafts instead of hijacking them.

A similar order was issued to the Israel Air Force (IAF), whose aircraft were immediately placed on alert and their serviceability was increased. Two days later, in December 28, 1968, the task force assembled in Ramat-David AFB, fully trained and ready.

The mission goals were:

  • Sabotage as many Arab airlines airplanes as possible, while avoiding any harm to civilians and to non-Arab aircrafts.

  • Damage vital airport installations such as fuel silos.

  • If the number of civilian Arab airplanes is small - to sabotage military aircrafts that might be in the military section of the airport.

Plan


The airport was divided into three primary operational sectors: the eastern sector, the western sector and the terminal area sector. Each sector was assigned with a team 20 operators plus a forward command group consisting of 12 fighters.

Accordingly, four teams were involved in the operation. Three teams from Sayeret MATKAL and one team from PALSAR Tzanhanim .

The operation tactical plan. Negbi Force (PALSAR Tzanhanim  team), Uzi Force (Sayeret MATKAL team), Digli Force (Sayeret MATKAL team) are the three main attack team plus the command group (Sayeret MATKAL team).

It was decided to sabotage the aircraft by two explosives charges:

  • One charge placed in the landing gear under the aircraft's nose.

  • Another charge placed in the landing gear of one of the wings.

The two charges would immobilize the aircraft and set it aflame. Each aircraft would be prepared for a separate explosion.

The operational plan consisted of three Super-Frelon SA321K helicopters for landing the main three attack teams in three different locations, as well as extracting them at the end of the operation.

Also assigned were two Bell 205 helicopters - one for landing the forward command party and another for airborne patrolling and transmission.

Israeli Navy vessels and Shayetet 13 teams were also on stand-by in the event that a naval rescue would be required. So were IAF attack fighter jets.

Soldiers deploy from a Super-Frelon SA321K helicopter during training.

Execution


The helicopters took off from the Ramat David AFB at 20:37 hours. The helicopters grouped few kilometers before the target and approached the airport tighter.

At 21:18 hours three Super Frelons landed inserting the three main attack teams. Few minutes later the forward command party landed in a Bell 205. Another Bell 205 hovered above on a patrol and blocking mission. This helicopter dropped smoke grenades and flares, which created a heavy smoke screen on the eastern and northern perimeters of the airfield.

The helicopter also dropped nails on the roads leading to the airport. This succeeded in halting six security cars traveling to the airport. Other vehicles who tried to escape from the airport northwards to the city of Beirut, and police and fire vehicles moving to the airport created a traffic gridlock which in itself constituted an effective block. In addition, the Bell also fired warning shots at vehicles trying to enter the airport.

The entire operation lasted 30 minutes. A total of 14 planes belonging to Middle East Airlines (MEA), Libyan International Airways (LIA) and Trans Mediterranean Airlines (TMA) were destroyed in the operation.

Estimated damage was 100 million dollars. Quite ironically one of the airplanes destroyed was actually belonging to Ghana Airlines and not to an Arab country, so the Israeli government paid Ghana for a new airliner.

Arab airliners destroyed on the runways after the raid.

Operations Guide