Yoel Lavi doesn’t immediately strike you as a hero. But the 92-year-old grandpa certainly deserves the title: In 1970, he saved the lives of 154 El Al passengers when he prevented a bomb from being loaded on a Tel Aviv-bound flight from Frankfurt.
Only a handful of security officers knew of Lavi’s laudable act. And only now – 42 years after the fact – did he finally receive the thank you he deserves in the form of a plaque of appreciation from El Al and the Shin Bet.
Lavi immigrated to Israel as a teen, alone, in 1935, as part of the Youth Aliyah, a movement that saved numerous kids from the Nazis. His entire family later died in the Holocaust. He soon enlisted with the Haganah, the army organization that turned into the Israel Defense Forces after the State of Israel was founded. He was one of the first officials to join the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, in 1949.
In the late ’60s, prompted by a wave of terror attacks involving planes, the Shin Bet deployed officers to large airports worldwide. After a brief training session, where he was taught to identify fake passports, Lavi was stationed in Franfurt due to his fluency in German.
Unlike today’s harsh cargo security regulations, back then the policy was simple: Packages were delayed at the airport for three days to make sure that they didn’t contain a bomb that might go off midair.
‘My whole body was shaking’
On February 20, 1970, the head of El Al’s cargo department turned to Lavi with a request. A package that was on its way to Israel had a time sensitivity that required the three-day rule to be broken.
“He said that it was present for an important man that had to arrive in Jerusalem on Saturday night,” Lavi recalled. “But I said it was out of the question.”
Lavi did not relent even when the district postmaster called him and tried to pressure him.
“My whole body was shaking when he called me on Friday afternoon at my home,” he said. “You have to realize that the postal service in Germany is a powerful institution. But I refused to give in.”
Finally, he advised the postmaster to send the packages with another airline. That night he could not fall asleep, and in the morning he reported the incident to the police at the airport.
‘I didn’t feel a hero’
Four hours later, the police commander stormed into his office and asked Lavi to accompany him. The two drove onto the airport’s runway, where they saw an Austrian Airways plane – with a “huge gaping hole” in its underside. The urgent package that Lavi refused to accept was then transferred to the Austrian aircraft, and exploded shortly after takeoff. Miraculously, the pilot managed to land the plane safely; none of the passengers were hurt.
“Back then, I didn’t feel like a hero,” Lavi said.
The El Al flight arrived in Tel Aviv as planned, but a different flight that left at the same time from Zurich made for a painful reminder to the catastrophe that Lavi prevented. Nine minutes after taking off, a bomb that was planted on the plane went off, killing 38 passengers, including 15 Israelis.
Today, Lavi lives in Haifa; he has two sons and seven grandchildren.
“The public didn’t know about the thwarted attack, but we knew that dad prevented a big incident,” one of his sons, Udi, said. “I think that my dad is a great hero; there are many other wonderful things he did for the State’s security, but we cannot discuss them.”