Remembering Entebbe

The heroic rescue operation that sent a clear message to Israel’s enemies.

40-years has elapsed since the fateful day of July 4th, 1976, when Israeli commandos rescued over a hundred Israeli hostages in one of the most daring operations in recent history.  On Monday, July 4th, 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on an East African official tour, visited the Entebbe Airport in Uganda for a special ceremony to commemorate the event in which his older brother Jonathan (Yoni), the commander of the rescue operation, lost his life.  PM Netanyahu, addressing his host, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said, “Right here, I am standing in the place where my brother, Yoni, was killed, when he led the commando soldiers to release the hostages.” Netanyahu added, “There are few like him in history, and Entebbe is always with me.  It is deep in my heart.” In making the contrast between then and now, PM Netanyahu said, “Forty years ago, Israeli commandos landed here in the dark of night to fight against a cruel dictator who worked with terrorists,” referring to Idi Amin, “But today we came in the daylight, and we were welcomed by a leader who works to fight terrorism.”

For many Israelis, the experience of a week in captivity brought a flashback to the dark days of the Holocaust.  An Air France flight 139 from Tel-Aviv to Paris, was high jacked during a stopover in Athens, then diverted to Entebbe (near the Ugandan capital of Kampala) by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Revolutionary Cells, a spin-off of the Baader-Meinhof gang, a German radical left-wing group.  Before reaching Entebbe, the hijacked plane landed in Libya, receiving the blessing of its dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, before heading further to Entebbe.

Once at the final destination, the terrorists released the non-Jewish passengers in a selection process conducted by the Germans, which was reminiscent of the Nazi selections during the Holocaust.  To the Holocaust survivors among the Jewish passengers, it revisited the trauma they had tried hard to forget.  For many Israelis without a Holocaust connection, it served to change their view of the Six Million Jewish martyrs who went to their death like supposed “sheep to the slaughter.” They recognized the reality that when a gun is pointed at your child’s head, it is hard to resist. 

This reporter asked Benny Davidson, a 13-old at the time who was a passenger on this fateful Air France flight, about the feelings he had.  He was with his family on what was supposed to be his Bar-Mitzvah gift, a tour of the U.S.  “We tried to keep a regular daily routine” Davidson (53), a native of Tel Aviv said. “When the terrorists collected our documents, my dad made the critical decision to destroy his since he was an officer in the Israeli air-force.” He added, “Luckily it was made of paper and not plastic like today.”  They stuck the shredded documents in a Coca- Cola can.  When questioned about the “Nazi like selection” Davidson replied, “As a 13-year-old, it was clear that they were calling names and looking for Israelis and Jews. But at 13, it didn’t bring up thoughts of the Holocaust.”

One of the Jewish passengers, Yitzhak David, an Auschwitz survivor, showed the number tattooed on his forearm by the Nazis, to Wilfried Bose, one of the German terrorists involved in the hijacking.  He said to the German, “I was mistaken when I told my children that there is a different Germany. When I see what you and your friends are doing to the women, children, and elderly, I see that nothing has changed in Germany.” The German terrorist replied “I am no Nazi…I am an idealist.” 

On the third day of the hijacking, the hijackers demanded that all Israelis, including those with dual citizenships to assemble in the transit hall of the Entebbe airport.  To his credit, Air France Captain Michel Bacos and his crew members joined the Israelis.  The rest of the passengers were transferred to another hall. They were later freed and flown to Paris.  It was the gathering of intelligence from the freed passengers, and the Israeli Sollel Boneh construction company, which built the Entebbe airport, that helped carry out the daring and successful rescue mission. 

The operation has had many names including Operation Thunderbolt, its official code name; Operation Yonatan, named after commanding officer Yoni Netanyahu, and Operation Entebbe, named for the location in which the operation took place.  A year following the rescue, a movie was made called The Raid on Entebbe.

To plan such a daring raid 2,500 miles away from Israel, traversing hostile territory should have taken months of preparation.  It actually took less than a week.  Faced with terrorist ultimatums and the threat of executing the Israeli and Jewish passengers, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres had difficult choices to make.  Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron (later Chief-of-Staff), the overall commander of the operation described, “You had more than a hundred people sitting in a small room, surrounded by terrorists with their fingers on the trigger. They could fire in a fraction of a second. We had to fly seven hours, land safely, drive to the terminal area where the hostages were being held, get inside, and eliminate all the terrorists before any of them could fire.”  It clearly seemed like a “mission impossible.”

In deciding to carry out the operation, it all hinged on the element of surprise. Lt. Col. Avi Mor, the lead pilot, explained the difficulties, “Keep in mind, it was the Sabbath, during which the IAF does not hold exercises or routine operations - making the rescue aircrafts more likely to stand out.  We had to fly slowly and in very low altitudes to remain unnoticeable.” Mor added, “It is enough for the terrorists to have any sort of suspicion, and not only would there have been no rescue mission, but there would have been a tragedy.”  Fortunately no one expected the IDF to take such an incredible risk of saving 103 hostages with 200 elite IDF soldiers.

Within six minutes, the IDF Sayeret Matkal forces killed the terrorists and rescued the hostages. It took the IDF soldiers 20 minutes to evacuate the hostages and load them into C-130 (Hercules) transport planes.  The entire operation lasted 58 minutes after the arrival of the rescuers.  Benny Davidson pointed out that he knew that the IDF would come to rescue them. 

The operation was not without costs.  The commander of the rescue team, Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu (30) was killed as he helped carry the passengers into the awaiting C-130 transports.  The First Israeli soldier who entered the room where the Israeli hostages stayed shouted “Get down,” we are Israelis, we have come to take you back home.  Unfortunately, hostages that remained standing were shot by the cross fire, among them Jean Jacques Mimouni (19), Pasco Cohen, and Ida Borochovitch. The next day, Dora Bloch was murdered in the Kampala hospital on Idi Amin’s orders.

The daring and glorious rescue mission called Operation Yonatan sent a clear message to Israel’s enemies.  The message was that the Jewish state will go to the end of the earth to rescue Jews and Israelis.  It was an antidote to the Holocaust, when no one came to the rescue of the doomed Jews.  The operation brought relief to Israelis from the trauma of the Yom Kippur War.  Entebbe has become an Israeli heroic story of pride and glory.