On June 27, 1976, four terrorists forced an Air France Airbus to land in Uganda, in the heart of distant Africa. They quickly demanded that Israel release 53 convicted terrorists. The hijackers freed the French crew and non-Jewish passengers, while retaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages. A 48-hour deadline was set before executions would begin.
Faced with little choice, the Israeli government announced that it would enter into negotiations. This bought the precious time needed to consolidate a seemingly impossible military option. A new ultimatum was issued for 13:00 on Sunday, July 4.
The only airplane capable of a rescue operation was the C130 Hercules. On July 1, the mission's overall commander, Brig. General Dan Shomron (later to become the IDF ChiefofStaff), presented his plan to the IDF Commander and Israel's Defense Minister. The next day they all witnessed a fullscale dress rehearsal. The incredible was deemed possible.
Shomron's plan was based on several advantages that the Israelis had over the terrorists. The Entebbe airport at which the hostages were being held was built by an Israeli construction firm, which was able to provide Shomron with blueprints. Moreover, the released, non-Jewish hostages were able to describe the terrorists, their arms, and their positioning. As a result, the IDF decided to send in an overwhelmingly powerful force: over 200 of the best soldiers the army had to offer participated in the raid, all of them heavily armed.
Finally, the element of surprise was probably the biggest edge that Israel held. According to Shomron: "You had more than 100 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." The fact that no one expected the Israelis to take such risks was precisely the reason that they took them.
The aircraft took off at 13:20 on July 3 and headed south. Only then was the plan revealed to the Israeli Cabinet, which decided to let the operation continue. The lead Hercules carried the rescue force, led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. It also held two jeeps and the now famous black Mercedes, a perfect copy of dictator Idi Amin's personal car. Two additional Hercules carried reinforcements and troops assigned to carry out special missions, such as destroying the Migs parked nearby. A fourth Hercules was sent to evacuate the hostages.
The air package also included two Boeing 707's. One acted as a forward command post. The second, outfitted as an airborne hospital, landed in nearby Nairobi, Kenya. The Hercules was escorted by F4 Phantoms as far as possible-about onethird the distance.
Skirting thunderstorms over Lake Victoria, the Hercules transports neared the end of the 7hour, 40minute flight. A surprise awaited them: the runway lights were on! Despite this, they landed undetected at 23:01 (local time), only one minute past their planned arrival time.
The soldiers freed the hostages in a lightning attack, killing all eight terrorists in the process. Tragically, force commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed as he led the hostages toward the safety of the aircraft; additionally, two hostages were killed in the crossfire inside the airport. The other squads accomplished their missions in virtually the same time as during the "dryrun." By 23:59 the planes were on their way home. The operation, which was predicted to last one hour, in fact took only 58 minutes.
The mission struck a blow at international terrorism. "It resonated far and wide," Shomron later commented. "It showed that you could counter terrorism, and that it was worth cooperating to do so." As America celebrated its Bicentennial, the world was reminded that freedom is a value which must be fought for in every generation.
The mission was later renamed “Operation Jonathan” in honor of Yonatan Netanyahu.
To read a first-hand account from Lt. Col. (res.) Avi Mor - the navigator of three of the four planes sent to rescue the hostages in Uganda - please click here.
MK Omer Bar-Lev during his military service.
Haim Bar-Lev, right, meets with Ugandan despot Idi Amin during his time as the IDF chief of staff.
Sayeret Matkal troops loading the Mercedes on the plane, dressed as Ugandan soldiers.
Prime Minister Rabin and Defense Minister Peres welcoming the hostages back.(Photo: Uri Herzl Tzahik, IDF Spokesman's Office)
Sayeret Matkal commander Yoni Netanyahu.
Sources:Israel Defense Forces