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The Entebbe Rescue Operation

(July 4, 1976)

On Sunday June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv and made a scheduled layover in Athens, Greece, before it was to continue to Paris, France. Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann of the German Baader-Meinhof terror group and two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine boarded with other new passengers in Greece and hijacked the plane and forced it to land in Benghazi, Libya where it was refueled. During that time the hijackers released British-born Israeli citizen Patricia Martell, who pretended to have a miscarriage.

The plane left Benghazi and flew to Uganda, arriving at Entebbe Airport at 3:15 p.m. on the 28th, more than 24 hours after the flight’s original departure. The terrorists and passengers were welcomed by President Idi Amin Dada and Ugandan soldiers were deployed to secure the airport.

The plane touched down with 248 passengers and the terrorists immediately separated the Jewish and Israeli hostages from the rest of the captives. “Even now, as I am telling you the process by which the terrorists selected their hostages, it hurts me to say it,” Lt. Col. (res.) Avi Mor said, recounting that “it was a similar selection process the Nazis administered when selecting who would go work and who would be sent to the gas chambers.”

One Holocaust survivor showed Böse a camp registration number tattooed on his arm. Böse said, “I’m no Nazi! ... I am an idealist.” Five non-Israeli hostages – two ultra-Orthodox Jewish couples from the United States and Belgium, and a French resident of Israel – were forced to join the Israeli group because the hijackers suspected them of hiding their Israeli identities. Three other people who the terrorists did not separate reportedly joined the Israeli hostage group by their own choice.

Amin came to visit the hostages several times, updating them on developments and promising to use his efforts to have them freed through negotiations. On June 30, 48 of the non-Israeli hostages – mainly elderly and sick passengers and mothers with children – were released and flown to Paris.

Four additional terrorists joined the hijackers in Entebbe. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $5 million for the release of the airplane. They also wanted Israel to release 40 convicted terrorists and 13 additional prisoners in four other countries to be freed. They gave the Israeli government a 48-hour deadline to comply or they said they would execute the hostages.

With the deadline in motion and little known about the underlying motives of the hijackers, their exact whereabouts in Entebbe Airport, Israel’s government and security officials sought to collect information about the situation as quickly as possible.

“One of the biggest problems we had,” recalled Mor, “was that we were operating with minimal clarity throughout the entire mission, as we had no reliable source of information. And, when faced with an ultimatum, time is of the essence.”

 By midday Tuesday June 29, IDF forces were able to gather enough information about the situation to provide them with basic clarity to work on a possible rescue attempt.

In the middle of the night on Wednesday, one of Mor’s friends from the Air Force knocked on his door. “My wife answered the door. My friend told her ‘Norit, I suggest you go to your room and close the door,’” Mor recalled. “By 6 the following morning, I was at an exercise with Sayeret Matkal.”

Faced with little choice and needing to buy time to plan a rescue operation, the Israeli government announced on July 1 that it would enter negotiations. The terrorists extended their deadline to noon on Sunday July 4 and released another 100 hostages who were flown to Paris. The 12-member Air France crew elected to stay with the remaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages.

A retired IDF officer, Baruch Bar-Lev, had known Idi Amin for many years and was asked to contact him to plea for the hostages’ release. He spoke with Amin on the phone many times, but could not convince the dictator to help. The Israeli government also approached the United States government to deliver a message to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, asking him to intervene. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres debated whether or not to accept the hijackers’ demands. Rabin was inclined to do so, but Peres feared it would encourage more terrorism. Peres was also influenced by a meeting he had with Sayeret Matkal commander Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu who assured him the operation would succeed.

After discussing various military options, Brig. General Dan Shomron presented his rescue plan on July 1 to Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur, Peres and Rabin. He asked for authorization to conduct a mission involving more than 200 of Israel’s elite soldiers. The next day they all witnessed a dress rehearsal.

Shomron’s plan was based on several advantages that the Israelis had over the terrorists. The Entebbe airport was built by an Israeli construction firm, which provided Shomron with blueprints. In addition, the non-Jewish hostages who were released described the hijackers, their weapons, and their positioning.

The element of surprise was 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 raid could not proceed without assistance from at least one East African government. The Israelis lacked the logistical capacity to aerially refuel the Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft they intended to use. Several nations were sympathetic but none wished to incur the wrath of Amin or the Palestinians by allowing the Israelis to land their aircraft within their borders. Sir Maurice Oldfield, head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, put his contacts in the Mossad in touch with Kenyan Minister of Agriculture Bruce MacKenzie who persuaded President Kenyatta to allow Israel’s aircraft to cross Kenyan airspace and refuel at what is today Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Operation Thunderbolt began at 13:20 on July 3 when the aircraft took off and headed south to make the 2,500 mile trip to Entebbe. Only then was the plan revealed to the Israeli Cabinet, which decided to let the operation continue. The lead Hercules carried the Sayeret Matkal rescue force, led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. It also held two jeeps and a black Mercedes identical to Idi Amin’s personal car.

Two additional Hercules carried reinforcements and troops assigned to carry out special missions. A force of paratroopers led by Col. Matan Vilnai was tasked with securing the civilian airport field, clearing and securing the runways, and protecting and refueling the Israeli aircraft in Entebbe. Col. Uri Sagi’s Golani force was responsible for securing the C-130 Hercules aircraft for the hostages’ evacuation, getting it as close as possible to the terminal and boarding the hostages. Another Sayeret Matkal force led by Major Shaul Mofaz was supposed to clear the military airstrip and destroy Uganda’s MiG fighter jets on the ground (they blew up 11) to prevent any possible interceptions by the Ugandan Air Force, and to hold off hostile ground forces from the city of Entebbe.

The air package also included two Boeing 707’s. One acted as a forward command post and circled over the Entebbe airport during the operation. The second, outfitted as an airborne hospital, landed in nearby Nairobi, Kenya. The Hercules transports were escorted by F4 Phantoms as far as possible – about one-third the distance.

Taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, the task force flew along the international flight path over the Red Sea, mostly flying at a height of no more than 100 ft to avoid radar detection. Many of the soldiers got air sick during the flight. One, had to be left behind, and was replaced by Amos Goren, who was originally assigned to a different plane. Netanyahu drew a picture of the terminal on the back of an air-sickness bag to explain the plan to Goren.

Skirting thunderstorms over Lake Victoria, the Hercules transports neared the end of the 7-hour, 40-minute 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 second and third Israeli planes arrived six minutes later, carrying reinforcements and troops assigned to help fight the Ugandan forces surrounding the airport. The fourth aircraft – the only aircraft with enough gas to fly to Entebbe and back to Israel – arrived empty to evacuate the hostages.

Netanyahu’s unit drove slowly and calmly towards the old terminal, appearing as if they were Ugandan forces in familiar vehicles. They were ordered not to shoot before reaching the old terminal to take the terrorists by surprise. As they approached the terminal, however, two Ugandan sentries, aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, ordered the vehicles to stop. Netanyahu ordered the commandos to shoot the sentries using silenced pistols, but they did not kill them and another commando in one of the following Land Rovers killed them with an unsuppressed rifle. The rescuers now feared they had lost the element of surprise and rushed to the terminal.

The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, “Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers,” in both Hebrew and English. Jean-Jacques Maimoni, a 19-year-old French immigrant to Israel, stood up and was killed when he was mistaken for a hijacker. Another hostage, Pasco Cohen, 52, was also fatally wounded by gunfire from the commandos. A third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Israel, was killed by in the crossfire. All eight terrorists were killed in the lightning attack which took just six minutes

Ugandan soldiers fired at the Israelis from the control tower. Tragically, Netanyahu was killed as he led the hostages toward the safety of the aircraft (his brother Iddo contends he was shot by a terrorist from the terminal). Five other soldiers were wounded during the operation. Forty-five Ugandan soldiers were killed.

Within 20 minutes of their arrival, IDF soldiers began evacuating the hostages in the fourth aircraft. 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.

On July 2, prior to the rescue operation, Dora Bloch, a 74-year-old Israeli who had started to choke was taken to Mulago Hospital in Kampala. Amin called Health Minister Henry Kyemba on Saturday to see how Mrs. Bloch was doing. To prevent her from being sent back with the other hostages, Kyemba lied and said she needed another day for her recovery. The rescue occurred while she was still in the hospital. After the raid she was murdered by officers of the Ugandan army. In 1979, after the Uganda–Tanzania War, Tanzanian troops discovered Bloch’s body in a sugar plantation. Her remains were returned to her son in Israel where she was given a state funeral..

In retaliation for Kenya’s involvement and MacKenzie’s actions, Amin’s forces killed 245 Kenyans in Uganda and the president ordered his agents to assassinate MacKenzie. He was killed on May 24, 1978, when a bomb attached to his aircraft exploded. Later, Mossad Chief Meir Amit had a forest planted in Israel in MacKenzie’s name.

The United Nations Security Council convened on July 9, 1976, to consider a complaint from the Chairman of the Organization of African Unity charging Israel with an “act of aggression.” UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim told the Council that the raid was “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a Member State of the United Nations.” The U.S. and U.K. sponsored a resolution which condemned hijacking and similar acts, deplored the loss of life arising from the hijacking (without condemning either Israel or Uganda), reaffirmed the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all States, and called on the international community to enhance the safety of civil aviation. The resolution failed to receive the required number of affirmative votes. A second resolution sponsored that condemned Israel, was not put to a vote.

In 1976, Michel Bacos, the French pilot of the Airbus, and his crew were awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France. The Israeli government also awarded them medals for heroism.

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.

A number of documentaries and feature films were subsequently made about the operation, including Cohen on the Bridge (2010), Live or Die in Entebbe (2012), Victory at Entebbe (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1977), Operation Thunderbolt (1977) and Entebbe (2018).

One of the aircraft crews that landed at Entebbe poses with their plane after the mission.(Photo: IDF)

MK Omer Bar-Lev during his military service. 
(Photo: IDF Spokesman)

Haim Bar-Lev, right, meets with Ugandan despot Idi Amin during his time as the IDF chief of staff. 
(Photo: IDF Spokesman)

Sayeret Matkal troops loading the Mercedes on the plane, dressed as Ugandan soldiers. 
(Photo: IDF)

 

Prime Minister Rabin and Defense Minister Peres welcoming the hostages back.(Photo: Uri Herzl Tzahik, IDF Spokesman's Office)

Relatives meet returning hostages. (Photo: IDF)

Sayeret Matkal commander Yoni Netanyahu. 
(Photo: GPO)


Sources: Israel Defense Forces;
“Operation Entebbe,” Wikipedia:
Moshe Rosenberg, “10 Things You Probably Never Knew About Israel’s Rescue at Entebbe,” Tablet, (June 30, 2016).