This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Israel’s daring, and staggeringly successful, raid on Entebbe. It’s a simultaneously exciting and tragic story, and one that deserves to be remembered. This is a slightly edited version of a narrative I’ve published here before.
For those of you too young to remember, here is a short-ish version of the long and exciting story about the Entebbe raid. (I culled these facts from a much longer article by Maj. (Res.) Louis Williams, which I found once at the Israeli Defense Forces website, but can’t find now.)
It all started with the metal detector no one looked at. On June 27, 1976, as passengers in Athens boarded the already partially full Air France 139 flight to Paris, no one paid any attention to a young woman traveling on an Ecuadorian passport, a young blond man with a Peruvian passport, and two other men, one with Bahraini and the other with Kuwaiti papers. A little more on-the-job attention could have saved four lives and a world of trouble. It would later turn out that these four people were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader-Meinhof Gang and they were heavily armed.
The flight out of Athens began in ordinary enough fashion. It was a mid-day flight so, as soon as the plane was airborne, the flight attendants began bustling around, preparing lunch. The 246 passengers — 77 of whom were Israeli citizens — settled in to do what passengers do: read, sleep, and talk. Unfortunately, they had little time to engage in any of these ordinary activities. Within eight minutes of being airborne, the woman, who called herself Ortega; the blond man, who went by the name of Garcia, but was really Wilfried Boese; and their two Arab companions, sprang into action. Ortega, gun in hand, covered the first class compartment, the Arabs took over the coach compartment, and Garcia, who had both a revolver and a grenade, invaded the cockpit. Within minutes, they had secured the plane.
The first sign the outside world had that something was wrong was when the French captain, Michel Bacos, ceased radio contact. Because of the large number of Israeli passengers on Board, when Ben Gurion Airport management received the news about this peculiar radio silence, it instantly passed the word on to the Israeli government and defense ministry. The Israelis had always known about the possibility that something could happen to their citizens in the air, so they quickly set up a command station and began mobilizing forces based on their initial assumption that the hostage crisis might play out at Ben Gurion itself.
Within a half hour of the Israelis setting up this station, the terrorists contacted a Libyan control tower to issue their demands. Their first requests were simple and made very clear where they stood on the ideological spectrum: in addition to fuel, they demanded that the local representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine meet them at the Libyan airport.
The plane touched down in Libya, although it was clear that this was only a fueling stop. The terrorists released a single passenger, a young pregnant woman. In the meantime, the Israelis huddled, trying to come up with a viable plan, despite the fact that the situation was unstable and the terrorists’ ultimate destination unknown.
That same afternoon, at the terrorists’ direction, the plane took off again, with no one the wiser as to the next landing point. Eventually, with an almost empty tank, the terrorists had Captain Bacos land the plane at Entebbe, in Uganda, in the wee hours of the morning of June 28. Entebbe was an unpromising location for the Israelis because Idi Amin, the dictator in charge, was no friend to Israel.
Once in Entebbe, Amin left no doubt that he was working with the terrorists, whether as part of a preconceived plan or because he was a seizing an opportunity that presented itself to him. He allowed several more terrorists to meet the airplane, he assembled his troops at the airport, and he appeared there himself, making a speech supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Aside from Amin’s posturing, though, little was happening — but Amin’s involvement was worrisome enough. As Shimon Peres (who was then Defense Minister) noted, it would be a catastrophic development for Israeli air travel if a sovereign nation successfully came to the support of hijackers.
Despite the information vacuum, the Israeli Defense Forces started brainstorming. The IDF was lucky in that, as late as 1972, Israeli planes had flown into Uganda. This meant that the IDF knew that the airport where the hostages were being held was within flying range and had a fair idea about the site itself. While things might have changed since 1972, finding out about those changes was do-able.
By June 29, the situation was static from the IDF’s point of view, with the terrorists apparently locked into Entebbe. The IDF, therefore, made the formal decision to start turning its brainstorming into reality. In the meantime, word came that the terrorists were demanding the release of various terrorist compatriots were being held in Europe, Israel, and Africa. By the end of the day, the terrorists fleshed out their demand: if their demand for terrorist releases was not met by 2 p.m. Israeli time on July 1, they would kill all the hostages.
Unbeknownst to the IDF (although nothing would have surprised them), as these demands were issuing, sinister things were happening in Entebbe. With help from Ugandan soldiers, the terrorists were “remodeling” the airport terminal to create a small passageway between two rooms. Boese, the blond man, then began dividing the hostages into two groups: Jews and Israelis in one group, everyone else in another group. For the Jews, it was a grim echo of Mengele’s sorting technique at Auschwitz, with its life and death divisions.
In the small hours of June 30, the IDF continued its non-stop information gathering and planning. The consensus was that the Israelis had to seize the Entebbe airport and free the hostages — a simple idea that was incredibly difficult to put into operation. Every detail had to be considered, including a way by which to co-opt the psychopathic Amin so that he would cease assisting the terrorists and, perhaps, even come to the Israelis’ aid. (As it turned out, aside from buying some time, Amin was not otherwise deterred from his murderous path.)
It helped the Israelis that the Germans, showing more backbone than they had in 1972 during the Munich hostage crisis, were refusing to release the terrorists they had imprisoned, as were the French. Indeed, in a move unimaginable today, the French actually ceded to Israel the decision-making power regarding responsive steps in the face of the terrorist demands. On the ground, the French were also showing true integrity. When the terrorists attempted to have Captain Bacos and his French crew join a group of non-Jewish/Israeli passengers to be released on the Air France plane, they refused to do so, insisting on staying with and caring for their passengers. A French nun also attempted to stay with the Jewish passengers but was thrust on the plane despite her protests. The released passengers soon ended up at home and, after being debriefed and providing some valuable information, vanish from our story.
In Israel, the IDF’s plans were sufficiently advanced to begin gathering personnel. One of the soldiers handpicked for the responsibility of leading the raid was Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (”Yoni”) Netanyahu. Another, more junior officer, Muki Betser, was summoned as well. It was the first either knew of the plan, and they were quickly brought up to speed about the three major plans being considered — one of which, of course, was the air raid that ultimately took place.
On July 1, the date the terrorists had given as their deadline for killing the Jewish hostages, the Israelis had an unexpected bit of luck. It turned out that an Israeli building contractor had built the Old Terminal at Entebbe, giving the IDF access to the building’s plans.
Although the Israelis were determined not to submit to the terrorists’ demands — correctly perceiving that to do so would open the door to unlimited kidnappings and hostage situations — the Cabinet voted unanimously to begin negotiations with the terrorists as a means of buying time. Idi Amin, apparently swayed by Israeli flattery that played on his overweening ego, announced that he would allow the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to broadcast on Ugandan radio at 2:00 p.m., Israeli time, thereby buying one precious hour. This one extra hour stretched into two, and then a day, and then two days, until the Israelis had a fortunate reserve of time within which to work.
The Israelis, while simultaneously cajoling Amin, gathering information, and negotiating for time, continued to finalize plans. They gathered more and more personnel, especially paratroopers with experience with long-range flights over Africa. When the second group of non-Israeli/Jewish hostages arrived in France, the situation improved still further, both because there were fewer passengers to rescue, and because the new arrivals helped flesh out necessary information about the Entebbe situation.
By mid-morning on July 2, the plan was sufficiently developed that Netanyahu and his fellow officers were beginning to conduct dry run practices in their minds. They also begin focusing on the minutiae of the plan, such as specific geographic landmarks in and around the airport, fueling issues, etc. Air Force ground crews began getting seven airplanes reading for the raid: four Hercules for the trip; one Hercules as a reserve plane; and two Boeing 707s as command headquarters and backup to fly the rescued hostages home. One plane was swiftly converted into a flying medical center.
One soldier, possibly Muki, also had a brainwave about preserving the surprise aspect of the raid once the planes landed. This involved using a Mercedes limousine as one of the assault vehicles, on the theory that Ugandan officials always traveled in these vehicles. Seeing one drive around the airport attended by an entourage of Land Rovers would be so normal at Entebbe that no one would be on guard.
For the rest of the day, the selected troops, led by Netanyahu, drilled and drilled. Each knew that seconds mattered. Their rehearsals were so disciplined that, by July 3, they were ready.
As the IDF engaged in this feverish behind-the-scenes activity, negotiations stagnated. It didn’t really matter, of course, since the whole purpose behind the negotiations was to buy time. Nevertheless, it was galling to see the terrorists use these talks as a way to humiliate Israel as much as possible. Certainly, no one in Israel truly believed that, if Israel capitulated to the terrorist demands, the terrorists would actually release all 105 hostages safely.
At noon on July 3, 1976, the operation, now called “Operation Thunderball” was reading to go. By 1:30, the commandos were airborne and heading South to Ophir, preparatory to crossing over into African airspace. Even on the plane, both officers and troops, continued to go over the plans, mentally rehearsing and polishing small details. Eventually, everyone tried to get some sleep, so as to be fresh when the raid finally took place. The flight, already stressful, was made worse by turbulence over Ethiopia, which forced the planes to divert. The one good thing was that the same storm meant that the Israelis didn’t need to worry about being detected because the storm ruined incoming radar signals.
Despite the horrific conditions, the pilot landed the plane at Entebbe only 30 seconds behind the scheduled time. Within minutes of landing, the men were piling into the decoy Mercedes and two Land Rovers. Even as the plane was still moving, the instant the cargo doors opened, the cars drove off the plane. Thanks to the work of paratroopers who also left the plane to place temporary lights on the runway, the planes were able to taxi slightly forward.
The Mercedes and its escorts speed down the road to the terminal, all the while trying to give the appearance of an official entourage. When two Ugandan sentries challenged them, however, they had no option but to shoot. They hit one soldier, but the other was able to run for the control tower. In minutes, despite the loss of their cover, the commandos secured one of the terminal entrances and moved on to another.
Shortly after entering the building, the terrorists began firing, both at the Israelis and the hostages. A firefight began, with Israeli troopers successful in bringing down two of the terrorists. Sadly, despite bullhorn announcements from the IDF warning the hostages to keep down, one man was killed in this first burst of gunfire.
The second assault team, which had almost been fooled by two armed terrorists pretending to be hostages, managed instead to kill those terrorists. At the same time, Netanyahu’s group killed Ugandan soldiers assisting the terrorists. Within the building, after only three minutes, the raid was over. The only step remaining was to get everyone — paratroopers and hostages alike — back to the waiting planes for the return trip to Israel.
Sadly, the raid was not without costs. Two hostages died on the ground. Another, an old lady, had been taken to a Ugandan hospital, where she was subsequently murdered on Amin’s orders. And, in what proved to be a terrible blow to the Israeli psyche, Yoni Netanyahu was fatally wounded. He died on the flight back to Israel.
And that’s the story. It’s an incredible story of a small force, fighting against the odds, and, with creativity and bravery, freeing over a hundred people from captivity. It’s also a story of sacrifice, because not only did Yoni Netanyahu die on that day, every single one of the paratroopers on the flight was willing to give his life to rescue his fellow Israelis and Jews from a brutal terrorist assault. Lastly, it was a story of remarkable government foresight. By refusing to give in to the terrorist demands, Israel managed for 30 years to insulate herself from hijackings and kidnappings, a situation that changed only a few years ago, when terrorists realized that Israel no longer had the will (or, perhaps, the ability) to pull off another Entebbe.