As a dual American and an Israeli, July 4 has always had a dual special meaning. That is, since 1976, America’s bicentennial. Like many American children, the year leading up to and during the bicentennial was a period of sharing national pride in all that America stood for, and its history. Growing up in a town with a famous revolutionary war battlefield, the reenactment of that battle made things extra vivid.
As an Israeli, it is remarkable to me that after 200 years, the US was able to celebrate its independence by reenacting the war in which it fought to gain independence. Israel, on the other hand, after only 73 years, is still fighting its war of independence. Battles take place on our home front, across the border in neighboring countries, and with terrorists on land, sea, air, and now in cyberspace. Maybe, in another 127 years we’ll have that privilege.
One of the most famous battles in Israel’s ongoing struggle to preserve its independence took place on July 4, 1976. As America was celebrating it’s 200 years of independence, Israel engaged in a unique battle, rescuing civilian hostages through a bold commando operation thousands of kilometers away. The celebrated operation was comprised of imagination that was unimaginable, tremendous bravery, and numerous miracles.
Here’s the backstory: On June 27, an Air France plane originating in Israel with 248 passengers was hijacked by Arab and German terrorists, and flown to Entebbe, Uganda’s main airport. Uganda’s government provided cover for the hijackers who were welcomed personally by dictator Idi Amin. While Israel had been fighting Arab terrorists for decades, the involvement of German terrorists brought back haunting memories of Jews being rounded up and murdered throughout Europe just 35 years earlier. This was underscored by the separation of the 248 passengers into different groups, not as Israelis and non-Israelis, but as Jews and non-Jews.
The terrorists threatened to kill more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers if their demands were not met. This threat led to the planning of the rescue operation. It’s worth noting that the pilot and crew chose to stay with the Jewish hostages when all the non-Jews were separated and eventually freed.
Based on testimony from the released hostages, Israel’s Mossad established an accurate picture of the hostages’ location, the number of hijackers, and the role of Ugandan troops. Additionally, because Israelis were involved in many building projects in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, a large Israeli construction company had built the terminal where the hostages were held. This allowed Israel to construct a replica of the building with the assistance of those who had helped build the original, while planning the military operation, a case of Divine coincidence.
Because of the 45th anniversary, I decided to plan a webinar telling the story of Entebbe with people who experienced it: hostages and IDF troops. One social media post led to dozens of referrals to people in four countries who were connected. This underscored the incredible reality of two degrees of separation in Israel. I exchanged many text messages, emails, and phone calls. (Please feel free to be in touch to participate in the webinar when it is scheduled, FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.)
One day this week, I was standing in the kitchen having a wide-ranging conversation in Hebrew. When I got off the phone, my wife asked who I was speaking to.
“That was so cool. I just spoke to the second in command from the operation in Entebbe.”
I said no more and she nearly shrieked, “MUKI?! I remember him from the movie!” (Operation Thunderbolt) My wife understood that I had just spoken to a national hero. Indeed. Muki Betser is considered one of Israel’s legendary commandoes. As deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, he helped plan, was the deputy commander of the ground element, and he was the commander of the break-in teams during the Entebbe operation.
Most people who know about Entebbe know of its commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of Israel’s former Prime Minister. “Yoni” was the one soldier fatally wounded during the operation. But Muki is no less central, famous, and indeed a national hero. Unfortunately, he’s not comfortable sharing his story in a webinar in English, but he did tell his story in a book that’s been translated to English, “Secret Soldier.” But I had the true privilege of making a new friend who shared some of his story, and whose modesty is only seconded by his greatness.
The Entebbe operation was an unparalleled success. It took place under the darkness of a nearly new moon illuminating the African sky. The battle that took a week to plan lasted less time than the length of the movies made to tell the story. 102 hostages were rescued. Five Israeli commandos were wounded. One was killed. Three hostages, all of the hijackers, and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Most of Uganda’s Soviet-built MiGs were destroyed.
It would have been impossible for Israel to transport a convoy of planes and equipment so far, alone, undetected, without God’s protection and the involvement of numerous people. With Israel then controlling Sinai, planes were able to take off much closer to Uganda. Because of good relations with Kenya, members of the Jewish and Israeli community in Nairobi implored Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta to help. Israel received permission for the IDF planes to cross Kenyan airspace, and refuel in Kenya on the way home. As a Christian, Kenya’s president understood God’s imperative to bless Israel. Because of this, in the aftermath of the operation, Idi Amin retaliated and slaughtered several hundred Kenyans in Uganda.
I remember the battle in Uganda as if it were yesterday. It’s one of the most famous because it was so public. Evert detail was planned and executed with virtual perfection including securing a Mercedes that was the same as that of Idi Amin, painting it to look like Amin’s car and, after touchdown, driving that car and convoy of other vehicles to look like Ugandan military straight to the terminal building. However, the convoy was loaded with Israeli rescuers, not Ugandan terrorists.
But Israel has fought many battles far from its borders, and still does, that are not public, albeit no less incredible. Entebbe’s heroism and success are still celebrated globally. It represented a combination of human bravery, imagination, the will to fight and overcome terrorists, and God’s protection. It serves as the model for Israel’s can-do attitude. But, especially with threats today from much further away in Iran, there are many inspiring lessons that can and should be learned from this to help in our fight against a new generation of the same terrorists. Entebbe inspires us and gives us hope. It’s important to have these public miracles to do so. But it’s no less important for our enemies who should remember this too.