Next week, Israel will mark the 40th anniversary of the daring IDF operation to rescue hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, an event embedded in the national consciousness of every Israeli, and one which represents to the core the Jewish life-cherishing principles which have given Israel its strength and power. More than that, the rescue operation is a clear reveal of the hand of God upon the people of Israel.
It began on June 27, 1976, when an Air France plane with 248 passengers, half with Israeli passports, was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in cooperation with German terrorists and diverted via Libya to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. The hijackers demanded the release of 40 prisoners being held in Israel and 13 more held in other countries.
Idi Amin, the despotic ruler of Uganda, was sympathetic to the terrorists, personally welcoming them when they landed. The passengers deplaned, and in a process reminiscent of the selections at Nazi death-camps, the Israelis were separated out. Non-Israeli Jews were forced to join the Israelis. Two non-Jewish passengers voluntarily joined the group of hostages as well. The 148 other passengers were eventually released.
The Israeli government was in turmoil. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, a former soldier who had personally experienced the horrors of combat, rejected rescue plans, preferring the option of negotiating the terrorists’ demands. Shimon Peres, the Defense Minister, who had never worn a uniform, pushed for a military solution and a seemingly impossible mission.
Lt. Gen. (res.) Dan Shomron, who planned and commanded the operation, described the difficulties of the hostage situation to the press after the operation’s success. “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.”
Arguments raged for a week behind closed doors, until the terrorists extended the deadline by three days, allowing enough time to prepare a military operation. The planes carrying IDF commandos took off while the government was still arguing over whether to cancel the mission or move forward.
Even with the extension, preparing and executing the operation seemed impossible. It involved flying four C-130 military transports carrying 100 commandos over 4,000 kilometers and landing in the dark while going undetected. The 29-man assault team led by Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would then have three minutes to avoid or overcome the Ugandan troops and storm the terminal where the hostages were being held while the other planes landed.
Amnon Biran, the mission’s intelligence officer, was skeptical. “We didn’t know the exact location of the hostages, whether the building had been wired with explosives, or even the proper layout of the airport,” he said afterwards.
The lack of intelligence and its implications became clear as soon as they landed. The cumbersome transport plane landed in the dark with its cargo door open, and nearly taxied directly into a ditch. The pilot’s quick reactions saved them, but had the plane become disabled or stuck, the would-be rescuers would have been stranded, becoming either casualties or hostages themselves.
Only a few minutes later, the mission faced disaster again. The commandos were racing towards the terminal in a black Mercedes, hoping the Ugandan sentries would mistake them for their eccentric president. A sentry raised his weapon and challenged them.
“If the guard had fired first, the whole operation might have sunk,” explained an office known as Amitsur, who was driving the Mercedes. “Yoni told me: ‘Slow down a little, we’ll approach them.’ He told me to slow down so that we wouldn’t frighten them, as if we’re about to identify ourselves…Yoni was quite calm.”
At that point, the covert mission became an assault. Shots were fired, and the Israeli commandos rushed to take over the control tower and free the hostages. They had been told the building was wired to explode, so as the Israeli soldiers rushed forward, they expected to be engulfed in a massive explosion which never came.
Unexpectedly, the terrorists did not respond by immediately using their automatic weapons and grenades on the hostages. In moments, all seven terrorists were dead. One Israeli commando, Yoni Netanyahu, was dead, three hostages were killed by friendly fire, and five commandos were injured. 20 minutes after the first plane landed, the hostages were leaving Uganda on an Israeli C-130.
The operation is considered one of the most heroic and successful rescue missions performed by the IDF or, indeed, any army in the world. Called “an impossible mission” by representatives of England and the US, the rescue demonstrated Israel’s strength, resilience, and determination never to give up on their own.
This summer, Prime Minister Netanyahu will visit Uganda to commemorate the 40th anniversary since Operation Entebbe and the death of his brother. It will mark the first time since 1987 that an Israeli prime minister has visited Sub-Saharan Africa.