Last month was the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe rescue mission, the Israeli mission to free hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. It remains possibly the most recent occasion when Israel held the sympathy of the entire world. Originally called Operation Thunderbolt, the world remembers it as Operation Entebbe while the Israeli army calls it Operation Yonatan to commemorate the raid leader and the only Israeli soldier to die in the action. He was Colonel Yonatan Nehenyatu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nehenyatu.
The cause of Operation Entebbe was the hijack of a French aeroplane one week earlier. On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139 to Paris was hijacked shortly after take-off from the notoriously lax security Athens airport. Athens was a stopover; the flight had originated in Tel-Aviv. On board were 12 crew and 248 passengers. Ten minutes out of Athens, a group of three men and a woman took control of the plane. They were two male PLO operatives and two members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang. They ordered the pilots to immediate divert the plane to Benghazi in Libya. They spent seven hours on the ground at Benghazi where they refuelled and released a female hostage. The women had convinced the hijackers and a hastily summoned Libyan doctor that she was pregnant. The woman, who was in fact on her way to her mother’s funeral in Manchester, spent an anxious few hours in the airport terminal, and was then put on a plane to England.
The hijacked flight left Libya in the early hours of 28 June and flew to Uganda. Ugandan leader Idi Amin had strong ties with the PLO and he had expelled the Israelis from Uganda after they refused to sell him Phantom jets. The Israeli embassy in Kampala was then offered to the PLO as headquarters. Amin invited the hijackers of Flight 139 to come to Uganda. At Entebbe airport, the hijackers were joined by three newcomers under the command of Wilfried Böse. Böse was well known in German far-left intellectual circles and he was deeply anti-Semitic. Once Böse took over the operation, they began to make demands. They began by releasing all the non-Jewish hostages. They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and 13 other detainees held in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and Germany, or they said, they would begin killing the remaining hostages on 1 July.
Under an armed guard of Ugandan soldiers, the passengers were transferred to the transit hall of Entebbe Airport’s old terminal. Amin paid a visit to the terminal and made a speech in support of the liberation of Palestine. Another Air France airliner was flown in to retrieve the crew and non-Jewish passengers. But Flight 139’s Captain Michel Bacos told the hijackers that the passengers were his responsibility, and that he would not leave any of them behind.
Bacos’ entire crew, down to the most junior flight attendant, followed suit. A French nun also refused to leave, and insisted one of the remaining hostages take her place, but Ugandan soldiers forced her at gunpoint to join the 46 other non-Jewish passengers in the waiting Air France plane. The crew remained and disgracefully, Bacos would be reprimanded for his actions by his Air France superiors after the rescue mission. The freed passengers were questioned on arrival home by Mossad operatives who learned that Ugandan soldiers were co-operating with the hijackers. They also got clues to the layout of the Terminal building. A day after releasing the first batch of passengers, the hostage-takers freed 101 more passengers leaving only the crew and the Jewish passengers in Uganda.
On the 1 July deadline, the government of Israel offered to negotiate with the hijackers to extend the deadline to 4 July. Israeli General Chaim Bar-Lev, a close personal friend of Amin, telephoned him on a number of occasions to negotiate but achieved nothing. On 3 July, the Israeli cabinet approved Operation Entebbe under the command of Brigadier General Dan Shomron. Planning for the raid took several days. The terminal had been built by an Israeli construction company (common in Africa at the time). The company gave the building blueprints to the Army and they built a partial replica of the transit hall. The builders were kept under supervision during this phase so Israel would not lose the advantage of surprise.
The plan called for the troops to fly into Entebbe airport and drive to the Old Terminal in a black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts. This would fool the Ugandan guards into believing Idi Amin was paying a visit. Backup aeroplanes with medical facilities were sent to Kenya, an implacable enemy of Amin happy to assist the rescue. The aircrafts took off from Israel on the 4000km journey in separate directions so as not to arouse suspicion, and flew at less than 30 metres over the Red Sea to avoid Egyptian and Saudi radar. At 11pm, they touched down at Entebbe and the Mercedes and Land Rovers – packed with elite Israeli commandos in Ugandan army uniforms – rolled out.
The raid lasted three minutes. An initial confrontation occurred near the control tower, when two Ugandan sentries who stopped the convoy were shot dead. With the element of surprise gone, the troops raced on foot to the Old Terminal where at some point Netanyahu was fatally wounded. In the ensuing firefight, all seven hijackers were killed as well as 24 Ugandan soldiers. Three hostages were also killed in the crossfire. The 75-year-old hostage Dora Bloch missed out on the rescue because she had earlier been released to hospital in Kampala due to a choking fit. On the day after the raid, she was murdered on Amin’s orders.
The survivors were herded onto the transport planes and took off at 11.52pm to Nairobi. An infantry team sprayed machinegun fire at seven Ugandan MIG fighters to ensure they would not take off in pursuit. The last of the fighters left Entebbe at 12.40am. The mission returned to an air force base on Israeli soil on 4 July with 98 freed hostages. They were fed and given medical checks before flying on to Tel-Aviv. There the planes released its celebrated cargo into the outstretched arms of their relatives and friends and an appreciative crowd of thousands of wellwishers.
Uganda later convened a session of the United Nations Security Council to seek official condemnation of the Israeli raid as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty. Many countries agreed with the Ugandan resolution. However, the Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter.
On the 40th anniversary Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to the country where his brother died becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Uganda since the crisis and indeed the first to visit Africa in at least 30 years. Netenyahu was keen to stress Israeli-Ugandan relations had moved on. “This is a deeply moving day for me,” he said. “Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists. Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists.” However it remains a moot point whether the label of terrorist could also be applied to Netenyahu over his treatment of Gaza and the West Bank, and his host Yoweri Museveni who has ruthlessly crushed opposition in his 30 years as Ugandan president.