1976 Israeli Commandos REscuee Hostages in Entebbe - History

1976 Israeli Commandos REscuee Hostages in Entebbe - History

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On June 27, 1976, Air France Flt 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked after a stop in Athens. The plane landed in Entebbe, Uganda. On July 4 Israeli commandos made the flight to Entebbe, quickly overcame the hijackers and Ugandan guards and freed the hostages, losing only one soldier.

Air France Flt 139 with 248 passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, was hijacked after taking off from Athens. Two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans carried out the hijacking. After an interim stop in Benghazi, the flight landed in Entebbe Uganda. The Ugandan government, led by Idi Amin supported the hijackers. The hijackers demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held by Israel and 13 other held by four counties. The hijackers separated the Israelis as well as non-Israelis Jews and put them in one room of the terminal. The hijackers released all of the rest of passengers but kept the Israelis the Jews. The crew refused to leave some of the passengers and remained as hostages.

The hostages had set a July 1 deadline, but after the Israeli government said it would negotiate extended the deadline to July 4. In the meantime, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Rabin had instructed the army to develop a plan to rescue the hostages. That plan was given the final go-ahead on July 3 when Israeli Hercules aircraft took off carrying 100 Israeli commandos commanded by General Dan Shomron. The unit in the lead was the elite Israeli Sayeret Matcal.

The Israeli force managed to rush the terminal. Three hostages were killed in the crossfire. All of the hijackers were killed. As the group started returning to the aircraft, they came under fire from the control tower. Three Israeli commandos were wounded, and the commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed. The whole operation lasted less than an hour. Of the 106 hostages, 102 made it safely to Israel. Ugandan soldiers murdered one hostage: Dora Bloch who was in a Ugandan hospital.


JERUSALEM, Sunday, July 4 —Israeli airborne commandos staged a daring night‐time raid, on Entebbe airport in Uganda last night, freeing the 105 mainly Israeli hostages and Air France crew members held by pro‐Palestinian nijackers and flying them back to Israel aboard three Israeli planes.

The hostages and their rescuers were due back in Israel this morning after a brief stopover at Kenya's International. Airport at Nairobi, where at least two persons were given medical treatment in a field hospital on the runway. No details of the extent of the casualties were available here pending notification of the families.

Only fragmentary reports of the raid were immediately available here. An unspecified number of commandos apparently flew the 2,300 miles from Israel to Entebbe Airport and surprised the hijackers on the ground.

The hijackers were spending the night with their hostages in the old passenger terminal at Entebbe where they have been confined all week. They had commandeered an Air France airliner last Sunday shortly after it had left Athens on its way to Paris. News agency reports from Entebbe said that a number of large explosions — perhaps bombs — were set off at a distant point on the airport, apparently to divert the ring of Uganda troops that had surrounded the old terminal all week.

The commandos reportedly broke into the old terminal and fought a gun battle with the heavily armed hijackers. Reports from the scene said that the terrorists had been killed in the skirmish, but military sources here declined to confirm or deny this.

The hostages apparently were then rushed to the waiting Israeli planes and flown away before Uganda forces could intervene.

An Israeli radio report said that the raiders were infantrymen and paratroopers dressed in civilian clothes.

Government sources here said that the decision to stage the military operation was approved unanimously by a special Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv yesterday. The decision was made, the sources said. when it became clear that the hijackers would not relent in their demands and were holding Israel responsible for the release of the 53 imprisoned Palestinian and pro‐Palestinian guerrillas that the hijackers’ had demanded be freed by Israel and four other countries’ in exchange for the hostages.

On Thursday, the Israel Cabinet reversed a long‐standing policy and agreed to negotiate) with the hijackers. The Cabinet decided in principle then to release some Arab prisoners buti not all that the hijackers had demanded.

Israel's willingness to negotiate an exchange was communicated to the hijackers through the French and Somali ambassadors on the scene at Entebbe. The hijackers reportedly refused to even discuss the Israeli proposal, insisting that only the mechanics of the exchange could be negotiated. Israel received this reply on Friday.

“It was at that point that military operation became real possibility,” a senior Government source said. Detailed plans for the operation were worked out Friday night and approved by the Cabinet yesterday at an unusual sabbath session.

Other sources suggested, however, that the original Cabinet decision on Thursday approving an exchange of prisoners for hostages had in fact been designed as a cover to buy time to prepare the military operation. In any event, the operation came as a surprise to the Israeli public, which had accepted the release of Arab prisoners as the only feasible way of freeing the hostages.

The first news of the rescue operation broke here at 3 A.M. with a terse announcement from the army spokesman, who said only that the hostages had been freed and were being returned to Israel.

The planes used in the operation were identified by the Israel Army radio this morning as C‐130 Hercules jet transports. although later there were con flicting reports on the type of plane. The American‐built and American‐supplied C‐130's have both the long‐range and loadcarrying capacity that would have been required for such an operation. Similar aircraft were used in the 1973 American airlift of arms to Israel during the October war.

The Israeli radio also reported that President Idi Amin of Uganda had telephoned an unidentified person in Israel a few hours after the rescue operation. No details of the call were made available.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was expected to brief the Cabinet and a special session of the Parliament later in the day on the details of the operation. Meanwhile, the families of the hostages were advised to assemble early this morning in Tel Aviv to meet the incoming flights from Nairobi.

French Comment

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 4 (UPI) — France's Ambassador to Kenya, Olivier Beleau, said that the Israelis had carried out the raid on the Uganda airport on their own and that France had not been asked to participate.

“We did not know anything about it, the Israelis did everything themselves.” Mr. Beleau said

He said that four Israeli planes had taken part in the raid and had fired heavily on the airport.

Special to The Ness York Times

WASHINGTON, July 3—Ani Administration official said to‐1

night that he had had uncon‐I. reports ‘that two persons

were killed in the Israeli rescue operation. The official had no details on the nationality of the two persons or where the kill ings took place.

A State Department spokesman said tonight that he had no comment on the incident.

Field Hospital Set Up

KAMPALA, Uganda, July 4 (Agence France‐Presse) —The Israeli attack on the Entebbe airport was made by three planes that landed and took off again shortly afterwards, a source here said today.

The source said the Israeli planes had flown off to land at Kenya's international airport outside Nairobi, where a field hospital had been set up.

The Israeli force struck Entebbe, on the hanks of Lake Victoria, shortly after midnight.

By the time reporters reached the field, an hour later, Entebbe was silent, except for single explosion. There was glow in the sky over the field.

About two hours later six Uganda armored vehicles set out from the capital, heading for Entebbe.

Negotiator Was Pessimistic KAMPALA, July 4 (AP)Several hours before the attack on the terminal building, a diplomat involved in negotiations with the pro‐Palestintan hijackers expressed pessimism about obtaining an extension of the Sunday deadline set for execution of the hostages if the hijackers’ demands were not satisfied.

Since the airbus was hijacked a week ago, the hijackers had demanded release of 53 extremists in jails in five countries — Israel, France, West Germany, Switzerland and, Kenya.

The hostages had been among an original group of more than 250 people aboard an Air France airliner that was hijacked last Sunday shortly after leaving Athens on its way to Paris. The plane was flown via Libya to Uganda, .and two groups of hostages have since been released.

The hijackers—their group reportedly included Arabs, Palestinians and Germans—released 143 passengers in two groups Wednesday and Thursday, and most were flown to Paris. Diplomats said the hijackers had rebuffed a mediation attempt by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrellab grouping of Palestinian units, which has denounced the hijacking.

In 1976, Israel’s Operation Thunderbolt Proved That Terrorism Doesn’t Pay

Here's What You Need To Remember: In the end, the terrorists didn’t get what they asked for, which was the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. But they got what they deserved. A hundred-strong Israeli rescue force, flying aboard four C-130 transports, flew 2,500 miles to Entebbe.

July 4, 1976, was a special day for America, Israel and international terrorism.

In America, it was the bicentennial, the two hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. For Israel, it was a day of redemption, after its commandos had rescued 102 hostages from pro-Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport, Uganda.

Alas for terrorists, July 4 was a black day. Now it was their turn to be terrorized. Every time they hijacked a plane, they would have to ask themselves: was there a commando team lurking in the darkness, waiting to storm the aircraft in a blaze of gunfire?

But on that Fourth of July in 1976, there was nothing for the terrorists to fear. Looking back forty years, it’s depressing how little things have changed. Today it is suicide bombers, but in the 1970s, the terror spectaculars were airliner hijackings. Wikipedia lists forty-four hijackings during that decade, committed by an assortment of Palestinians, European and Japanese radicals, African-American militants, Croatians, Kashmiris, Lithuanians, criminals, lunatics, and anyone else with a grievance, gun or grenade. Some hijackers surrendered others found sanctuary in places like Cuba and Algeria. But rarely did police or soldiers attempt to storm the aircraft and rescue the hostages.

So when four terrorists—two Palestinians and two German leftists—hijacked Air France Flight 139 as it departed Athens on June 27, 1976, they had every reason to feel the odds were in their favor. First, they successfully took over the Airbus A300, which carried 246 passengers, many of them Israeli and non-Israeli Jews. The aircraft first landed in Libya, and then flew to to Entebbe airport in Uganda.

Better news awaited them there. Ugandan president Idi Amin—a living example of why syphilis and statesmanship don’t mix—allowed three more terrorists to join their comrades. He also deployed his troops around the airport to protect the terrorists rather than the hostages.

A planeful of Jewish passengers held hostage thousands of miles from Israel, and guarded by armed soldiers as well? What more could a terrorist ask for?

In the end, the terrorists didn’t get what they asked for, which was the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. But they got what they deserved. A hundred-strong Israeli rescue force, flying aboard four C-130 transports, flew 2,500 miles to Entebbe. They landed on the runway, neutralized the Ugandan soldiers, killed the terrorists, rescued the hostages and blew up Idi Amin’s MiG fighters so they couldn’t shoot down the unescorted C-130s. The cost was three hostages accidentally killed by Israeli fire (a seventy-five-year-old woman was later murdered by a vengeful Amin). The one Israeli soldier killed was Yoni Netanyahu (elder brother of the current Israeli prime minister), shot by a Ugandan guard. Tragic losses, to be sure, but the toll could have been much worse.

Entebbe is one of those textbook military operations that will be studied until the end of time. Not only has the rescue been the subject of multiple movies and books, but American planners kept Entebbe in mind when they devised the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.

Brilliant endeavors always look easy in hindsight. Detractors would later say that the Israelis were lucky to be fighting Ugandans led by a buffoon who fancied himself a king of Scotland and blamed his defeat on Israeli “nuclear hand grenades.” It is true that the Ugandan army wasn’t Hezbollah. It is also true that some of the rescue operations that Entebbe spawned haven’t worked out, notably America’s disastrous 1980 Iran hostage rescue, and a bloody Egyptian attempt to storm a hijacked airliner in Cyprus in 1978. Had the Israeli operation failed, it would have gone down as one of history’s most harebrained ideas.

I believe there are three big lessons from Entebbe. The first is that that brains are just as important as technology, something that the Pentagon (and today’s Israeli military) would do well to remember. Entebbe was a remarkably low-tech operation. No drones, GPS or soldiers dressed like Iron Man. The C-130s, jeeps and Uzi submachine guns had more in common with World War II–era equipment than digital twenty-first-century gear.

The second is that chutzpah pays. Israel in 1976 had a reputation for military skill, but it was not the high-tech military power it is today. Had the United States mounted such an operation, there might have been aircraft carriers and B-52s in support. If the Israeli operation went wrong—if a C-130 had crashed, or the commandos been pinned down by enemy fire—they would have been stranded in the African jungles 2,500 miles and an eternity away from help. Who would have expected little Israel to dare attempt such a coup?

But the biggest lesson involves fear. Terrorism is all about creating fear, or more accurately, helplessness. The message of terrorists is that they can strike us at our airports and supermarkets and concert halls, and there is nothing we can do about it. Therefore we must submit to their demands or submit, like a dog that has been kicked too much.

I think that Entebbe has been immortalized not just for its military brilliance, but also because it speaks to something more visceral. It reassures us that we’re not powerless.

Not that counterterror commando raids are the total solution: America, Israel, Britain, France and other nations have killed plenty of terrorists, and still the bombs go off.

And as today’s world reels under massacres in Paris, Orlando and Istanbul, it is too easy to feel helpless. Too easy succumb to the despair that suicide bombers and murderous gunmen, just like airplane hijackers in the 1970s, are a fact of life, to be accepted like the weather.

Entebbe is a reminder that the only people who can make us feel helpless are ourselves.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article is being republished due to reader interest.

The story behind the Israeli raid to rescue Entebbe hostages

People look at the wreckages of war planes, destroyed during an Israeli operation on the Entebbe international airport in 1976 to rescue hostages, at Aero beach, south of Uganda's capital Kampala, July 3, 2016.

ENTEBBE - Forty years ago, Israeli commandos grabbed headlines with a bold raid at Entebbe airport to free the passengers of a plane hijacked by Palestinians and Germans radicals.

The operation took place overnight on July 3-4 1976, and freed all but four of 105 hostages, with the loss of one Israeli soldier, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Other casualties include three hostages killed during the attack, a fourth who was in hospital and later murdered on the orders of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, 20 Ugandan soldiers and seven hostage takers.

The drama began on June 27 when an Air France jet flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with more than 250 people was hijacked and forced to land in Benghazi, Libya. Two Palestinians and two members of a left-wing German group had boarded the plane during a stop in Athens.

On the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid, we look at how it changed Israel https://t.co/ULQ6Qi8Ga3 pic.twitter.com/X35dndhDWg

— The Jewish Chronicle (@JewishChron) July 4, 2016

The hijackers, including one woman, were armed with pistols, grenades and explosives.

Late on June 28, the Airbus A300 landed at Entebbe airport, south of Kampala, with permission from Amin, and three more people joined the hijackers.

The passengers and crew were taken to the terminal building and kept under guard.

The hijackers threatened to blow up the plane unless 53 Palestinians or supporters of their cause were freed within two days. Twenty nine of them were being held in Israel.

Going in at midnight

Israeli officials negotiated with the hijackers and were initially considering their demands, so the deadline was pushed back to July 4.

Meanwhile, talks between Amin and the hijackers resulted in the release of two sets of hostages, but 105 people -- Israeli and Jewish passengers, as well as members of the plane&39s crew -- remained in detention.

"Israel decided to act and not give in," prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was later quoted as saying, and with time running out, a complex military operation was given the green light.

Just before midnight on July 3, four Israeli C-130 transport planes flew low over Lake Victoria and landed at Entebbe after covering more than 3,600 kilometres (2,200 miles) and evading detection by Ugandan air controllers.

Entebbe 40th anniversary: How Israel really got hold of airport plans ahead of the raid https://t.co/yN2TQQDRh4 pic.twitter.com/CCX1Vry1Id

— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) July 4, 2016

Hercules heavy transport plane, as used in Entebbe raid 40 years ago (Pic taken at Israel Air Force museum) pic.twitter.com/JrVT1tA4tX

— Arik Gerber (@ArikGerber) July 4, 2016

General Dan Shomron commanded the airborne operation, several members of which occupied a black Mercedes like the one used by Amin. The commandos quickly seized key airport installations, but lost the element of surprise when they fired on Ugandan soldiers that challenged them in the dark.

A battle broke out and the hostages were freed, but three died along with Netanyahu, who led the first assault team. All seven hostage takers were shot dead, along with 20 Ugandan soldiers. One hostage, Dora Bloch, had been hospitalised before the raid, and Amin later ordered that she be killed.

A lot more interesting. how Uganda TV and a soldier guarding the hostages recall the Entebbe raid..https://t.co/yd41UEv7PP

— Gidon Shaviv (@GidonShaviv) July 4, 2016

Initially dubbed "Operation Thunderbolt," the raid was later renamed "Operation Jonatan" in honour of Netanyahu.

Amin, who was humiliated by the daring operation, lashed out at the Kenyan government for letting Israel use Nairobi&39s airport during the evacuation phase. Israel&39s Mossad intelligence service helped plan the raid with a map of the terminal provided by the Israeli company that built it, and information from passengers who had already been released.

The operation became a legendary example of special forces action, and several films and television documentaries have been based on it.

Rescue at Entebbe

A U.S. Air Force C-130 similar to the transports used by Israeli rescuers in 1976 sits near Entebbe Airport’s bullet-riddled old control tower during a 1993 Rwanda relief mission.

An Israeli transport squadron commander recounts the daring air operation to liberate hijacking hostages in Uganda.

Like all Israelis, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Shani had been closely following the hijacking drama of Air France Flight 139. Commandeered by two terrorists from the left-wing German Baader-Meinhof Gang and two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on June 27, 1976, the Paris-bound flight from Tel Aviv, via Athens, was diverted to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 jailed terrorists, threatening to kill the hostages if their demands were not met by July 1. While the hijacking was officially France’s responsibility, Israel was paying very close attention, since many Israelis and Jews were among the passengers.

In an exclusive interview, Shani recalled: “When we heard about the hijacking, we started to make plans in the squadron—plans that were very basic. We had no idea if anyone would even ask us, but we looked into range, navigation, fuel requirements, payloads we could carry, how we could fly beneath the radar between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and weather patterns for the time of year—very general preparations, just in case someone would approach us.”

The commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF) soon approached Shani. “I was at a wedding when [Maj. Gen.] Benny Peled personally called me and began asking questions,” he said. “It was a strange situation—the C-130 was a new aircraft in the IAF. The IAF is a fighter aircraft air force. No one really knew the C-130. No one knows the performance. So the chief of the air force calls a lieutenant colonel, the commander of the squadron, and said: ‘Tell me, is it possible—can you fly to Entebbe? How long will it take? What can you carry?’ The very questions we had been asking ourselves. I answered all his questions, leaving him with the impression that a rescue would be feasible.”

The crew of the first C-130 that landed at Entebbe poses with their plane after the mission. Joshua Shani is at center in the front row. (Israel Air Force)

One of the plans the military leaders originally came up with involved dropping naval commandos into Lake Victoria. The plan called for them to make their way in rubber boats to Entebbe Airport, which borders the lake, take the terminal, kill the terrorists and free the hostages before asking Ugandan President Idi Amin for safe passage home.

On the third day of the crisis, in a move all too reminiscent of the Nazi “selections” that determined who would live and who would die, the terrorists separated all Israeli and other Jewish passengers from the others, freeing and sending the non-Jews to France the following day. Interviews with freed hostages revealed that Amin’s daily visits to the hostages had been a farce the Ugandan head of state allowed more Palestinians to join their colleagues at the airport and stationed Ugandan troops to guard the terminal where the hostages were being held. With Amin abetting the hijackers, a rescue would need to physically remove the hostages from Entebbe. Israel decided that it must act.

Ironically, the smaller number of hostages made rescue planning easier. Based on the new intelligence, the plan to drop commandos into Lake Victoria was canceled after much valuable time had been lost. Plans for an airborne hostage rescue operation were accelerated.

Colonel Shani was tasked with serving as lead pilot for the hostage rescue mission to Entebbe, code-named “Operation Thunderball” (“after the James Bond movie,” according to Shani). It was no easy assignment: The air force was to avoid detection while flying 2,361 miles, land at a hostile airport and deliver a cargo of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers to Entebbe’s old terminal building to surprise the terrorists, then fly the freed hostages home to Israel.

“We had examined our options,” Shani recounted. “Israel had [Boeing 377] Stratocruisers and Boeing 707s, but the only option to fly low and penetrate, to offload equipment, was the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Maybe we would encounter a short runway, or require a short takeoff, or no runway at all. Maybe there would be obstructions. There were too many questions. Only the Hercules could carry all the equipment the ground forces needed for the job.”

Shani busied himself with selecting aircrews, which proved to be a challenge. “Everyone was a veteran of transport or even fighter aircraft, and all were of a high level,” he recalled. “I had to close and lock the door to my office and write on the board the names of the crews that would participate. All were veteran pilots who had either flown to Entebbe before or been instructors to the Ugandan air force and knew the airport well.”

Shani explained that Israel had helped Uganda build and train its air force. IAF aircraft had flown frequently to Entebbe in support of these activities, until Libyan influence led Idi Amin to expel his Israeli advisers and adopt an anti-Israel posture.

Next came coordination with the ground forces on how the operation would be carried out. Shani met with Lt. Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, commander of the Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando brigade whose job would be to storm the old terminal, kill the terrorists and free the hostages. Time was critically short: The hijackers’ deadline had already been extended by three days to July 4, when they threatened they would kill the 105 remaining hostages. With the terrorists’ ultimatum fast approaching, there were only two days to plan the operation. “We simply did not have time to plan the thousands of elements that go into such an operation,” Shani said. “The entire operation was planned over 48 hours. Planning an operation like this might take another military a month, two months, six months or more, but we had two days, so we probably covered only 2 percent of the plan, leaving 98 percent to improvisation.”

The rescuers flew from Israel to Entebbe via Sharm el Sheik, and returned via Nairobi, Kenya. (Kevin Johnson)

Shani gave an example: “In case the runway at Entebbe was not illuminated and we couldn’t make out the runway on radar, one of the crew prepared a text: ‘We are East African Airways flight number such and such. We have wounded on board. Please illuminate runway lighting.’ Show me the air traffic controller who wouldn’t have turned on the runway lights.”

Once on the ground at Entebbe, Shani would have to get the commandos as close to the old terminal building as possible, yet taxiing too close to the terminal would alert the terrorists, who might then open fire on the hostages. The Ugandan president provided the solution to this challenge.

“We watched the CBS news each evening and saw Idi Amin coming to visit the hostages, where he mockingly welcomed them to Uganda,” Shani explained. “He enjoyed the exposure from the world media. He came with a black Mercedes from the runway to visit the hostages in the terminal, escorted by two Land Rover jeeps. So when we made the plan, we thought it would be smart if we used the same thing, and the Ugandan soldiers guarding the building might hesitate, at least for a few seconds. And that’s what was done, and exactly what happened, so they could penetrate into the terminal building. The only problem was that we didn’t have any Mercedes in the IDF, so they rented one. There wasn’t a black one—only a white one, so we painted it. Not a bad deal—we didn’t put much mileage on it!”

There were still many unknowns, so a senior officer would be required in case critical decisions had to be made on the scene. “Decisions such as in the event they needed to destroy an airplane,” Shani explained, “or whether to take Idi Amin’s C-130 if we didn’t have transportation to go back home.” Operation Thunderball commander Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron would fly with Shani in the lead aircraft, followed by three other C-130s.

Two Boeing 707s were added to the mission: one for command and control, and a second to serve as a flying hospital, since many casualties were expected. The command-and-control aircraft was supposed to fly at standoff range from Entebbe when the C-130s landed there, while the ambulance was sent to Nairobi, Kenya. Deputy chief of general staff Maj. Gen. Kuti Adam and IAF commander Peled flew in the command-and-control plane.

Concerned that the Ugandans would cut the runway lights, the military leadership sought assurances from Shani that he could land on an unlit runway—something in which his squadron was not experienced. “We had to practice at Sharm [el Sheik, at the southern point of the Sinai Desert] on landing without runway lights,” he said. “We had to demonstrate, so I did a little trick: I took the airplane out a few hours before just to practice myself to make sure that I can do it, and understand the topography around the runway. Later I demonstrated to the big chiefs.”

With chief of general staff Lt. Gen. Moredechai “Motta” Gur, Maj. Gen. Peled and head of air force operations Avihu Bin-Nun in the cockpit “breathing down my neck,” Shani said he flew two nighttime landing practice runs. “We were using first-generation night vision goggles, which were lousy—really primitive. We demonstrated a radar-assisted landing for the military leadership. I can’t say the practice run went particularly well, but we explained that the difference was a landing at Sharm, which is inland, versus the runway at Entebbe…on the lake edge, which is easy to identify on radar. I told them it would not be a problem. They were happy. I knew that everybody wanted to do the mission, so my job was to help them make the right decision, which I think I did. And they approved the mission.”

Late Friday night, there was a full dress rehearsal using a hastily built replica of Entebbe’s old terminal building. The following day the commandos and infantry completed their preparations, loaded their equipment on the C-130s and flew to Ophir Air Force Base in the Sinai Desert. Timing for a midnight (Israel time) landing at Entebbe dictated a 15:30 hours departure on July 3, at the peak of the afternoon heat.

“The takeoff from Sharm was one of the heaviest ever in the history of this airplane,” Shani said. “It was 30 to 40 percent more than the maximum normal takeoff weight of the C-130 at that time, and I didn’t have a clue what would happen. The aircraft was crowded with Yoni’s assault party, the Mercedes and Land Rovers, and a paratrooper force. I gave it maximum power, and the airplane was just taxiing, not accelerating. At the very end of the runway, I was probably 2 knots over the stall speed, and I had to lift off, and to be airborne I needed to stay with the ground effect, which is like four or five, six meters above the water, to gain a few more knots of airspeed. I couldn’t make the turn, I took off north but had to turn south—the destination was to the south. Just making the turn, struggling to keep control, but you know, airplanes have feelings, and all turned out well.”

The Israeli government had yet to approve the rescue mission, but to maintain schedule the force had to depart, with the option of being called back. Radio silence would be broken only to recall the formation.

“It was a 7½-hour flight to Entebbe from Sharm el Sheik, but we started long before that,” Shani continued. “There was the flight to Sharm, and all the preparations the day before. The flight was physically difficult. We had to fly very close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, over the Gulf of Suez. The problem was not violating anyone’s airspace—it’s an international air route. The problem was that they might pick us up, so we had to fly really low to avoid radar. And we really did fly low….we flew 100 feet above the water, a formation of four. The main element was surprise. All it takes is one truck to block a runway, and that’s all. The operation would be over. Therefore, secrecy was critical.

“At some places that were particularly dangerous, we flew at 35 feet. I recall the altimeter reading. Trust me, this is scary! In this situation, you cannot fly close formation. As flight leader, I didn’t know if I still had No. 2, 3 and 4 behind me because there was total radio silence. This is something we didn’t cover in the briefing. You can’t see behind you in a C-130. Luckily they were smart, so from time to time they would show themselves to me and then go back to their place in the formation, so I still knew I had my formation with me.

“We were carrying heavy cargo loads in excess of allowable maximums. We had very bad weather, and we encountered thunderstorms by Lake Victoria, which was very unpleasant for the soldiers behind many soldiers threw up. It was also quite hot. It was very, very difficult. Nobody was strapped in, a total mess, but luckily nothing happened.

“Upon reaching Ethiopia, where we knew there was no radar, we went up to 20,000 feet, and could speak freely on the radio for the last four hours of the flight. I left the formation by the Kenyan-Ugandan border and continued alone, the plan calling for my airplane to land seven minutes before the others, to achieve maximum surprise the other three aircraft were in a holding pattern, allowing enough time for me to land and taxi to the terminal, [get the] Mercedes and Land Rovers out, and the commandos to storm the building.

“My main problem in this operation was to land quietly, and to do it in one shot, and not have to go around and make noise. And for this I used the Hercules’ airborne radar, which is not designed to do a blind landing. It’s a weather radar, mapping radar, but we used the terrain between the runway and surroundings to do an airborne radar approach. To do so we needed a real picture of how the airport really looked from a 3 degree approach angle. For this we used the Mossad [Israel’s intelligence agency]. What they did for us—they took some pictures of the approach so the navigator could compare the radar picture with something real.

“I was under tremendous, tremendous pressure. It was not fear of being killed or wounded, but fear of failure. The responsibility on my shoulders—I can’t describe how difficult it was. Everything was on me. I had a crew, I had my commander in the 707 and I had communications with the HF radio—all this is true—but eventually there was me. I think my white hair started there, overnight. There was tremendous pressure to succeed. By mistake, I could have created a national disaster. Think about it—how many people would have died at Entebbe if I had made a mistake, so that was the main fear. But I still had the sense—when I was talking on the intercom in the cockpit I was speaking very fast, with high pitch, as one speaks when under pressure. But when the chief of the air force was talking to me from the 707 and asked if I could see the runway, was everything OK, was everything under control, I took a few deep breaths, and answered him in a soft, confident voice. We could see the illuminated runway, but we operated as if the runway was not visible, even though there was no need.”

Entebbe’s skies were overcast, with light rain falling. The C-130’s landing lights went on at the last possible moment to give the least amount of warning of the aircraft’s approach. Shani touched down at 2300 Uganda time, just 30 seconds behind plan. The Hercules cargo ramp was lowered and the Mercedes’ and Land Rovers’ engines started.

“I stopped in the middle of the runway,” Shani said, “and a group of paratroopers jumped from the side doors and marked the runway with electric lights—a 600-meter runway, because we expected something would happen, that someone would switch off the lights when the shooting would start. I left them there. The paratroopers went on to take the control tower.

“I turned right and taxied toward the old terminal building, stopping far enough from the terminal so they wouldn’t hear our aircraft, yet close enough so that the Mercedes and Land Rovers would have a short trip to the terminal. The Mercedes and Land Rovers drove out from the back cargo door of my airplane, and the commandos stormed the old terminal building.”

Israelis used a Mercedes similar to Amin’s to surprise the terrorists. (Courtesy of Joshua Shani )

When a pair of Ugandan sentries challenged the motorcade, the assault team opened fire. Fearing the terrorists might be alerted by the gunfire, the commandos raced toward the terminal building. They exchanged gunfire with both terrorists and Ugandan troops. Co – ordinating the assault from outside, Sayeret Matkal’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, was fatally struck by a shot fired by a Ugandan soldier in the control tower. (The operation was later renamed “Operation Yonatan” in his memory.) Another soldier was badly wounded, and three hostages were killed in the crossfire.

By the time the other three C-130s began landing seven minutes after Shani’s aircraft had touched down, all seven terrorists had been killed and the hostages freed. Some 45 Ugandan soldiers also lost their lives that night. While Hercules No. 3 was approaching, the Ugandans cut the runway lights, but it landed safely. The last C-130, whose job was to pick up the hostages, landed with the aid of the lighting laid out by the paratroopers and taxied close to the old terminal building.

Armored personnel carriers and infantrymen offloaded and took up positions around the airport the APCs secured the area around the old terminal building while infantrymen sealed off access to the airport and took control of the new terminal and control tower, allowing time to refuel and for the hostages to be safely evacuated.

The aircrews remained busy. “We had a little problem: We needed fuel to fly back home,” said Shani. “Minor issue—it was a one-way ticket! We brought a fuel pump that we planned to connect to the underground fuel you have in international airports, and to refuel the airplanes. The other plan was to take off and land at an alternate destination to refuel, Nairobi being the preferred place, but nothing was confirmed, nothing firm. When the command-and-control aircraft flying overhead informed us ‘the Nairobi option is open,’ we were already hooked up to the fuel and starting to refuel. But the Ugandans had lost control and were shooting all over the place with tracers….Trust me—it’s not pleasant to sit there and to see the tracers around you. You need just a few holes in an airplane to ground an airplane, so I made a decision to stop the refueling and to fly to Nairobi.

“Before radio contact with the command-and-control aircraft was lost as the 707 went out of range, the air force chief called over the net: ‘Don’t forget the MiGs,’” recalled Shani, referring to the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 fighters based at Entebbe. “Theoretically the MiGs could chase us after takeoff. It was very theoretical because they didn’t have any night capability. But Idi Amin deserved this. It was the job of [Shaul] Mofaz, who years later became minister of defense in Israel, to destroy these MiGs. Mofaz’s force took out about eight to 12 aircraft. The ensuing explosions lit up the night sky, clearly revealing our aircraft parked on the tarmac. I was nervous, but all ended well.

“After some 45 to 50 minutes on the ground, we were ready to go. I gave the order: ‘Whoever is ready, take off.’ I remember the satisfaction of seeing the No. 4, with the hostages on board, taking off from Entebbe—the sight of its silhouette in the night. It was then I knew. That’s it. We did it. The mission succeeded.

C-130 No. 4 arrives at Tel Nof with the freed hostages. (Israel Air Force)

“The short stopover in Nairobi provided the first moments to relax,” continued Shani. “Between half an hour to an hour we were on the ground in Nairobi, just to get some relief for the troops after being in the airplane for so long….During the refueling, it was my only opportunity to see the hostages. I walked from my airplane to the hostages’ airplane. They were still inside—all of them, about 105 of them, with some lying on the ground, and I tried to talk to some of the people but you couldn’t talk to them at all. They were confused, in total shock. What I saw there is something I will remember forever. I still remember the facial expressions, all the way from hysteria, fear, relief, exhaustion, happiness and exhilaration. I saw all the expressions that exist in the world in one short look at this group of 105 people. It was a very strong picture.

“We were still a long way from home, with an eight-hour flight ahead of us. Word had already leaked out that something had happened at Entebbe, and this was being reported by French media and the British BBC. We tuned the long-range radios on the airplane to the news, and were shocked to hear [Minister of Defense] Shimon Peres acknowledge that we were on our way back from Entebbe with the hostages. We were only by Ethiopia, with a very long way yet to fly, and they are talking about us. We flew by Egypt, and this was before the peace treaty, so Egypt was an enemy. A formation of [IAF McDonnell Douglas] F-4 Phantoms greeted us by Ras Banas, not far from the Egyptian-Sudan border, and escorted us back home.”

The four aircraft landed at Tel Nof Air Force Base. Hercules No. 4 with the freed hostages continued on to Ben Gurion Airport, where they were reunited with jubilant family members. “The other three airplanes remained for a debrief just to get some hot information before it gets lost,” Shana said. “Here comes Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, walking up to me….I’ve been in my flying suit for 24 hours straight, in temperatures over 100 degrees in the airplane, sweating and smelly, and here walks the prime minister with big open arms. I’m thinking, please don’t hug me—he may die from this! He hugged me for what felt like a full minute, and said only, ‘Thanks.’

Families greet the liberated passengers after the flight to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. Four hostages lost their lives in Uganda. (Israel Air Force)

“Coming home, there was immense euphoria, combined with overwhelming fatigue. For me and for the deputy leaders and senior navigators, the operation was three to four days without any sleep. The adrenalin must have been working overtime, but that combination of total weariness and total excitement is a wonderful feeling.”

Uganda protested the Israeli raid as a violation if its sovereignty and unsuccessfully sought UN condemnation of Israel. Idi Amin was humiliated by the hostage rescue, his reputation tarnished. On Amin’s orders, an elderly hostage who had been taken to a local hospital was dragged from her hospital bed and murdered, and Amin reportedly ordered the execution of all the Entebbe airport workers. His brutal rule would continue until April 1979, when he fled the country after defeat in an equally humiliating war with neighboring Tanzania.

Operation Yonatan brought new respect for the IAF transport wing. For Lt. Col. Joshua Shani, it was a career highlight. In his 30-plus years serving in the Israel Air Force, Shani would accumulate 13,000 flight hours, among them 7,000 in C-130s. Over the years, Shani commanded three squadrons and a mixed base of four squadrons and eight ground units. He retired as a brigadier general after serving as the air force attaché at Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C.

For further reading, Israel-based contributor Gary Rashba recommends Yoni’s Last Battle, by Iddo Netanyahu.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

This Day in History | 1976 – Israelis rescue Entebbe hostages

Israeli commandos have rescued 100 hostages, mostly Israelis or Jews, held by pro-Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport in Uganda.

At about 0100 local time (2200GMT), Ugandan soldiers and the hijackers were taken completely by surprise when three Hercules transport planes landed after a 2,500-mile trip from Israel.

About 200 elite troops ran out and stormed the airport building. During a 35-minute battle, 20 Ugandan soldiers and all seven hijackers died along with three hostages.

The leader of the assault force, Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, was also shot dead by a Ugandan sentry.

The Israelis destroyed 11 Russian-built MiG fighters, which amounted to a quarter of Uganda’s air force.

The surviving hostages were then flown to Israel with a stopover in Nairobi, Kenya, where some of the injured were treated by Israeli doctors and at least two transferred to hospital there.

Speaking at the Israeli Knesset (parliament) this afternoon, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who ordered the raid said: “This operation will certainly be inscribed in the annals of military history, in legend and in national tradition.”

The crisis began on 27 June, when four militants seized an Air France flight, flying from Israel to Paris via Athens, with 250 people on board.

The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – diverted the plane to Entebbe, where it arrived on 28 June.

The hijackers – who were joined by three more colleagues – demanded the release of 53 militants held in jails in Israel and four other countries.

Uganda’s President and dictator Idi Amin arrived at the airport to give a speech in support of the PFLP and supplied the hijackers with extra troops and weapons.

On 1 July, the hijackers released a large number of hostages but continued to hold captive the remaining 100 passengers who were Israelis or Jews. Those who were freed were flown to Paris and London.

Among them were British citizens George Good, a retired accountant and Tony Russell, a senior GLC official, who arrived in London on Friday.

The crew were offered the chance to go but chose to stay with the plane. The remaining hostages were transferred to the airport building.

The hijackers then set a deadline for 1100GMT for their demands to be met or they would blow up the airliner and its passengers. But their plan was foiled by the dramatic Israeli raid.

The mission, originally dubbed Operation Thunderbolt by the Israeli military, was renamed Operation Yonatan in honor of Netanyahu – elder brother of Binyamin Netanyahu, who was Israel’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999.

The raid continues to be source of pride for the Israeli public, and many of the participants went on to high office in Israel’s military and political establishment.

Among them was Dan Shomron, who was in overall command of the rescue operation. He became Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Force.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated during his second term in office in 1995.

Idi Amin was humiliated by the surprise raid. He believed Kenya had colluded with Israel in planning the raid and hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda were massacred soon afterwards.

But from this time, Amin’s regime began to break down. Two years later Idi Amin was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. He died in Jeddah in August 2003.

(From L) Eyal Oren, Shlomo Carmel, Jaffer Amin, Amjon Peled, Alex Davidi, unidentified, and Amir Ofer, members of the former Israeli Commandos and Entebbe hostages, pose for a photo in Kampala, on June 14, 2016

Entebbe (Uganda) (AFP) - Forty years ago, Israeli commandos grabbed headlines with a bold raid at Entebbe airport to free the passengers of a plane hijacked by Palestinians and Germans radicals.

The operation took place overnight on July 3-4 1976, and freed all but four of 105 hostages, with the loss of one Israeli soldier, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Other casualties include three hostages killed during the attack, a fourth who was in hospital and later murdered on the orders of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, 20 Ugandan soldiers and seven hostage takers.

The drama began on June 27 when an Air France jet flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with more than 250 people was hijacked and forced to land in Benghazi, Libya. Two Palestinians and two members of a left-wing German group had boarded the plane during a stop in Athens.

The hijackers, including one woman, were armed with pistols, grenades and explosives.

Late on June 28, the Airbus A300 landed at Entebbe airport, south of Kampala, with permission from Amin, and three more people joined the hijackers.

The passengers and crew were taken to the terminal building and kept under guard.

The hijackers threatened to blow up the plane unless 53 Palestinians or supporters of their cause were freed within two days. Twenty nine of them were being held in Israel.

Israeli officials negotiated with the hijackers and were initially considering their demands, so the deadline was pushed back to July 4.

Meanwhile, talks between Amin and the hijackers resulted in the release of two sets of hostages, but 105 people -- Israeli and Jewish passengers, as well as members of the plane's crew -- remained in detention.

"Israel decided to act and not give in," prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was later quoted as saying, and with time running out, a complex military operation was given the green light.

Just before midnight on July 3, four Israeli C-130 transport planes flew low over Lake Victoria and landed at Entebbe after covering more than 3,600 kilometres (2,200 miles) and evading detection by Ugandan air controllers.

General Dan Shomron commanded the airborne operation, several members of which occupied a black Mercedes like the one used by Amin. The commandos quickly seized key airport installations, but lost the element of surprise when they fired on Ugandan soldiers that challenged them in the dark.

A battle broke out and the hostages were freed, but three died along with Netanyahu, who led the first assault team. All seven hostage takers were shot dead, along with 20 Ugandan soldiers. One hostage, Dora Bloch, had been hospitalised before the raid, and Amin later ordered that she be killed.

Initially dubbed "Operation Thunderbolt," the raid was later renamed "Operation Jonatan" in honour of Netanyahu.

Amin, who was humiliated by the daring operation, lashed out at the Kenyan government for letting Israel use Nairobi's airport during the evacuation phase. Israel's Mossad intelligence service helped plan the raid with a map of the terminal provided by the Israeli company that built it, and information from passengers who had already been released.

The operation became a legendary example of special forces action, and several films and television documentaries have been based on it.

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Netanyahu and the Israeli Raid on Entebbe

Uncertainty filled the hearts of 248 passengers of an Air France plane when the aircraft was commandeered by terrorists on 27 June 1976. The hijackers were demanding the release of Palestinian and affiliate militants that were imprisoned in Israel.

One of these was Koza Okamoto, a Japanese Red Army (JRA) member recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-External Operations. He was part of the three-man attack on Lod Airport popularly known as the Lod Airport Massacre. The hijackers also demanded the release of 13 other prisoners held in four different countries.

Rescued Air France passengers. Photo: Government Press Office (Israel) / CC BY-SA 3.0

The flight which took off from Tel Aviv and originally Paris bound was hijacked after a stopover at Athens. Two Palestinian and two German hijackers were reported to have boarded the plane alongside 54 other passengers.

Of the hijackers, one was a female Brigitte Kuhlmann, one of the founding members of the West German left-wing military group, Revolutionary Cells. The hijackers totaled 7 in number.

Idi Amin -Archives New Zealand CC BY 2.0

The plane was redirected and landed in Benghazi, Libya, where it was refueled and thereafter taken to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, where they made their landing on June 28.

The old terminal building of the Entebbe International Airport.

The passengers were separated into two categories Israeli and non-Israeli Jews in one category and other passengers, mainly French, in the second. The members of the second group were released over the next two days and flown to Paris, their original destination. The Israeli captives, meanwhile, were held for a week before special Israeli forces raided and successfully rescued them.

The decision to go ahead with the rescue mission was made on the eve of 3 July after the Israeli authorities failed to find a political solution to the crisis at hand. It was now considered, without dispute, that the way forward was through covert ops.

The hostages were held at an abandoned airport on the edge of the Lake Victoria and the Israelis initially considered dropping their elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal into the lake from where they would ride off in boats and find their way into the airport. However, a report of the presence of crocodiles in the lake meant the plan was changed.

Lake Victoria
Mandiafrika / CC BY-SA 3.0

The hijackers sealed their fate with the decision to release other passengers as the information provided from extensive interrogations with the released hostages by Israeli intelligence yielded good results. They were able to determine the number of weapons in the possession of the hijackers as well as other information that helped build intelligence.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) acted on the information that was relayed to them by Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, which proved to be accurate. The number of hijackers, the precise location of the hostages in the building, and the expected level of resistance from the Ugandan soldiers who supported the hijackers were provided so the 100-man unit would not be flying into enemy territory blind.

A reunion of a hijack victim and family. Photo: Government Press Office (Israel) / CC BY-SA 3.0

The team was comprised of three groups made up from the Sarayet Matkal, Israeli paratroopers, and men from the Golani infantry brigade. The Sarayat Matkal commandos were tasked with two elements of the operation: assaulting the terminal and rescuing the hostages, and eliminating the MiG fighter planes on the ground at the airstrip and holding off any hostilities until the hostages were and homebound.

The paratroopers were tasked with securing the airport and its runway as well as securing and fuelling the Israeli aircraft in Entebbe. The Golani force, led by Col. Uri Sagi, was charged with securing a Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft to be used to carry out the evacuation of the hostages, getting it as close to the terminal as possible while acting as backup in case of needed support.

Three USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft are parked in front of the empty “Raid on Entebbe” terminal. The building is still pockmarked from the infamous 1976 Israeli rescue operations.

With a detailed plan in place and under a very tight schedule, the rescue operation task force of 4 Israeli Hercules C-130s took off from the town of Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt and flew over the Red Sea towards Djibouti. It then made its way across Somalia and towards Nairobi in Kenya, where a Boeing 707 jet carrying medical supplies landed. The others planes proceeded to Lake Victoria before landing.

The commandos set foot on Entebbe soil at about 11:00 PM Israeli Time. They then proceeded in a convoy of vehicles intended to look like that of President Idi Amin of Uganda in order to avoid detection. However, they were halted by Ugandan soldiers posted at the checkpoints who were not so easily deceived shots from silenced pistols left the soldiers wounded but unsuppressed gunfire from one of the Israeli commandos announced the presence of gun activity and the team hastily approached the terminal in order to their plan.

One of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport planes lands at Ben-Gurion Airport carrying hijacked Air France passengers rescued in the IDF Operation Entebbe. Photo: Photo: Government Press Office (Israel) / CC BY-SA 3.0

The rescue team abandoned their Land Rovers and made their way into the building, telling people to stay on the ground through a megaphone both in English and Hebrew. Some people panicked at hearing the voice of the rescuers and ignored the previous warning to stay down. The commandos mistook these for the hijackers and fired, killing two of the hostages.

Rescued Air France passengers. Photo: Government Press Office (Israel) / CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the hijackers, the German, Wilfried, was gunned down in the place where the hostages were being kept. He was the only hijacker found there and the Israeli operatives inquired about the location of the remaining hijackers from the hostages, who, with a show of fingers, pointed them in the direction of a room. The Israeli soldiers threw in grenades first, after which they went in and shot three more hijackers.

Wall plaque found at the old terminal building of the Entebbe International Airport.

Upon concluding their business, the commandos lay waste to the Ugandan MiG fighter jets in the area and conducted a sweep of the airfield before departure but as fate would have it, not all of the Israeli soldiers would leave the airport alive that day, and in a series of back and forth gunfire between the departing commandos and Ugandan hostiles, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commanding officer of the Israeli assault team, was shot and killed.

Some of the other commandos were also wounded. The Ugandan who shot Yonathan was killed in the return fire.

Netanyahu’s gravestone.

The operation, which lasted about 55 minutes, saw the deaths of the 7 hijackers along with 45 Ugandan soldiers, one of whom was reported to be the president’s cousin, and 11 Ugandan MiG fighter jets were destroyed. Of the 106 hostages that were held, the raid recorded the successful rescue of 102 hostages – 3 were killed during the operation.

One of the hostages, Dora Bloch, hospitalized at a Ugandan hospital after reportedly choking on a chicken bone was left behind and eventually killed by Ugandan soldiers along with her attending doctors and nurses under the orders of Idi Amin.

Jonathan Netanyahu – Brother of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In honor of Yonathan Netanyahu, the commander who was killed in action that day, the operation is sometimes referred to as Operation Jonathan. And in September 1976, the Jonathan Institute was founded by Yonathan’s brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, to sponsor terrorism-related international conferences.

Remembering History’s Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission: Entebbe, July 4, 1976

How Israel showed the world that the war on terror could be won.

On July 4 th , 1976, as America celebrated its Bicentennial, four Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules planes carrying over 100 Jewish passengers, twelve Air France flight personnel, and their Israeli rescuers landed safely at Ben Gurion Airport. The safe landing of civilians and commandos marked the end of a week-long, nightmarish drama that gripped all of Israel.

The saga began on June 27, when a Paris-bound Air France commercial airliner took off from Tel-Aviv. The plane was scheduled for a stopover in Athens. Lax security at Athens International Airport enabled four terrorists with forged passports – two from the notorious West German Baader-Meinhof Gang and two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – to board the flight with their guns, grenades and explosives.

Their hijacking adventure set into motion a sequence of events that would reverberate around the world. It would also ultimately serve to further enhance the prestige and reputation of Israel’s vaunted, specialized commando units and intelligences services.

After a brief refueling stopover in Benghazi, Libya, the terrorists flew their commandeered Airbus A-300 to Entebbe airport in Uganda where they were given a hero’s welcome by their mercurial Ugandan host, the cannibalistically-inclined dictator, Idi Amin. In addition to providing them with safe haven, the despotic Amin placed elements of the Ugandan army at the hijackers’ disposal. In addition to the Ugandans, the terrorists’ ranks now swelled to seven, having been joined by three PFLP operatives during the Benghazi stopover.

Upon landing at Entebbe, the hostages were ferried to the airport’s old terminal building. As luck would have it, an Israeli construction firm had built the terminal for the Ugandans and promptly handed over the construction blueprints to Israeli intelligence for analysis. Still, the outlook was bleak for the hostages. Uganda was more than 3,000 miles from Jerusalem. Moreover, any attempt at air rescue would necessitate flying through radar coverage of three enemy countries – Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The well-armed terrorists seemed insulated from attack.

Soon after their arrival, the terrorists segregated those holding Israeli passports and those with Jewish-sounding surnames from the rest of the passengers. The Jews were placed in another room within the terminal. The depressing irony of armed Germans separating Jews – including Holocaust survivors – from non-Jews just thirty years post-Holocaust could not be overstated.

On June 29, the terrorists began releasing the non-Jewish passengers adding additional pressure on the Israeli government to act. The terrorists were transforming an international problem into an Israeli one in an effort to isolate the Jewish state. The Air France flight crew, headed by its captain, Michel Bacos, courageously opted to stay with the Israelis. Bacos died this year at the age of 95 and was recognized by both France and Israel for his heroism.

The release of the non-Jewish passengers represented the first critical mistake of the terrorists. They were immediately debriefed by Israeli intelligence on any information that could potentially assist in a rescue effort. One passenger in particular, Ninette Morenu, possessed a near photographic memory and provided detailed information that would prove invaluable to the rescue operation. Morenu, who was Jewish, was released by mistake due to her non-Jewish sounding surname. Her grandson, Emmanuel Morenu, would later become an officer in the Israel Defense Force’s Sayeret Matkal, the very unit charged with rescuing the Entebbe’s hostages.

Contemporaneous with the debriefing, the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, dispatched an operative to fly a light plane over Entebbe to engage in aerial reconnaissance. The pilot informed the control tower that his plane was experiencing engine trouble and the Ugandans bought the ruse. The Mossad pilot’s photographs provided vital information on the strength, disposition and placement of the Ugandan forces at the airport.

Meanwhile, the hijackers demanded the release of dozens of terrorists held by Israel, Kenya, France, Germany and Switzerland and warned Israel that they would begin executing the hostages by midday of July 1, unless their demands were met. The Israeli government pretended to negotiate while formulating a rescue plan, winning an extension from the terrorists until 2:00 p.m., July 4.

Two plans were presented. The first involved a combined naval commando/paratroop crossing of Lake Victoria from Kenya and seizing Entebbe airport, located adjacent to its shoreline. The hostages would then be spirited out to Kenya with captured Ugandan trucks. This plan was deemed unfeasible. The second option and the one ultimately settled upon was a direct commando assault against Entebbe airport using C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The unit entrusted with spearheading the dangerous mission was Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit commonly tasked with carrying out hazardous missions at home and abroad. The Matkal commandos, 33 of them, would be the first to land. Paratroops in the other Hercules aircraft, under the command of Matan Vilnai, would touch down seven minutes later and serve as backup.

Tasked with leading the initial rescue assault force was Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, a man who exuded confidence, and whose considerable military skill and experience made him ideally suited for the command. The unit’s sub-commander was Muki Betzer.

Betzer knew Uganda well having been stationed there some years prior as a military adviser. Relations between Uganda’s Amin and Israel were at one time cordial but soured after Israel refused to supply Amin with weapons that the Israelis believed would be utilized against Uganda’s neighbor, Kenya. Amin was also heavily influenced by Libya’s rabidly anti-Israel dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Betzer’s opinion of the Ugandan soldier was low. In a documentary, he described their military capabilities as rudimentary (they knew how to load a magazine and read a map) and their motivation as low.

Assaulting Entebbe and rescuing the hostages with minimal casualties presented many challenges but simply flying the commandos there presented equally daunting challenges. The C-130s would have to evade the radars of three enemy countries. Moreover, the runway lights at Entebbe airport were expected to be closed forcing the massive transport planes to land in the dark. All these thoughts swirled through the mind of Joshua Shani, the Israeli Air Force squadron leader tasked with piloting the lead C-130 carrying the Matkal commandos.

To circumvent enemy radar, the C-130s flew the length of the Red Sea for some 900 miles at low level before penetrating the African continent toward Uganda. To Shani’s surprise and relief, the Ugandans had not turned off the runway lights. He landed his C-130 undetected. The other C-130s carrying additional forces would land approximately seven minutes later.

The Sayeret Matkal now had to cover approximately 2.4 kilometers of ground to reach the old terminal building where the hostages were held. A column of Land Rovers led by a black Mercedes, similar to the type used by Amin, stealthily made its way to the old terminal. A Ugandan sentry greeted the Mercedes by raising his Kalashnikov assault rifle. Betzer, who was familiar with Ugandan military greeting protocols, did not view the Ugandan’s actions as threatening, and urged Yoni to ignore the Ugandan and keep driving to the terminal. Netanyahu disagreed. He and another commando pumped several silenced rounds into the Ugandan. Unfortunately, it didn’t do the trick forcing another commando to fire his unsilenced AK-47 at the Ugandan to confirm the kill.

The burst of automatic fire broke the silence of the still night and alerted the Ugandans and terrorists to the presence of a potential problem. Undaunted by the loss of surprise, the commandos pressed forward and stormed the terminal, ordering the hostages to remain on the floor. A fierce firefight ensued with the Israelis firing short, controlled bursts, systematically eliminating all threats to themselves and the hostages.

Meanwhile, additional forces from the remaining C-130s arrived, and with sheer tenacity and firepower, helped the commandos overwhelm remaining opposition. Having safely secured the hostages and neutralized the enemy threat, the para-commandos turned their attention to Ugandan air force MiG -21 and MiG-17 jet fighters parked at the tarmac. Within minutes, the Israelis transformed Amin’s air force into a smoldering junkyard.

When the guns fell silent, all seven terrorists were dispatched along with some 20 to 40 Ugandan soldiers, and Amin’s air force was no longer a threat to the departing C-130s. Three hostages were killed, including Jean-Jacques Mimouni, a 19-year-old idealist, who in his excitement at seeing the commandos, stood up and began to cheer. A Matkal commando, possibly Betzer himself, mistook the young man for a terrorist and shot him dead. An unfortunate act of friendly fire cut short the life of a promising young man. A fourth hostage, the elderly Dora Bloch, who was at a Kampala hospital at the time of the raid recovering a choking episode, was murdered on Amin’s orders. Her remains were recovered some years later and brought back to Israel for burial next to her husband.

The only IDF soldier killed in the action was the unit’s commander, Yoni. The operation’s name was subsequently changed from Operation Thunderbolt to Operation Yonatan in his honor. A second soldier, paratrooper Surin Hershko, was shot in the spine during the assault and became a quadriplegic.

Operation Yonatan stands out as among the most audacious hostage rescue mission ever undertaken. Israeli soldiers, some of whom were the children of Holocaust survivors, flew some 3,000 miles to rescue Jews who were once again being victimized because they had the temerity to be born Jewish.

More significantly, the operation had consequences that reverberated far beyond Israel’s borders. Amin was humiliated internationally and the defeat of his army and air force set into motion a process that would ultimately lead to his overthrow.

In the decade preceding Entebbe, Palestinian terrorists were responsible for at least 50 skyjackings. Exasperated Western nations took measured comfort in the fact that finally, a resilient nation with backbone, took resolute military action against those waging war on civilization. Following the rescue, the skyjacking scourge declined measurably, and the Baader-Meinhof terror cell responsible for carrying out the hijacking jointly with the PFLP became largely ineffectual thanks to the liquidation of two of its central members as well as post-raid resignations and defections. Most importantly, Israel demonstrated to the world in spectacular fashion that the war on terror was indeed winnable.

Photo by שבתאי טל at Wikimedia Commons

Operation Entebbe: remembering Yonathan Netanyahu

On the Eve of July 4, 1976, a task force of brave steely-eyed Israeli commandos departed from Sharm El Shiekh under the cover of darkness aboard a squadron of C-130 Hercules aircraft, for Uganda’s Entebbe airport. The commandos’ mission: to rescue 106 hostages held captive in a terminal at Entebbe’s airport.

Just one week earlier, on June 27, an Air France airbus was hijacked after departing from Paris by members of the popular front for the liberation of Palestine(PLO) and the German revolutionary cells. The crew of the Air France Airbus was ordered by the terrorists to reroute the flight to Uganda's Entebbe airport where upon arrival the passengers, mostly Israelis, disembarked and, were huddled into an old terminal and held hostage.

While at Entebbe the Israeli hostages, all of whom were kept in separate rooms from non-Israelis, recounted having memories of the selection process during the holocaust and the singling out of Jews for persecution. With memories of the holocaust fresh in their minds, the Israelis feared that it was just a matter of time before the terrorists would start executing them.

But little did the hostages know that the Israeli defense force had already conceived of and put in motion a bold rescue plan. A special team of courageous warriors from the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit was hurtling towards the hostages on a daring mission to rescue and take them back to their homeland.

Aboard one of the C-130 Hercules was Lieutenant Colonel Yonathan Netanyahu, once a Harvard philosophy major and brother of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Yoni, as he was affectionately called, fought his way back into active military duty after he suffered severe nerve damage during the Yom Kippur war. A charismatic, brilliant, and highly respected military officer, Yoni was regarded by his peers, subordinates, and superiors alike. The higher echelons of the Israeli defense force and the then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin reposed special trust in the leadership and ability of Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu to lead the assault team on the raid at Entebbe.

After the squadron of C-130s landed at Entebbe’s airport the assault team deplaned and began tactically making their way towards the hostages’ terminal in Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers. A firefight ensued between the assault team and Ugandan soldiers guarding the airport’s terminal after the commandos lost the element of surprise. As the commandos continued advancing amidst heavy gunfire towards the terminal one of their colleagues could be heard frantically repeating on the radio “Betser! Betser! Yoni is hit, Yoni is hit.” Lt. Col. Yonathan Netanyahu took a fatal bullet from a Ugandan sniper and collapsed, the only Israeli combatant killed.

When the firefight was over all the Ugandan soldiers and terrorists lay dead. All but four of the 106 hostages survived and were quickly taken on board the waiting aircraft for the flight back to Israel.

There was jubilation and celebration in Israel and when the freed hostages and their liberators arrived at Ben Gurion airport the commandos received a hero’s welcome. But for the men who were under the command of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, it was one of the darkest and saddest moments in their lives, they had lost a well-loved, respected, and great leader.

In the ensuing years, Operation Entebbe would come to be regarded as one of the best counter-terrorism hostage rescue missions ever executed in military history. Studied in military academies and celebrated for its surgical precision, planning, and execution, Operation Entebbe has been retroactively renamed Operation Jonathan in honor of Lieutenant Colonel Yonathan Netanyahu. A valiant military commander and fearless combatant, Yoni’s men followed him unquestioningly into the deepest valley and darkest night confidently assured of victory.

Watch the video: Rescue at Entebbe, April 18, 2021