Thirty-nine years ago this past July commandos of the Israeli Defense Forces pulled off a bold rescue mission that stunned the world. Briefly, the background of the operation was as follows:
- On June 27, 1976 terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jetliner with 248 passengers on board.
- The stated objective was to trade the hostages for various Palestinians that were being held in jail in various countries.
- They forced the crew to fly the jet to Entebbe Airport in Uganda where they would be under the protection of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who was sympathetic to their cause.
- Over the ensuing couple of days the hijackers released the non-Jewish passengers and continued to hold the Jewish passengers.
- The French crew insisted on staying with the Jewish captives.
- The hijackers made it clear that if their demands were not met they would kill the hostages.
- To put this incident in perspective it was just four years after the terrorist group, Black September, had slaughtered eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Some of you may recall that the German police had botched a rescue attempt at the airport, which precipitated the carnage.
- In addition, it was less than three years after Israel had defeated a coalition of Arab States in the “Yom Kippur War.” Relations between Israel and the Arab World were “not so good,” to put it mildly.
- There seemed to be no way to resolve the situation satisfactorily, either by negotiation or rescue. No country was willing to help Israel overtly. It looked like another disaster in the making.
- But, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the Israelis had other ideas.
“Operation Thunderbolt” was conceived, planned and executed by the Israelis to rescue the hostages. Consider the audacity of the mission:
- The hostages were being held over 2,000 miles away from Israel.
- The Israelis had to fly through hostile territory, undetected, and carry out the mission in a hostile land.
- Refueling was an issue until Kenya finally gave permission to fly through its airspace and refuel at one of its airports.
- Reliable intelligence was very limited. For example, at one point the Israelis considered a plan whereby they would drop naval commandos into Lake Victoria, but they had to abandon that idea when they ascertained that the lake was infested with crocodiles.
- But, against all odds, they managed to pull the raid off successfully.
On July 4, 1976, while the attention of the rest of the world was focused elsewhere, for example, Americans were focused on their bi-centennial celebrations the Israelis successfully rescued the hostages and flight crew. Many of you will recall the shock of waking up on July 4 to hear about the successful raid. Only three of the hostages were killed (out of 106). All seven terrorists and some 40 Ugandan troops were killed. Unfortunately, one Israeli commando (Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister) was killed. The Israelis went in and out fast. The entire operation lasted 53 minutes, 30 minutes of which included the actual battle.
The daring rescue was a rousing success. The hostages were rescued; the terrorists were killed. Much of the world admired Israel’s audacity in pulling off the operation successfully. The US and the UK called the raid an “impossible operation.” France and Switzerland also offered praise. West Germany went so far as to label it “an act of self-defense.”
Unfortunately, as always, some people had a different view. The Chairman of the Organization of African Unity filed a complaint with the UN accusing Israel of aggression. It took the UN Security Council all of five days to convene to consider it. (It’s not often that the UN takes such prompt action, is it? But such was the degree of antipathy toward Israel in many countries.) The Secretary General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, called the raid “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a Member State of the United Nations.” I’m not aware of any comment by Waldheim condemning the actual hijacking, but that was no surprise considering his well-documented antipathy toward Jews. The UK and the US sponsored a “wishy-washy” resolution that deplored the loss of life resulting from the hijacking while, at the same time, re-affirming the principle of territorial integrity of all States, and the matter faded away.
Various books have been written on the raid. In addition, Hollywood produced a movie “Raid on Entebbe,” starring Charles Bronson, Peter Finch and Martin Balsam, which was released in 1977.
I believe the main takeaway from the raid was Israel demonstrating to the world that it would not take aggression against its civilians lying down. Terrorists would be hunted down and punished. This point was hammered home as Israeli operatives eventually hunted down and killed all the surviving members of the Black September terrorist group that had been responsible for the Munich Massacre.