Monday, July 4 will be the 40th anniversary of the daring rescue by the Israeli Defense Force of 102 hostages being held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group. In my opinion, considering the extremely low number of injuries and fatalities of hostages and rescuers and the complicated nature of the operation this was one of, if not the, most successful hostage rescue operations. Contrast it with other notable botched rescue attempts, such as the Olympics hostages in 1972 and the FBI at Waco. It is hard to believe that 40 years have passed.
To refresh our memories as well as to edify those who are too young to have lived through it, the situation was as follows:
- On June 27, 1976 two terrorist members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet that had originated in Tel Aviv and was bound for Paris. There were 248 passengers on board.
- The hijackers’ stated objective was to exchange the passengers for 40 Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel and 13 other affiliated terrorists being held in four other countries.
- The hijackers flew the plane to Entebbe because they would be under the protection and support of Idi Amin, the dictatorial ruler of Uganda. It was reported that Amin greeted them personally both on their arrival and periodically throughout their stay to reaffirm and reinforce his support.
- The hijackers separated the Israelis and other Jewish passengers from the rest of the group and moved them to a separate room. The reason for this ominous move was pretty obvious. Soon after, they released the other passengers, retaining only the flight crew and the Jews, whom they threatened to kill if their demands were not met. The Israelis took this threat very seriously, and began to plan a rescue attempt.
- A successful rescue was an extremely daunting undertaking. Meticulous planning was essential to avoid a disaster. Israel was over 2,500 miles from Uganda. The planes would have to be refueled. At first, no country would give permission for the Israelis to land in order to refuel, and the Israelis did not have the logistical capacity to refuel up to six aircraft in the air. Eventually Kenya gave permission for them to overfly its airspace and refuel at Kenyatta Airport.
- Mossad provided very critical intelligence, such as the number of hijackers, their location and the stationing of the Ugandan troops and aircraft.
- Various attempts to reach a diplomatic solution were unsuccessful. Even Yasser Arafat tried to intercede, to no avail. The terrorists had threatened to execute the remaining hostages at noon on July 4 if their demands had not been met by then.
- Meanwhile, the Israelis, not willing to rely solely on diplomacy and not willing to take a chance that the terrorists were bluffing, determined that it would be necessary to conduct a raid to rescue the hostages. Various scenarios were considered and discarded before the final plan was formulated. One such plan called for dropping commandos into Lake Victoria, but that had to be scrapped when it was ascertained that the lake was infested with crocodiles.
- The Israeli cabinet approved the rescue plan on the evening of July 3. The task force included 29 commandos under the command of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The raid was a huge success on many levels, although not without casualties. Taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh the task force flew under the radar of potentially hostile countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and arrived undetected. The commandos surprised the hijackers and managed to kill them all. However, unfortunately, three of the hostages were killed in the cross-fire, and Netanyahu, the commander was also killed. The entire operation took only 90 minutes – 30 of which was the assault, itself. In addition to the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and several Ugandan air force fighters were destroyed on the ground (precluding their being able to pursue the Israelis on their return flight). The Israelis refueled in Nairobi, Kenya on their return flight to Israel.
On July 4 the world awoke to the pleasant and uplifting surprise of the successful raid and rescue. Personally, I remember feeling extremely gratified the Israelis had taken such a bold and decisive action and that the terrorists had “gotten theirs.” I remember many of my friends had felt similarly. We were all sick and tired of governments’ indecisiveness and incompetence in dealing with these terrorist situations.
The world’s post-raid reaction was typical and predictable.
- The Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (whatever that was) condemned the raid as an “act of aggression.”
- UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim (he of the suspected Nazi background in WWII)characterized the raid as “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a Member State of the UN” (blah, blah, blah).
- The Ugandan UN representative claimed that a peaceful, political resolution had been near, implying that the raid was premature and unnecessary. The Israeli representative denied that assertion and denoted that Uganda had been “directly complicit” in the hijacking in the first place.
- The UN Security Council convened to discuss these complaints and others, but Western nations, such as the US, UK, France and West Germany were supportive and blocked any official UN action. Their support was not surprising, but even the Iranians praised the Israelis for their success and extended condolences for the “loss and martyrdom” of Netanyahu.
There have been various books and movies chronicling this raid. I think the best one was the 1977 movie, Raid on Entebbe, starring Peter Finch and Charles Bronson.
On this July 4 take a minute out of your day to toast the brave men who, rather than submitting to terrorism, took brave and decisive action to effect a daring rescue.