Remembering Operation Entebbe 40 Years Later

This year the 4th of July will mark the 40 year anniversary of the historic Entebbe Operation, the daring hostage rescue carried out by IDF special forces who succeeded in rescuing 102 hostages from armed terrorists in a hostile country.

In the last forty years, countless books and television documentaries have been devoted to the subject and some have even gone so far as to call the Entebbe Operation one of the most audacious special forces operations in history.

The crisis began on Jun 27, 1976, when four terrorists, two Palestinians and two German leftists, took control of an Air France passenger jet en route to Paris from Tel Aviv when it stopped in Athens to pick up additional passengers—among them the terrorists. Quickly after takeoff from Athens, the four terrorists took control of the Air France flight with its 248 passengers and, after a brief fueling stop in Libya, landed it at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. Once at Entebbe airport, the hijackers were joined by several more terrorists and were aided and supported by Ugandan forces under Idi Amin, Uganda’s infamously brutal and ruthless tyrant who ruled from 1971 to 1979. The Palestinian terrorists then issued their demands: 5 million dollars and the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian prisoners, 40 of whom were imprisoned in Israel. If their demands were not met, they insisted, they would begin killing hostages on July 1, 1976.

On June 30th the hijackers released 48 non-Israeli hostages who were flown to Paris. Israel immediately dispatched Mossad agents to Paris to interview the released hostages which provided invaluable information for planning the operation. The terrorists then agreed to extend their deadline to noon on July 4th and released another 100 non-Israeli, non-Jewish hostages, an ominous gesture in the eyes of the Israeli authorities. Among the 94 Israeli and Jewish hostages left behind in Entebbe were 12 members of the Air France crew who refused to leave the remaining hostages. With no hope of a negotiated prisoner release and time running out, the Israelis began planning their operation.

Operation Thunderbolt

With just twenty-four hours’ notice, special forces commandos of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal began rehearsing the plan of their commander, Yoni Netanyahu, older brother to future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plan which they dubbed “Operation Thunderbolt” was ingenious and dangerous: it entailed secretly flying four Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft at low altitude over 2,500 miles to Entebbe Airport at midnight where they had to land the huge aircraft on the tarmac in pitch darkness without being detected by Entebbe air traffic control. Once they landed successfully, the assault unit led by Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu disembarked the aircraft and made its way toward the airport checkpoint disguised as Ugandan soldiers in cars made to look like Idi Amin’s entourage. The checkpoint officers ordered them to stop—unbeknownst to the Israelis Idi Amin had recently changed the color of his signature Mercedes—and one of the Israeli commandos shot them, unfortunately alerting Ugandan soldiers in the control tower who began shooting at the unit when they stormed the terminal. In the brief but intense firefight the ensued, the Israeli commandos neutralized the threat from the Ugandan soldiers in the control tower but Israeli assault unit commander, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed.

The commandos stormed the terminal where the hostages were being held and yelled out in Hebrew and English, “Get down!” In a matter of minutes, the Israeli commandos had killed all seven terrorists, their accomplices and about twenty-four Ugandan soldiers. Three hostages were killed in the cross-fire and a fourth, Dora Bloch, an elderly woman who had been brought to a Ugandan hospital earlier for treatment, was killed on Idi Amin’s orders a day after the rescue. The entire operation lasted only 53 minutes: after destroying 11 fighter jets of the Ugandan Air Force parked on the runway so that they could not attack them afterwards, the 102 rescued hostages were safely flown to Tel Aviv via Nairobi, Kenya.

Israel Takes a Brave Stand

As soon as the Israeli government learned of the hijacking, Israel’s then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin found himself under enormous pressure to make a decision: negotiate with the terrorists or not? Several of his close friends were among the hostages. Rabin personally felt that all options, including negotiations, should be tried while Shimon Peres, his defense minister, felt that absolutely no negotiations should be made with terrorists. In the week before the raid, Israel tested multiple political channels to attempt a negotiated release of the hostages, ultimately to no avail.

In an interview with Ynet news, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Shaul Mofaz, who commanded the security unit during the Entebbe raid as a young IDF major, described what he called the “amazing” and “historic” courage of the Israeli leadership during the hostage crisis:

This operation changed the face of history. The political leadership of the Israeli government made a very explicit, unwavering statement…”We will not give into terrorism. Period. Everywhere on earth where there are Jews in danger, we will come any distance to aid them and rescue them.”

In response to the successful raid and hostage rescue, many western nations spoke out in support of the operation, with the US and UK offering significant praise, calling the raid “an impossible operation”. That year many in the US noted that the hostages were freed on the 4th of July, the day on which the United States was celebrating 200 years since the signing of its Declaration of Independence. Because of its success, the US military even developed rescue teams modeled on the Entebbe operation.

Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who ordered the raid, addressed the Israeli Knesset after the return of the hostages, saying:

This operation will certainly be inscribed in the annals of military history, in legend and in national tradition.