Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli commandos stormed a Ugandan airport terminal in 1976 to rescue hostages hijacked on an Air France flight, remains what Max Hastings calls “the high water mark of Israel’s standing in the world.” In his new book on the rescue mission, Saul David provides a fast-paced, suspenseful account of those tense summer days. While there have been several books (and movies) about the operation, this one draws on new sources and explores the motivations of the terrorists more deeply than earlier efforts.
Each chapter covers a single day over an eight-day period, from hijacking to rescue. Within each chapter the events are organized down to the hour, quarter-hour, and sometimes to the minute.
The rescue itself began when four C-130 Hercules aircraft, crammed with 91 commandos and paratroopers from Sayeret Matkal, otherwise known as “the Unit,” flew a hazardous 2,500 miles from Israel to Entebbe Airport. As the first Hercules landed, the ramp lowered and out drove Israeli commandos. They made their way past the cordon of Ugandan soldiers using a black Mercedes and Land Rovers—the typical vehicles used to shuttle around high-ranking Ugandan government officials. Once they reached the terminal where the hostages were held, they shot the terrorists, freed the hostages, and blew up 11 Russian MiGs.
From the start of the operation to the moment when the first Hercules took off with its cargo of 101 hostages—including dead and wounded—51 minutes elapsed. All this was carried out by soldiers who had only 18 hours of practice.
Only one Israeli soldier died—Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu, the commander of the operation, and the elder brother of Israel’s current prime minister. Overnight Yoni, until then unknown to the Israeli public, became an international celebrity, the symbol of self-sacrifice, outstanding leadership, and military acumen. Three hostages also died in the assault.
The hijackers were two Germans and two Arabs. The Germans were members of the Revolutionary Cells, a radical left-wing terrorist group that saw anti-Zionism as part of a larger anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggle. The Arabs were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose leader, Wadie Haddad, saw hijackings as “spectacular one-off operations” that would focus world’s attention on the Palestinian cause.
On the third day of the hijacking, the terrorists separated the Israelis from the other passengers (whom they later released). Illustrating the difficulty of separating anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, the hijackers sent six Orthodox Jews to join the Israelis, as well as an American couple who had “appeared very Orthodox.”
Some of the hostages were exceptionally brave. David singles out Michel Cojot, a French Jew who acted as an interpreter and a spokesman. When his 12-year-old son Olivier was included in a group to be released, Michel prepared a note full of details that he hoped would aid in their rescue, which he hid in his son’s jeans. Incredibly, in the excitement after his release Olivier forgot all about the note until it literally came out in the wash. Fortunately, Michel Cojot was included in the next group of released prisoners. Israel’s Chief of Staff Mordechai “Motta” Gur said that if not for Cojot’s intelligence “many more hostages and soldiers would have died.”
Israel’s military planners started working almost immediately, although it was far from clear they would be given the green light to carry out an operation. David does a good job presenting the many unknowns facing the planners. For instance, it took time to discern that Uganda’s despotic ruler Idi Amin was in fact on the side of the terrorists. One thing the Israelis had going in their favor was their former close relations with Amin. An Israeli company, Soleh Boneh, had built the Old Terminal at Entebbe, giving the military access to the building’s blueprints.
One thing was certain: If an operation took place, the Unit would play a key role. Surprisingly, Yoni Netanyahu, whose name became synonymous with the operation, did not join the planning process until Day Five of the hijacking. The reserve commander of the Unit, Major Moshe “Muki” Betser, thought the chances of the operation going forward were slim and kept Yoni in the Sinai, where he was involved in general training. “Believe me,” he told Yoni, “what you’re doing now is much more important.”
Although David focuses directly on narrating the history of the incident, one is repeatedly struck by contrasts between behavior then and now. That goes for both sides—Israelis and terrorists. The hijackers were not unduly cruel to the hijacked. A German terrorist named Wilfried Bose was unsettled when Michel Cojot pointed out that the separation of hostages resembled Nazi behavior. Bose even comforts an old Jewish woman who has a breakdown. And the hostages convince the terrorists to put two Brazilian Jews who were studying in a Yeshiva back with those set to be released. One can’t imagine such a thing today. But the slippery slope, once you embark on these tactics, is clear. Now we have the Islamic State.
On the Israeli side, the most dramatic contrast between then and now is the behavior of Shimon Peres. Then Minister of Defense, Peres was the most hawkish member of the Israeli Cabinet and pressed most vociferously for military action. “Israelis were a world-class standard,” he told the cabinet. “If we surrender, there won’t be any country in the world that will stand up against [terror].” Ironically, less than 20 years later Peres would become the architect of negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the father of modern terror. Peres remain, to this day, Israel’s chief dove.
David does a good job depicting the enormous pressures on the government—at one point the families of the hostages break through the gates at the Ministry of Defense. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister, who had been chief of staff during the Six Day War, was at first inclined to fulfill the terrorists’ demands for a release of 40 Israeli prisoners in exchange for the hostages. In the end, for Rabin, a decisive consideration was that some of those who would be released had Israeli blood on their hands. Today, Israel releases thousands in exchange for a single individual, as was the case with Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit. Those who have killed Israelis are frequently included in prisoner releases.
David devotes only a few pages to the legacy of Operation Thunderbolt. It stiffened the backbone of other countries to fight against hijackings rather than negotiate, even inspiring the creation of America’s Delta Force. It provided a huge morale boost for Israelis after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. It’s often been argued that terrorism, which involves little cost, impacts world events disproportionately. Entebbe shows that national prestige can also come cheaply, provided there is a willingness to take risks to enforce what is morally right.
There is a false note in this otherwise excellent book. David concludes by raising the question of whether Entebbe made peace less likely by convincing Israelis that they could handle threats by military means. Peace, then and now, was not within reach because those on the other side of the table remain as determined as ever to replace Israel rather than coexist with her.
Finally, David notes that hijacking mastermind Walie Haddad died less than two years after Entebbe. He liked fine chocolates. Once the Mossad learned of this, they had him delivered a poisoned box of Belgian chocolates. Haddad perished of a sweet tooth.
David Isaac is the writer-director-producer of the historical videos which can be seen at Zionism101.org. This appeared in http://freebeacon.com/culture/rescue-at-entebbe/ on December 6.