It took Israeli commandos minutes to conduct one of the greatest and most daring rescue missions in modern history in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976, after an Air France flight was hijacked by terrorists and a group of Jewish passengers was taken hostage.
On Saturday night, June 27, 1976, six Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorists and two West German supporters hijacked Air France flight 139, which was traveling from Tel Aviv to Paris.
The flight was diverted to Benghazi Airport in Libya for refueling, and then headed for Entebbe, Uganda, where dictator Idi Amin Dada gave the terrorists support and cover.
All the non-Jewish prisoners were released. All of the Jewish ones were held and threatened with death. Twelve members of the Air France crew chose to stay with the Jewish hostages who remained. The terrorists were demanding that Israel release scores of prisoners with blood on their hands. On July 3, two days after the initial deadline had passed, French diplomats involved in the negotiations stated that there was no hope for an agreement.
Releasing the terrorists would encourage terrorism. Not meeting the kidnappers’ demands could result in a massacre.
As international attention focused on the events, the Israeli cabinet covertly decided to approve a rescue mission: Operation Thunderbolt.
Four Israeli Hercules transport planes filled with Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal commandos, along with medical teams, flew to Uganda, undetected, over the Red Sea. The planes were disguised to look like foreign planes, and landed at Entebbe airport without suspicion.
There were 80 Ugandan troops spread around the airport. The Israeli commandos drove toward the terminal in a black Mercedes limousine with Land Rover escorts and Ugandan flags, deceiving the guards into believing that dictator Amin was visiting. Two guards soon approached the vehicles and were shot. The ruse was over.
Taking a chance that the airport complex was not booby trapped, Israeli commandos headed toward the nearby hostage compound and burst in, alerting the stunned hostages that they were Israelis and to stay down. In the ensuing moments, there were bursts of gunfire within the terminal. Then, 11 parked Soviet-made MIGs were destroyed, preventing the pursuit of Israeli aircraft.
The hijackers were gunned down. Three hostages were killed during the gunfire exchange, one was wounded, and at least five Israeli commandos were also wounded. Israeli commando Surin Hershko was hit by gunfire and became paralyzed. One passenger, Dora Bloch, a Jewish British citizen, who had been hospitalized earlier for stomach pains was murdered the following day by Ugandan soldiers.
The rescue operation was renamed Operation Yonatan in honor of its commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, 30, who was killed by a Ugandan sentry minutes into the rescue. Netanyahu’s confidence in the feasibility of the plan from the outset influenced government leaders and convinced them to launch the operation; his enthusiasm also encouraged his fellow commandos on the mission.
In the UN General Assembly, some praised the mission, others condemned it. No matter. All words aside, heroic actions spoke loudly on that triumphant day.
Forty years later, as the threats of terrorism increase, the rescue at Entebbe is a model of a daring victory and Israeli and Jewish courage.
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