During those brief fateful moments, good triumphed over evil; the innocent were saved and the terrorists who threatened them were routed.
It was 11:30 pm Saturday night, June 27, 1976. The seventh night that over 100 Israelis, non-Israeli Jews, and the twelve-member Air France crew were held in the Entebbe airport since PFLP (Popular Front Liberation Palestine) terrorists and two West German supporters, hijacked the jet, Air France flight 139, while on the ground during a stopover in Athens as it was bound from Tel Aviv to Paris. The Ugandan regime under Idi Amin Dada supported the terrorists and gave them cover.
The flight was diverted to Benghazi airport in Libya for refueling and then headed for Entebbe.
The final deadline to meet the hijackers’ demands to release forty terrorists held in Israel and thirteen in West Germany, Switzerland, France and Kenya, was steadily approaching. Negotiations managed to postpone the approaching July 1 deadline for three days. On July 1, the non-Jewish passengers were released by the terrorists. The Air France crew chose to stay with the remaining hostages. On July 3, French diplomats involved in the negotiations had stated that there was no hope for an agreement.
Releasing the terrorists would embolden them and their sponsors to continue such operations. Not meeting the terrorists’ demands could result in a massacre.
As international attention was focused upon the events, the Israeli Cabinet covertly decided to give the green light to ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ to rescue the hostages. Four Israeli Hercules transport planes filled with Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal commandos, along with medical teams, made their way to Uganda flying under radar over the Red Sea, in order to avoid detection by Egyptians and Saudis. By 11:30 PM, the planes had just landed at the surprisingly well-lit Entebbe airport without suspicion.
The weary hostages were sound asleep except for five who were playing bridge. The hijackers, eight in total, were also within the complex. There were also about eighty Ugandan troops around the airport.
The commandos drove toward the terminal in a Black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts, deceiving Ugandan guards to believe that Idi Amin was visiting. Two guards soon approached the vehicles and were shot, the ruse was now over. Time was of the essence. A few seconds delay could foil the entire operation. Taking a chance that the airport complex was not booby trapped, they headed toward the hostage compound. The commandos were just a few hundred yards away, then they 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, and then it ended.
Nearby, eleven parked Soviet-made MIGS were destroyed, preventing pursuit of the Israeli aircraft.
The hostages were quickly escorted on board the Hercules transports, which headed home to Israel via a brief stop in Nairobi, Kenya, for refueling and medical treatment for some of the wounded.
It took less than an hour to thwart the plans of the PFLP.
The operation was so bold that the Israeli cabinet only decided to proceed within hours of the deadline while the mission had already begun and planes were already en route. Overall commander, Brigadier-General Dan Shomron later described the daring and extreme difficulties of the rescue mission: “You had more than one hundred people sitting in a small room, surrounded by terrorists with their fingers on the trigger. They could fire in a fraction of a second. We had to fly seven hours land safely, drive to the terminal area where the hostages were being held, get inside, and eliminate the terrorists before any of them could fire.”
The eight hijackers died. One account puts the number of Ugandan troops killed at 20, another at 45. Three hostages were killed during the gunfireexchange, one was wounded and at least five Israeli commandoes were wounded. Israeli Commando Surin Hershko was shot and paralyzed. One passenger, Dora Bloch, a Jewish British citizen, who was hospitalized earlier for stomach pains was murdered the next day by Ugandan soldiers.
The rescue operation, was renamed Operation Yonatan in honor of its commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, 30, who was cut down by a Ugandan sentry.Netanyahu believed from the outset that the plan could be accomplished and his confidence influenced government leaders and his fellow commandos. On that day, one of Israel’s greatest soldiers had fallen.
On that day which also happened to be the American bicentennial, forces that threatened freedom were routed by courage and daring. In the UN General Assembly, some praised the mission, others condemned and criticized. No matter. All words aside, heroic actions spoke on that triumphant day.
Thirty six years later, as the threat of terrorism continues to loom large, the rescue at Entebbe stands as a model of victory and of how it is achieved.