Operation Thunderbolt!!! 90 Minutes At Entebbe
Daring raid on Entebbe Restored Israeli Morale and Lost Face For Amin : The rescue of 106 hijack hostages was hailed by the Western World and outraged the Arabs and Communists (AP)“They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”
So King David sang the praise of the warriors Saul and Jonathan. Modern Israel turned to these Old Testament words to cheer its heroes, who one day in July swooped deep into Africa to rescue hijack victims.
David’s fighters had carried bows, swords and “the shield of the mighty.”
The Israeli commandos of 1976 flew into battle, not on the wings of eagles, but in U.S.-built Hercules troop transports, loaded with jeeps and command cars mounted with heavy machine guns, kosher lunch boxes and two complete surgery theaters.
A fiery sun was dipping into the Indian Ocean as the four Israeli air force planes – one of them a Boeing 707 – headed toward their destination 2,400 miles from David’s kingdom.
Their target was Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where airport in Uganda, where pro-Palestinian hijackers were holding 94 Jewish passengers and a 12-man Air France crew for ransom.
As the planes swung over Africa, the hostages were settling down for the seventh night of captivity. Some had been beaten by the the hijackers trying trying to extract information on Israel’s military disposition.
All had been threatened with death, and many turned to prayer. None suspected that Israel’s terrible sword had already been unsheathed.
The resurgence of Palestinian hijacking caught Israel by surprise. The guerilla movements had deeply enmeshed in the Lebanese civil war and were on the defensive. Terrorism against Israel had dropped sharply since the beginning of the year.
Air France flight 139 was on a Tel Aviv – Paris run on June 27 when it was commandeered by four hijackers – two Palestinians and a man and woman from West Germany. – who baorded at the Athens stopover. After refuelling in Benghazi, Libya, the aircraft was flown to Entebbe. T
he hijackers demanded the release from prison of 53 comrades, 40 of them held in Israel and the others in West Germany, France, Switzerland and Kenya. Noon of July 1 was the deadline.
The hijackers released 148 passengers before the deadline arrived, in what they called a gesture of goodwill. Others saw it as a move to isolate the Israelis and point to Israel as the prime target.
When the released captives returned to Paris to tell of their experiences, it became obvious that this was no ordinary hijacking.
There were indications of Ugandan complicity. Evidence mounted that Uganda’s president, Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, was more than an impartial mediator.
The hostages claimed five or six more Palestinians joined the hijackers in Entebbe, that Ugandan soldiers had greeted the gunmen with bear hugs as they stepped off the plane, and were helping to guard the hostages, that food and medical supplies were awaiting the captured aircraft, as if the Ugandans had known of the hijack in advance.
In Tel Aviv, army commanders had been weighing the military chances. As the deadline approached, vital information was still lacking.
How many Ugandans ? What was their their disposition and armament ? A rescue operation seemed too risky. Reluctantly, Israel announced a reversal of it’s long standing policy never to negotiate with terrorists, and agreed to bargain for the lives of the hostages. Secretly, it kept its military options open.
When the hijackers extended the deadline by three days, the Israelis saw their chance. More intelligence was added to a growing dossier.
Teams of officers honed a rescue plan. By the following day, the commandos knew every detail of Entebbe airport and practiced the mission again and again at the secret base in Israel.
On the afternoon of July 3 about 20 hours before the second deadline, the Israeli sky raiders were airborne. The final plan had been approved by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet only that morning.
“When we received the final approval, a great many of the men involved did not quite believe it,” Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur said later. “The concept was so daring and dangerous that they were not certain until the last minute it would get the green light.”
The Israelis never disclosed exactly how they landed with complete surprise. One version said the first Hercules cut its engines and glided onto the runway.
Another story said Israeli agents, who had slipped into Ugandan earlier, set diversionary explosions at a far end of the field.
Even before the Hercules came to a full stop, the rear doors swung open from the plane’s fat belly and began disgorging the deadly cargo.
The Boeing carrying the army’s Chief of Operations and the Air Force commander, remained aloft to guide the mission by radio, some sources said.
On the first Hercules was operation commander Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron, 39-year-old head of the infantry and elite Paratroop Corps.
Within minutes the first assault troops shot two Ugandan guards and burst through the doors of the old terminal building, where the hostages awoke in terror at the sound of gunfire. Mothers rolled on top of their children to protect them, as the raiders shouted “hit the floor” in Hebrew and French.
The fierce battle above the hostages’ heads lasted 45 terrifying seconds. Four hijackers were shot dead. Three hostages who failed to stay on the floor were killed, either in the crossfire or by Israeli soldiers who mistook them for terrorists.
Other commandos fanned through the building to gun down three more guerillas, two of them found hiding in a toilet. Support troops outside took command of the airstrip and the control tower.
Another strike force threw explosives under a squadron of Soviet – supplied Migs of the Ugandan Air Force, crippling about 10 of them, and securing a safe retreat.
An Israeli assault leader, American-born Lt. Col. Jonatan “YONI” Netanyahu, was shot by a sniper outside and fell dead on the tarmac.
He was the only raider killed. Prime Minister Rabin said later he had expected the casualties would be much higher.
It took “20 tense minutes,” General Gur said later, to capture the terminal building and deploy the troops on the airfield before the raiders knew the operation was a success.
Within 53 minutes – two minutes better than the fastest practice run the day before – the hostages were aboard the Israeli planes and on their way home. The corpses of seven guerrillas and 20 Ugandan soldiers littered the airport.
In King David’s words : “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.”
The audacity and faultless precision of the raid stunned the world. President Ford cabled Rabin his congratulations that “a senseless act of terrorism (had been) thwarted.”
Leaders of the Western warld hailed the rescue in almost Biblical terms as “a triumph of good over evil.”
Israel was jubilant. Throngs of relatives and well wishers welcomed the bedraggled hostages at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport.
The “shofar” ram’s horn, reserved for joyous occasions in Jewish tradition, resounded over a delirious crowd dancing on the tarmac.
The celebration was tempered momentarily. At the grave of Yonatan(Jonathan) Netanyahu, David’s lament for his fallen heroes was read : “Thy glory, O Israel, is lain upon thy high places … How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle !”
Predictably, the Arab and Communist world was outraged. The Soviet news agency Tass called the operation “the latest act of piracy by the Israeli military.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy condemned it as “an act of agression aginst all Africa.”
Even Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim of the United Nations apparently, at pains not to offend the non-aligned majority, termed the action a violation of Ugandan national sovereignty.
The rescue pulled Israel , at least temporarily, out of a three-year depression. Israel was beset by seemingly insurmountable economic burdens, including a defense bill that consumed 38 per cent of the national budget. Its government was criticized as weak and distrusted by many.
And Israel lost a series of diplomatic battles with its arch-enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Twenty thousand Israelis were emigrating yearly, reversing a migrant population growth of decades.
Rabin had predicted that the raid would “restore our self-confidence, reduce cynicism and show us what a wonderful youth we have.”
Israelis reached into their pockets to contribute $ 3 million to a voluntary defense fund within one week after it was set up to handle a sudden flow of donations.
Workers offered to do overtime without pay to boost national exports, and the number of labor strikes dropped.
In Africa, the Israeli operation brought an embarassed Idi Amin to the brink of war with neighboring Kenya, which he accused of complicity in the raid.
Jerusalem and nairobi asserted that Kenya had no foreknowledge of the operation. But witnesses in Nairobi said Israeli agents had worked throughout the week at Nairobi airport, apparently preparing preparing for the attack.
A hospital aircraft was waiting on the tarmac when the raiders returned, and Kenya raised no objections when the transports refuelled for the journey home.
Amin and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta accused each other of massing troops along their common border. As the charges grew louder, the United States sent a six-ship task force to the Indian Ocean and a reconnaissance plane to Kenya to avert trouble.
Reports began filtering out of Uganda that Amin’s troops were slaughtering hundreds of Kenyan nationals. Amin’s background lent credibility to the stories.
Amin “is an international tyrant . . . who doesn’t hesitate to liquidate opponents and who has killed at least 100,000 Ugandans since he came to power” in 1971, said America’s last ambassador to Kampala, Thomas P. Melady.
Israel had also tasted Amin’s wrath. After Jerusalem refused to supply him with arms to invade Tanzania in 1972, Amin accused the 400-strong Israeli mission in Uganda of spying, threw out his advisers and severed diplomatic relations.
He once praised Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and promised to turn over any Israelis found in his country to Palestinian guerrillas.
An aftermath of the raid was the case of Mrs. Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old hostage left behind in Uganda by the Israli raiders.
Mrs. Bloch was in a hospital when the rescue planes landed. A British citizen by marriage, she was a matriarch of one of Israel’s pioneering families.
A British diplomat visited the woman soon after the raid. When he returned late, he found his entrance barred by Ugandan soldiers. Mrs. Bloch had disappeared.
One report sid Mrs. Bloch had been dragged from her bed. Another said her half burned body was seen discarded in a Ugandan forest.
The fate of Mrs. Bloch became a central issue in the U.N. Security Council meeting called by the 48-nation Organization of African Unity. The OAU protested what it called Israel’s “flagrant violation of Ugandan national sovereignty.”
The United Staes, Israel, Britain and West Germany joined forces to turn the session into debate on terrorism, and hoped that after years of frustration, they could pass a resolution condemning air piracy.
In an emotional appeal to the Council, Israel’s chief delegate, Haim Herzog, said : “I stand here as an accuser of this world organization, the United Nations, which has been unable by use of the machinations of the Arab delegates and their supporters to coordinate effective measures to combat the evil of world terrorism . . .
“For once, have the courage of your convictions and speak, or be damned by your silence, Herzog said.
U.S. Ambassador William Scranton, charging that Uganda violated its own treaty obligations by cooperating with the hijackers, said Israel “invoked one of the most remarkable rescue missions in history, a combination of guts and brains that has seldom if ever been surpassed.”
The debate squeezed some African nations in an uncomfortable dilemma. Most reportedly held Amin in contempt and felt his tyrannical rule was a blot on the entire continent. Amin’s 20,000- man army had been bullying Uganda’s neighbors for years.
Despite the unanimous OAU condemnation of the raid, some African diplomats privately told Israeli collegues they admired the rescue, and they took little trouble to hide their glee that Amin had been embarassed.
Thirty Black African nations had broken ties with Israel in the previous four years in hopes of winning Arab oil aid. But they were disappointed with the Arabs’ failure to share their wealth, and there were hopes in Jerusalem that Africa might drift away from the Arab camp.
“Who has besmirched Africa ?” Herzog demanded of the Security Council, ” Israel for exercising its right to save its citizens in accordance with international law ? Or that racist regime in Uganda ?” But the African delegates were fearful that the Israeli raid might set precedents. Tanzania’s Ambassador Salim A. Salim declared that it was not Uganda on trial but Israel’s violation of the principles of territorial integrity.
“The only way small countries can defend themselves is by firm adherence to principles,” Salim declared.
The Secretary Council adjourned after four days of debate without taking action. An African resolution, facing a certain U.S. veto, mustered only eight supporters, and was never put to a vote. Only six nations favored a U.S.-British draft condemning air piracy. Israel considered the outcome as a rare victory in the world body. (*)