A Nation that will not forsake its sons to strangers
On July fourth, 1976, I was staying with family in New York. America was getting ready to celebrate its bi-centennial, a landmark in its history. As the clock struck midnight between the 3rd and the 4th of July, the radio announcer went on the airwaves and said,
“Happy fourth of July America. Today is Independence Day to 98 hostages who were rescued from captivity in Entebbe…” That was when we stopped listening, rushed out into the street and joined others in dancing with joy. “Operation Entebbe” as it officially came to be known was a great success.
What preceded that colossal joy, though, were several days of nerve - wrecking tension, heartbreaking deliberations and speculations. A few days ago, almost thirty nine years later, I had a glimpse at what great effort it took to free those hostages who were taken to a hostile country 4,000 kilometers away from Israel by a group of ruthless Palestinian - Arab terrorists and their German sympathizers.
It all began on June 27th 1976 when an Air France flight from Tel Aviv with 228 passengers on board was heading to Paris. It made a stopover in Athens where the hijackers boarded the plane. Shortly after takeoff, the terrorists took control over the plane, and hours later forced it to land in Benghazi, Libya. From there it was flown to Entebbe, Uganda where the hijackers were welcomed by the sympathetic regime of Idi Amin.
Not long after they landed in Entebbe, the terrorists released a list of names of terrorists who they were demanding in exchange for the hostages. Their deadline was set for July 1st. Then, to add to the ordeal, they separated the Israelis and Jews from the non Jewish passengers resonating in many the memories of another sad and recent chapter in Jewish history, that of the Shoah.
It is important to note that the hijack took place merely a few years after the traumatic Yom Kippur war when the Jewish nation, despite its eventual victory, was still recovering from the shock that befell its army and its people. Additionally, during those years, hijackings were becoming a very popular means by terrorists to achieve the release of their comrades from various prisons around the world. There was El Al Flight 426 which was hijacked to Algiers in 1968. In 1970, there was the Dawson Field Hijacking. In a single day, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine simultaneously seized four planes which were forced to land on Dawson Field in the Jordanian desert. There, terrorists, expecting a hostile effort to free the hostages, blew up the empty planes.
In response to such attempts, many of which failed because of good intelligence and information -gathering efforts, El Al decided to furnish each of its planes with plainclothes security officers. Other airlines, including Air France, did not.
Col. Avinoam Maimon, then a pilot in the Israeli Air Force learned about the hijacking soon after it took place. He was then the commander of a Boeing Squadron and was called to participate in the planning and execution of the rescue operation.
“When you plan a rescue operation such as that,” he explained to me recently, “there are several main problems. The main one is gathering intelligence. It is hard to plan it without knowing where the enemy is, where the hostages are kept and the exact number of guards that watch over them. Other concerns one has,” he adds, “are the issues of fueling since Uganda is very far, and ensuring that the enemy remains calm and has no reason to be concerned about retaliation. One does not want nor should one lose the element of surprise. Confidentiality, therefore, was of utmost importance.” How does one maintain secrecy when the route was mostly over hostile countries with planes that have easily identifiable marks and symbols? “We simply had no choice,” Maimon tells me emotionally, “we had to save Israelis and Jews. We knew that if we did not do it, no one would do it for us!!”
With that goal shrouded with concerns and uncertainties, coupled with a very limited time frame and very little known information, the rescue plan was set into motion. Fortunately, the deadline of the ultimatum was moved to July 4th, giving the IDF a little more breathing time, albeit not much for an operation of such a scale.
The options that were considered included dropping paratroopers over Lake Victoria which was not far from Entebbe airport. Another was to land a commercial airline plane. A third was to land Hercules planes at the airport itself. They elected to go for the last.
On July 2nd, Col Maimon’s Boeing plane took off to Nairobi, a friendly country neighboring Uganda. On board, it carried members of intelligence units whose goal was twofold. The first was to gather as much information as possible to ensure the success of the operation. The second was to get the permission of the Kenyan government to allow the planes to land in Nairobi for fueling. That night, Col. Maimon returned to Israel to bring a medical team, a field hospital and medical supplies. Suddenly, his plane lost an engine. There was no safe place for an emergency landing as the route was over enemy territory. Miraculously, with only three engines, he made it to Israel where he landed safely.
When his plane landed again in Nairobi, the following day, Col. Maimon had nothing to do but wait for the return of the released hostages with bated breath. Another Boeing plane, serving as a “flying command,” was soaring over the border of Ethiopia and Uganda. In addition to the Hercules planes which were used for the rescue, the mission included some phantom planes to escort them in case they were spotted and attacked once the operation was over as they made their way back to Israel.
As a mere indication of the difficulty in gathering intelligence the IDF had been able to gather about the target, Col. Maimon showed me a handwritten note. It was from Israel’s then Assistant Chief of Military Intelligence and Commander of Special Operations Forces and future Chief of Staff and Prime Minister, Ehud Barak who was with him in the plane while the four Hercules planes were making their way to free the hostages after fueling in Nairobi. In it, Barak stated that some of the hostages were on the 1st floor of the airport building while the rest were still in the plane. Fortunately that information turned out to be wrong. They were all gathered in the first floor of the building.
An hour-and-a-half after the onset of the operation, the Hercules planes were on their way to Nairobi. On board one of them were the freed hostages. Some of them, and some of the heroic soldiers who went to free them, were injured. One of the injured commandos, Surin Hershko, is wheelchair bound until this very day. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the unit that carried out the rescue, was killed in action.
After a short stop in Nairobi, the planes were on their way back to Eretz Yisrael, the beautiful Homeland of the Jewish people, the Land to which they are forever connected, the Land that will stop at nothing to free her captive sons and daughters.