This Week in History: Operation Thunderbolt
German and Palestinian terrorists hijack Air France Flight 139, holding only Israeli and Jewish passengers hostage in Entebbe; Yonatan Netanyahu leads historic rescue raid.
Returning from Entebbe Photo: Uzi Keren
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, a few minutes after leaving a stopover in Athens. The hijacking culminated in a historic raid to save the 103 Jewish and Israeli hostages, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's brother Yonatan, who was killed during the rescue operation.
A total of 160 passengers were on board the aircraft. The hijackers comprised two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells, and two Palestinians connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. On June 28 – after a brief stop in Libya – hijackers landed the plane in Entebbe, Uganda. The passengers were taken to the old terminal building of the airport where two more terrorists joined the cell.
The Israeli government appointed a special ministerial team to handle the crisis, which included then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Yigal Allon and then-defense minister, President Shimon Peres. Other parties involved in the diplomatic processes included former-Ugandan president Idi Amin, the Ugandan Government, and the French Government; the latter took responsibility for the Air France flight.
At first, Amin was considered someone who might collaborate with Israel due to previously friendly relations. However it soon became apparent that he and his army were cooperating with the hijackers, especially when Amin permitted additional terrorists to reinforce the hijackers.
The hijackers announced their demands via Ugandan radio on June 29, two days after the flight left Tel Aviv. In exchange for the hostages’ release, the terrorists demanded that 53 Palestinian “freedom fighters” be freed from prisons in Israel, West Germany, Kenya, Switzerland and France within 48 hours. If their demands were not met by the deadline, the kidnappers said they would kill the hostages and blow up the airbus.
When Germans brandishing pistols segregated the Israelis and Jews from the other prisoners, it became strikingly apparent that Israel was the target. This “selection” struck a chord to Israeli ears, with its clear Holocaust parallels. The other passengers were told to prepare for their departure and release.
Amin acted as though the hijacking caught him by surprise and was out of his control. According to William Stevenson's 90 minutes in Entebbe, however, previous events regarding relations with both Israel and the Palestinians lay at the crux of his interests. Amin had allegedly long been protected by 300 commandos from Palestinian terrorist organizations. He had allowed the PLO to build training camps on his territory and lent Mig fighter jets to Palestinian terrorists for training. Moreover, the PLO gave military assistance to Uganda, leading to statements of Amin’s willingness to help “liberate Palestine from Zionism.” Following extremely close relations, Israel had angered Amin by refusing to help him attack Tanzania. This prompted Amin to release another pro-Palestinian statement together with then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on February 1972, announcing their support for “the struggle of the Arab people against Zionism and imperialism.” Amin had severed relations with Israel.
Following the release of the non-Israeli hostages, Israel was on its own. After initially deciding against a military option, the government voted on pursuing a diplomatic track and negotiating with the terrorists. Whilst some sources claim that the negotiations were simply to buy time, Rabin in his memoirs categorically stated that at that point in time negotiations were genuine. The IDF, however, was ordered to continue preparing a military option. Allon correctly predicted that upon hearing this the terrorists would extend the deadline, giving them time to try to gain additional information and to explore all alternatives. The Israeli government notified the French that they had decided to negotiate and the terrorists subsequently extended their ultimatum to Sunday, July 4.
The IDF had blueprints of the Entebbe airport as it was built by an Israeli construction firm. Working with testimonies of released hostages, they learned precisely where the hostages were being held, how many terrorists were on the ground, if they seemed concerned by the prospect of a military operation and how many Ugandans were involved.
They also learned that everything had been planned in advance and that Amin was kept informed. This led to the conclusion that if a military alternative was to be pursued, they would need to arrive at the airport in full force. A mock exercise was carried out on a model of the old terminal of the Entebbe airport, proving the plan feasible.
At 13:20 on July 3, four IAF aircraft took off from the Ofir air force base - Operation Thunderbolt was underway. The lead Hercules carried the rescue force, led by Yonatan Netanyahu. It also held two jeeps and the now-notorious black Mercedes, used as an imitation of Amin's personal car. Two additional Hercules carried reinforcements and troops assigned to carry out special missions, such as destroying the Migs parked nearby. A fourth Hercules was sent to evacuate the hostages.
The team landed undetected at 23:01, one minute past their planned arrival time. The Mercedes and the Land Rovers sped to the Old Terminal, in a manner so as to impersonate Amin. On arrival, two Ugandan sentries shouted at them to stop but were shot immediately. The soldiers entered the building and freed the hostages, killing all eight terrorists in the process.
Netanyahu was tragically killed during the operation, as well as three hostages who were caught in the crossfire inside the airport, and a fourth who Ugandan forces murdered after taking her to a nearby hospital before the raid.
The operation was renamed Operation Yonatan to honor the fallen soldier, and went down in history as a monumental act of counter-terrorism. With the raid, Israel demonstrated that there was an alternative to negotiating with terrorists, though the past 36 years have proven this operation to be an exception to the rule. Never again has the Israeli government been in the position where strategic advantages have outweighed the dangers of a failed operation; indeed on several occasions Israeli leaders have concluded that the only viable option was to negotiate with terrorists, and pay the heavy price of prisoner swaps.