A welcoming ceremony in Israel for hostages rescued from Entebbe.
(photo credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)
The Jewish categorical imperative of saving life, because each one is like an entire world, was perhaps never better applied than in the Entebbe rescue mission, whose 40th anniversary we observe on July 4. The incredible feat combined heroism with military precision in overcoming the physical challenge of a counterterrorism operation some 4,000 kilometers from home. But the IDF soldiers who met the challenge were supported by an entire nation.
As Sayeret Matkal commander in the raid and eventual IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz wrote in The Jerusalem Post, “What separates Operation Yonatan from all the others is the determination of the Israeli government to follow the Talmudic dictum that ‘All Jews are responsible for one another.’ This is what set this mission apart.”
This solidarity in the face of danger is a sustaining value of Israeli society. The ongoing war against terrorism is being fought on different fronts today than in the time of Entebbe. In that perhaps quainter era, Palestinians hijacked planes. It took an intifada to introduce suicide bombing as the preferred technique of anti-Zionism.
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 departed from Tel Aviv carrying 246 passengers and a crew of 12. At a stop in Athens, it picked up an additional 58 passengers, including four hijackers. Just after takeoff for Paris, the flight was taken over by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans members of the German Revolutionary Cells.
Eventually arriving in Uganda, the terrorists separated the Jews and Israelis from the other hostages, whom they released. To some of the hostages, this division of passengers recalled the Nazi death camp Selektion that determined who would live and who would die. One passenger, a Holocaust survivor, was said to have showed the number tattooed on his forearm by the Nazis to one of the German terrorists. “I’m no Nazi!... I am an idealist,” the terrorist was said to have responded.
The story of Operation Thunderbolt is well known. That is its IDF code name, but it is also called Operation Entebbe and Operation Yonatan in honor of Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the only soldier killed on the mission. He was the prime minister’s brother.
Three Jewish hostages were killed in the raid and a fourth was murdered in a Kampala hospital where she was being treated. They deserve to be remembered on this day as well. Jean-Jacques Maimoni, 19, a French immigrant to Israel, was killed when he stood up and was mistaken for a hijacker and shot by the commandos. Pasco Cohen, 52, who managed a medical insurance fund, was also fatally wounded by commando fire. A third hostage, Ida Borochovitch, 56, an olah from Russia, was killed in the crossfire.
The fourth hostage, the only one not inadvertently and sadly killed by our own troops, was Dora Bloch, 75, a British Israeli. She was rushed to Mulago Hospital in Kampala after choking on a chicken bone, but was murdered by officers of the Ugandan Army. Former Ugandan minister of justice Henry Kyemba told the Uganda Human Rights Commission in 1987 that Bloch had been dragged from her hospital bed and killed by two army officers on president Idi Amin’s orders. Her remains were recovered 1979.
Amin’s vengefulness after the raid knew no bounds.
Then-Kenyan minister of agriculture Bruce MacKenzie persuaded then-Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta to let Israel collect intelligence prior to the raid and to allow Israeli planes access to Nairobi Airport. Amin sent Ugandan agents to assassinate MacKenzie by blowing up his aircraft in May 1978.
While fashions of terrorism may change, certain of the world’s reactions seem to have remained constant over the past four decades. The United Nations Security Council convened on July 9, 1976, to hear a complaint from the Organization of African Unity charging Israel with an “act of aggression.”
Then-UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim told the council that the raid was “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a member state of the United Nations.” On the other hand, he said that he was “fully aware that this is not the only element involved... when the world community is now required to deal with unprecedented problems arising from international terrorism.”
What was unprecedented 40 years ago has evolved into the unimaginable. But 40 years on, the light of our proudest victory over terrorism is still bright enough to illuminate a path through the unknown.