Other Israeli military operations may have been more complex or had greater historical significance than Operation Yonatan. And yet, no other operation takes our breath away like the Entebbe rescue.
Even 40 years later, the majestic triumph of the Israeli army is still remarked upon across the globe.
The military strategists and leaders who planned and carried out the operation proved to the people of Israel and the entire world that we are determined to protect our people. No terrorist can defeat us. No distance is too far to overcome. No operation is too complicated.
The thousands of kilometers that Israeli planes had to fly to reach Uganda was not the only reason this mission has been given a special place in history. Nor was it the original schematic and almost flawless execution.
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.
On that fateful night of July 4, 1976, we proved that the ethics we learned from the Hebrew prophets and the Torah, stayed with us throughout all the years we lived in the Diaspora, and then was brought back home with us to the Land of Israel.
They were not empty words and worn-out slogans. We proved that behind these words stands a country and a people who are ready to use their minds and feet to save fellow Jews. We showed the world that the outstretched arm of the State of Israel will always be at the ready to rescue Jews from danger wherever they may be found, no matter how dangerous the risk.
Israeli leaders and soldiers stood behind these words, and set out on a long journey from which they were not sure they would return. I would like to mention two of the commanders who took part in the operation who remained on their toes, and showed equal amounts of precision and daring.
They led their soldiers in a way that set a very high benchmark for their successors in the IDF and armies around the world to follow.
The price they had to pay was high. Yoni Netanyahu fell in battle, as did some of the hostages.
I knew Yoni well – I was his deputy in Sayeret Matkal until just a few days before the operation.
Yoni was like a hero from an ancient legend from the days of the Kingdom of Israel, who put on the military uniform of the modern State of Israel and went out to war.
The letters he left behind are a living testimony to his doubts, pain, his longing, view of the future, and his ponderings about the past. He was a fighter who spent a lot of time thinking.
He was fearless. Very few people were like him.
Dan Shomron was the commander of Battalion 890, from which I was sent to the IDF Officer’s Training Course. Dan was one of the most modest, quiet yet bold commanders the IDF has ever known. He grew up on a kibbutz, and made his way up the ladder in the paratroopers and infantry until he was put in charge of Operation Yonatan, at which point he burst forth into the public consciousness. A few years later, he was inducted as the IDF’s 13th Chief of Staff.
I commanded the security force during Operation Yonatan, which numbered four armored vehicles with intense firepower loaded onto Hercules transport aircraft.
While Yoni’s role was to overcome and take out the terrorists, our job was to take on the Ugandan military if they decided to intervene, to destroy the MiGs that were parked in the field (that comprised the Ugandan “Air Force”), to isolate the military terminal from reinforcements, and to act against any other foreign forces. At the end of the operation, we were responsible for providing our forces with cover so they could evacuate the hostages and load the Hercules, and leave Entebbe for Nairobi, where we could refuel and then fly home.
In practice, we carried out each step of the mission successfully.
All the fighters and commanders demonstrated great courage, and each individual went above and beyond the normal requirements of his rank and position.
The mission was a success also because our political leaders – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres – approved this daring operation.
There were misgivings about carrying out such a dangerous mission.
From the moment IDF Chiefof- Staff Motta Gur announced that he was in favor of carrying out the mission, the full weight of the decision lay in the hands of the prime minister. Rabin was familiar with the inner workings of the IDF, its capabilities and its commanders.
But this operation was extraordinarily bold. We were missing significant pieces of intelligence.
We didn’t have any alternative escape plans. And we were running out of time. Rabin gave his approval of the operation even before the plan was revealed to the cabinet.
The cabinet was informed that it needed to make a decision before the planes reached the halfway point to Entebbe, so that in case the mission needed to be aborted there’d be enough fuel to turn around and fly back home.
The courage displayed by Rabin is testament more than anything else to his determination to follow the path we’d chosen as a nation and to fulfill our promises as the leaders of the Jewish people.
During the first few hours of the flight to Entebbe, all our thoughts revolved around the question of whether the mission would be approved or not. We knew it was all or nothing.
Today, from the perspective of 40 years, I have no doubt that it was the political courage that overcame any other type of courage, which enabled us to succeed. We were able to put our doubts aside, be confident despite the lack of information, and the fact that we knew if our forces ran into trouble, we did not have a backup plan to extract them.
Rabin had prepared a resignation letter and was ready to take full responsibility – as he did his whole life – if, God forbid, the mission failed.
Operation Yonatan teaches us an excellent lesson in national leadership, in how we can put aside our personal interests and see first and foremost our national interests. The leaders of the mission demonstrated personal self-sacrifice and had an intense desire to see Israel triumph. And Israel did triumph.
Our spirit triumphed, as did our promise to protect each other and to save our brothers and sisters from within the grip of terror.
It was a victory that was tainted by the pain of loss of Yoni and the hostages who were murdered.
Everyone in Israel was able to stand a little taller in light of the amazing courage our leaders and soldiers had shown.
The whole world was surprised, and applauded Israel in light of our great courage, imagination and execution.
We must remember these courageous leaders and forge ahead on the path they built.Shaul Mofaz served as defense minister from 2002 to 2006 and as the IDF Chief-of-Staff from 1998 until 2002.Translated by Hannah Hochner.