It was the most daring military rescue the world had ever seen. On July 4, 1976, a carefully picked team of the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit arrived back in Tel Aviv having done the impossible.
They had traveled some 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) from Israel to Uganda to rescue just over 100 hostages being held at Entebbe airport in appalling physical conditions and the psychological torture of feeling that they could be killed at any moment.
The stunning operation, still studied in military academies around the globe, took not only the terrorists and the Ugandan soldiers complicitly guarding the compound by surprise – it surprised everyone who witnessed it in news reports and film footage.
No wonder several movies were made and books written about the soldiers whose plan involved driving a black Mercedes up to the terminal, mimicking the convoy of Uganda’s president Idi Amin, grabbing the hostages, loading them onto Hercules planes, and getting the hell out of there.
The operation on the ground was over in less than an hour.
Three hostages died during the rescue; Dora Bloch, an elderly woman who was being treated in a local hospital was murdered following the raid; and team leader Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, the only Israeli military fatality, became an international hero.
It is often said that Yoni’s death set his brother Benjamin Netanyahu on the anti-terrorism crusade that would later lead to him becoming the country’s prime minister. Not that any of the three Netanyahu brothers were strangers to the field. All three served in the same elite unit, and Iddo Netanyahu, a doctor, wrote one of the books about the rescue, whose official name was changed from Operation Thunderbolt to Operation Yonatan.
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Former prime minister Ehud Barak, a close friend and neighbor of Yoni Netanyahu, once told me how Yoni had wanted to participate in the audacious rescue of hostages from the hijacked Sabena plane on the tarmac in Tel Aviv in 1972. Barak was unwilling to allow two brothers to take part in the same dangerous operation and he had approved Bibi’s participation, telling Yoni he could be part of a future rescue. Speaking some 20 years later, it was obvious that the decision that resulted in Yoni’s death still played on his mind.
For Israelis, and Jews everywhere, the message of Entebbe was tremendous. That the hijackers of the Air France plane were two far-left German terrorists and two Palestinians – and in particular the fact that they separated Jewish and Israeli passengers, releasing the non-Jews early on – carried a fearful echo from the past. Coming three years after the Yom Kippur War, which took the country by surprise and was won only at a huge cost in soldiers’ lives, and four years after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Entebbe’s outstanding success provided a significant morale boost. It also put an end to the wave of hijackings.
Watching the celebrations three years ahead of my move from England to Israel, I was filled with an indescribable sense of pride.
I had been brought up on British Second World War movies of The Great Escape, The Colditz Story and The Bridge over the River Kwai genre.
The idea that it was the state that should try to rescue prisoners rather than the prisoners’ duty to try to escape at all costs had not occurred to me before. It was a refreshing reaffirmation of the concept that “kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” all Jews are responsible for helping one another.
ANOTHER EXCEPTIONAL act of Israeli daring and ability to think outside the box marked its 35th anniversary on June 7: the Israeli strike on Iraq’s nascent nuclear plant. By the time of this operation – as bold as it was risky – I was serving in the IDF. Again I wasn’t the only one taken by surprise and overcome with pride.
This operation, too, has its legends. Among the pilots of the fighter squadron was Ilan Ramon, who would later become Israel’s first astronaut – and tragically a victim of NASA’s Columbia disaster.
The raid, variously known as Operation Tammuz, Operation Opera and Operation Osirak, was incredibly audacious. Several pilots have admitted that while they believed the operation itself was viable, they hadn’t expected the entire team would make it home safely.
Journalist folklore has it that when the report of the successful strike reached the Israel Radio newsroom on the sleepy Shavuot holiday, staff there were so convinced someone was playing a prank that they got presenter Emmanuel Halperin to call his uncle, prime minister Menachem Begin, to confirm it before broadcasting the item.
BOTH THE Entebbe raid and the Osirak operation have been on my mind lately, and not just because of their 40th and 35th anniversaries.
We probably don’t know – yet – of some of the country’s boldest feats. The weapons seized by the Israeli Navy from the Karine A in 2002 and Victoria in 2011, before they could reach enemy hands, are evidence of impressive intelligence gathering along with operational skill.
But there are three soldiers missing since the June 1982 Battle of Sultan Yakoub in the early days of the First Lebanon War, and IAF navigator Ron Arad’s fate remains unknown. Gilad Schalit was captured by Hamas in June 2006, and it took five years and not a daring raid but the release of more than 1,000 terrorists before he was returned.
And this week we witnessed the heartbreak of the families of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed and their bodies abducted by Hamas two years ago, and of the relatives of Israeli citizens Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Said, also being held in Gaza.
The security cabinet decided to renew ties with Turkey, and pay compensation to the families of the activists/terrorists killed while attacking Israeli soldiers aboard the blockade-breaking Mavi Marmara in May 2010. The Israeli families saw leverage that could lead to the return of their loved ones disappear, and a reward being paid to a sponsor of Hamas.
The Turkish terrorists aboard the flotilla were found among far-left, pro-Palestinian supporters – more interested in Israel’s demise than helping the Palestinians create a thriving state of their own. The strange mix of radical bedfellows, united by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, lives on.
That the agreement was approved hours after the deadly attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport was an unpleasant reminder that today more than ever the world is at war with terrorist organizations.
It’s worth considering what has happened as a result of countries ignoring terrorism as long as Jews and Israelis were the targets.
The decision to go ahead with the renewed ties, in the hope that the concurrent gas deal with Turkey will improve Israel’s geo-political situation (and not harm relations with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus), was not taken lightly. But it seems light years, not four decades, from Yitzhak Rabin’s approval of the Entebbe firstname.lastname@example.org
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