A historic hostage-taking revisited

The 30th anniversary of the Entebbe raid harkens back to an era when fighting terrorism was more straightforward.

entebbe returning 88.298 (photo credit: Uzi Keren)
entebbe returning 88.298
(photo credit: Uzi Keren)
here are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say: 'No more!' And I say to everyone: No more! Israel will not be held hostage - not by terror gangs or by a terrorist authority or by any sovereign state," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset on July 17. When Hizbullah abducted two soldiers shortly after Hamas had paved the way with the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit two weeks previously, Olmert's defiant words resonated with an Israeli public that agreed. Was it mere coincidence that it was 30 years to the month since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had authorized the most brazen rescue operation in modern history? In July 1976, Israeli commandos rescued 103 hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda. The crisis began on June 27 when four terrorists seized an Air France plane flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers - two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang - diverted Flight 139 to Entebbe. There they were joined by three colleagues and demanded the release of 53 of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking. If the detainees were not released, the terrorists would begin killing the hostages. The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a worldwide audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue: The stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa's most notorious dictators, Ugandan president Idi Amin. Stories abounded of this man's evil proclivities, including that he had a certain taste for eating his enemies. It was said that in his palace refrigerator was a who's who of Ugandan politics. Some 3,400 km away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move. No options were free of risk. The terrorists then played a card that simplified the matter. They separated the passengers, Jews from non-Jews, releasing the latter. Shades of the Holocaust colored the events, and Israel now stood alone. It knew what it had to do. A proud cast of characters participated in the mission. Among the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft was a former South African, Dr. Jossy Faktor. Today he resides in Eilat, having recently established the first women's clinic there. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Faktor was serving at the time in the Air Force and would later become its surgeon general. He spoke to Metro on the very day that, 30 years earlier, his plane had touched down on Israeli soil with the rescued hostages on board. The night the call came in summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Faktor and his wife, Barbara, were clinking champagne glasses celebrating the 10th wedding anniversary of their friends the Kessels in Ra'anana. The two couples had grown up together through the Habonim youth movement in South Africa. "Little did we know when Jossy hurriedly stepped out of our front door that he was about to enter the history books," recalls Terry Kessel. The next day saw Faktor being briefed by the surgeon general, Dan Michaeli. "I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team," Faktor recounted. Although his specialization was gynecology, Faktor had been trained in aviation medicine, which included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. "The success of the operation was secrecy; and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (MDA), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We didn't want anyone, least of all the media, questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know," said Faktor. The final briefings were divided according to the various participants' roles. "We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams." Faktor described the flight as long and uneventful. "We left Friday morning and landed at Sharm e-Sheikh, stopping for essentially two reasons: We had enough fuel to get us to Entebbe, and as we didn't expect the ground staff there to accommodate us by refueling our planes, needed sufficient fuel to make it to Nairobi; and when we took off from Israel, the cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them, so they wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. We received the final green light on the runway at Sharm e-Sheikh. There was now no going back." The four planes flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection during the last stretch of the flight to Entebbe. "The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me. I recall there was very little chatting - everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, the late Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine." Faktor traveled in the fourth Hercules, with the medical teams. "Our plane was virtually empty, as we were to bring the hostages and wounded back. Some of the more unusual equipment we took along was empty milk cans. We expected some of our surprised passengers to be sick on the return flight, so we had to provide a suitable alternative to pretty air hostesses going around with paper bags," quipped Faktor. The other three planes carried the ground forces, with the famous black Mercedes-Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan president's car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were aware that their president had recently purchased a white Mercedes to replace his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look, they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car; but by that time they were both dead. In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up, and the assault teams quickly went into action. Faktor's aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation, "We stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under 40 minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensued. In the end we needed only six stretchers, including one for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft. All in all, there were only three serious injuries, one of whom, Sorin Hershko, has remained an invalid to this day. We flew to Nairobi, where we dropped off the three wounded with two of our doctors and then on to Israel. Among the hostages were the crew of the Air France plane, who had opted to remain with their Jewish and Israeli passengers," recounted Faktor. In describing the mood on the plane, Faktor recalled: "While there was jubilation, the passengers also appeared in a state of shock. This was expected. They had been captive for a week and then unexpectedly rescued in a shoot-out where they could so easy have lost their lives. Three of the hostages did. Compounding their trauma had been the constant fear of execution if their captors' demands were not met. So while there was the obvious feeling of elation, it was also mixed with sorrow at the loss of life." The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off only sank in, said Faktor, "when we touched down at Tel Nof air base and were met by Rabin and defense minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions." But the story of the hostages was not yet over. Seventy-five-year-old Dora Bloch, who carried dual Israel and American citizenship, had been left behind, as she had the misfortune at the time of the raid to be in hospital after a morsel of food had lodged in her throat. Amin now had a victim to vent his rage on. It is believed that Bloch was dragged from her hospital bed by two of Amin's army goons and murdered. The final chapter in this tragic episode brought another former South African into the picture. After leaving South Africa in 1948, renowned forensic pathologist Maurice Rogev spent most of the 1960s unearthing the truth behind numerous massacres in central Africa. Suspected in Kenya of working for the Mossad, he left the continent in 1971 for Israel. He was, however, to return. "The day after Idi Amin was overthrown, I was waiting for the call from the Mossad," recalled Rogev, who had learnt that the suspected body of Dora Bloch had been found. "The call came the next day, and they packed me off on a plane to Uganda to identify the remains. I was soon to learn that the new president of Uganda was storing the body in a bank vault, the safest place he could think of. There were clearly still those from the previous regime that wanted to let sleeping dogs lie." That was not Rogev's style. He has made a career of delving for the truth. "What transpired was that the day after Amin had been overthrown, a foul-smelling, disheveled individual presented himself at the gate of the British Embassy in Kampala and demanded to speak to the ambassador. The guards looked at him suspiciously, but there was something in his voice that made them believe that he had something important to report. They escorted him into the guardroom, where he blurted out that he was the man who had buried Dora Bloch and that he had done so under orders from president Amin. No fool, he realized that after he had carried out his instructions he would have been bumped off to cover all trace of the murder. So no sooner had he disposed of the body, he raced off to his home village near the Kenyan border and hid there until he heard the news that Amin had been overthrown." Rogev examined the body and found that everything matched. "I even found the initials of Dora's Tel Aviv dentist on her dentures. She was prepared for burial and transported back to Israel," he said. In the immediate aftermath of the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel as having violated Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel's ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the council, resonates no less today: "We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over 100 innocent people - men, women and children - but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom." The epilogue The Entebbe raid continues to be a source of pride for the Israeli public, with so many lives shaped by the experience. Dubbed "Operation Thunderbolt" by the Israeli military operatives who planned and carried it out, it was retroactively renamed "Operation Yonatan," honoring Yonatan Netanyahu, the only soldier to lose his life in the raid. His brother, Binyamin Netanyahu, would later serve as Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and is today the leader of the opposition. At the 30th anniversary ceremony in the Knesset on July 5, Netanyahu said of his brother, "He changed the course of my life and set it toward its current course. Until my last day, I will carry in my heart - as I did in my youth - the stamp of Yoni's courageous spirit and bravery." Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who served as defense minister during the Entebbe raid and went on to become prime minister, said the Entebbe raid has, over the years, evolved from an operation into a legend. Overall commander of the rescue operation, Dan Shomron, became the IDF's 13th chief of staff, while Ephraim Sneh, who headed the medical team on the mission, would later serve as a minister of health and is today still a member of the Knesset. Idi Amin, humiliated by the surprise raid and believing that Kenya had colluded with Israel in its planning, vented his rage by massacring hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda. However, after the raid on Entebbe, his regime began to crumble. Two years later he was forced into exile, settling in Saudi Arabia, the only country that would take him. He died in Jeddah in August 2003. Amnon Halivni, the captain of the Hercules that flew back the hostages, was one of the few Israelis to later succumb to Mad Cow disease. Michel Bacos, the captain of the hijacked French plane, was strangely rewarded for honorably opting to stay with his Jewish and Israeli passengers. Bacos was reprimanded by his superiors at Air France and temporarily suspended from duty. Dr. Maurice Rogev's expertise in forensic pathology led him once again into the international spotlight with the revelation in 1985 that the remains of Dr. Mengele had been discovered outside of Sao Paulo. Rogev, who went to Brazil to conduct a thorough investigation, takes up the story: "As they heaved up the coffin, some idiot stepped on it, not realizing that wood decays after six years. His foot went through the coffin and smashed the brittle skull into five pieces. What a pity no one did that to him when he was alive." From Mengele's DNA, Rogev managed to prove conclusively that the bones were indeed those of the notorious Auschwitz doctor. Thirty years after Chaim Herzog presented Israel's case to the Security Council defending its raid on Entebbe, his son Yitzhak, the minister of tourism who sits on the Knesset's security committee, appears almost daily on international TV networks explaining Israel's case in its retaliatory action against Hizbullah in Lebanon.