Hijacked in the sky

32 years later, Yehuda Avner on tensions behind scenes of Entebbe op.

entebbe 224.88 GPO (photo credit: GPO)
entebbe 224.88 GPO
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's military aide, Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Poran - otherwise known as Freuke - was an unexcitable, soft-spoken soldier who had a reputation for keeping his head while others around him were losing theirs. So, when Rabin saw him stride into the cabinet room in the middle of a session and bear down on him with a note in his hand and an agitated look on his face, he knew something untoward was afoot. It was Sunday, June 27, 1976, and Rabin's features paled when he read what Freuke wrote: "An Air France plane, Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris, has been hijacked after taking off from a stopover in Athens." Rabin frowned over a file as if intensely studying its contents but was, in fact, desperately trying to think what best to do. Not since the Six Day War had he been smitten with such a sudden blow of anxiety. He needed time; he needed information. On the back of the note he wrote: "Freuke - find out: (1) How many Israelis are on board. (2) How many hijackers are on board. (3) Where the plane is heading." He then banged his gavel to silence a minister who was working up a froth about the price of bread, informed the cabinet of the shocking news, adjourned the meeting and asked a number of ministers to stay behind to consider a course of action. "The only thing we presently know for sure," Rabin told them, "is that the hijacked plane is Air France." And then, addressing justice minister Haim Zadok, a corpulent, round-shouldered, middle-aged man, whose graying head contained an encyclopedic legal mind, asked, "What exactly is the legal status of the passengers on board that plane?" "By law, the passengers are under French sovereign protection," he answered authoritatively. "The French government is responsible for the fate of them all." "Yigal" - this to foreign minister Allon - "have your people inform the French government we're issuing a public statement to that effect. And ask Paris to keep us informed of all their actions." To me, he said, "Prepare a draft of the statement." As I began to scribble, Allon rose to leave the room, and was almost out of the door when Zadok called after him, "And tell the French they must make no distinction between the Israeli passengers and the rest." "That goes without saying," muttered Allon, slightly huffed. Now Freuke came barging in with a fresh note, which Rabin read out loud: "'There are 230 passengers on board, 83 of them Israeli, and 12 crew members. The Libyans have allowed the plane to land at Benghazi.' So now, at least, we know where the passengers are," commented the premier, his face a scowl. "But there are three crucial things we still don't know: We don't know whether Benghazi will be their final stop; we don't know who the hijackers are; and we don't know what their demands are." For the next half hour the ministers mulled over these three unknowns when a secretary entered and passed a note to Allon. "Aha, it's from the French ambassador," he said, and he read: "The government of France wishes to inform the government of Israel that the French government bears full responsibility for the safety of all the passengers without distinction on Air France Flight 139, and shall keep the government of Israel appraised of its actions." "That is satisfactory," said Zadok, and in the absence of anything useful more to say the prime minister adjourned the meeting, asking everyone to stay close to a phone. It rang in the late afternoon, and the ministers reconvened early that evening. Rabin, now every bit the hard-nosed commander he once was, ran his eyes up and down a dossier, and said, "We have fresh information. The plane was seven hours on the ground at Benghazi, for refueling. One passenger, a pregnant woman, was released. It then took off for Khartoum but was not given permission to land even though Sudan is a haven for Palestinian terrorists. We have no idea where the plane is heading now. As for the identity of the hijackers, it seems there are four - two Arabs from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and two Germans from a terrorist splinter group calling itself the 'Revolutionary Cells.' That's as much as we know now." That night Yitzhak Rabin fell into a woolly sleep until jerked blinking back into reality by the shrill ring of his bedside telephone: "Who is this?" "Freuke." "What time is it?" "Four in the morning. The plane has landed in Entebbe, Uganda." Rabin, instantly alert, said, "Better there than an Arab country. We know the Ugandan president, Idi Amin. Didn't he do his parachute training here?" "He did. And quite a few of our specialists worked in Uganda. Some should know him personally, so hopefully we can straighten this thing out quickly." "Try and find out who knows him. Any word yet of the hijacker's demands?" "None." "Convene a meeting first thing." THE NEXT morning was Tuesday, June 29, and at 8:30 a somewhat bleary-eyed Rabin reported the new facts to the committee. Hardly had the ministers absorbed what he was saying when Freuke's assistant came rushing in with a note. The general quickly ran his eyes over it and passed it on to the prime minister who, after a single glance, said, "This is what we've been waiting for. The hijackers have broadcast their demands over the Ugandan radio. In return for the hostages, the hijackers want the release of terrorists - they call them freedom fighters - imprisoned in five countries: 40 from us, six from West Germany, five from Kenya, one from Switzerland and one from France. They've issued an ultimatum. Within the next 48 hours the released terrorists are to be flown to Entebbe. Those freed by us are to be transported by Air France. The other countries can decide on their own mode of transport." "And if not?" asked minister Yisrael Galili in his characteristic phlegmatic fashion. "What happens if they are not freed?" Galili had the white hair of an Einstein, the stocky build of a kibbutznik, the shrewdness of an entrepreneur and the veiled eyes of a Svengali. The reason he was merely a minister-without-portfolio was because he did not need one. He was Rabin's closest political confidant. "If the terrorists are not freed," answered Rabin, his voice graveyard, "they threaten to begin killing our hostages as of 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, July 1. That is the day after tomorrow." The group emitted a collective gasp and the first to break the silence was defense minister Shimon Peres, who delivered an impassioned address on the implications of capitulation to terrorist blackmail. Rabin cut him short with a sardonic, "Before you sermonize any further, I suggest we adjourn until this afternoon to think the matter through, with all its implications." That's how it was between Rabin and Peres in those days: absolute distrust. The prime minister promptly called his personal staff and asked for a report on the attempts to persuade Idi Amin to intercede on behalf of the passengers. What he learned caused him to say with a bitter smile, "Clearly, he's in cahoots with the terrorists." And then, "I want Motta at the next ministerial meeting" (Lt.-Gen. Mordechai [Motta] Gur was the IDF chief of General Staff). "Why?" asked Freuke. "You have something in mind for him?" Contemptuously, Rabin answered, "No, but neither does Peres. His pontifications about not surrendering to terrorist blackmail are for the record only, so that he'll be able to say later that he was in favor of a military action from the start. The problem is his rhetoric is so persuasive he believes it himself." The prime minister opened the afternoon meeting with a crisp and commanding question to Gur: "Motta, does the IDF have any possible way of rescuing the hostages by a military operation?" Peres, irate, intervened, "There has been no consideration of the matter in the defense establishment. I haven't discussed it yet with the chief of General Staff." "What?" spluttered Rabin, "Fifty-three hours after we learned of the hijacking and you have not yet consulted the chief of General Staff on the possibility of a military option?" His fury was palpable. Again, he bayoneted into Motta Gur, "Do you have a military plan, yes or no?" Peres again was about to say something, but Rabin forestalled him by insisting that Gur answer his question. "We have started a preliminary examination," replied the general, a hefty parachutist who had led the assault to free the Old City in the Six Day War. "But I take it at the moment you have no military plan to recommend," said Rabin, and turning now to the whole table, declared, "There being no concrete military solution, we shall have to..." - he paused as if hesitant to express his next thought - "...consider negotiating with the hijackers for the release of the hostages." The ministers engaged in a fretful discussion about the frightening thought of attempting to rescue so many scores of hostages 2,500 miles away in the heart of Africa, and the unthinkable alternative of negotiating with the killers. LATER THAT evening, over a drink in the privacy of his room - the prime minister was drinking and smoking more heavily now - Rabin confided his inner thinking to his staff in these words: "I long ago made a principled decision that if a situation were ever to arise, as it has now, when terrorists would be holding our people hostage on foreign soil and we were faced with an ultimatum of either freeing killers in our custody or our own people would be killed, I would, in the absence of a military option, give in to the terrorists. So I say now, if the defense minister and the chief of General Staff cannot come up with a credible military plan I intend to negotiate with the terrorists. I would never be able to look a mother in the eye if her hostage soldier or child, or whoever it was, was murdered because of a refusal to negotiate." On the following morning, Wednesday, June 30, Rabin opened the meeting with the following chilling statement: "The terrorists have carried out a selection of the passengers. They have separated the Jews from the non-Jews. The non-Jews have been released. The Jews number 98. They are threatened with imminent execution. The ultimatum expires in less than 24 hours. So, again, I ask you, the chief of General Staff - Motta, do you have a military plan?" "We are looking at three possible options," answered the soldier. "One is to launch a seaborne attack on the Entebbe airport from Lake Victoria. The other is to induce the hijackers to transact an exchange here in Israel, and then jump them. And the third is to drop parachutists over Entebbe." Silence! Skeptical glances. Nervous shuffling. "Are any of these plans operational?" asked the prime minister, his face cold, hard-pinched. "No." "In that case," said Rabin with alacrity, "since the terrorist ultimatum is scheduled to run out at 2 p.m. tomorrow, I intend to propose to the full cabinet that we negotiate with the hijackers their terms for the release of the hostages. If we are unable to rescue them by force, we have no moral right to abandon them. We will negotiate through the French. Our negotiations will be in earnest, not a tactical ruse to gain time. And we will keep our side of any deal we strike." "I object," countered Peres. "I'm sure you do," hissed Rabin between clenched teeth. But this time Peres was not to be silenced. "We have never agreed in the past to free terrorists who have murdered innocent civilians," he thundered. "If we give in to the hijackers' demands and release terrorists, everyone will understand us, but no one will respect us. If, on the other hand, we conduct a military operation to free the hostages, it is possible that no one will understand us, but everyone will respect us, depending, of course" - his voice trailed off into a whisper - "on the outcome of the operation." Rabin, glowering, blazed back, "For God's sake, Shimon, our problem at this moment is not more of your heroic rhetoric. If you have a better proposal, let's hear it. You know as well as I do that the relatives of the hostages are beside themselves with anguish, and for good reason. What do they say? They say Israel freed terrorists after the Yom Kippur War in exchange for the bodies of dead soldiers, so how can we refuse to free terrorists in exchange for living people, our own people, about to be executed?" Peres, features frozen, said nothing, and when it came to the crunch, he voted with the rest of the ministers to negotiate for the release of the hostages though the auspices of the French. NEXT MORNING, with hardly more than a few hours to spare before the executions were to begin, the prime minister reported the full facts to the full cabinet which, likewise, voted unanimously to open negotiations through the French. Now, he met with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to report on the cabinet's decision, and to ask for its support. After hearing Rabin's report, leader of the opposition Menachem Begin said, "Mr. Prime Minister, may I request a brief interval for consultations?" "Yes, but please be quick. Time is running out." Begin speedily rose and departed to an adjacent room together with a number of his party members. Within minutes they were back. "Mr. Prime Minister," said Begin with enormous gravitas, "this is not a partisan matter for debate between the coalition and the opposition. It is a national issue of the highest order. We, the opposition, shall support any decision the government adopts to save the lives of Jews. And we shall make our decision public." "Thank you," said Rabin clearly moved. Within the hour news blazoned around the world: "Israel surrenders to hijackers!" All of us working with the prime minister were gnawed with a supercharged tension while waiting for a response from the Entebbe terrorists - all of us except Rabin. He summoned me to review the day's correspondence, and even as I sat there trying to suppress my flutters he seemed unnaturally composed, as if morally fortified by the principled decision he had taken. And once made, his clarity of mind never wavered. So when his red emergency phone, which was linked directly to the intelligence people in Tel Aviv, suddenly buzzed he answered it with a tranquil "Hello." And then, nodding his head in comprehension, said, "Yes, I see. Good. Thank you. That gives us a little more time," and he replaced the receiver. "Any news?" I spluttered. "Yes," he said coolly. "The French have just notified us that the terrorists have extended their ultimatum for another 48 hours to allow for the negotiations to proceed. So we now have until July 4, the day after tomorrow." Next day Freuke came rushing in with the news that Gur and Peres were working on something that might be ready before the deadline, to which Rabin said skeptically. "I'll believe it when I see it." BUT THEY actually did have a plan, a spectacularly daring one, to which Rabin gave his approval after much finessing and refining. Now, he summoned the full cabinet into emergency session, and flatly, factually, without a trace of emotion, said, "As you know, so long as we had no military option I was in favor of conducting serious negotiations with the hijackers. But now we have a military plan." Gur presented its essentials, explaining that a substantial military force was to be landed at Entebbe by Hercules transport planes. He described the stealth, caution, deception and subterfuge that lay at the heart of the plan, all designed to catch the terrorists and the Ugandan soldiers off guard. "Can you give us an idea of anticipated casualties?" asked one of the ministers apprehensively. Rabin looked the questioner squarely in the eye: "The rescue operation will entail casualties both among the hostages as well as among their rescuers. I don't know how many. But even if we have 15 or 20 dead - and we can all see what a heavy price that would be - I am in favor of the operation." "And are you positive there is no other way out, besides negotiating with the terrorists?" asked another. "Yes, I am. If we have a military option, we have to take it up, even if the price is heavy." Here he paused to scan the faces of his colleagues to gauge their moods. Most expressions remained closed or dubious or anxious, so it was with an almost talmudic intensity that he pressed, "I have said all along that in the absence of a military plan we have to negotiate in earnest. Now that we have a military plan we have to implement it in earnest, even at a heavy cost." A brief debate followed, after which the cabinet gave its approval, whereupon Rabin again met with the leading figures of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. After hearing what the prime minister reported, Menachem Begin, speaking in the name of the opposition, solemnly stated, "Mr. Prime Minister, yesterday, when you had no military plan, I said that since the issue was a matter of saving Jewish lives we of the opposition shall lend the government our fullest support. Today, now that you have a rescue plan, I again say, we of the opposition shall lend the government our fullest support. And may the Almighty bring everybody safely home." As the Hercules planes roared through the night toward the heart of Africa, the prime minister drove to the Defense Ministry where a loudspeaker linkup was installed to relay the reports from the IDF force landing at Entebbe. Reflecting back on that night Rabin would later write: "The military transmissions, laconic and dry, heralded the brilliant success of the operation, which was the furthest ever conducted from Israeli territory. It was carried out exactly as planned... When the news came through that the last of our planes had left Entebbe, we drank a toast to the success of the venture. A few hours later people were literally dancing in the streets as a wave of elation swept over Israel." Assuredly, the Entebbe rescue operation was Yitzhak Rabin's longest night. Arguably, it was his finest hour. The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin. avner28.netvision.net.il