Books: 'We have a military option, we have to take it'

A new book documents the minute-by-minute story of Israel’s daring 1976 raid to rescue hostages in Entebbe.

A police officer clears the way for rescued Air France hostages arriving in Tel Aviv after returning from Entebbe (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
A police officer clears the way for rescued Air France hostages arriving in Tel Aviv after returning from Entebbe
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Peter Rabinowitz didn’t like Greek food. He and his wife, Nancy – two American academics – were celebrating Nancy’s receiving a PhD. They got on Air France Flight 139 heading from Athens to Paris, because Peter reasoned the French food would be better.
“Both Rabinowitzes were acutely aware of the danger of hijacking and would not have got on Flight 139 is they had known it was on a stopover [in Athens] from Tel Aviv. It never occurred to them to ask,” writes Saul David, the author of Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History. Along with another 254 passengers, they would soon be plunged into one of the greatest hostage dramas of the 20th century and one of the most daring missions ever launched to rescue people from terrorists.
The story of the raid on Entebbe, Uganda, has been told before. Two movies were made in 1977 alone, the year after the mission to rescue the hostages. Most recently the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland had a scene about the story. The claim on this book’s dust-jacket, that it is “largely forgotten, or even unknown to many,” may be true in the larger sense, but for the English-speaking audience interested in Israel, it is fair to say most people have heard of it.
However, David, who has authored a number of books on wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, brings his excellent skill as a professor of war studies at the University of Buckingham to this story. With an eye for history – and nosing in archives – he has brought to light the story of the hostage crisis and the raid Israel launched to save the victims.
Air France Flight 139 had originated in Tel Aviv and had landed for its stopover in Athens on June 27, 1976. Among those boarding at the stopover were four new passengers, en route from Bahrain to Paris.
They included a tall “South American” named A. Garcia and a younger woman named “Ortega,” along with two men carrying Kuwaiti and Bahraini passports.
Just minutes after takeoff, these new arrivals revealed themselves to be members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Armed with guns and grenades, they stormed the cockpit and ordered the captain, Michael Bacos, and the crew to divert to Libya.
In those days, the hijacking of planes was almost a weekly event. In 1969, David notes, some 82 hijackings had been reported worldwide. The PFLP had extensive expertise. In 1970 the terrorist organization of Palestinian communists had hijacked three planes to the Jordanian desert and blown them up in a disused airfield. They wanted to “focus the world’s attention on Palestine, this would cause people to ask, what the hell is the problem in Palestine,” the PFLP founder George Habash thought. Two of the hijackers, Wilfred Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann, were not from the PFLP, but from a German radical terrorist group called “Revolutionary Cells.”
The cast of characters assembled to deal with the crises in Israel will be familiar to many. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in his first iteration of this role, led the way, along with defense minister Shimon Peres and foreign minister Yigal Allon. To combat the hijacking they would rely on the elite IDF unit Sayeret Matkal, commanded by Yoni Netanyahu and Muki Betser.
Initially, Israel planned for the possibility that the terrorists would fly the plane to Ben-Gurion Airport – as they had a Sabena flight in 1972. When Rabin was awakened at 4 a.m. on June 28, and was informed the hijacked plane was in Entebbe, he replied “better than an Arab country, we know the Ugandan president.”
Idi Amin, a rapacious, fanatical dictator in 1976, had previously seemed like a modern African leader, and had enjoyed good relations with Israel, even training with Israelis in the 1960s when Israel had close relations with newly independent sub-Saharan nations. But relations had soured as Amin became close to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and by 1976 he was even planning for “war” with the Jewish state.
Operation Thunderbolt is written in an informed and colorful fast-paced way, jumping from Uganda to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the action develops.
Although David provides some background on the key actors, he focuses on the minute-by-minute developments, as passengers are herded into the terminal at Entebbe and as Israeli commandos prepare to fly hundreds of miles in a daring raid to get them out. But David doesn’t embellish, this isn’t a book about fake derring-do, and the nuts and bolts of this crisis need no romantics to bring it to life. The real story is enough of a page turner.