Entebbe raid: A global counterterrorism game changer - opinion

The Israeli Defense Force's 1976 Entebbe raid has become the gold standard for rescue operations.

 PASSENGERS RESCUED in the Entebbe raid are welcomed home by loved ones at Ben-Gurion Airport in July 1976.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PASSENGERS RESCUED in the Entebbe raid are welcomed home by loved ones at Ben-Gurion Airport in July 1976.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

For Israelis, the Fourth of July is not only the Independence Day of our American friend and ally, but also the anniversary of the IDF’s famed 1976 raid on Entebbe. With the hostages freed, the terrorists killed and the rescuers suffering only minimal casualties, Entebbe was an unmitigated achievement for Israel, and a counterterrorism inflection point for governments across the world. 

Israel’s operation was the end of a saga that had started on June 27 with the hijacking of an Air France Airbus A300 en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. Palestinian and German terrorists, exploiting the then-laxer Greek security procedures, boarded the plane during its Athens stopover, and took control of the aircraft shortly thereafter.

The hijackers first diverted the plane to Benghazi where they were welcomed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. From there, the terrorists took the aircraft to Entebbe, where Ugandan strongman Idi Amin likewise offered the hijackers succor, and as was pre-planned, additional terrorists joined the original hijackers.

The hostages were moved from the aircraft to the old terminal building and separated into two groups – one for the 98 Israelis and non-Israeli Jews, and one for the remaining 148 abductees. After 48 hours, the terrorist released the latter group, the Israelis and foreign Jews remaining captive, along with the 12-member Air France crew. For their release, the hijackers demanded the freeing of 40 terrorists imprisoned in Israeli jails, as well as an additional 13 terrorists held in other countries.

Rabin's dilemma

Air France hostages who were rescued from Entebbe Airport in 1975. The pilot of the plane, Michel Bacos (not pictured), died at the age of 95 on March 25th, 2019 (credit: GPO FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Air France hostages who were rescued from Entebbe Airport in 1975. The pilot of the plane, Michel Bacos (not pictured), died at the age of 95 on March 25th, 2019 (credit: GPO FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The hijacking presented the government of Yitzhak Rabin, then in his first term as prime minister, with a harrowing dilemma. On the one hand, Israel’s policy was not to give in to terrorist blackmail, acquiescence seen as only encouraging more terrorism in the future. On the other hand, Israel could not stand idly by and watch the terrorists murder their nearly hundred Israeli and Jewish captives. The national trauma from the failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, less than three years earlier, cast a shadow over the deliberations. 

In contrast to the more circumspect Rabin, from the beginning of the crisis, then-defense minister Shimon Peres doggedly advocated a military solution. Peres partisans attest to this as a manifestation of his strategic vision, while his detractors accuse him of political cynicism, contending that a successful operation would bring the defense minister public kudos, whereas failure could force Rabin’s resignation, vacating the top job for Peres himself.

As the terrorists’ July 1 deadline approached, Israel publicly agreed to negotiate with the hijackers, achieving a postponement until July 4. The extension provided vital time for Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, to better prepare the raid. Simultaneously, the Mossad used the additional days to gather more intelligence for the operation. 

On July 3, the IDF presented a military plan that satisfied the ever-meticulous Rabin, and with the prime minister’s recommendation, the full cabinet approved the rescue mission. 

On the day of America’s bicentenary, Israeli special forces landed at Entebbe, their effective surprise the harbinger of the successful operation. The 103 freed hostages were boarded on the IAF’s C-130 Hercules aircraft and flown home to a hero’s welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport. 

The sole fatality among the strike force was the commander of the unit, Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. Three hostages were also killed during the firefight, and another hostage, 74-year-old Dora Bloch, who had fallen sick and was taken to a Kampala hospital, was later murdered on Amin’s orders.

A counterterrorism inflection point

Israel’s dramatic rescue generated front-page news stories across the globe. Numerous books and documentary films have been devoted to the operation, as well as a series of movie dramatizations, including the almost immediately released Victory at Entebbe (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1977) and Operation Thunderbolt (1977), and more recently The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Entebbe (2018).

Yet, the impact of the successful rescue mission went far beyond Hollywood, with Israel’s achievement shaping the way governments worldwide would approach counterterrorism. 

Until Entebbe, terrorists were seen to be dictating the agenda. In September 1970, for example, an international crisis erupted when Palestinian hijackers forced several airliners to land in Jordan, blowing the planes up after removing the passengers. The situation escalated into a full-scale Jordanian civil war that produced a wider Middle East confrontation involving Israel, Syria, and the superpowers. 

And during the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian terrorists forced their way into the rooms of the Israeli team, killing two athletes and taking nine hostage. Believing that an agreement had been reached with the German authorities, the terrorists led their Israeli captives to waiting helicopters, which flew them to a nearby air force base. There the Germans attempted a rescue but botched the operation, the bound and gagged Israelis were murdered by the terrorists.  

The events in Jordan and Germany unfolded before a global television audience of some 900 million. Both appeared to confirm the international community’s impotence in dealing with terrorism. 

Israel’s 1976 rescue mission was therefore a game changer, definitively demonstrating that the terrorists could be defeated. The raid inspired governments across the globe to duplicate Israel’s achievement by upgrading their own special forces for Entebbe-type operations. 

In 1977, Germany’s Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG-9) stormed a hijacked Lufthansa Boeing 737 at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia, freeing 90 hostages. Similarly, in 1980, Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) ended a six-day armed takeover of Iran’s London Embassy, killing the terrorists and rescuing 20 hostages. 

Less-than-100% success rate

Unfortunately, not everyone had analogous success. While intent on replicating Israel’s example, America’s 1980 attempt to free the 52 diplomats held at its seized embassy in Tehran ended in debacle. The US Army’s Delta Force rescue mission, which, like Entebbe, involved vast geographic distance and a hostile local government, resulted in the deaths of eight soldiers, the loss of seven aircraft and the elite American unit never even reaching Tehran. President Jimmy Carter later claimed that the mission’s humiliating failure led to his defeat in the presidential election later that year. 

Across the globe, Entebbe became the “gold standard” for such operations. Renowned British military historian Max Hastings summed it up thus: “In a world of tragedies and frustrations, few people old enough to notice the event have forgotten the great uplift that day gave us. Terror was not invincible... the memory of July 4, 1976, deserves to be preserved, for one of the greatest feats of arms in a humanitarian cause since the Second World War.”

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.