Yesterday was July 4 and while Americans celebrated the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Israelis and the Jewish world also commemorated the anniversary of something else: Operation Thunderbolt, perhaps the most daring rescue mission Israelis ever made.
Operation Thunderbolt — also known as Operation Entebbe and Operation Yonatan after the mission’s heroic leader, Yoni Netanyahu — has taken on mythical status in Israel’s public memory. What happened?
On July 4, 1976, Israel took on a colossal risk by sending special forces to Uganda to save Jewish people who were aboard a hijacked Air France flight before being taken hostage by terrorists and held in Entebbe, Uganda. The mission was successful with the vast majority of the hostages emerging from this nightmare.
Israelis and Jews throughout the world celebrated and the world looked on with astonishment at the Israeli military’s stunning achievement. How did Israel execute this incredible rescue mission and what does Entebbe mean for Israelis and the Jewish people today?
We love the story so much that we created a podcast on Operation Thunderbolt (Entebbe) and two short explainer films on the topic, plus this article.
What was happening before Operation Thunderbolt?
Let’s set the stage — the date was June 27, 1976. Americans were wearing bell bottoms and dancing to disco, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and infamous Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada Oumee — known by the nickname “the machete” among his people — had been ruling Uganda with an iron first for five years.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin presided over a dovish coalition government, a position to which he was appointed by the Labor Party (Avodah) after the resignation of Golda Meir in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War.
But Rabin’s appointment was not without controversy. His defense minister Shimon Peres had been passed over for the position of Prime Minister, creating a bitterness that would simmer over the course of Rabin’s tenure and come to a head that summer in 1976.
Meanwhile, the 1970s had seen a series of airline hijackings. Today, in a post-9/11 world, we’re all used to pretty intense security checks and restrictions when flying. But back in the 70s, such stringent security measures were virtually unheard of.
With such lax security, it’s no wonder that Brendan Koerner, author of the 2013 book “The Skies Belong To Us,” called 1968-1972 “the golden age of airline hijacking.” He estimated that hijackings happened as often as once a week during this time period.
Some of the most notorious of these hijackings had targeted Israelis. In 1968, terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the PFLP, re-routed an El Al plane from Rome to Algeria. (This was the only time that El Al, Israel’s national airline, has been hijacked, despite many attempts by terrorist groups.)
The non-Israeli passengers were promptly sent to France and 10 women and children were released soon after. The remaining 12 Israeli hostages spent 40 days in Algeria — the longest hijacking in history — before the Israeli government negotiated their safe release.
(Now, note the separation: Most passengers were released immediately; only the Israeli Jewish passengers actually became hostages. This will come up in the story of Entebbe as well.)
Two years later, in 1970, three planes were hijacked by Palestinian (PFLP) terrorists in the same day in what became known as the Dawson Field hijackings. All of the hostages were released with no casualties by the end of the incident.
Aside from these failed attempts at hijacking, the PFLP and other Palestinian factions had sowed terror against Israelis on Israeli soil and around the world.
In 1972, Ben Gurion airport (then called Lod Airport) became a slaughterhouse when three Japanese men — who had been recruited by the PFLP and trained in Beirut — stepped off an Air France flight from Rome.
Israeli airport security had no reason to suspect that the three well-dressed Japanese men carried assault rifles and grenades in their violin cases. But within seconds of entering the airport’s waiting area, the three opened fire, murdering 26 people and wounding scores more.
Then in 1974, terrorists took 105 Israeli schoolchildren hostage in the northern town of Ma’alot. Israeli forces fought to save the children in the school, but the terrorists murdered 22 of them along with four adults.
And in 1975, terrorists took control of the Savoy hotel in Tel Aviv, ending in the murder of eight civilians and three soldiers after a failed rescue attempt.
So, Israelis were no strangers to the horror of terrorism or the perils of rescue attempts. But the events of June and July 1976 were about to shock the world.
The harrowing hijacking of Air France Flight 139
When Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv on the morning of June 27, it carried mostly Israeli passengers. But after a stop in Athens to pick up more passengers en route to France, nearly 60% of the 259 people on board were not Israeli.
Among them were four terrorists — two Palestinian, two German — who stormed the cockpit with guns eight minutes into the flight, forcing captain Michel Bacos, a French veteran of WWII, to fly to Benghazi, Libya.
Recounting the experience in a later interview, Bacos recalled that “Every time I tried to look in a different direction, he pressed the barrel of his gun against my neck.”
Despite these terrifying conditions, the crew managed to touch down in Libya — then ruled by the notoriously anti-Israel dictator Muammar Qaddafi. After refueling, the hijackers demanded to be flown to Entebbe, Uganda.
The modern nation of Uganda (once a British protectorate) was born in 1962 during the height of decolonization efforts worldwide.
Like many other recently decolonized countries, it was unstable, and nine years after the country declared independence, the commander of the Ugandan Army — Idi Amin — overthrew President Milton Obote and established a brutal military rule during which he tortured and terrorized his people.
At first, Amin continued his predecessor’s friendly relationship with Israel. The two nations were united in their fight against the Northern Sudanese rebels, and Israel supplied the Ugandan army with training and weapons. In 1971, Amin even visited Israel, where he received a warm welcome from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
But the relationship soon soured. By 1972, Amin had expelled all Israelis, including those who had trained his army, from Uganda. He also heavily persecuted the Abayudaya, the tiny Jewish community of Uganda.
Bolstered by Libyan dictator Qaddafi’s hostility to Israel, the Ugandan dictator supported the hijacking of Flight 139. So, after more than 24 harrowing hours of travel, the exhausted and terrorized passengers of Flight 139 touched down in Uganda’s airport and were greeted by Amin’s forces.
Amin himself personally visited the hostages. In a 2003 interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Emma Rosenkovitch, a French-Israeli hostage, recalled:
“Approximately once a day he came to visit, dressed differently each time. Once he was a paratrooper, then he was something else. He told us stories about how concerned he was and how much he loved us, and that his daughter’s name was Sharon, because she was conceived in the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, when he visited Israel. Every time he came in, he said ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew.”
On June 29, two days after the hijacking, the terrorists made their aims clear to Israel: Pay $5 million dollars (which is $22 million in today’s money), and release 53 terrorists, 40 of whom were held in Israeli prisons, or they would start killing hostages by July 1. Israel had three days to comply.
Back in Israel, Yitzhak Rabin faced a daunting situation. He had 260 innocent civilians on this plane who were terrified and looking to him for help. As the terrorists had shown in the Lod Airport massacre, four years earlier, they had little hesitation about massacring innocent people.
On the other hand, was Israel really going to negotiate with these terrorists? As Defense Minister Peres recounted in his memoir:
“It was clear to me that we faced, fundamentally, a question of principle,” he wrote. “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 hostages, it is possible that no one will understand us — but everyone will respect us.”
Israel was stuck between a rock and a hard place and the lives of 98 innocent civilians hung in the balance.
And while a daring rescue operation sounded wonderful in theory, Uganda was 3,000 miles away, with the airport heavily guarded by Israeli-trained Ugandan military and PFLP terrorists.
Plus, rescue operations had failed before with horrifying consequences. The specter of another failed rescue attempt haunted Rabin’s cabinet as they pondered their impossible choice.
For Peres, the choice was clear. Behind Rabin’s back, he organized a secret committee to create a rescue plan. He turned to the elite commander of Sayeret Maktal, Yonatan Netanyahu — the brother of future prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu — to help him hash out the details.
The two pored over maps and airport blueprints, agonizing over the tiny details that could make or break this risky mission.
Peres took the plan to Rabin, and after hours of fiery debate with some of Rabin’s closest advisors in which plans were suggested and dismissed, Rabin had the final word. Remember, Peres had been passed over for the position of Prime Minister, and Rabin, for his part, could not stand his old rival Peres, calling him in his memoir “a tireless backstabber.”
But he had to admit that the plan was pretty good — thoughtful, well-researched and bolstered by the Israelis’ experience in Uganda when they had trained the Ugandan soldiers.
To throw salt in the wound, news emerged that back in Uganda, the terrorists separated the Israeli passengers and those who were identifiably Jewish from the rest of the hostages. They were preparing to release the rest of the hostages, but keep the 100 remaining Jews and Israelis as prisoners.
By June 30, a day before their ultimatum was due, the terrorists began releasing hostages. And Israel told the terrorists they were willing to negotiate, which pushed back the deadline of July 1.
By the afternoon of July 3, the only hostages left were the Israelis and Jews and the crew. And Operation Entebbe, also known as Operation Thunderbolt, was about to begin.
Executing the most daring rescue mission
On the afternoon of July 3, the Israelis flew four military transport planes less than 100 feet from the ground to avoid showing up on Egyptian radar. They were followed by two passenger planes — one outfitted like a mobile hospital — to scoop up the 100 hostages.
On the planes were the black Mercedes and Land Rovers that Idi Amin’s forces favored. Unfortunately, the Israelis didn’t know that Idi Amin had just bought himself a white Mercedes, nearly scuppering the whole plan.
Upon the landing, right before midnight, a Ugandan guard noticed the suspicious cars, and raised his weapon, and Yoni Netanyahu, ignoring orders not to shoot, fired at him.
The element of surprise lost, the Israelis rushed the building, half-expecting it to explode. But the building was not booby-trapped. And despite not knowing exactly where the hostages were held, the Israelis found them quickly, making short work of the seven terrorists who held them.
In 99 minutes, almost all the hostages were on the plane, and it safely took off, and returned the hostages to Israel on July 4.
The team had prepared for up to 25 casualties, but in the end, there were only five — four hostages and one commando. Prime Minister Rabin famously praised the mission as “one of the most exemplary victories from both the human and moral, and the military-operational points of view.”
But the mission was not an unqualified success. When the Israelis rushed the building, they screamed “Stay down! We are Israelis!” in English and Hebrew. But tragically, two hostages stood, catching “friendly fire.”
Additionally, a third hostage was killed during the firefight between the Israelis and the terrorists, as was Yoni Netanyahu, the Harvard-educated Israeli “golden boy” lauded for his heroism during the Six-Day War, and older brother of the future prime minister.
The Entebbe rescue was one of the proudest and most legendary moments in Israeli history, right up there with the establishment of the state and the victory of the Six-Day War.
Entebbe reaffirmed Israelis’ confidence in their security, intelligence and self-reliance after the devastating losses of the Yom Kippur War and the massacres at the Lod Airport, the Munich Olympics and Ma’alot.
The raid also won Israel international respect, both for not giving into terrorism and for the impressive operation itself. After Entebbe, terrorists had to consider a new factor in their calculations: that Israel’s reach was not limited by distance or location.
Airplane hijackings were soon abandoned as a method of Palestinian terrorism.
The success of the operation was the highpoint in global attitudes towards Israel. Even the UN — which had declared Zionism to be racism just a year prior in a resolution sponsored by 25 countries — was reluctant to criticize Israel.
But the world’s positive attitudes toward Israel turned out to be short-lived — things went downhill a few years later when Israel, against worldwide opposition, invaded Lebanon in the controversial 1982 Lebanon War.
Among Jews worldwide, Entebbe went beyond restoring confidence — it took on a mythical status restoring a sense of shared destiny and fate among all Jews around the world.
Israel did not only show that it would defend itself but made a strong statement that all Jews, no matter where they were in the world, had a country to protect them.
The story of Entebbe reaffirmed the nation’s best values: self-sacrifice, loyalty, the value of human life and unity. Within Israel, the rescue brought left and right together, and the memory of the rescue is still cherished by all sides of the political spectrum, something that is altogether rare in Israeli society today.
Daring thinking and the legacy of Entebbe
So, where does this leave us? As students of history, what can we learn from the legacy of Entebbe?
Like all of history, the rescue at Entebbe resists simple answers and pat explanations. But here are two enduring lessons as we see it.
Rabin and his advisors agonized about the right decision, and they ended up choosing this rescue mission, which worked. But previous rescue missions had failed, and the Israelis knew that, no matter how well-thought out their plan was, they were taking a colossal risk.
Which begs the question — was Rabin right to attempt this bold, daring and maybe even reckless rescue attempt? We like to think so, but maybe that’s only because it succeeded. What if it had failed — would we still think he made the right decision?
Shimon Peres touched on this in his memoir. He wrote, “Given the thin line between success and failure, knowing that what works in one circumstance might be disastrous in another, what do such operations have to teach us? It’s certainly not that daring military action is or isn’t the better course; it’s that daring thinking about one’s options is always the better course.”
Daring thinking is always the better course. Though Rabin was a cautious man, he dared to think boldly and execute the rescue plan. Ultimately, we think that’s what success really means here, and it’s why we personally feel that sense of pride when we think about Entebbe.
A second lesson we take away from Entebbe is one of leadership. Rabin appointed Shimon Peres, his political adversary, to the position of Defense Minister, and at the height of the crisis at Entebbe, he listened to him, even after Peres had put together a secret council and plan.
Rabin could have put his ego first — in fact, many leaders in his shoes would have done so. He could have said he wouldn’t stand for the disloyalty, and reject the rescue plan out of hand. But Rabin didn’t think that way. He didn’t let allegiance or loyalty be the master.
Instead, he let thoughtful, creative, inspiring people hash out ideas, and ultimately, that process prevailed. Rabin, in this situation, showed us what real leadership is. Loyalty might get you power or respect, but you’ll never get a successful Entebbe.
It was daring thinking about the options, and the open exchange of ideas on Rabin’s team, that made this incredible feat possible.
Originally Published Dec 24 2022 09:17PM EST