Tomorrow will be exactly 40 years since a team of Israeli commandos stormed Entebbe airport in a 90-minute rescue operation to release Jewish passengers taken hostage aboard Air France.
Uganda, which had fallen out with Israel and turned their former embassy building in Uganda into a Palestine Liberation Organisation office, was quick to give the hijackers affiliated to the Palestinian group permission to land the plane at Entebbe. Uganda went ahead to take part in negotiations for the hijacker’s demands.
The eight-day ordeal started on June 27, 1976, when Air France flight 139 Air bus A300B4-2013 registration F-BVGG, left the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv for Paris.
On board were 246 passengers with 12 crew members. It first landed in Athens, picking more passengers, among them were the four hijackers. They were two Palestinians and two Germans. Wilfred Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann, the Germans, were members of the Germany Revolutionary Cells.
In his book By Way of Deception, Victor Otrovsky, a former Mossad agent, says Bose was involved in the Munich Olympics attack. The hijackers wanted to use the hostages as a bait to have the Israel government release 40 Palestinians in its jails and 13 others in other countries.
From Athens, instead of heading to Paris, the plane was commandeered to Entebbe with a stopover at Benghazi in Libya for refuelling.
At Entebbe airport, fearing that the plane may be blown, they moved all the hostages to unused building where they separated the Jewish people from the non-Jews. On 29 June, 1976, the hostages were separated according to nationality. All Israelis and those holding dual citizenship were kept away from other nationalities.
The following day, 48 hostages among the non-Israelis were released, majority of them were old women, children and the sick. On July 1, 1976, after agreeing on the extension of the deadline given to the Israeli government, the hijackers released another 100 hostages.
However, as the negotiations for the release of the hostages were going on in the background, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was working around the clock to provide information to the military to plan and launch a rescue operation, which included a possible military showdown with the Ugandan army.
Plan of attack
Planning for the rescue took a week on two fronts. There was a political and a military solution. In the end, the military rescue operation took the day. The military solution was boosted by a number of factors, among them the presence of a ‘Vacuamer’ (Mossad’s term for a person who provides detailed information on a target).
This was a lady based in Masaka District for some time working incognito. The other, Gen Baruch Bar-Lev, a retired Israel Defence Force (IDF) officer who patronised with the top brass in the political and military ranks in Uganda and is also alleged to have had a hand in the 1971 coup that brought Amin to power.
Also important to the Mossad was one of Israel’s big construction companies which had constructed the airport tower and the terminal building where the hostages were being held.
The hijackers gave the Israel government up to July 1, 1976, to either meet their demands or the hostages were to be killed. However, as the day approached an extension was agreed up to July 4 for the demands of the release of all prisoners and a $5 million ransom by both parties.
On July 3, Maj Gen Yekutiel Adam presented to the Israeli cabinet a military rescue operation codenamed “Operation Thunderbolt”, later renamed “Operation Jonathan” in memory of one of the commanders who died during the operation. The plan was approved immediately and Brig Gen Dan Shomron was appointed as the operation commander.
According to IDF declassified documents, the mission had a problem of refuelling the Lockheed C-130 Hercules planes to be used in the mission. IDF did not have the capacity to carry out air refuelling.
That was how Kenya came into the picture, taking advantage of the economic muscle of the Jewish community there. According to Gordon Thomas’ Gideon’s Spies, Mossad had used different economic activities to have a foot in Kenya as a way of watching the region.
A Jewish owner of a chain of hotels and other Jews convinced Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta to help the Israeli government, by allowing its planes to refuel from Kenya.
Then Kenyan agriculture minister Bruce MacKenzie weighed in as well to allow Mossad setup base in Nairobi as it gathered more information on the Entebbe airport before the raid.
MacKenzie later died in May 1978 in what was said to be Amin’s retaliation when his plane exploded mid-air.
As the rescue mission was being planned, intelligence on the strength of the Uganda Air Force and the geography of Entebbe airport was in top gear. Also going on at the same time were negotiations with the hijackers. They managed to get in touch with some non-Jewish hostages who had been released earlier on.
They also managed to work with the Israeli company which had constructed the airport terminal building where the hostages were. This was collaborated with the information from freed hostages on the number of hijackers, type of guns and how they are positioned in the terminal building. This task of information gathering fell on the Mossad operatives who flew to Paris to talk to the freed hostages.
The attacking force was made of four teams all totalling up to 100 people. The ground command and control unit had the operation and overall ground commander, Brig Gen Dan Shomron, air force Col Ami Ayalon plus a communication expert. The assault team of 29 commandos led by Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu (brother to Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was to lead the attack on the terminal building and rescue the hostages.
The securing team was made of paratroopers, this was divided into two groups, one commanded by Col Matan Vilnai. It was to secure the civilian runway and the four planes the IDF had come with.
Another was called the Golan force led by Col Uri Sagi, this was to secure the C-130 Hercules plane meant to take the freed hostages. Another group was the Sayeret Matkal force led by Maj Shaul Mofaz, which was responsible for the destruction of Uganda’s airforce MiG jet fighters and also cut off any possible reinforcement from Kampala to Entebbe.
Four C-130 Hercules military planes left Israel, one had 100 military rescuers followed by two Boeings 707, one with medical facilities, and it was to stay stationed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The other Boeing carrying the operation overall commander Gen Yekutiel Adam was to circle Entebbe airport as the operation went on.
At exactly 11pm on the night of July 3, 1976, the 100 Israeli’s flying over Lake Victoria landed at Entebbe. Having avoided detection by the Entebbe radar, members of the assault team headed straight for the terminal building where the hostages were kept.
As they drove to the terminal in their own vehicles, they were noticed by the Uganda security which tried to stop them from reaching the terminal building. The commandos shot at the Ugandan soldiers using silenced pistols. They used silenced pistols not to alert the hostage takers.
The whole operation lasted 90 minutes; it took the rescue team 53 minutes to rescue 102 hostages while the other 37 minutes were spent on demobilising Uganda’s airforce capability to counter the departing attackers, and sweeping the runway gathering more intelligence information on the airport.
During the operation, the assault unit commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. Also killed were all the four hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and three hostages. Also destroyed were a number of Soviet-built MiG 17s and MiG 21 fighter jets.
During the raid, the government in Tel Aviv turned to Baruch Bar-Lev, who engaged Amin in a number of phone conversations to plead for the release of the hostages.
Former Inspector General of Police Okoth Ogola says throughout the raid at Entebbe, Bar- Lev was on phone with Amin to cut out communication.
“His mission was to keep Amin in the dark of what was happening during the raid, he was only informed afterwards because as soon as the Israelis were airborne, Bar-Lev went off air and Amin could be reached,” says Ogola.
Ogola further says all the Ugandan police officers at the old terminal were locked up in the toilet as the Israelis went on to execute their mission. Ogola says he was informed of the incident soon after the Israel’s left.
“The director operations rang my house to tell me that the Israelis had taken their people according to the information he received from the OC station at the airport, Bigirwa. Fortunately, none of the policemen there was killed during the operation,” Ogola explains.
Aftermath of the raid
The United Nations Security Council convened on July 9, 1976, to consider a complaint from the chairman of the Organisation of African Unity charging Israel with an “act of aggression.”
The council allowed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Chaim Herzog, and Uganda’s foreign minister, Juma Oris Abdalla, to participate without voting rights.
UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim told the Security Council that the raid was “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a Member State of the United Nations” though he was “fully aware that this is not the only element involved...when the world community is now required to deal with unprecedented problems arising from international terrorism.”
Abdalla, the representative of Uganda, alleged that the affair was close to a peaceful resolution when Israel intervened while Herzog, the representative of Israel, accused Uganda of direct complicity in the hijacking.
The United States of America and United Kingdom sponsored a resolution which condemned hijacking and similar acts, deplored the loss of life arising from the hijacking (without condemning either Israel or Uganda).