How Uganda, Kenya were dragged into the Israel-Palestine conflict

Israel Defense Forces officers stand in front of one of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircrafts that were used during the raid on Entebbe in 1976. PHOTOS | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Part I. At 11pm on Saturday July 3, 1976, a special forces unit of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) slipped into the country on a clinical mission; to rescue Israel nationals held by pro-Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe airport.

It is 44 years since the morning of July 4, 1976, Israeli commando raid on Entebbe airport to rescue passengers held hostage after the hijacking of an Air France plane.
The plane, Flight 139, was an Airbus A300B4-203, registration F-BVGG (c/n 019), which left Tel Aviv, Israel, for Paris in France via Athens in Greece with 246 passengers, most of them Israelis, with a French crew of 12.

After a stopover in Greece, the five hijackers – two Germans and three Arabs – commandeered the plane to Entebbe via Benghazi, Libya. From June 27 to the day the Israeli commandos raided Entebbe, there were both diplomatic negotiations and a planned rescue.

Writing in the International Lawyer Volume 11, Leonard M. Salter called the raid a humanitarian act.

“It can well be argued that the rescue at Entebbe, under the circumstances of imminent extinction, was a humanitarian act,” he writes.

Failed Nairobi attack
The hijacking of the plane was a revenge act for the arrest of five terrorists sent to blow up an Israeli Airlines plane at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Kenya in January 1976.

On January 25, 1976, an Israeli Airlines Flight LY512 was to fly to Tel Aviv from Johannesburg, South Africa, through Nairobi.

According to the Washington Post newspaper of March 31, 1977, members of a splinter group from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) were to shoot down the Boeing 707 plane with 150 passengers as it flew over them heading towards the runway at Jomo Kenyatta airport.

“It is believed that the three Arabs were members of Wadia Haddad’s Popular Revolutionary Front (PRF); a splinter group of George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” the paper says.

The Habash-led PFLP was one of the groups fighting the Israel state. His deputy, Haddad, had become notorious for planning hijackings, targeting synagogues and Israel delegations abroad. He created PRF for that purpose.

Because of his modus operandi, the Israel intelligence branded him a genius.

“He had a genius talent for clandestine transportation and concealment of explosives to the site of attack,” wrote Ronen Bergman in Rise and Kill: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.
His skills endeared him to the Soviet Union (Now Russia)‘s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti KGB (meaning Committee for State Security), Stasi the East Germany Intelligence agency and West Germany’s rebel outfit Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Two of the five hijackers of the Air France plane, which was brought to Entebbe, were members of RAF.

In late 1975, PRF started planning to blow up an Israel Airlines plane in Kenya. A few days to the D-Day, the Israeli intelligence, through an undercover agent, learnt of the operation.

PRF had spent almost four months planning for the Jomo Kenyatta airport attack. The training involved how to use SAM-7 shoulder-to-air missile and scouting for the right spot outside the airport.

“A spot outside and west of the Nairobi airport with a clear sight to the runway was chosen. It was studded with clumps of tall trees and cactuses, between the main Mombasa Road and the fence of Nairobi National Park,” wrote Bergman.

According to the Washington Post, Uganda was complicit in the planned attack. The rockets allegedly came from neighbouring Uganda.

Bergman says, “A week before the operation, two Strelas missiles supplied to Haddad by the KGB were smuggled into Kenya.”

By the time of the planned attack, Russia had just restored relations with Uganda after a week’s suspension. Russia at the time supplied Uganda with military hardware and trained their personnel.

The two Germans on the five-man terrorist group were 23-year-old Brigitte Schultz and 14-year-old Thomas Reuter. The other three were Arabs. They all entered Kenya separately using forged passports.

Having learnt of the planned attack late, Israeli security launched what it called “Operation Heartburn”. It had to be kept a secret fearing the backlash the operation would cause for Kenya from other African countries.

Former Mossad head of African operations Nahum Admoni knew president Jomo Kenyatta and his intelligence chief James Kanyotu. Admoni used his relations with the two men to win the Kenyan government backing.

An Israeli intelligence team flew to Kenya. Working with their Kenyan counterparts, they soon located their target.

The five terrorists had hired a white minibus registration number KPR338 in which they had deposited the missile. On January 25, 1976, the five travelled in their minibus to Jomo Kenyatta airport, dropping off the two Germans.

The three Arabs were intercepted with the missile by the local Kenyan intelligence, hours before the Israel Airlines plane approached the airport. Their two German colleagues were also picked from the airport and the mission failed.

According to the Washington Post, this cooperation was a continuation of a secrete relation between the two states.

“Close cooperation between Kenya and Israel is an open secret, but Kenya has never been eager to advertise the unofficial link for fear of criticism from the rest of Black Africa which, like Kenya, severed official relation with Israel at the time of the 1973 war. The cooperation became most visible in July when Kenya was used as a landing site for the Israel commando raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda,” the Washington Post writes.

With all the five arrested, the Kenyan government wanted Israel to deal with them off Kenyan soil.

“They suggested two things; take them to the desert and feed them to the hyenas for lunch, or we have them taken to Israel,” Wrote Bergman.

In the June 29, 2009, edition of The EastAfrican newspaper the arrested Arabs were listed as Abu Hanafi, Ibrahim Tawfia, and Hassan Salwa.

They were sedated and flown to Israel for a ‘secrete trial’. Bergman says Gen Rehavam Zeevi, then counterterror and intelligence advisor to Israeli prime minister, suggested “Let’s drop the five righteous souls into the Red Sea and get rid of the problem. We have information that Haddad promised them that if they were captured, he will hijack a plane to get them released.”

Six months after the Nairobi incident, on June 26, 1976, the Air France jet airliner left Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion) for Paris via Athens with 248 passengers, 83 of them Israelis.

A few hours after the plane took off, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was meeting his cabinet to discuss salary increase of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) when a military secretary handed him a note.

Rabin drew the attention of the ministers and read the note out loud. “An Air France plane that took off from Lod at 9:50 has lost contact. Apparently hijacked. On the plane there are about 83 Israelis.”

When the hijacked plane reached Entebbe it became clear who the hijackers were. They made their demands, among them was the release of the five terrorists arrested in Nairobi.

Former president Idi Amin.

“They want the five? With pleasure. Let’s fly them to Uganda and drop them from the plane onto the roof of the terminal so Haddad will realise that, that’s all he is going to get from us,” said one of the IDF generals during one of the rescue mission preparatory meetings.

Operation thunderbolt
As the military was going over the rescue plan, a big piece to the puzzle fell in place in the name of ‘David’. A sleeper operative with a codename ‘David’ had earlier undergone pilot training. He flew to Kenya, hired a plane and flew to Entebbe taking aerial pictures of the airport before landing.

“On the tarmac ‘David’ posed as a wealthy, English hunter living in Central Africa, and needed assistance from the Ugandan control tower. The Ugandan air controllers cooperated willingly. They even shared their impressions of the last few days, their term for the hostage situation in the terminal,” writes Iddo Netanyahu in Entebbe: A defining Moment in the War on Terror.

Upon getting the pictures from operative ‘David’, a plan of action was put in place and presented to prime minister Rabin.

On seeing the report he said, “This is the intelligence for an operation. This is just what I needed.” With this information ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ was born, the wheels of the Entebbe raid rolled.


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