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Illegal. The untold story of the men and women who worked at the airport and what they saw, the loopholes the Israeli commandos exploited, and the long-term effects of the raid on Uganda, the region, and Israel’s relations with Africa.
It was the morning after the night before. Like many residents of Entebbe, the sleepy peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria 40 kilometres from the capital, Kampala, Chris Luvunia had heard the gunfire and seen the explosions light up the night sky.
From the house on Nsamizi Hill that he shared with three other young air traffic control assistants, Mr Luvunia, then 26, had a vantage view of Entebbe International Airport, which hugged the edge of the peninsular. He’d only been on the job a few months after completing his training in Dar es Salaam and his first guess was that the gunfire and explosions were from a coup attempt.
“We saw a soldier walking from the direction of the airport, looking dazed,” Mr Luvunia, now retired, recalls. “We assumed that the government had fallen and that something had gone wrong at the airport.”
The next morning, while area residents, wrapped in fear, stayed indoors, Mr Luvunia turned up for work at the airport. The place was deserted. The soldiers guarding the facility all seemed to be suffering from shock. As usual, Mr Luvunia and a colleague began with an inspection of the runway, looking out for debris and other objects that could harm aircraft as they took off or landed.
First they found strange, portable lights along the outer edge of the runway. As they got to the VIP section of the new terminal building they ran straight into a large group of heavily armed soldiers, including some in civilian clothes holding AK-47 rifles. Walking at the front of the group was a shaken and distraught Idi Amin.
“Amin looked completely demoralised, Mr Luvunia says. “I felt taller than him yet he was a huge man.”
It soon became clear that the gunfire and explosions from the night before had been an operation by the Israeli security forces to rescue 104 hostages still held at the oil airport terminal in Entebbe.
The raid on Entebbe has been mythologised in books, articles, and movies. The heroics of the Israeli Sayaret Matkal special forces, the death of mission commander Yonatan Netanyahu, the euphoria that followed. One untold story 40 years later as Yonatan’s brother Benjamin, now Prime Minister of Israel, visits Entebbe, is that of the men and women who worked at the airport and what they saw, the loopholes the Israeli commandos exploited, and the long-term effects of the raid on Uganda, the region, and Israel’s relations with Africa.
Dead men tell no tales
Part of the reason is that some of these men are dead. While much has been written about Dora Bloch, the British-Israeli hostage taken from her hospital bed and murdered after she was left behind in the rescue, little has been said about the Ugandans against whom Amin turned his fury.
Shortly after the raid, operatives of Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau swung into action and arrested Fabian Rwengyembe, the newly-married officer-in-charge of navigational services, who was just about to leave for his honeymoon.
They also arrested his deputy, Lawrence Mawanda, and Mohammed Muhindo, the air traffic controller who had been on duty on the night of the raid.
When their bodies were eventually discovered, relatives were able to work out that Mawanda had been murdered by having nails driven into his head and that the three had suffered gruesome deaths.
Wycliffe Kato, the assistant director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority, was arrested two months later and tortured but escaped from custody into exile.
Without credible witnesses, therefore, the commission of inquiry set up by Idi Amin into the raid became a perfunctory exercise.
Interviews with survivors reveal several critical factors that allowed the raid to succeed. A few days before the raid, Maj Were, the head of the newly formed Uganda Airlines Corporation ordered the passenger aircraft parked at the old terminal, where the hostages were being kept, relocated to the newly built terminal building.
“The military guys were worried that the Israelis would attempt to rescue the hostages as they had done in other cases of hijack and they let Amin know as much,” one retired soldier recalls, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He brushed it aside and it was risky to insist with the big man.”
Throughout the hostage situation, Amin had played a high-wire act, oscillating between supporting and protecting the hostage takers, and seeking a peaceful resolution of the matter. For instance, while he pushed Israel to give in to the demands of the hostage takers (the release from jail of several dozen terror suspects), he presented himself to the hostages as their ally and while they were held in grim conditions, they were allowed some favours; Ilan Hartuv, Dora Bloch’s son, was allowed to speak to a doctor in Mulago Hospital to inquire about his mother’s health.
It was a dangerous gamble for the brutal giant. Those who want peace prepare for war, noted Vegetius in the ancient Latin text, Epitoma Rei Militaris, and while the Israelis did exactly that – playing along with negotiations while preparing for the raid – Amin appears to have been taken in by his own act.
Raid waiting to happen
Anyone who tried to call the air control tower at Entebbe in the days just before the raid would have noticed that the call was answered by a voice in Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, Luvunia says.
This should have been a clear warning sign, as was evidence from the 1973 Yom Kippur war that Israel had radar-jamming capabilities that could be deployed at Entebbe.
In fact, while the Uganda Air force pilots knew a thing or two about flying jets (a skill some of them had learnt from the Israelis), their radar operators were poorly trained and not as good as the civilian operators. Despite this, there was very poor coordination between the civilian and military radar operators and the former continued to go about their duties without the latter taking any interest.
This was an expensive mistake. For instance, according to Steven Carol in From Jerusalem to the Lion of Judah and Beyond, a book on Israel’s foreign policy in Africa, on July 2, a Mossad agent flew from London to Nairobi, rented a plane, feigned an in-flight emergency on the flight to Entebbe, photographed the old terminal building and sent the photographs back to Israel from Nairobi.
While the civilian air traffic control officers would have offered guidance to this supposedly stricken aircraft, trained military intelligence would have forced it to land for further investigations.
In the aftermath of the raid, and in an attempt to close this loophole, the Amin regime imposed a requirement for all non-scheduled flights into Ugandan airspace to obtain prior written approval – a requirement that still stands to this day.
Amin’s junta also paid scant attention to another important fact – that an Israeli firm, Solel Boneh, had built the terminal building at Entebbe and still possessed the blueprints, which it promptly handed over to the raid planners. “Looking back now, it was clear that a raid was coming,” the retired soldier says, “and we did not do enough to protect the facilities.”
It is also important to note that the Israeli’s had helped supply some of the Uganda army uniforms and used these to disguise themselves during the raid.
One of the first accounts of the raid went out by Willy Lützenkirchen, the Die Welt Africa correspondent who was celebrating his 28th birthday at the poolside of the Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe, with the Safari Sixth band playing, when the explosions broke out. “They watched in despair throughout the whole coup (sic),” he wrote, capturing the haplessness of the Ugandan soldiers after they were taken completely by surprise.
It was the same shock and despair Luvunia found at the airport the next morning, but the raid would bring at least two long-term consequences.
The first was in relations with Kenya, which tried, unsuccessfully, to deny having had a hand in aiding the operation, but which then responded to attacks on its citizens (one report in the Daily Nation a few days after the raid spoke of 245 Kenyans killed in Uganda) by severely restricting the flow of fuel trucks across the border, forcing an immediate fuel rationing in the neighbouring country.
On July 9 the Nation quoted John Mollo, the secretary general of the Kenyan chapter of the Railways and Harbour Union asking whether “it is in order, and indeed sensible, for the railways management in Kenya to continue operating services through the border or Kenya to Uganda.”
Amin was tempted to attack Kenya in retaliation but with his fleet of fighter jets destroyed in the raid and his army suffering from low morale, he thought against it but the raid – and Kenya’s role in it – had put the East African Community, already wobbly at that point, on the road to its eventual demise the following year.
The wider impact was on Israeli relations with the rest of Africa, which, too, were already troubled at that point over the Palestinian question, and over Israel’s dealings with apartheid South Africa.
The indignant condemnation of the attack by the Organisation of African Union meeting at the time in Mauritius, and which Amin had been chair of in the preceding year, was followed by a clash at the UN between African and Arab states calling for a resolution condemning the attack on the one hand, and on the other, by Israel and its allies, in particular the United States and Britain, pushing for a resolution condemning international terrorism and Amin’s role in the Air France flight 139 hijacking.
Four decades later, the world has changed a lot. Concorde, entered service, cut transatlantic flights to three-and-a-half hours, and then went up in smoke. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak formed Apple, which now dominates the consumer electronics market. The apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed; Nelson Mandela came, saw, conquered, retired, then rested.
The Israel-Palestine conflict remains, as do the chasms revealed by the events of 1973 and 1976 but the world is also changing. Idi Amin lies in a grave in Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who described the raid as “Israel’s contribution to the fight against terrorism, was assassinated by one of his own for considering peace with the Palestinians. Throughout the ebb and flow of the tides of history, the events in Entebbe in July 1976 ensured that Uganda, East Africa and Israel would never be the same again.
Yoni Netanyahu, the only fatality of an IDF soldier.
Israel’s raid on Entebbe was almost a disaster
The daring hostage rescue was a PR coup - but 40 years on, new scholarship reveals how it was almost sunk by infighting and blunders. Almost 40 years ago, Israeli commandos stunned the world when they pulled off a seemingly impossible mission – to rescue more than 100 hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
The raid is remembered today as one of Israel’s finest hours, and was the reason the then unknown Bibi Netanyahu launched his political career – after his brother Yoni, the only Israeli soldier to die in the raid, was hailed a national hero.
Israel would have us believe the raid was perfectly planned and executed, and that anyone who takes liberties with their citizens can expect similar treatment. Yet, as new documents and interviews reveal, the accepted version of events is largely Israeli PR. In truth, the mission was dogged from the start by infighting, hasty planning and tactical blunders – and almost ended in disaster.
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and defence minister Shimon Peres should have been working together. But these fierce political rivals spent that week – June 27 to July 4 1976 – disagreeing on strategy. Rabin wanted to give in to the terrorists’ demands – the exchange of hostages for 40 Palestinian militants – if there was no military option; Peres thought that would encourage more terror.
Rabin gave in, and authorised the rescue after the terrorists’ extension of their deadline – from July 1 to 4 – gave Israeli military chiefs enough time to come up with a viable plan.
It involved flying an assault force in four Hercules C-130 transport planes to Uganda, in darkness and undetected. The commandos had just three minutes to evade a cordon of paratroopers, storm the old terminal and kill the terrorists. Much could go wrong – and it almost did.
According to Amnon Biran, the mission’s intelligence officer, there was a gap in the planners’ knowledge of at least 30 per cent. “We didn’t know,” he admitted, “the exact location of the hostages, whether the building had been wired with explosives or even the proper layout of the airport.”
The third omission almost caused the lead plane to taxi into a ditch. Only the pilot’s quick reactions saved them.
On the ground, the assault force drove towards the old terminal in a black Mercedes and two Land Rovers. The plan was to make the Ugandans think the Mercedes contained a senior officer. But when assault commander Yoni Netanyahu saw a Ugandan sentry raise his weapon and shout “Advance!”, he told his driver to “cut to the right and we’ll finish him off”.
This was, said Netanyahu’s deputy Muki Betser, “against the plan, against our orders, which were to get directly to the terminal building and ignore the Ugandans”. Betser knew the sentry was following standard procedure and would not open fire. But ignoring Betser’s pleas, Netanyahu shot at the sentry. With all surprise lost, and a firefight under way, Betser expected the building to “vanish in a fireball of explosions as the terrorists followed through their threats to blow up the hostages”.
Fortunately, there was no bomb. But the terrorists had automatic weapons and grenades, and at least one seemed about to shoot the hostages. But instead, he urged them to take cover. “At the last moment, they realised, ‘No, we won’t do it because it’s over’,” confessed a fellow terrorist.
Soon, Betser and his commandos had entered the building and all seven terrorists were dead. The Israeli death toll was one commando – Netanyahu – and three hostages killed by friendly fire. Prepared for up to 25 dead hostages, Rabin declared the mission one of the “most exemplary victories from both the human and moral, and the military-operational points of view”. It was – but it owed its success more to luck than to Israeli military brilliance, and to a last-minute display of humanity on the part of a doomed terrorist.
Moreover, it could be argued that the success of the raid has actually made it harder for Israeli politicians – particularly Bibi Netanyahu – to embrace the compromises required for a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Why? Because it convinced Israelis that their intelligence services and soldiers could deal with any security threat. “It was double-edged,” one hostage told me. “We were saved but it was bad for Israel. It made peace less likely.” Reported in The Telegraph, June 27, 2015.