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Operation Entebbe: Codenamed Operation Thunderbolt

Few military operations in history embody audacity, precision, and drama as distinctly as Operation Entebbe. On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos carried out a daring rescue of more than 100 hostages in Uganda. This mission highlighted Israel's dedication to safeguarding its people and demonstrated the exceptional skills of its elite military units.

The Hijacking

On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 departed from Tel Aviv, bound for Paris with a stopover in Athens. Shortly after takeoff from Athens, the plane was hijacked by two operatives from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and two from the German Revolutionary Cells. The hijackers redirected the aircraft to Benghazi, Libya, for refuelling before continuing to Entebbe, Uganda. At the time, Uganda was under the dictatorial rule of Idi Amin, who was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and cooperated with the hijackers .

During the refueling the hijackers released British-born Israeli citizen Patricia Martell, who pretended to have a miscarriage. The plane left Benghazi and at 3:15 pm on the 28th, more than 24 hours after the flight's original departure, it arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Idi Amin

The Hostage Situation

Upon arrival at Entebbe Airport, the hijackers were joined by additional militants and reinforced by Ugandan soldiers. The hostages, numbering 248 initially, were confined in the old terminal building. The hijackers issued a chilling ultimatum: if Israel did not release 40 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and 13 other detainees held in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and Germany, they would begin killing the hostages. Amin came to visit the hostages almost on a daily basis, updating them on developments and promising to use his efforts to have them freed through negotiations

In the days that followed, the hijackers released some non-Israeli hostages, reducing the number to 106. The remaining hostages, mostly Israelis and Jews, faced an uncertain fate. The situation seemed dire, and the world watched as the clock ticked down towards the ultimatum's deadline.

The Planning

In Israel, the government, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was under immense pressure. Diplomatic efforts were made, but it became clear that a military solution might be the only viable option. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) began to plan a daring rescue mission, code-named Operation Thunderbolt, later known as Operation Entebbe.

Lt. Col. Joshua Shani, lead pilot of the operation, later said that the Israelis had initially conceived of a rescue plan that involved dropping naval commandos into Lake Victoria. The commandos would have ridden rubber boats to the airport on the edge of the lake. They planned to kill the hijackers and after freeing the hostages, they would ask Amin for passage home. The Israelis abandoned this plan because they lacked the necessary time and also because they had received word that Lake Victoria was inhabited by the Nile crocodile.

The plan was fraught with risks. Entebbe was located over 2,500 miles from Israel, necessitating a long-range, covert operation. Detailed intelligence was crucial, and fortunately, Israel had access to blueprints of the old terminal and intelligence from Mossad agents operating in East Africa. A crucial asset was information from Dora Bloch, a hostage who had been hospitalised in Kampala and smuggled out vital details .

The Execution

On the night of July 3, 1976, four Israeli Hercules C-130 transport planes took off from Sharm El Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula, carrying 100 commandos, equipment, and vehicles. The planes flew low to avoid radar detection, maintaining radio silence throughout the journey .

At 11:00 PM, the aircraft landed at Entebbe Airport. The commandos swiftly disembarked, with a black Mercedes and Land Rovers resembling Idi Amin's convoy leading the charge. The deception allowed the commandos to approach the terminal with minimal resistance initially. However, a Ugandan soldier, aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, ordered the vehicles to stop. The first commandos shot the sentries using silenced pistols. This was against the plan and against the orders – the Ugandans were to be ignored, as they were believed not to be likely to open fire at this stage. An Israeli commando in one of the following Land Rovers opened fire with an unsuppressed rifle. Fearing the hijackers would be alerted prematurely, the assault team quickly approached the terminal

Israeli commandos with a Mercedes-Benz 600 resembling the one owned by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, used by Sayeret Matkal to deceive Ugandan troops during the raid

The Rescue

The Israeli soldiers abandoned their vehicles and rushed towards the terminal where the hostages were held in the airport's main hall near the runway. Upon entering, the commandos used a megaphone to urge the hostages to stay down, identifying themselves as Israeli soldiers in both Hebrew and English. Regrettably, a misunderstanding led to the accidental shooting of 19-year-old Jean-Jacques Maimoni, a French immigrant to Israel, by Muki Betser and another soldier, mistaking him for a hijacker. Tragically, two other hostages, Pasco Cohen, 52, and Ida Borochovitch, 56, a Russian Jewish immigrant to Israel, also lost their lives in the crossfire.

As per hostage Ilan Hartuv, Wilfried Böse was the lone hijacker who, once the operation commenced, entered the hall where the hostages were held. Initially aiming his Kalashnikov rifle at the hostages, he then quickly changed course and instructed them to seek refuge in the restroom before being eliminated by the commandos. According to Hartuv, Böse targeted solely Israeli soldiers and refrained from harming the hostages.

During the operation, an Israeli commando shouted in Hebrew, "Where are the others?" inquiring about the remaining hijackers. The hostages indicated a door connecting to the main hall of the airport, prompting the commandos to toss several hand grenades inside. Subsequently, they entered the room and neutralised the three remaining hijackers, bringing the assault to an end. Meanwhile, the three C-130 Hercules aircraft had landed and deployed armoured personnel carriers to ensure security during the refuelling process. The Israeli forces also disabled Ugandan MiG fighter planes to prevent pursuit and conducted a reconnaissance of the airfield for intelligence gathering.

A 1994 photograph of the old terminal with a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules parked in front. Bullet holes from the 1976 raid are still visible.

The Aftermath

After the raid, the Israeli assault team returned to their aircraft and began loading the hostages. Ugandan soldiers shot at them in the process. The Israeli commandos returned fire, inflicting casualties on the Ugandans. During this brief but intense firefight, Ugandan soldiers fired from the airport control tower.

At least five commandos were wounded, and the Israeli unit commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. Israeli commandos fired light machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade back at the control tower, suppressing the Ugandans' fire. According to one of Idi Amin's sons, the soldier who shot Netanyahu, a cousin of the Amin family, was killed by return fire.

The Israelis finished evacuating the hostages, loaded Netanyahu's body into one of the planes, and left the airport. The entire operation lasted 53 minutes – of which the assault lasted only 30 minutes.

Relatives pay last respects to Dora Bloch, 75, after she was murdered by officers of the Ugandan army.

All seven hijackers present, and between 33 and 45 Ugandan soldiers, were killed. Of the 106 hostages, 102 were saved. Tragically, three hostages died during the raid, and Dora Bloch, who was still hospitalised in Kampala, was later murdered by Ugandan soldiers on Amin's orders, Some of her doctors and nurses were also killed for attempting to intervene. In April 1987, Henry Kyemba, who was Uganda's Attorney General and Minister of Justice at the time, informed the Uganda Human Rights Commission that Bloch had been forcibly removed from her hospital bed and killed on Amin's orders by two army officers. Bloch was shot, and her body was left in the boot of a car with Ugandan intelligence services number plates. Her remains were found near a sugar plantation 20 miles (32 km) east of Kampala in 1979 following the end of Amin's rule during the Uganda–Tanzania War.

Amin also ordered the killing of hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda in retaliation for Kenya's assistance to Israel in the raid. Uganda killed 245 Kenyans, including airport staff at Entebbe. To avoid massacre, approximately 3000 Kenyans fled Uganda as refugees.

The impact of Operation Entebbe resonated globally. It demonstrated Israel's resolve and capability to defend its citizens, no matter the distance. The operation also highlighted the necessity and effectiveness of meticulous planning, intelligence, and the element of surprise in military operations.

For Israel, Yoni Netanyahu became a national hero, symbolising bravery and sacrifice. His brother, future Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would later cite Yoni's legacy as a profound influence on his life and career .

The legacy of this mission endures, inspiring military strategists and leaders worldwide, illustrating that with determination and meticulous planning, even the most daunting challenges can be overcome.


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