Reliving the memory of the Raid on Entebbe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am

As the drama surrounding the captured Israeli corporal in Gaza unfolds, his countrymen are looking back wistfully at one of the most daring rescue missions the world has ever seen.

Successfully executed 30 years ago by a squad of elite Israeli commandos under cover of darkness in Uganda, what became known as the Raid on Entebbe came to symbolise Israel's political will and its armed forces' operational skill.

The audacious rescue - as dangerous as it was ingenious - involved a secretive night flight and the impersonation of Ugandan soldiers and the country's dictatorial ruler Idi Amin. After 99 nerve-wracking minutes on July 4, 1976, 100 airline hijack victims had been rescued in the bold operation. 'As we moved towards the terminal I said to myself, 'we are now 29 people. It will be very interesting to know how many will be alive five minutes from now',' one of the commandos Amir Ofer told the BBC while recalling the raid.

A week before, the hostages had been aboard Air France flight 139 travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris. At a stopover in Athens, a German man and woman belonging to the Bader-Meinhof terrorist group and two Palestinians boarded the flight. Shortly after the plane took off, the four terrorists drew pistols and grenades, and ordered the pilot to fly to Libya.

'The German woman hijacker was saying all kinds of anti-Semitic things,' former hostage Ilan Hartuv said. 'She was very nervous. She took the pin out of a hand grenade so if someone tried to grab her the plane would be blown up.'

The plane flew on to Entebbe, Uganda, where under the patronage of Amin, the hijackers shepherded the passengers into an old terminal building and issued a statement demanding the release of 54 Palestinian and other prisoners, otherwise they would start executing the hostages.

The hijackers were joined by three comrades and supported by 100 Ugandan troops who were helping guard the terminal.

The remoteness of Entebbe made a rescue attempt seem highly unlikely. It seemed so as well to then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

'There was a lot of tension in the political leadership over the decision to be made,' said former Israeli leader Ehud Barak, then a colonel in the military's Operations Branch and tasked with devising a rescue plan. 'All the emotional and psychological pressure was on the shoulders of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Several of the hostages were close friends of Rabin, but he never lost his sense of direction and judgment about the need to make rational and unemotional decisions and he excelled in these days.'

The hostage-takers had threatened to start executing prisoners from July 1, but agreed to release 47 non-Jewish passengers on June 30 who were flown to France. In Paris, they were questioned by Israeli emissaries, which was crucial to intelligence gathering and hatching the rescue operation.

After negotiating an extension of the execution deadline, the Israeli military began piecing together an intelligence picture of the situation on the ground. As luck would have it, the Entebbe terminal had been built by an Israeli company. A Mossad agent had also flown over the airport in a light plane rented in Kenya and taken pictures.

But the most crucial information came from Paris. The released passengers were able to provide a clear picture of the terminal interior, the location of the hostages, the deployment of the terrorists and Ugandan soldiers, and the security arrangements.

The first outlines of a daring rescue operation began to take shape.

Israeli Air Force commanders said that despite the great distance, Hercules transports could put a raiding party down in Entebbe. A major unknown was whether the Ugandans would switch off the runway lights at night, given the tension, or perhaps even block the runways with trucks. Intelligence soon established that commercial flights were still operating out of the airport.

The air force command informed the small planning team putting together the operation that in the window between a scheduled takeoff and a scheduled landing of commercial planes, whose timetables were known, the runway would almost certainly remain clear and the lights on. But Israeli chief of staff General Mordecai Gur refused to approve the operation until the commander of the Hercules squadron could demonstrate that the planes could be landed at night, without runway lights if necessary.

A mock-up of the Entebbe terminal and its approaches was set up and the commando unit selected for the operation was repeatedly run through its mission.

Convinced by the military chiefs that a rescue option existed, the government approved the plan. Four Hercules aircraft took off from the Sinai base skimming the Red Sea to stay below the radars of Egypt and Saudi Arabia until they reached the Ethiopian coast.

Close to midnight, the first Hercules approached Entebbe after a flight of more than seven hours. The airport lights were on. Touching down, the pilot stopped half way down the runway to drop off a team of paratroopers who set up rows of emergency lights.

These would assist the following planes to land when the Ugandans switched off the airport lights, as expected, with the outbreak of shooting. The troops in the three following planes dispersed rapidly in vehicles to guard approach roads, face off with the Ugandan soldiers and destroy eight Ugandan MIGs to prevent a pursuit of the Israeli planes after takeoff.

The lead Hercules had meanwhile disgorged a black Mercedes, similar to one that Amin was known to use, as well as two Land Rovers filled with commandos. Next to the Mercedes driver sat the spearhead commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu.

It was hoped that the Mercedes would lull the Ugandans into thinking that Amin was making another one of his visits to the hostages. However, two sentries outside the terminal, who evidently recognised that the vehicle was not Amin's, raised their rifles. They were shot dead.

The commandos leapt from the vehicles and raced for the building. Some carried bullhorns through which they called on the hostages in English and Hebrew to lie down. As the commandos burst into the darkened terminal, the hijackers opened fire. In a short exchange, all the hijackers were killed. Parents lay on top of their children to protect them but three passengers who stood up were also killed in the crossfire.

Ugandan soldiers firing from the control tower fatally wounded Netanyahu, the brother of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and seriously wounded another soldier. Vehicles carried the passengers and the casualties to the waiting aircraft. After a stopover in Nairobi for refuelling, the planes were back in Tel Aviv the following morning to worldwide acclaim.

For the passengers, however, the harrowing week had left its mark. 'I had to be a hero in Entebbe for my children,' says Emma Rosenkovitch. 'But as soon as I got home I fell apart. I couldn't talk or drink or eat.'

The Palestinians have warned that any attempt to rescue the captured Israeli soldier in the crowded warrens of Gaza's refugee camps would lead to his certain death. Although the soldier, Gilad Shalit, is probably no more than 10km from Israeli troops, his rescue presents an even more formidable challenge than the one in distant Entebbe.