The rescued Entebbe hostages (Courtesy of IDF archives)
The rescued Entebbe hostages Photo by Courtesy of IDF archives
Text size
Tomer Appelbaum
Ilan Hartuv Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

July 4 marked the 35th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt - the daring operation undertaken by the Israel Defense Forces in Entebbe, Uganda, to free hostages hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists from Air France flight No. 139.

Ilan Hartuv, who was one of the hostages, is taking this opportunity to shatter a widely accepted myth regarding an event related to the hijacking: the claim that the terrorists separated Jews from non-Jews, in a way reminiscent of Nazi selections in the extermination camps.

"There was no selection applied to Jews: Entebbe was not Auschwitz," says Hartuv in an interview with Haaretz.

Hartuv, 83, a retired Foreign Ministry employee, was on the flight accompanying his mother, Dora Bloch, to a family gathering in Paris. Bloch, who was 73 at the time, took ill during the hijacking and was hospitalized in Entebbe when the IDF operation took place. She was then murdered by agents of Ugandan ruler Idi Amin in retaliation for the mission.

The Air France Airbus took off from Tel Aviv on June 27, 1976, en route to Paris, with about 260 passengers and crew. The plane flew via Athens, where, due to faulty security arrangements, four hijackers boarded the flight: two Palestinians, Jalil al-Arja and Abdel-Latif Abel-Razek al-Samrai, and two Germans, Wilfried Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann. After the hijackers took control, the plane landed first in Benghazi, Libya, and after refueling (and freeing one hostage, an Israeli-British passenger who pretended she was having a miscarriage ), continued to Entebbe. There the terrorists were joined by colleagues and by Ugandan soldiers, collaborating on the orders of Amin.

The hijackers belonged to the Yemen-based terrorist organization of Dr. Wadie Haddad, who had split off from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Dr. George Habash. Two years later Haddad died in East Germany, apparently of leukemia. To this day, opinion is divided regarding the real cause of death - whether it was indeed disease, or because Haddad had eaten poisoned Belgian chocolate ostensibly sent to him by the Mossad.

In addition to Bloch, the operation claimed the lives of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the raid, three more hostages, all the hijackers and 20 Ugandan soldiers.

"The terrorists separated the Israelis from the non-Israelis," says Hartuv, one of the unofficial leaders of the hostages, and the official translator from English to Hebrew in talks with Amin, who visited the hostages a number of times. "The separation was done based on passports and ID cards. There was no selection of Jews versus non-Jews."

On the third day of the hijacking, the hijackers demanded that all the Israelis, including those with dual citizenship (Israeli and foreign ), assemble in the transit hall of Entebbe airport. They were joined by the plane's crew members, led by the French captain, Michel Bacos. The rest of the passengers, carrying non-Israeli passports, were transferred to another hall. Later they were freed and flown to Paris.

'We're not against Jews'

"Many of the freed hostages were Jewish," Hartuv explains. "In the talks my friends and I conducted with some of the terrorists, they told us explicitly: We're not against the Jews, only against Israel. It is true that the female German terrorist acted like a Nazi. She yelled and threatened to kill us all the time. But some of her friends acted differently toward us. One of them was the one we called the Peruvian [because he was a representative of Haddad's organization in South America]."

Hartuv recalls that the Israelis were joined by two couples from Belgium and the United States, and two teens from Brazil, who had completed a year of studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva: "They were transferred to the Israeli group because when we landed in Entebbe, before dawn, they had put on tefillin and recited morning prayers. We approached the Peruvian and asked that they be transferred to the foreign group because they were not Israelis. The Peruvian agreed and transferred the two Brazilians. Later they were freed with the rest of the non-Israeli hostages. He apologized for not being able to free the other two couples because the German woman wouldn't allow it."

Hartuv recalls a conversation between another of the hostage leaders, Yitzhak David, and German terrorist Bose. David, who was injured during the rescue operation, was the deputy mayor of Kiryat Bialik and an Auschwitz survivor. He documented his life story and his experiences from Entebbe in a memoir, in Hebrew, called "I Also Returned from Entebbe" (Zohar Publishing House, 1978 ).

"I thought we should talk to Bose the first chance we got," says Hartuv, "because of the last sentence he said when he delivered his speech to us during the flight. He said: 'Now you understand how the mind of a crazy German revolutionary works.'"

Hartuv continues: "Because of that sentence I thought Bose could be talked to. There was no point talking to the female Nazi terrorist. When we reached Entebbe, I encouraged David, who has since passed away, to speak with Bose. David showed him the number tattooed on his arm and said to him in German: 'I was mistaken when I told my children that there is a different Germany. When I see what you and your friends are doing to women, children and the elderly, I see that nothing has changed in Germany.'

"Bose, who up until that moment had been calm and resolute, blanched and trembled. 'You're wrong,' he answered. 'I carried out terrorist acts in West Germany because the ruling establishment took Nazis and reactionaries into its service. I also know that in September 1970 the Jordanians killed more Palestinians than the Israelis did, as did the Syrians in Tel al-Zaatar [a battle that took place in 1976, during the Lebanese Civil War, in which Christians and Syrians massacred Palestinians]. My friends and I are here to help the Palestinians, because they are the underdog. They are the ones suffering.' So Yitzhak David answers: 'Well, then, when the Palestinians fulfill their promise and throw us in the sea, we'll come to you to help us hijack Arab planes.'"

Hartuv believes that this conversation made a profound impression on Bose, causing him to take pity on the Israeli hostages and refrain from shooting them when the IDF operation began. "When the shooting began, Bose was the only one of the terrorists who entered our hall with a Kalashnikov in hand. He pointed it at us, but immediately came to his senses and ordered us to retreat to the restrooms and find shelter there. He did not shoot at us, only at the soldiers. After he was killed in the crossfire, I saw that his Kalashnikov was aimed at them."

Hartuv notes that two or three Palestine Liberation Organization representatives arrived in Entebbe. One was Hani al-Hassan and the other was Khalid al-Sheikh from Tul Karm; he was the PLO representative in Uganda and was later ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in India.

"They said that they had been sent by [Yasser] Arafat to persuade Idi Amin not to harm us," he explains. "I know Arafat had his own reasons for doing so. He understood that Haddad's act was harmful to the Palestinian cause. That should also be told and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy."