On July 13, 1976, nine days after the legendary operation that freed Israeli hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, Iran’s military chief sent a letter to the Mossad head in Iran, Reuven Merhav.
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“Please convey my heartfelt congratulations and esteem,” wrote the Iranian, back in the days when the two countries had close military, security and intelligence ties.
The Iranian called the Israeli troops “brave commando soldiers” — he defined the terrorists’ deeds as “cruel” and “inhuman.” He also gave his condolences for the “martyr’s death” of the commander of the Israeli rescue force, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the future prime minister.
The letter, in the Mossad archive for 39 years, was found by former Mossad operative Avner Avraham during research for his exhibition on the Entebbe raid. It’s Avraham’s latest exhibition based on Mossad materials, to start July 10 at the Yitzhak Rabin Center near Tel Aviv University.
Some artifacts, such as those on the 1960 operation to abduct Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, have been shown to the public. Others, such as those on Michael Harari, the head of the Mossad assassinations unit who died last year, have never been released.
In recent months, Avraham searched Israel and abroad, as well as the Mossad itself, for artifacts on the Entebbe operation. He sought a new way to tell a familiar story — how the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit freed the passengers of an Air France flight hijacked to Uganda.
“I asked all the Mossad pensioners which of them were connected to the operation,” Avraham says. “I went from fighter to fighter. At first they told me there wasn’t anything, but gradually objects, pictures and recordings began to appear.”
One item was a plastic bag with “Uganda Duty Free Shops” written on it. Janet and Ezra Almog of Kibbutz Ein Dor, two of the hostages, kept it for 39 years.
When the plane was hijacked, the terrorists separated the passengers; the foreigners were taken to one room and were later released. The Israelis were taken to another room, unsure of what would happen. Janet, who was supposed to go with the foreigners because of her American passport, asked to stay with her husband.
It’s not that Janet Almog had been a duty-free shopper. At one point, the Israeli hostages asked for basic items like soap and toothpaste. The captors brought these items in a duty-free bag, which was passed around and stayed with the last people it reached — the Almogs.
The bag can be seen in a famous photo of the Almogs’ return to Israel. Over the years, the Almogs displayed the bag at heritage evenings at their kibbutz.
Janet and Ezra Almog, center, back in Israel after the Entebbe rescue operation, July 1976. (Courtesy/ Avner Avraham's exhibition)
Talking to God
The tefillin of hostage Akiva Laxer also came into Avraham’s hands. Laxer was on the flight when it left Ben-Gurion International Airport for Paris; he was on his way to attend the Montreal Olympics. In 1972, he had witnessed the events at the Munich Olympics, when Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and killed by Palestinians.
When the hijackers searched his belongings, they found his phylacteries. One gunman asked if the straps were part of a communications device. As Laxer later put it, he replied, “Yes, it’s a device for communicating with God, to whom we pray.”
Laxer kept another item from the hijacking. He had smuggled into a terminal bathroom a business card with a few words scribbled on it, which he handed to one of the foreign hostages, Peter Rabinowitz of New York, who was about to be released. Laxer asked him to send the card to his parents, as a sign of life.
“Dear Mother and Father. Greetings and kisses from Uganda. See you soon. Yours with love, Akiva,” he wrote on the card, which noted his profession, “attorney,” and the address, “129 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv.”
Rabinowitz kept his promise and sent the card to Laxer’s parents along and a brief letter he penned in English: “Dear Friends — I was on the plane with Akiva and then I was RELEASED. He gave me this card to send to you. He was in a good health and high spirits, and we were all being well treated. I hope he is back with you by now.”
Avraham also contacted former soldiers who had taken part in the operation. One of them, a member of the Israel Defense Forces’ 8200 signals intelligence unit, was among 14 wireless operators who circled over the airport in a plane equipped with listening devices. Among them were speakers of Arabic, French, Swahili and German.
They listened to the control tower, which described in alarm the events as the Israeli soldiers landed. In a different plane, 8200 soldiers followed the movements of Ugandan ruler Idi Amin, who was on the island of Mauritius, from which he managed the negotiations with Israel.
Avraham thus collected a number of aerial photos of the terminal, but the story behind them is more dramatic than the pictures themselves. In addition to the photos, the IDF and Mossad collected intelligence on the terminal, which had been built by Israeli construction company Solel Boneh when Israel had good relations with Uganda. The IDF and Mossad also spoke with people who had visited or worked in Entebbe, and collected pictures from tourists’ photo albums.
A diagram of the July 1976 Operation Entebbe made possible by intelligence. (Courtesy/ Avner Avraham's exhibition)
‘The intelligence cherry’
The Mossad, meanwhile, sent a pilot to take aerial photos; he rented a plane in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and flew to Entebbe. In the air he told the control tower he was having technical problems and had to remain in the air longer than planned. He used this time to photograph the terminal, then rushed back to Nairobi and sent the pictures to Israel.
The photos reached the soldiers when they were already in their planes about to take off for Uganda, the man who developed them told Avraham. The participants in the dramatic cabinet meeting also received copies; Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi presented them to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“This was the intelligence cherry,” Avraham says. “Rabin saw there were no anti-aircraft missiles or obstacles on the runway and approved the operation.”
Sayeret Matkal veterans told Avraham the photos taken by the Mossad man helped the planes land and find their way on the ground. In another photo, the operation’s commander, Dan Shomron, is seen on the flight back to Israel. Avraham got this picture from the plane’s flight engineer.
The Mossad, in cooperation with its French counterpart, also collected information from the foreign passengers after they were released. They described the physical appearance of the terrorists, among them Arabs and Germans, and gave information on their number and weapons, as well as the structure of the terminal’s rooms.
“The information flowed to Israel in cables — in encrypted phone conversations with the Prime Minister’s Bureau — on El Al flights that carried diplomatic mail, and with couriers,” Avraham says.
Avraham collected some of those cables. “Terrorist Number 3. Description: Blond, doesn’t look Arab. Claims he is Palestinian. Light eyes, rounded eyebrows and long straight hair down to his shoulders,” reported one.
Under the heading “personality” is written: “Irritable.” Terrorist Number 4, however, “Looks like a typical Arab: round face, curly hair and dark mustache.” Terrorist Number 5 was described as someone who “intentionally creates the impression that he is a bit scary and cruel. Cold-blooded.”
There was something Avraham couldn’t get his hands on: the Mercedes in which the Israeli soldiers headed for the terminal from their plane. The idea was for it to look like Idi Amin’s car.
“When they came up with the idea of bringing a Mercedes to the operation, the task was delegated to the Mossad,” Avraham says. “That’s exactly the part where the words ‘special operations’ in the Mossad’s full name come into play. In the end they found a Mercedes but it wasn’t black. So they brought in a crate of spray paint and the guys painted the car.”