Entebbe Operation Initially Opposed by Then Israeli Chief of Staff, Minutes Reveal

Mordechai Gur doubted Israel had sufficient intelligence about airport hostages.

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Air France passengers after they were released in the Entebbe operation in 1976. Credit: Getty Images

The 1976 operation to rescue Israeli hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe Airport was initially opposed by then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur, minutes from the meetings that preceded the operation show.

The minutes were published on Sunday by Channel 2 television after years of being stored in the IDF and Defense Ministry archives.

“If we’re talking about ‘Goldfinger,’ that’s something else,” Gur said. “If it’s James Bond – not with me. If there isn’t intelligence for the operation, there won’t be an operation.”

“There are risks you take and risks you don’t take. I won’t send a force to Uganda unless I know we’re talking about something serious. Fantasies, if you read my books, you’ll see that I have no fewer than others do, but that’s for a dog, not for an army,” he continued, apparently referring to a book he published four years earlier – “Azeet, Paratrooper Dog” – that described the fictional exploits of a German shepherd attached to a paratrooper unit.

“A military operation must be planned in certain circumstances. This isn’t a kindergarten,” Gur said. “It isn’t about games of honor. An operation like this, if it isn’t carried out in suitable circumstances, it’s a Bay of Pigs. To do it without intelligence, without concrete information about what’s happening on the ground, that’s considered something that isn’t done. It’s not just taking control of the airport. If we’re also talking about rescuing the passengers, that isn’t enough.”

Israel launched Operation Entebbe on July 4, 1976. The goal was to rescue about 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages whose Air France flight from Israel to France was hijacked by terrorists and forced to land at Entebbe Airport. The operation succeeded in rescuing almost all the hostages alive.

Five Israelis were killed in the operation, including Yonatan Netanyahu, an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and the brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The agonizing that preceded the decision to launch the operation is also evident from minutes of other meetings that have been published previously. Then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, for instance, was quoted as saying in one such meeting that Israel had “a national obligation to search for any alternative,” but “there might not be one.”

“If we carry out a military operation, nobody will understand us, but everyone will respect us if it’s successful,” Peres added. “The problem is the likelihood of success. We have to decide on this or nothing.”

Maj. Gen. Benny Peled, then commander of the Israel Air Force, said, “We shouldn’t discuss the operation if we aren’t willing to take a risk.” Rafi Harlev, then head of Air Force intelligence, added, “The State of Israel has only two choices: total capitulation or an operation. We ought to rush to plan an operation in any case.”

The hijackers had demanded that Israel and other countries release of dozens of Palestinian terrorists.