Entebbe, 40 Years On

Shimon Peres: 'When I Heard They Were Separating Jewish Hostages, My Blood Boiled'

Passengers on Air France flight No. 139 who were children during the 1976 hijacking met this week with the then-defense minister. Shai Gross, age 6 at the time: 'I asked my mother if it hurts to die'

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres at an event at the Peres Center of Peace in Jaffa, commemorating 40 years since the Israeli army rescue of a hijacked Air France plane in Entebbe, Uganda, June 24, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Former President Shimon Peres met Monday with a group of passengers who were children aboard Air France flight No. 139, which was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda 40 years ago.

“I knew that without doing something incredibly daring, lives would be in danger,” Peres recalled.

The Air France plane, carrying 248 people, was on its way to Paris from Tel Aviv, after a stopover in Athens, when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners, wrested control over the aircraft and diverted it to Entebbe.

The anniversary of the successful rescue operation conducted by Israel Defense Forces commandos will be officially celebrated next week, on July 4.

The Israeli death toll in the operation was one commando – Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and three hostages who were killed by friendly fire.

Peres, who was defense minister four decades ago, was speaking at an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa for some of those who had been on the hijacked plane.

Of the decision to dispatch elite IDF troops on the daring and dangerous mission, he said: “Most people told me it was better to free the terrorists and not endanger the hostages. At the beginning, I was the only one who thought otherwise ... It was not a simple decision. It wasn’t simple for me either.”

“God forbid if something didn’t work ... what a feeling it was ... We thought if it goes well, it will be one of the greatest operations in the world. If it fails, at least there will be no remorse. What more could we have done? We did everything we possibly could have done,” he said. “We vehemently objected to giving in to the terrorists.”

Dalia Rabin, the daughter of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also attended the event on Monday. “It was a ‘science fiction’ operation, bigger than anything done before or after. I am not sure it is possible today to carry out such an operation,” she said.

Sorin Hershko, who was the most seriously wounded soldier from the rescue force – he was paralyzed during the mission – was also on hand at the event in Jaffa.

Asked why he supported the operation, Peres said: “What was my consideration? My blood boiled. The German terrorists made me boil. I am usually a level-headed person. But when I heard the hijackers were making a separation between the Jewish prisoners and the non-Jews – I told myself: Once again? And now we are a nation? Not here. It was a decisive moment.”

The guests at the Peres Center brought pictures, diaries and paintings that they had made 40 years ago. Among those present was passenger Shai Gross, who was 6 years old at the time and taking a trip the United States.

“It was the first time I'd left Israel. I remember the excitement,” he told Haaretz. “I will never forget the hijacking. Our nightmare began when we landed in Athens. I saw two German terrorists in front of me, running with hand grenades and pistols around the plane. I saw the fear on my parents’ faces. It was something that you will never forget. My mother hid me under her skirt. I didn’t want to come out of there." Added Gross: "I asked her if it hurts to die.”

“I owe Peres and Rabin my life,” he repeated, throughout the event.