Forty years on, one of the final riddles (and misconceptions) about the successful raid on Entebbe has been solved: How Israel obtained the blueprints for the Ugandan airport thanks to an unsung Israeli engineer who had worked with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1960s.
Without these plans, it’s doubtful Israel could have launched its daring rescue mission to save the 247 passengers being held by seven Palestinian and German terrorists at a disused terminal building in June-July 1976.
Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Benny Peled had been charged with finding a credible military option to solve the crisis. Without one, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wouldn’t rule out negotiating a deal that would involve the release of dozens of terrorists from both Israel and Germany.
Ehud Barak was the Israel Defense Forces officer initially charged with drawing up a strategy to secure the hostages’ release. He tells Haaretz it was vital the army had more information about the terminal where the hostages were being held. “We already knew what the outside of the building looked like. But you need to know what you might find inside,” he says.
But how could Israel get its hands on such plans? On Tuesday June 29, 1976, two days after the hijacking incident began, Peled’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Tzevi Tirosh, acted on a hunch and called an old friend, Yitzhak “Itche” Gadish.
“Itche, do you know who this is?” he asked. “Of course,” came the reply. The two men had been friendly in Uganda in the late 1960s, when relations between Israel and the East African state were at their height.
“Remember the place where we worked together? Don’t say it out loud. Do you have plans?”
Gadish knew immediately what Tirosh was referring to. The commander of the air force could only be interested in plans for one building in Uganda on this particular evening: Entebbe airport.
Gadish had spent much of the 1960s in Uganda, heading the international arm of Engineering Services, a large Israeli engineering firm.
Speaking to Haaretz in his Ramat Aviv apartment, Gadish recalls how he had become acquainted with the Ugandan dictator during that decade. Amin ordered him to fly to Arua, the small northwestern town on the Ugandan-Congolese border where he had grown up, and to draw up grandiose plans for an international airport.
Gadish admits there was only possible answer: “Yes, Mr. President.”
Ultimately, that project was nothing more than a fantasy, but Gadish was also asked to tender for work on the redevelopment of Entebbe airport. The Ugandan Public Works Department gave him a set of plans. However, thinking he had no chance of winning the tender, Gadish tucked them away in his drawer and took them back to Israel when his time in Uganda was over in 1969.
Late that June 1976 evening, Tirosh picked up Gadish and together they drove to the Israeli offices of Engineering Services. Gadish no longer worked there, but was able to get hold of the keys from a former colleague.
As the clock ticked toward midnight, they found the Entebbe plans in a filing cabinet – “a stack 8-inches high,” Gadish recalls. They took them over to Peled, whose eyes lit up. “You’ve got it?” he asked Gadish.
Armed with this key piece of intelligence – plans for the derelict passenger terminal building where the hostages were being held – plus snapshots, home movies and sketches from Israeli soldiers who had trained Ugandan pilots at the airport, Peled could suggest the most audacious plan of all: to land a large IDF force at Entebbe, free the hostages and fly them out of the airport.
Building a myth
Why has Gadish’s involvement been overlooked for so long? Perhaps because as the Entebbe story has grown over the decades, Israel has been all-too-happy to “print the legend.”
Until now, it was thought that Israeli construction firm Solel Boneh had given the plans to the IDF. That’s what Muki Betser, deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit that led the assault, believes. He’s not alone. In fact, it’s almost universally accepted that Solel Boneh was able to hand over the blueprints because it had been the company that built the new terminal at Entebbe.
This claim can be found in historical research, in official IDF accounts, and in Hollywood movies such as “Victory at Entebbe” (1976) and “Raid on Entebbe” (1977).
The theory was also plausible. Solel Boneh worked extensively in Uganda and other African states in the 1960s and early ‘70s, as Israel sought to overcome its regional isolation through alliances with non-Arab, “third-tier” states, including Iran and Turkey.
But it’s simply not true, says Benny Rotem, the company’s chief engineer in Uganda until early 1972. He never had the plans. The company never built anything at Entebbe airport, he tells Haaretz.
Solel Boneh’s spokesperson said last week that while they were aware of the supposed Entebbe link, they could find no files for the project in the company archives.
Of the two terminal buildings at Entebbe, the old one was opened in 1951, under British rule and long before Israel had developed relations with Uganda.
According to Saul David, the author of “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Rescue Mission in History” (2015), it was very similar to terminal buildings in a number of other British colonies in Africa – presumably as a way of saving design costs. One Israeli who spent time in Africa remembers the airport in Lusaka, Zambia, as having an almost-identical terminal as the one in Entebbe.
The new terminal – situated some 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the old one – was built in the early years of Ugandan independence, a period of intensive Israeli-Ugandan cooperation. However, it was an Italian company that constructed the new building, after relations between Uganda and Israel broke down in early 1972 – a victim of Amin’s increasing volatility and paranoia.
The idea that an Israeli company had built the very building that the terrorists thought to be so far away – physically and politically – that Israel could not hope to reach it is undoubtedly attractive.
It adds luster to the mythic qualities that have accrued around Operation Thunderbolt – later renamed Operation Yonatan, honoring Yoni Netanyahu, the leader of the mission and the only Israeli commander to die during the raid – over the last 40 years.
It hints at Israel as the modern incarnation of the biblical “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm” that rescues Jews, as well as the more sinister image of the invisible hand of Jewish influence over global affairs.
In 1976, with Israel still reeling from the aftershock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and facing a wave of Palestinian terrorism, perhaps Israelis were in search of a myth. Yet the truth is no less remarkable.
The writer is a political consultant and historical researcher.