Forty years ago today, an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked and diverted to Entebbe. Six days later, Israeli commandos staged the most daring hostage rescue operation of all times, breaking into the terminal where more than 100 passengers were held captive and whisking them out of the country in the dead of night after killing all the hijackers.
How Israeli Special Forces managed to pull off this coup – thousands of miles away from home – has become the stuff of legend. But good intelligence was obviously a key factor.
Some of the most critical intelligence, it now emerges, was provided by a French Jewish Holocaust survivor on board the plane who was released a day before the Israeli raid. During a debriefing with Israeli secret service agents in Paris right after he was freed, 38-year-old Michel Cojot shared detailed information about the layout of the airport facility, the waking and sleeping habits of all those in and around it, the type of weapons the hijackers had at their disposal and where each one of them was stationed. He even managed to smuggle out rolls of film with photos he had secretly taken inside the terminal.
The intelligence provided by Cojot, new evidence suggests, helped tip the balance in favor of the military operation, convincing some of Israel’s more skeptical national leaders that it was doable. “Cojot: Entebbe’s Inside Man” is the tentative title of a new documentary that profiles this relatively unknown hero of the audacious operation.
Although he was not the only hostage released that week to share information and impressions with Israeli agents, the level of detail provided by Cojot, the film contends, was unsurpassed and proved critical as army commandoes drew up their last-minute plans.
Set for release in mid-2017, the film documents how Cojot was able to use his influence with the German hijacker Wilfried Bose, who served as the ringleader of the terrorist group, to help negotiate the release of several batches of hostages before the IDF raid. He also helped persuade the hijackers to provide the remaining hostages with basic necessities like malaria pills, toothbrushes, mattresses and kosher food.
As Boaz Dvir, the U.S.-based director and producer of the film, notes, Cojot’s fluency in several languages made him the ideal candidate to serve as unofficial mediator between the hijackers and the hostages. “He actually spent a lot of time in captivity holding philosophical conversations with the terrorists,” says Dvir, who teaches film at Penn State University.”
Based on these conversations, Cojot was also able to provide his Israeli interlocutors with insights into their personalities and their soft spots.
Cojot was not meant to be on that doomed Air France flight. A wealthy investment banker, he had booked round-trip tickets on an El Al flight for a weeklong stay in Israel and was meant to return to Paris on June 25. The plan was to travel the country with his 12-year-old son Olivier, the eldest of his three children, while doing some pro-bono consulting work for an Israeli company based in the Negev. At the last minute, Cojot decided to extend his stay over the weekend, and with no seats left on El Al, he rebooked his return trip on Air France.
The trip to Israel followed a dark period in his life. His wife and he had just split up. Before that, Cojot had failed to execute what had become his life’s mission and even obsession: finding and killing the sadistic Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie, also known as the “Butcher of Lyon.” Cojot, who had been hidden as a child during the Holocaust, held Barbie personally responsible for transporting his father to his death in Auschwitz
Posing as a freelance journalist, Cojot succeeded in tracking down the notorious Nazi in Bolivia but suffered a case of cold feet when it came time to pull the trigger. He subsequently picked up and returned to France, overwhelmed by a sense of failure and virtually suicidal.
“He was probably the only hostage in Entebbe who didn’t care if he died,” notes Dvir. “For him, Entebbe became an opportunity to redeem himself after what had happened in Bolivia and to finally come out a hero.”
In retrospect, some of Cojot’s actions in Entebbe would seem almost reckless today, specifically the risk he put his child under. Olivier was on the first list of passengers scheduled for release that week. Although he could have left with his son, Cojot preferred to stay behind.
As Olivier was getting ready to leave, his father stuffed in the cuff of his jeans a detailed, handwritten map, providing the layout of the old airport terminal, along with instructions to pass it on to the authorities in France once he landed. He also tried to convince his child to take the rolls of film with him, but Olivier resisted, aware of the danger he would face if caught.
The great irony was that the child never fulfilled his mission. Interviewed for the film, the younger Cojot recalls being so excited when he finally arrived in Paris that he completely forgot to hand over his father’s meticulously drawn map. Only after it turned up in the laundry, badly faded and crumbled, did he realize he had missed his big moment.
The pivotal role Cojot played in Entebbe finds confirmation in “Operation Thunderbolt,” historian Saul David’s highly acclaimed account of the rescue operation, published last year. Interviewed for the film, David asserts that “the information he [Cojot] gave over was so precise, so detailed and so tailored to a military rescue that it gave them [the Israelis] confidence in lots of different ways.”
Particularly useful was a tip provided by Cojot on how to distinguish between the hostages and their captors should the rescuers arrive at night: The hostages, he told Israeli agents, would be lying down, while their captors would be standing up. (Based on that information, however, two hostages who jumped up when Israeli commandoes stormed the building were mistakenly shot and killed.)
The film will also incorporate interviews with Cojot’s son Olivier and another former hostage, Ilan Hartuv, who passed away several years ago. Hartuv was the son of Dora Bloch, an elderly Israeli woman hospitalized during the ordeal and later murdered by the Ugandans as revenge for the Israeli raid.
Interviewed for the film, Hartuv confirms that the information supplied by Cojot was critical to the success of the operation. “Motta Gur [the Israeli chief of staff during the operation] told me that without what Michel Cojot told people who came to Paris, there would have been many more killed among the hostages and among the soldiers,” he says.
Cojot had originally planned to share his information with the French authorities, under the assumption that they would be more motivated and better equipped than the Israelis to pull off a rescue operation deep inside Africa. But when he called the French foreign ministry upon landing in the country that Friday, he was told that the office was closed until Monday and to call back then. Left with little choice, Cojot reached out to the Israelis.
Dvir has already secured a deal to broadcast the film, upon its release, on one of the largest PBS-affiliated channels in the United States.