How the Entebbe Raid Could Have Unfolded: Declassified Recordings Reveal Alternative Plans

Renting boats to ferry a rescue force across Lake Victoria and parachuting a force onto a nearby beach among options debated before rescue of Air France hostages 40 years ago.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The alternative plans considered by Israel before embarking on Operation Entebbe in 1976 included renting boats to ferry a rescue force across Lake Victoria and parachuting a force onto a nearby beach, according to now-released recordings of the inquiry into the raid.

The recordings were released by the Defense Ministry last week on the 40th anniversary of the successful raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda to release over 100 hostages being held by Palestinian and European terrorists.

They comprise interviews with participants in and planners of the raid conducted by then-Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Benny Peled on July 5, 1976, one day after the operation.

Very few people were involved in the planning of the operation, in an attempt to maintain secrecy. Peled's inquiry was classified top secret and not all the testimony it heard has been disclosed to the public.

One of the options explored during the planning of the raid was flying a military force to Kenya, where they would rent boats, sail 160 kilometers (100 miles) across Lake Victoria and land on the beach in Entebbe.

Once there, the Israeli soldiers would make their way to the airport, kill the terrorists, release the hostages and then turn themselves over to the Ugandan authorities.

The proposal was rejected because, according to the recordings of the inquiry, “They said it would take a long time. Who even knows whether the Kenyans would let them in, or if the operation would be discovered, or if they would even rent boats to these Israelis showing up all of a sudden.”

Another option – to parachute a military force onto the Entebbe beach – was rejected for fear of crocodiles, according to the investigation.

Yet another was to take over the airport for several hours. “At first, we thought of occupying the airport for a few hours, taking it over, chasing the blacks out of there and creating a base for a few hours, to find all the improvised fuel and not rely on Nairobi at all,” the inquiry was told.

The concern among the planners regarding that option was that "it would be an international disgrace if we got stuck there with the hostages. So we said that first of all we’d send the planes and fly them out.”

Peled explained that the operation’s objective was to rescue as many hostages as possible and bring them home, or at least get them to a non-hostile country. “If the operation doesn’t demonstrate a reasonable way of doing that, we won’t accept it,” Peled said.

“All the other operations were rejected because they didn’t demonstrate that, although those who proposed them thought they would work,” he said.

“As I said, send five guys to kill the five or 10 terrorists and having them become hostages themselves? ... It wasn’t likely that we would get the hostages back like that.”

Ultimately it was decided that several cargo planes (to transport the hostages) and a ground force would land at the airport in a night raid. The operation was successful, though three of the hostages and the Israeli commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, were killed during the exchanges of fire.

Peled remarks on how the then-chief of staff, Mordechai “Mota” Gur, refused to express an opinion on the operational plan in the presence of others attending the meeting. “They all left. We remained alone. His opinion was totally negative, based on intelligence and, of course, on the ability to land on a dark night,” said Peled.

“I can’t convince anyone who doesn’t fly – they find it hard to believe that it really is possible to land on a runway at night. I totally accept that – it’s hard to convince [people]. And then we decided we had to convince [him].”

On the recordings, one can also hear a demand by the IAF to keep the operation top secret, and to prevent it from being turned into “a subject for lectures, for discussion, for a symposium.”

“There won’t be press interviews, there won’t be lectures in the IAF, there won’t be events with the fighters telling their story,” a voice says. “I know that it’s unusual. Anyone who has to learn the lessons will do so. All the rest isn’t a subject for discussion. And besides, if this operation continues to be surrounded by a little mystery, that wouldn’t hurt at all.”

The Defense Ministry has also posted a video of the Israel Defense Forces' 2001 recreation of the operation to mark its 25th anniversary. The film included flights of the Hercules transport planes (dubbed “Karnaf,” or rhinoceros) that participated in rescuing the hostages in Uganda.

“We flew the same planes that we flew 25 years ago," the mission’s squadron commander Joshua Shani said during a speech in 2001. "I hope we won’t fly those planes on the 50th anniversary. It’s about time.”

One of the Hercules planes from the Entebbe operation participated in a flyby during the pilots’ training course graduation ceremony last Thursday.

The IAF is preparing to mark the 40th anniversary operation with a ceremony in Uganda on Monday, in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni was killed in the operation.

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