Rescued From the Realm of Legend: Israel's 1976 Entebbe Raid Revisited

Forty years on, 'Operation Thunderbolt,' an authoritative account of the rescue of 102 hostages from a hijacked plane – warts and all – has finally come to light.

Families reunite with hostages released by the Israel Defense Forces' elite Sayeret Matkal unit during the Entebbe operation, on July 4, 1976.
Yaacov Saar / GPO

“Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History,” by Saul David, Little, Brown and Company, 464 pages, $30

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 4, 1976, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin addressed a special session of the Knesset. Hours earlier, Israeli special forces had rescued 102 mostly Israeli hostages from Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, where German and Palestinian terrorists had held them for six days after hijacking their Paris-bound plane. A relieved Rabin hailed the operation as “a remarkable manifestation of Jewish fraternity and Jewish valor” and declared that it would be “a subject for research, for song and for legend.”

Indeed, the mission became fodder for numerous books and films over the years, including a kitschy made-for-TV movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Dreyfuss as Lt. Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the figure most closely associated with the mission in the Israeli consciousness. But it would take 40 years for an authoritative account of the so-called Operation Thunderbolt and its aftermath to be written.

The British historian Saul David has done just that, and with aplomb. In “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History,” David performs his own kind of rescue: drawing on declassified government documents, diaries and interviews with former hostages and Israeli soldiers and politicians, he reclaims the story of the operation from the realm of legend and, in the process, reveals just how close it came to failing.

Jumping back and forth between Israel and Uganda, the narrative is fast-paced and cinematic. David takes the reader inside the cramped Old Terminal at Entebbe, where the hostages commiserated, quarreled and, yes, even hooked up with each other; the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where Rabin and his advisers debated how to resolve the crisis; and the Pit, the windowless “nerve center” of the Israel Defense Forces in Tel Aviv, where the rescue plan was hatched.

Rabin and his defense minister, Shimon Peres, had a famously rocky relationship, and they clashed bitterly over whether to negotiate with the hijackers, who demanded that Israel secure the release of 53 terrorists from jails in five countries. Bowing to intense pressure from the hostages’ relatives, and to his own conscience, Rabin initially agreed to a swap. Peres pushed back hard, warning that negotiating would open the door to more such incidents.

As David recounts, he reasoned: “If we give in to the hijackers’ demands and release terrorists, everyone will understand us but no one will respect us. If, on the other hand, we conduct a military operation to free the hostages, it is possible that no one will understand us, but everyone will respect us, depending, of course, on the outcome of the operation.” Peres accused Rabin of shortsightedness; Rabin accused Peres of demagoguery.

Meanwhile in Uganda, the country’s erratic leader, Idi Amin, basked in the international spotlight. He publicly claimed to be mediating the negotiations, but it quickly became clear that he was in fact collaborating with the hijackers in order to ingratiate himself with Arab leaders.

“Imagine that the Ugandan people are chased from their territory by an enemy people,” he told the hostages on one of his visits to the terminal, photographers in tow. “Do you think we would accept this? No. The Ugandans would fight, even to the death, to re-conquer their land. It’s what the Palestinians are doing, and it’s what your government would do if it happened to you.”

The Israelis appealed to Amin’s ego, urging him to ensure his place in history as a great peacemaker, but he resisted. A rescue mission now seemed not only possible but necessary.

'Israel needed a huge myth'

In reclaiming the full story of Operation Thunderbolt, David has admirably and necessarily reckoned with the powerful legacy of Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of the current prime minister.

Defense Minister Shimon Peres, left, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, following the IDF hostage-rescue mission in Entebbe, on July 4, 1976.
IDF Spokesman's Office

Netanyahu led the IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal anti-terrorism team (popularly known as “the Unit”) and was killed by a Ugandan soldier’s bullet at the outset of the raid; as a result, he was heralded as a hero back home. Peres called him “one of the greatest soldiers the Jewish people have ever had,” and the operation was officially renamed Operation Yonatan in his honor.

Netanyahu was undoubtedly a brave warrior. Yet David reveals that he deviated from the rescue plan, which was to drive directly to the Old Terminal under cover of darkness without engaging Ugandan forces standing guard on the perimeter. (The Israeli soldiers were dressed in Ugandan paratrooper uniforms to throw off the locals.) Instead, Netanyahu directed his men to eliminate one of the sentries, leading to a firefight and negating the element of surprise.

According to David, the 30-year-old Netanyahu was experiencing a “personal crisis” at the time of the hijacking and was “mentally and physically exhausted” from his military duties. Many readers may be surprised to learn that Ehud Barak, the future prime minister, was initially put in charge of the assault team; he was subsequently dispatched to Kenya, Uganda’s regional rival, where he brokered a deal allowing the IDF’s Hercules C-130 transport planes to land in Nairobi and refuel on the journey back to Israel. (In return, the IDF agreed to destroy Uganda’s fleet of MiG fighter jets at Entebbe.) While David does not explicitly question Netanyahu’s fitness to lead the operation, he does plant some doubt in the reader’s mind.

Yonatan Netanyahu, who led the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal anti-terrorism team (popularly known as “the Unit”) and was killed by a Ugandan soldier’s bullet at the outset of the raid.
IDF Spokesman's Office

In “Yoni’s Last Battle: The Rescue at Entebbe, 1976” (1991), Iddo Netanyahu defends his older brother’s performance during Operation Thunderbolt. Citing the testimony of eight soldiers who participated in the operation, he writes: “It was obvious to almost everyone that the sentry had assumed a menacing pose and was demanding that the vehicles moving toward him stop and identify themselves — or he would shoot.”

Ultimately, the success of the operation hinged on a good deal of luck. One of the German hijackers, a member of a radical, anti-imperialist group called the Revolutionary Cells, had threatened to kill the hostages if any attempt to rescue them was made. But when gunfire erupted outside the terminal, the hijackers did not turn their guns and grenades on the hostages. David explains that they were “prepared to die for their beliefs, but not to murder women and children in cold blood.”

Still, Netanyahu was not the only Israeli casualty that day. Hostages Jean-Jacques Mimouni, Pasco Cohen, Ida Borochovich and Dora Bloch also lost their lives. The first three were caught in the firefight between the IDF and the hijackers; Bloch, who had been taken to a hospital and was not in the terminal at the time of the rescue, was murdered in retribution on Amin’s orders. In addition, paratrooper Surin Hershko suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed. The fact that their names are not well known reflects how badly Israelis needed to believe that the rescue was a total triumph.

Eyal Boers, the director of a 2013 documentary called “To Live and Die in Entebbe,” explained that “Israel needed a huge myth after the national trauma created by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.” Operation Thunderbolt helped to heal that trauma.

The book’s faults are minor. David quotes obsessively from his sources, such that nearly every sentence contains some quoted material. In many cases, summarizing would have sufficed. Some Hebrew words are used incorrectly. In addition, the clichés of the thriller genre — where, for example, watching is done “with bated breath” — crop up from time to time. Nevertheless, the final third of the book describing the raid and its aftermath is completely riveting and should be read in one sitting.

David writes that he was drawn to this story because it “encapsulates so much that is good about the human spirit — fortitude, grace under pressure and courage (both moral and physical) — and because for most of those involved there was a happy ending.” The story of the Entebbe mission is a quintessentially Israeli story. “It was a magnificent, courageous operation,” said Brigadier Mordechai Piron, the IDF’s chief chaplain at the time. “But it is the fate of this nation that every joy and delight be mixed with pain and mourning.”

Andrew Esensten, a former staff writer for Haaretz English Edition, is working on a book about Israel’s African Hebrew Israelite community.