Remembering the Hijack to Entebbe

By the time the June 28, 1976, edition of the newspaper reached the hands of readers, everyone already knew what had happened a day earlier. Air France flight 139 took off at 9 A.M. from Ben-Gurion International Airport with 13 staff members and 246 passengers aboard, of whom 83 were Israeli. After a stop in Athens, 70 Israelis remained on the plane, which continued on its way. At 12:45 P.M. the air control tower in Lod received a message that contact between the plane and the Athens control tower had been lost.

"Forty minutes after taking off from Athens," Haaretz reported, "a message was received via a Romanian plane that the plane was headed to Benghazi, Libya, and then it became clear that the plane had been hijacked."

Yonatan Netanyahu

After a day in which senior Israeli government officials were interviewed on radio and television and answered the worried questions of reporters - and refused, on the orders of Transportation Minister Gad Yaacobi, to publicize the names of the hijacked passengers - the lead story in Haaretz needed no introduction. "The hijacked plane took off with 70 Israeli passengers," it read: a short and laconic sentence that encompassed a great amount of fear, at at the height of uncertainty. It took off, but where would it land? What was happening inside? The passengers' names were kept secret for "security reasons," but their relatives had been informed.

All that was known was that at 9:51 P.M. (Israel time ), the plane took off for an unknown destination, "after getting filled up with 34 tons of fuel at the Benghazi airport, enough for five to six hours of flight," Haaretz reported. "There is a theory that the plane is on its way to Amman, after having flown over Sudan."

At a cabinet meeting, "it was decided to establish a team consisting of staff from the Prime Minister's Office and the defense, foreign affairs and transportation ministries to stay in contact with relevant authorities, especially regarding care of the Israeli passengers, so that they will not be treated worse than the others." French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing immediately made a promise to the Israeli Embassy in Paris that Jewish and Israeli passengers would not be separated from non-Israeli citizens and that everyone would be released together.

At the time, it was still not known when and how the hijackers had boarded the plane. It was estimated that there were seven hijackers aboard. The Haaretz military correspondent said that "among security officers, Air France is thought to have had particularly bad security arrangements in the past," and that "the French are contemptuous of such arrangements, apparently on the assumption that they are immune to terrorism, because of France's support for the PLO." But according to a telephone conversation between a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Damascus and the Reuters news office in Kuwait, not only was the French plane not exempt from hijacking, but it was hijacked to remind the world that "France has been the enemy of the Arabs since the days of Charlemagne and through President Giscard d'Estaing, a junior partner of American imperialism."

Haaretz's editorial did not concern itself with French security arrangements but with the failure of the U.S. State Department, which, according to evidence collected before the hijacking, was moving toward recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization. The hijacking, the editorial said, "not only fills our hearts with dread over the fate of the hijacked Israelis, but should also embarrass U.S. State Department officials."

In the following days, while the plane was parked at Uganda's Entebbe International Airport, French and Israeli diplomats negotiated with the hijackers directly and indirectly.

"After nearly 14 hours of negotiations, most under the blazing African sun, the French ambassador to Kampala, Mr. Pierre-Henri Renard, left the Entebbe airport, where his plane had landed that morning," Haaretz reported. The embassy spokesman said the talks had reached a dead end: "The hijackers demanded the release of 39 imprisoned terrorists, including Kozo Okamoto," one of three Japanese gunmen who killed 26 people at Ben-Gurion Airport in May 1972 and the only one captured alive. "Israel will not bow to extortion," observers in Jerusalem said, and Haaretz reported that Israel "is acting against Germany and France to prevent capitulation."

On July 4, in a special edition printed at 4:30 A.M., Israelis read: "A great weight is lifted from our hearts. With unprecedented daring and courage, the Israel Defense Forces liberated the Entebbe hostages, releasing Israel and the entire world from the nightmare of conceding to murderous extortionists." During the action, it reported, "one soldier and two hostages were killed."