- Declassified. As part of the occasion to mark 40 years after the embarassing raid on Entebbe Airport by Israeli commandos, the Intelligence Heritage and Communication Centre of Israel released a book titled ‘Operation Yonatan in the First Person’, containing first-hand testimonies of 35 fighters who participated in the raid on July 3, 1976. As we mark 41 years today, Henry Lubega draws on a few gripping excerpts from the book in a five-part series.
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Air France Flight No. 135 left Ben Gurion Airport in Israel with 248 passengers on Sunday June 27, 1976.
Among those on board were four hijackers, two Germans and two Palestinians. From Israel the flight had a stopover in Athens, Greece, from where other members of the hijacking group boarded the plane. On taking off from Athens, the plane was hijacked and commandeered to Uganda through Libya, where it stopped over for refueling, arriving at Entebbe around 03:00am the next morning.
At Entebbe those taken hostage were parked in a hall at the airport terminal. The next day, June 29, non-Jewish hostages were separated and later released, and only 106 Jews were kept in captivity.
The released hostages were flown to France, where Israeli intelligence met them to gather information about the hostage takers. From the freed passengers, the rescue mission planners learnt what kind of guns the hijackers had, and how many they were in number. On the night of July 3 and early hour as of July 4, 1976, four Israeli Hercules planes carrying commandos landed at Entebbe to rescue the 106 hostages.
Two different plans mooted
When the news of the hijack broke in Israel, diplomatic efforts were immediately launched to secure the release of the hostages. This happened as the military was also considering a rescue mission, which became unavoidable as the deadline that the hostage takers had given for the execution of the hostages loomed.
Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli Prime Minister, convened a select closed cabinet meeting. One of those in the meeting was the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff, Mordechai ‘Motta’ Gur. When the military option was decided on, a Special Forces Unit, Sayeret Matkal, was chosen to execute the operation, working with Golani infantrymen, Medical Corps, Paratroopers and a fueling team.
Avi Weiss, the Sayeret Matkal intelligence officer at the time, says in the de-classified documents: “Yoni Netanyahu was on his way to the Sinai Peninsula to prepare for another operation with his troops when he was called with the news of the plane hijacking.”
Yoni, who was a brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who would later become Israeli prime minister, was the only Israeli soldier to be killed during the raid on Entebbe.
Before the relationship between Uganda under Idi Amin and Israel soured, Israel had had a military training program with the Uganda army. Muki Betzer, who during the operation headed the fire team, had spent four months in Uganda training the Ugandan army. During the preparations in Israel, he was asked by the planners to tell them what he knows about the Uganda army.
“When I walked into Ehud’s office, there were several officers. I was asked what I knew about the Ugandan army. I told them. I only trained them for four months. Had I kept training them, they would be better now. They are scared of their own shadow, and generally they are not very motivated. And, in this case, I really think they are not motivated to fight.”
With those remarks, Ehud Barak tasked Muki to lead the preparations for storming the old terminal building at Entebbe. But they didn’t have the building’s architectural designs. Solel Boneh Construction Company, which had built it, was asked to provide the much needed building’s blueprint.
On Thursday, July 1, 1976, Yoni Netanyahu met with Dan Shomron, the head of the Infantry and Paratroopers Branch, who was the overall commander of the rescue operation. During their meeting, two military rescue options were presented.
One of the options was to parachute a military force into Lake Victoria, take over the terminal building, free the hostages, and transport them by land in vehicles that would be captured during the takeover to Kenya. The second option, which was eventually adopted, was to Storm Entebbe with a large military force in eight Hercules planes, take over the airport, rescue the hostages, and fly them back to Israel.
“Ehud Barak arrived in Kenya; we were informed that the plan currently being discussed to free the hostage was to parachute Shayetet 13, a special operations Israeli navy unit of commandos with rubber boats, into Lake Victoria; have them make their way to the airport, raid the terminal, and release the hostages,” Michael Aharonson, who at the time was a military instructor in Kenya, said. According to Mr Aharonson, another centre was set up in Nairobi just a day after it was decided that there should be a rescue mission. While they discussed the plan in Nairobi, Aharonson said they were asked from Israel whether there were crocodiles on the shores of Lake Victoria. Two Shayeret 13 operatives, including the unit’s deputy commander, flew to Nairobi and went into Lake Victoria with Aharonson to confirm this.
“We got our answer as soon as we arrived there. There were crocodiles, and there were massive Nile crocodiles along the shore, as far as the eye could see,” Aharonson said.
Having confirmed the presence of crocodiles, the air rescue plan remained the only option.
The Sayeret Matkal commandos were called to base. Sergeant Amir Ofer of the Ammon team was among the first to be called.
“I was already asleep when the phone rang… I immediately made the connection that this had to do with the hijacking,” Ofer said.
Preparing for the operation
Drills for the mission had to be done quick and fast, for they had less than 72 hours to the deadline given by the hostage takers to execute the hostages.
Captain Amnon Peled headed what was called the Amnon Team. He said: “It was during our preparations which included military simulation exercises, getting on and off the vehicles, drilling skirmishes, when we got the idea to dress up as Idi Amin’s soldiers in leopard uniform and Kalashnikovs.”
First sergeant Shlomi Reisman was in the Amnon Team. He said: “We knew what we had to do, so we dedicated the little time we had left to drilling the more specific, technical aspects of the operation. None of us had ever practiced hitching two Land Rovers and a Mercedes Benz inside a Hercules plane. Special attention was given to drilling, quickly unloading the vehicles after landing; to shorten everything to a minimum time we needed from the moment the Hercules’ back ramp opened to the moment we arrived at the old terminal where the hostages were kept.”
Due to the distance between the two countries, information on what was happening to the hostages was very limited. Bits of information coming through Nairobi were not sufficient for proper planning.
Weiss said: “One of the main points of weakness of this operation was the lack of an up-to-date contact with the target. I was feeling uneasy, to put it lightly, because the information we had on the terminal was mostly based on old plans, and our knowledge of the activity at the old terminal and around it was only partial.”
It was initially a secret operation, but word leaked and even those in the reserve volunteered to go on the mission. When word for the planned mission leaked, reserve officers of the Sayeret Matkal started making frantic efforts to be part of the operation.
Danny Arditi, who was a captain by then and commander of the Arditi Team, said: “Out of my dozens of soldiers one could not go. When Yoni told me I had to give up one of my soldiers, I was very angry and started arguing. I really fought for that soldier to the point of almost walking away. I told Yoni, if he is not participating, then I am not participating and left his office, furious.”
It was a total of 33 commandos that was finally selected to rescue the hostages. They were divided into groups – the fire team led by Muki Betzer; Yiftach Reicher-Atir led a team that was to clear the customs area and the second floor of the terminal building; Amnon Peled led the rescuing group which stormed the hall where the hostages were; Giora Zussman’s group cleared the other rooms where the hijackers and other Ugandan soldiers were.
Rami Sherman’s group was to provide fire cover and the vehicles the rescue team traveled with, and also set up landing beacons along the runway for the other Hercules planes.
In Part 2 tomorrow, read about the journey from Israel to Entebbe, how the Israeli commandos landed and how the attack on the old terminal building was executed.