COMMENTARY: At 40, Raid on Entebbe’s legacy is still growing

In the early hours of America’s bicentennial celebration of independence, Israeli commandos were engaged in Operation Thunderbolt, a rescue of dozens of persons and an Air France crew who had been skyjacked a week earlier by terrorists.

The success of that operation — which included the ultimate element of surprise — struck a blow to international terrorism and gave inspiration to other nations. Known at the Raid on Entebbe, the tale of this July 3-4, 1976, mission is especially pertinent given recent attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh.

Terrorists representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cell skyjacked a Tel Aviv-to-Paris flight and diverted it to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. The terrorists separated Israelis and non-Israeli Jews from others and let the remaining hostages go.

They then threatened the lives of the 105 hostages and the 12-member Air France crew, demanding release of 53 compatriots being held in Israel and elsewhere. Originally setting a July 1 deadline, the terrorists extended it to July 4. The attack had the full support of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who actively participated in discussions with the terrorists.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

There were several attempts at a negotiated settlement, most [of] which are little-known. First, the Israelis contacted United States authorities to ask Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to intercede. Second, a retired Israeli officer who knew Amin called him to request release of the hostages. Third, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat sent a personal envoy to Uganda to assist in freeing the hostages, but the terrorists refused to meet with him.

After debating alternatives, Israeli leaders authorized a rescue mission 2,500 miles away, one which would have to be done at night for maximum effect. Given little time to prepare, Israeli intelligence and military divisions cooperated in a stellar manner.

For instance, Israeli commandos practiced the rescue with a prototype of the airport facility. Released hostages provided information on the number of terrorists and their weapons. The Israeli military received permission from Kenya to refuel, a critical part of the mission’s logistics.

Utilizing four special Air Force transport aircraft and two cargo planes, 100 Israeli commandos came in relatively undetected into the Entebbe airport. The operation to free the hostages lasted an hour, an amazing feat in itself. Of the 105 hostages, all but three were rescued alive.

Meanwhile, all of the terrorists and dozens of Ugandan military personnel were killed in the operation. Tragically, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu — the leader of the rescue team — was the only Israeli commando killed.

One little-known consequence of the raid was the killing of an Israeli woman who was at a nearby hospital. Another is the level of vengeance that Ugandan dictator Amin wrought on Kenya for its role in the Entebbe rescue mission. There is evidence that Kenyans living in Uganda were murdered after the operation.

In 1978, a Kenyan agricultural minister was assassinated, allegedly by Amin forces. In 1980, a bombing of a hotel in Nairobi was likewise blamed on Uganda, though Amin had been deposed as leader a year earlier.

In the immediate aftermath of this dramatic counter-terrorist action, Western nations commended Israel for its strike against terrorism and beat back an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations.

Lt. Col. Netanyahu — the brother of Israel’s current prime minister — was buried with full military honors on July 7, 1976. In 2012, a joint Israeli-Ugandan program commemorated the event, demonstrating how far Uganda has come since the days of Amin.

Recently this year, Israeli military and political legend Shimon Peres hosted a commemoration of the 1976 mission for those who were among the hostages.

In addition to several film accounts of the rescue, America’s own Delta Force has roots emanating from the Israeli action. The Raid on Entebbe showed that nothing is impossible with the right planning, logistics, and luck. It helped to change the approach to terrorist attacks at the time by subscribing to General Patton’s famous dictum to “always take the offensive; never dig in.”

Dalia Rabin, daughter of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, recalled what her father said in advance of the audacious rescue mission: “Tomorrow, either I will be a king or I will be hanged in the town square.” Because of his courage in approving the mission, Rabin made America’s bicentennial party all the more meaningful.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. His late mother, J. Mattie Schultz Hoff, served from 1974-1976 as the first Gentile president of a local chapter of Hadassah in American history.

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