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Last Updated: Monday, 3 July 2006, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Recollections of Entebbe, 30 years on
By Raffi Berg
BBC News

Israel's offensive in Gaza to secure the release of a soldier captured by Palestinian militants is the latest in a history of similar military operations by the Jewish state. By coincidence, it falls near the 30th anniversary of Israel's most famous rescue mission, the raid on Entebbe in Uganda. Former hostages and the elite troops who saved them recall that operation, which happened shortly before midnight on 3 July 1976.

Freed hostages arrive back in Israel (pic courtesy IDF Archives)
More than 100 civilians were saved after being held hostage for a week
The hostages' ordeal began six days earlier, when two Palestinians and two Germans hijacked an Air France airbus en route to Paris from Athens. The flight had originated in Lod, Israel, and nearly a third of its passengers were Israeli or non-Israeli Jews.

"The German woman hijacker was saying all kinds of anti-Semitic things," former hostage Ilan Hartuv told the BBC News website. "She was very nervous," he recalled. "She took the pin out of a hand grenade so if someone tried to grab her the plane would be blown up."

The hijackers - from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Baader-Meinhof Gang - initially diverted the plane to Benghazi in Libya for refuelling before heading to Entebbe, Uganda, where it landed in the early hours of 28 June.

There they were joined by three PFLP accomplices and the 245 passengers (one young woman who feigned pregnancy was freed in Benghazi) and 12 crew were herded into the airport's Old Terminal.

As soon as the Israeli government heard about the hijacking, military planners began to consider their options.

"Among the Israeli public at the time there was a strong feeling of worry and deep anxiety," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then a colonel in the IDF Operations Branch and tasked with devising a rescue plan, told the BBC News website.

"In the operational unit, we were more optimistic. Our real worry was how successful the element of surprise would be, because if we could not surprise the terrorists, in a matter of seconds they could kill many hostages."

Emotional pressure

The following day, the hostage-takers issued their demands: either Israel, France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya release some 53 imprisoned comrades or they would begin killing passengers at 1400 on Thursday 1 July.

Sun 27 June: Air France flight 139 hijacked; refuels in Libya
Mon 28 June: Hijacked aircraft lands in Entebbe, Uganda
Tues 29 June: Hostage-takers issue demands, threaten to kill passengers from 1400 on 1 July
Wed 30 June: 47 passengers released, questioned by Mossad in Paris
Thurs 1 July: Israel offers to negotiate; hostage-takers extend deadline, release 101 passengers
Fri 2 July: Israeli special forces rehearse rescue
Sat 3 July: Israeli cabinet approves rescue, assault force dispatched to Entebbe, storms airport
Sun 4 July: Freed hostages arrive back in Israel

"There was a lot of tension in the political leadership over the decision to be made," Mr Barak recalled.

"All the emotional and psychological pressure was on the shoulders of [then] Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Several of the hostages were close friends of Rabin, but he never lost his sense of direction and judgement about the need to make rational and unemotional decisions and he excelled in these days."

Three days into the crisis, there was cause for some optimism when the hostage-takers released 47 (non-Israeli) passengers, who were flown to Paris.

Israel immediately dispatched Mossad agents to question them.

"From this we learned two major facts that totally changed the planning," said Mr Barak.

"One is that the Ugandan soldiers were totally co-operating with the terrorists; and secondly, we learned the internal plan of the Old Terminal to such a level which enabled us to operate."

With no decision yet taken on a rescue mission, Israel offered to negotiate with the hostage-takers, and consequentially the deadline for the executions was extended until midday on Sunday 4 July.

Events however took an ominous turn, when a day after releasing the first batch of passengers, the hostage-takers freed 101 more passengers - leaving only Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish captives, and the French crew, behind.

Heavy burden

With just 24 hours notice, commandos from Israel's Sayeret Matkal special operations unit began rehearsing a rescue plan conceived by their commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu - brother of future Prime Minister, Binyamin.

The plan was as perilous as it was ingenious. It called for the troops to fly into Entebbe airport and drive to the Old Terminal in a black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts, fooling the Ugandan guards into believing Idi Amin was paying a visit.

On Saturday, the Israeli cabinet approved the plan. Hours later, the 29-strong unit set off, in top secret, on the eight-and-a-half-hour, 4,000 km (2,500 miles) journey in a convoy of four C-130 transport planes.

The aircraft took off from Israel in separate directions so as not to arouse suspicion, and flew at under 100 ft (30 metres) over the Red Sea to avoid Egyptian and Saudi radar.

"In one of our discussions, Rabin had told me, 'it is your responsibility to fly in neatly and quietly on time'," squadron commander Lt Col Joshua Shani told the BBC News website.

"So the prime minister of my country put all the weight and the responsibility for this mission on my shoulders and it was a very heavy load.

"My fear was not of being killed, it was of not succeeding, and then the whole story would be one of total disaster."

At about 2300, Col Shani touched down at Entebbe and the Mercedes and Land Rovers - packed with Israeli commandos in Ugandan army uniforms - rolled out.

"I was sitting in the back of the second Land Rover," Amir Ofer, then 22, told the BBC News website.

"As we moved towards the terminal I said to myself, 'we are now 29 people. It will be very interesting to know how many will be left alive five minutes from now'."


The first confrontation occurred near the control tower, when two Ugandan sentries who stopped the convoy were shot dead. With the crucial element of surprise now gone, the troops raced on foot to the Old Terminal, where at some point Col Netanyahu was fatally wounded.

Yonatan Netanyahu (pic courtesy Israeli Government Press Office)
Yoni Netanyahu was one of Israel's most esteemed soldiers
First Sgt Ofer was the first to reach the hall containing the hostages and came face-to-face with a gunman.

"The glass was broken by someone shooting automatic gunfire at me - the bullets flashed one to the right, one to the left, one beneath my legs, one behind my legs, one past my left ear - it was amazing.

"The range was something like seven to 10 metres. I closed in and with a single shot I hit him... One-on-one he didn't stand a chance."

Inside meanwhile, Mr Hartuv recalled the moment the gunfire erupted.

"We heard shooting and saw what looked like tracer fire. We realised somebody was shooting at the terrorists but we didn't know who it was.

"Then the soldiers started pouring in and although they were dressed like Ugandans I said it was the Tsahal [Israeli army] and everybody started shouting "Nes! Nes!" [Hebrew for "Miracle"].

"When the Israelis arrived we couldn't believe it. We had talked a lot about the possibility and we even had two reserve colonels from the Israeli air force among us who said it couldn't be done."

In the ensuing firefight, all seven hijackers and their accomplices, as well as some two dozen Ugandan soldiers, were killed.

Thirty-year-old Col Netanyahu was the only fatality among the Israeli troops. The operation, originally codenamed Thunderball, was renamed Operation Yonatan in his honour.

Three hostages died, while Mr Hartuv's mother, Dora Bloch, who had earlier been released to hospital in Kampala, was murdered on Amin's orders the day after the rescue.

1: Assault force aircraft halt, Mercedes-led convoy alights
2: Commandos leave convoy, run towards Old Terminal
3: Yonatan Netanyahu shot
4: Commandos clear main hall
5: Commandos clear side room
6: Commandos destroy Ugandan Migs

Country profile: Uganda
24 May 06 |  Country profiles

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