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It was a mission that ended up defining modern Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu decided to enter politics and Ehud Barak, one of the military intelligence officers handling the operation, became the prime minister.
Forty-four years ago, Israeli commandos carried out what is rated as the most incredible military operations in history: the Entebbe Raid. On the anniversary of the raid, two of its participants, Mossad agent Avner Avraham and special forces officer Rami Sherman, spoke about what they experienced.
A nurse from Manchester began the intelligence process. As the hijacked Air France flight was en route to Entebbe in Uganda, a British-Israeli nurse Patricia Martel deliberately cut herself and, bleeding profusely, claimed she was having a miscarriage. The four hijackers, two German and two Arab, let her off when the plane stopped in Benghazi in Libya to refuel.
Said Rami Sherman, a member of the crack Israeli Sayeret Matkal and veteran of the Entebbe raid, “She flew back to London from Benghazi and was immediately met by agents of MI6 and Mossad. They gave her thousands of photographs. She identified the terrorists, told how many there were and what kind of weapons they had.”
In theory, there had been advance information. One old lady passenger, when the four hijackers boarded the flight in Athens with large bags, had called out, “They’re terrorists!”
Sherman said, “Of course, no one paid attention.” Hijacking in those days was common. In 1972 there was a hijack every month. It was Sunday, June 27, 1976.
The plane flew to Entebbe. There the passengers were separated, Israelis and other Jews on one side, everyone else on the other. Said Sherman, himself a concentration camp survivor, “This news: Germans with guns selecting Jews from a captive group. It evoked the Holocaust.” But the Israeli government still this as something best left to France to handle.
Over a hundred non-Jewish passengers were released and sent to Paris. Mossad agents met them and interrogated them.
Avner Abraham, a former Mossad agent who served on the operations room, describes how information was collected. Uganda’s brutal ruler, Idi Amin, had received Israeli military training when he was a soldier. One of his former trainers got on the line and “spoke with him on the telephone five times” to glean what was on his mind. An Israeli engineer showed up with blueprints of the airport terminal where the hostages were being held. His company had won the tender to construct the building. Another enterprising Israeli, using a small Cessna propeller plane, flew repeatedly over the airport taking photographs and flew back home to deliver the photographs to the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
The Israeli government was divided over the raid. The army chief of staff felt the raid was too risky, an operation from a “James Bond movie.” Israel had no intelligence assets in Uganda, though they had plenty in neighbouring Kenya. Even while this was going on, says Sherman, “Defence minister Shimon Peres insisted we should go ahead, prepare and plan.”
The terrorists announced that after Thursday noon they said would shoot two hostages every hour. Playing for time and in violation of Israeli policy, Rabin announced his government would concede to the terrorists’ demand to release over 50 Arab prisoners. But the Israeli government now accepted that this was now their responsibility.
“From morning until 6 pm on Friday the plan was finalised,” said Sherman. “The intelligence operations were over and it was now left to us to rehearse.” The commando debated what they would do on the ground. “We concluded there was one important question. How do we ensure we surprise the terrorists? How do we ensure we are the ones to shoot first? This was a key question.”
As is well-known, Mossad procured a Mercedes Benz limousine of the variety used by Idi Amin. Avraham says, “When we brought the Benz, it was grey. It had to be black. It was Saturday and the shops were closed but we tracked down the owner of one shop in a synagogue and got black spray paint from him.” In total, four C-130 Hercules and two Boeing 707s would go on the 4000 km trip, carrying a total of 180 soldiers, 40 aircrew and 21 doctors and other staff. The single Hercules that would land at Entebbe would carry the Benz, a jeep and 33 soldiers.
Sherman says that even as they were rehearsing the attack and learning to land the C-130 on runways without lights, “We all though the government wouldn’t make the decision to let us go. It was simply too risky.”
On Saturday 230 pm, he was in the main C-130 among the assault team lead by Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the present Israeli prime minister, as it left Sharm el Sheikh. Even then, the government had yet to give a green light. “We flew for three hours, most of the time at 30 meters above the ground. There was so much turbulence some of us were throwing up.”
At 6:30 pm, when the plane was over Ethiopia, they received the go ahead. Operation Thunderbolt was on. “We flew three more hours, part of it through a terrible thunderstorm, before we found ourselves approaching the airport. We arrived at 23:01 hours, just one minute behind our scheduled time.”
The plane landed, 33 soldiers disembarked with a Benz and a Landrover jeep. “It was a beautiful night, sky was full of stars. What I remember the most was the quietness, especially after a very noisy flight,” says Sherman. The soldiers, dressed in Ugandan uniforms but wearing white hats to avoid friendly fire, headed to the terminal building.
Two Ugandan soldiers waved them down. “We had too little time to talk our way through. Yoni Netanyahu and another soldier shot them.”
The element of surprise, however, was now lost. The Israelis began exchanging fire with the terrorists and Ugandan soldiers in the control tower. Netanyahu was hit and died soon afterwards, the only Israeli soldier to die. “I fought with the people in the control tower,” says Sherman. The battle was over in seven minutes. Other soldiers ran into the terminal to the hostages. “My last duty was to lead the hostages from the terminal building to the waiting airplane,” says Sherman. “They had been awoken from sleep by the shooting, some had no shoes while others had babies, they were in shock.”
Another commando detachment raided a nearby Ugandan airbase and destroyed 11 MiG fighters parked there so they would not be scrambled in pursuit. “It was also a favour to the Kenyans who were helping us,” says Sherman.
Between the C-130 landing with the commandos and then taking off with the hostages, 52 minutes had elapsed. The plane flew to Nairobi for refuelling. Says Avraham, “The local Mossad cell head was waiting at the airport with some local Israeli businessmen.” The businessmen took the injured to local hospitals, others were taken to the Boeing 707 field hospital.
Sherman said his heroes in the operation were the Israeli pilots who “stretched everything to the limit,” Air France captain Michel Bacos who refused to leave his passengers even when given an opportunity, and Prime Minister Rabin for taking the decision. Rabin had dictated a resignation letter to his secretary in the eventuality of the mission failing. The prime minister, himself a former chief of staff, had decided that “over 30 casualties” would constitute failure.
It was a mission that ended up defining modern Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, then a businessman in the United States, would receive a phone call informing him of his brother’s death and decide to enter Israeli politics. Operation Thunderbolt was renamed Operation Yonatan in his brother’s honour. One of the military intelligence officers handling the operation, Ehud Barak, was to become a future prime minister. And Israel’s present foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, was among those on the C-130s that flew to Entebbe.