Operation Thunderbolt

June 1976, almost 40 years ago. An Air France flight takes off from Israel, where security is tight, with 228 passengers heading to Paris, with a stopover in Athens, where security is lax. Four hijackers board the plane there, with heavy bags that were never checked and said by the hijackers to be loaded with guns and explosives. They order the pilot to fly to the Entebee airport in Nairobi, Uganda.

So begins Saul David’s Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History. The story of the hijacking, the days at the terminal in Entebbe, the debate within Israel about how to respond to the terrorist demands and the eventual planning and rescue of the Jewish hostages is told in an hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, account by David in a “you are there” fashion.

The four hijackers, later joined by two others at the airport in Entebbe, demanded the release within 48 hours of 53 militants mostly imprisoned in Israel, in exchange for the release of the hostages.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed the government had to give in to the terrorists to avoid the slaughter of the Jewish hostages; Defense Minister Shimon Peres argued for an attempt to rescue them with a raid at the Entebbe airport in distant Uganda. The squabbling between Rabin and Peres was at times bitter.

However, the plans for a surprise raid were yet to be formulated, with various impractical ideas on how to return the hostages to Israel. Were it not for the extension of the deadline three days, so that Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, (who knew about the hijacking in advance and supported the terrorists) could attend a conference of African leaders, the hostages would have been killed or released, if Israel acceded to the demands of the terrorists.

The additional time gave the Israel Defense Force (IDF) time to work out a “realistic” rescue plan that finally gained the support of Prime Minister Rabin and his cabinet. Meanwhile, 48 non-Jewish hostages were released by Amin and flown to Paris. Although the final airlift-rescue plan was never rehearsed and entailed a number of unknown risks, it was nevertheless launched on the night of July 3rd.

After a refueling stop at Nairobi, Kenya, four Hercules transports landed undetected at the Entebbe airport, 2,500 miles from Israel. Two Boeing 707 jets followed, the first contained medical facilities and landed in Nairobi, the second circled over the Entebbe Airport to monitor the raid. A black Mercedes that looked like President Idi Amin's vehicle and his supporting Land Rovers were driven out of one of the Hercules and headed for the old terminal where the hostages were located. The Israelis hoped they could use them to bypass security checkpoints.

The other Hercules transports held Israeli assault teams that drove their vehicles directly to the terminal building The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and raced toward the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Entering the terminal, the commandos shouted through a megaphone, "Stay down! Stay down!”

They identified the four hijackers, shot them, along with numerous Ugandans who were guarding the building and began moving the hostages to the Hercules transports. The commandos then destroyed the Ugandan MIG fighter planes to prevent them from pursuing the returning Israelis. Five commandos were wounded and one, the team’s commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed. Out of the 106 hostages, three were killed, 10 were wounded and one woman who was left in a Ugandan hospital was killed by Amin.

The raid and the liberation of the hostages last only 51 minutes.

The Israeli raid was a daring operation, attracted world-wide acclaim, and served as a model for other rescue missions. It also enhanced Israel’s morale and stature in the world. But how important was it? David makes no attempt to address this question and place it in a wider context.

However, his detailed account of the raid, its planning and ultimate execution was riveting to read. Still, the leader of the commandos was killed along with 4 of the hostages. Unavoidable? Worth the risk? In spite of the elation of the surviving hostages and the crowd that met them when they returned to Israel, you might be left with these questions at the end.


Dom said...

Yes, you are correct, the raid does raise important thought-provoking questions, worthy of careful and thoughtful consideration.

Limit – For example, should there be any limit to the extent to which it is appropriate for a leader of a democratic state, Israel in this case, to put the lives of innocent citizens, such as the hostages, at great risk, if the leader believes that doing so would be best in the best interest of society as a whole?

No limit – Or should there be no limit on what could justifiably be done by the state to innocent individuals for the perceived greater good of the society as a whole?

If limited, what criteria – If there is to be a limit on the right of the state to put a few innocent individuals at risk for what the state deems to be the greater good of society, then what objective criteria should be used to determine that limit?

Emotional decision – Or should there be no objective criteria used to make such determinations, so that each such decision balancing risks to specific individuals and risk to society should be determined on an ad hoc individual emotional basis from time to time based upon be the personal “gut feel” of the government decision-maker who is in office at the time?

Popular will – In a democratic society, what should the answer to these questions be? I wonder what the answer to these questions would be if these questions were put up for vote in a democratic election.

Richard Katzev said...

While Israel is a democratic state, if the decision about trying to rescue the hostages had been put to a vote, by the time the election was held, the hostages probably would have been killed. I think this is generally true in any democratic nation when a hostage situation has developed. And of course you know how Israel feels when any single Jewish individual is held by another nation. The decision to raid the Entebbe airport was not an easy decision for Rabin, as I noted. Absent a feasible plan, he was ready to give in to Amin's demands. These kinds of situations require a relatively quick response where we place our trust in the elected president to respond wisely. Once again, I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Dom.

Linda said...

I would love to read this book - sounds like a great thriller that happens to be true. I remember cheering for the Israelis when this was playing out on TV.

Dom poses the age-old existential philosophical question - re-route the unstoppable train to the track with only one man in its path or do nothing and let it continue on its course in which it will kill many people in its path? At least in a democratic society, we have the right (and the obligation) to elect leaders to whom we give the authority to make these kinds of decisions - a leader must make this kind of decision and accept the consequences without knowing if his call is good or bad or right or wrong. I wonder if people think about this - I will be thinking about it when I vote in my state's primary today.

Richard Katzev said...


Yes, it is a thriller even though you know the outcome. And you are right about the answer to Dom's question. I answered exactly as you have.

I hope you will cast your vote for the most important candidate/politician in ages. How will he do today? Will he repeat his results in Michigan? I am eager to find out.


Linda said...

I'm worried, Richard. I love him - but can he beat a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz? Those two scare the hell out of me.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Not to worry. Bernie won't be nominated. Still I think it's important to support him as much as you can, to give him credit for speaking out as clearly as he has about so many unresolved issues in this country. He is setting the foundation for their future application. The future is distant, but someone has to start the discussion. And that is exactly what he is doing for forcefully. Yet, you know Clinton will be nominated and will easily defeat whoever the Republicans nominate. Richard