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.