Thirty-three years ago this week in Entebbe, Uganda, it took Israeli commandos mere minutes to conduct one of the greatest and most daring rescue missions in modern history.
During those brief fateful moments, good triumphed over evil; innocents were saved; and the terrorists who threatened them were routed.
As evening came to Entebbe on Saturday, July 3, it marked the seventh night that more than 100 Israelis, non-Israeli Jews and an Air France crew were being held at the Entebbe airport after two terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two West German supporters, members of the Baader Meinhof gang, hijacked an Air France jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris.
The terrorists had boarded the plane during a stopover in Athens on Sunday, June 27.
Supporting the terrorists and giving them cover was the Ugandan regime of Idi Amin Dada.
An initial July 1 deadline to meet the hijackers’ demands for the release of terrorists held in Israel and several other countries was extended to Sunday, July 4, after Israel stunned the world by agreeing to negotiate for the release of the hostages.
On July 1, the terrorists released all non-Jewish passengers. The Air France crew chose to stay with the remaining Jewish hostages. On July 3, French diplomats in on the negotiations said there was no hope for an agreement.
The Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin in his first stint as prime minister, faced a terrible choice. Releasing the terrorists would embolden them to continue such operations. Not meeting the terrorists’ demands would result in a massacre.
With the July 4 deadline fast approaching and international attention focused on the hostages’ plight, several Israeli planes were on their way to Uganda, flying low to avoid enemy radar.
That night, the weary hostages were sound asleep except for a group of five playing bridge. Ugandan troops guarded the building.
The terrorists and their Ugandan enablers had no way of knowing that four C-130 Hercules aircraft packed with elite Israeli commandos had landed at the airport. (Two Boeing 707’s were included in the airborne armada, one as a forward command post, the other as a hospital.)
The commandos drove toward the terminal in a Black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts designed to trick the Ugandan guards into believing Idi Amin was paying a late-night visit. A couple of those guards approached the vehicles and were shot. Time was of the essence. A few seconds-delay could foil the entire operation. The Israelis headed toward the hostage compound. They burst in, identifying themselves to the stunned hostages as Israelis and warning them to keep low.
There were bursts of gunfire, and then it was over. The hostages were quickly escorted out and the planes headed home to Israel with a brief stop in Nairobi, Kenya, for refueling and medical treatment for some of the wounded.
The entire raid, from landing to takeoff, had consumed just fifty-three minutes. Several Soviet-made MiGs had been destroyed on the ground to prevent pursuit of the departing Israeli aircraft.
The operation was so chancy, and the risks so immense, that the Israeli cabinet had heartedly deliberated approval – which was given well after the commandos were in the air and en route to Uganda.
The mission’s overall commander, Brig. General Dan Shomron, later described the daring and extreme difficulties of the rescue mission.
“You had more than one hundred people sitting in a small room, surrounded by terrorists with their fingers on the trigger,” he said. “They could fire in a fraction of a second. We had to fly seven hours, land safely, drive to the terminal area where the hostages were being held, get inside, and eliminate the terrorists before any of them could fire.”
Eight terrorists (the four who’d hijacked the plane had been joined by four comrades at the airport) and at least 20 (some estimates claim more than 40) Ugandan troops were killed. Three hostages died during the exchange of gunfire. Israeli commando Surin Hershko was shot and paralyzed. Elderly passenger Dora Bloch, taken earlier from the airport to a local hospital due to breathing problems and stomach pains, was murdered by Ugandan soldiers the day after the rescue.