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July 5, 2016 5:57 pm

Former Israeli Defense Minister Recalls Advising Yoni Netanyahu Not to Lead Assault Force During Entebbe Hostage-Rescue Operation

avatar by Ruthie Blum

Former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Photo: Alchetron.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Photo: Alchetron.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz advised the late Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu — his commander in the elite IDF commando unit that carried out the Entebbe Raid – not to lead the assault force during the actual rescuing of the hostages, according to a recently released book on Operation Thunderbolt, an excerpt of which was published in the Hebrew news site Walla on Tuesday.

This is but one of the anecdotes shared by Mofaz in his contribution to the recently released book, Operation Yonaton in the First Person; Sayeret Matkal commandos Recount the Battle at Entebbe.

Mofaz, who served as Yoni’s deputy commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces IDF unit, described his first impression of the man who would become an Israeli icon, personifying bravery and sacrifice for the greater good — as well as the older brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He was a young guy, impressive, talked [to you] on eye-level,” said Mofaz, adding, “I was the closest to Yoni in age. He was 29 and I was about 26. Yoni was introverted; he lived with Bruria in Ramat Hasharon, not far from my wife, Orit, and me. I felt he was living with a large internal conflict – on the one hand the demanding and uncompromising life of a unit commander, a position that was his life’s dream, and on the other, the desire for a private life with Bruria and for a family. Occasionally during that year, one could discern the internal tension that Yoni endured and could not hide from the officers of the unit, who came in direct daily contact with him.”

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He continued:

Neverthess, operational life in the unit flowed, though not without mishap. The most major of these occurred a few weeks before the Entebbe Raid, in an operation that, for various reasons, did not go well… In the process of learning lessons from it, the unit grew harsh in its attitude to the higher-ranking officers. I proposed carrying out a reenactment of the operation, and Yoni expressed reservations. Ultimately, the reenactment was conducted and many lessons were learned from it. In spite of his being the commander of the unit, Yoni was very sensitive to the opinions and attitude of the officers subordinate to him…

A few days before the hijacking of the Air France plane, a significant number of officers of the unit convened for a very critical conversation about Yoni’s conduct. The moment they asked me to join, and I understood the subject of the gathering, I ordered them to disperse immediately. I asked Yoni to come to the unit right away and talk to the officers, and he did. I felt that the conversation left Yoni scarred. I’m not sure if the scar managed to heal properly; he didn’t deserve it…

When the Entebbe operation began to crystallize, according to Mofaz, Yoni was still upset over the criticism he had received from the officers. Though his superiors in the army had complete and unconditional faith in his abilities, Mofaz said, Yoni was worried that somebody else would be given command of the hostage-rescue mission.

While expressing these concerns, Mofaz said, Yoni “told me that he wanted to place himself at the head of one of the assault squads [charging into the terminal where the hostages were being held].”

Mofaz said that when he learned Yoni was actually intending to go through with this plan, he told him that it would be better for him to be positioned in the rear, to have a comprehensive view of all the squads while commanding the operation as a whole.

“Yoni explained to me that he had to be with the lead squad,” Mofaz recalled. “Again I impressed upon him that he was wrong… The argument continued until Yoni summed it up by saying that he’d think about it again during the flight [to Uganda].”

And that, said Mofaz, “was the last conversation I had with Yoni.”

Mofaz analyzed why he thought Yoni had been so determined to put himself in the situation that ultimately led to his death.

“I think he wanted to prove to everybody that he was the commander, that his courage had not diminished, and that under the circumstances, there was no other option. Yoni’s credo was, ‘We can execute the operation…’”

Mofaz went on, “The combination of his demanding life in the unit and his desire to have a personal life created an inherent conflict. I considered it to be a tragic story… And yet, Yoni bit his lips and with supreme effort, led a historic operation that raised Israel’s standing, which will be credited to him…”

Mofaz concluded: “Yoni could have gone very far in the IDF, if not for the command signal and a Ugandan soldier’s bullet… It was a great pleasure knowing you, my brother, Yonatan.”

Lt. Gen. (res) Shaul Mofaz was born in Tehran in late 1948 and immigrated to Israel at the age of nine. He served as IDF chief of staff from June 1998 to mid-2002; defense minister from 2002 to 2006; and deputy prime minister and minister of transportation until 2009.

The book in which the full version of these excerpts appeared was published by the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center and the Institute for Intelligence and Policy Research.

Operation Thunderbolt (or Operation Yonatan or the Entebbe Raid) took place on July 4, 1976. A week earlier, on June 27, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via a stopover in Greece was hijacked just after takeoff from Athens by four terrorists, two Palestinian and two German. The hijackers diverted the flight, with more than 300 passengers and 12 crew members on board, to Benghazi, Libya, and then to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where they were joined by members of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s military forces.

The hostages were taken into an area of the terminal, where the Jews were separated from the others. The hijackers demanded $5 million and the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian terrorists, the bulk of whom were being held in Israeli jails. If their demands were not met, they said, they would begin killing hostages on July 1.

On June 30, the hijackers released 48 non-Israeli, non-Jewish hostages.

On July 1, they extended their deadline and released another 100 non-Jewish hostages, after the Israeli government agreed to negotiate. This extension gave the IDF valuable time to complete planning the complex rescue mission more than 2,500 miles away. This involved flying a number of planes — manned with commandos and equipped with medical and other supplies — very low over the Red Sea, to avoid detection by Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

When the rescue team landed at Entebbe Airport at 11 p.m. on July 3, they were met by a black Mercedes and Land Rovers, which they had organized to mimic the vehicles of Amin and his entourage. But because the Ugandan president had recently bought a white car, guards at the checkpoint ordered the commandos to halt. The fighters had no choice, then, but to shoot the sentries and race to the terminal, where they entered shouting into megaphones in Hebrew and English that they were IDF soldiers.

In the ensuing gun battle with the hijackers, all of whom were killed, three hostages also lost their lives. As the commandos began loading the rescued captives on to the planes, Ugandan soldiers shot at them, wounding some and killing Yoni Netanyahu.

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