The family of Yoni Netanyahu at his gravesite. Netanyahu was killed in the heroic raid on Entebbe. Photo: screenshot.
JNS.org – If you’ve never heard of the Entebbe raid, you’ve probably never heard of what makes Entebbe famous or why it matters.
As the United States celebrated its 242nd anniversary of independence, Israel and those who support her celebrated the historic milestone and miracles connected to the rescue of hostages and heroic counter-terrorist operation in Uganda’s capital 40 years ago. The celebrated operation is remembered for tremendous bravery and numerous miracles.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by Arab and German terrorists, and flown to Uganda’s main airport in Entebbe. Uganda’s government provided cover for the hijackers, who were welcomed personally by dictator Idi Amin. In the ensuing week, as the United States was gearing up to celebrate its 200th anniversary of independence, Israel was gearing up for a brave, imaginative, and outrageously bold operation to rescue the hostages held by the terrorists as yet another battle in a decades-long fight to secure its independence.
While Israel had been fighting Arab terrorists for decades, the involvement of German terrorists brought back haunting memories of Jews being rounded up and murdered throughout Europe just 35 years earlier.
February 19, 2019 11:32 am
As horrific and scary as the situation was, throughout the planning and implementation of the rescue it was clear how God’s protection of Israel against its enemies continued at every turn. Today, in a world where insidious Islamic terrorism flourishes, this remains a model of the resolve needed to overcome and defeat terrorists.
Initially, the terrorists separated the Israelis and Jews from the larger group of hostages and forced them into another room. On the first day, 47 non-Israeli hostages were released. The next day, 101 more non-Israeli hostages were allowed to leave. More than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers remained and the hijackers threatened to kill them if their demands were not met. This threat led to the planning of the rescue operation.
During the time between the hijacking and the rescue, Israel’s Mossad used the released hostages’ testimony to build a picture of the hostages’ location, the number of hijackers, and the involvement of Ugandan troops. Additionally, because Israelis were involved in many building projects in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, a large Israeli construction company had built the terminal where the hostages were held. This allowed Israel to construct a replica of the building with the assistance of those who had helped build the original.
The Israeli government and military considered many options, yet what seemed like the most improbable choice was made. In a modern version of David taking on Goliath, an Israeli commando force of some 100 soldiers was trained and briefed, preparing for any imaginable scenario. One of these scenarios was securing a Mercedes that was the same as that of Idi Amin, painting it to look like Amin’s car and, after touchdown, driving that car loaded with Israeli troops straight to the terminal building.
Dubbed Operation Thunderbolt, the mission was led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu and composed entirely of elite commandos. His unit was given the primary task of attacking the airport terminal and rescuing the hostages. A paratroopers force was tasked with securing the civilian airfield, clearing and securing the runways, and protecting and fueling the Israeli planes. A group from Israel’s famed Golani unit secured the C-130 Hercules aircraft for the hostages’ evacuation, getting as close as possible to the terminal to board the hostages. Another elite commando unit was tasked with destroying the squadron of MiG fighter planes on the ground to prevent any possible interceptions by the Ugandan Air Force, and holding off potential hostile ground forces.
The operation took place under cover of night and a nearly new moon. In what took most of a week to plan, it lasted less time than the length of the movies made to tell the story. The result: 102 hostages were rescued, five Israeli commandos were wounded, and one was killed. Three hostages, all the hijackers, and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Most of Uganda’s Soviet-built MiGs were destroyed.
It would have been impossible for Israel to transport a convoy of planes and equipment 2,500 miles alone, undetected, without God’s protection and the involvement of numerous people. Because of good relations with Kenya through the Jewish owner of the Block Hotel chain, and with other members of the Jewish and Israeli community in Nairobi, Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta was persuaded to help in the operation. Israel received Kenyatta’s permission for the IDF task force to cross Kenyan airspace and refuel at Nairobi’s International Airport.
Lt. Col. Netanyahu, the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the only Israeli military casualty in the entire operation. Operation Thunderbolt was renamed Operation Yonatan in his memory.
I remember Operation Yonatan as if it were yesterday.
The heroism and success were celebrated globally. It represented a combination of human bravery, imagination, the will to fight and overcome terrorists, and many instances of God’s protection.
There are inspiring lessons that can and should be learned from this to help in our fight against a new generation of the same terrorists.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the United States and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He can be reached at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com. A version of this article was originally published by the Israel Forever Foundation.