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Israeli soldiers treat hostages after they were held for a week at Entebbe airport after the highjack of an Air France plane, 1976 (Photo: Getty)

Operation Thunderbolt!!!?

On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv, Israel, bound for Athens, Greece and eventually Paris. There were 246 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. Not long after the Airbus A-300 plane left Athens, four terrorists?two German nationals and two Palestinians?hijacked Flight 139. They were armed with pistols as well as a grenade with the pin removed, which one of the terrorists held onto as insurance against being attacked or overwhelmed by the passengers.

The hijackers, who were affiliated with the Marxist-leaning terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the equally radical Baader-Meinhof Gang of West Germany, forced the plane to land in Benghazi, Libya, and eventually in Entebbe, Uganda, which was then ruled by dictator Idi Amin. The passengers who were not Israeli nationals were released, but this left over 100 innocent people still in their hands. The terrorists demanded that the Israeli and other western governments release 53 prisoners held in Israel, Kenya, Switzerland, France and West Germany, or they?d start killing passengers one by one on July 1.

This act of terrorism was the beginning of a long and very dramatic episode that culminated in one of the most spectacular military rescues of all time. After being held for several days at the airport terminal in Entebbe, the passengers and crew of Flight 139 were unexpectedly rescued during a daring raid by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) on July 4, 1976. ?Operation Thunderbolt? involved about 100 Israeli commandos and a very ballsy plan to sneak up on the Entebbe airport using air-dropped vehicles disguised as official cars of dictator Idi Amin. When the commandos sprang out and began shooting, an intense firefight erupted, resulting in the deaths of about 40 Ugandan soldiers, plus all 7 hijackers and 3 hostages. The only Israeli military casualty was Yonatan Netanyahu, whose younger brother Benjamin is today the Prime Minister of Israel.

Forty years ago, when an average of three planes were hijacked worldwide every month, there was no international policy of non-negotiation with terrorists and few expected Israel to raid Entebbe airport to rescue the hostages. The flight was under French jurisdiction. Israel was thousands of miles away. The Israeli Defense Forces had never previously launched an operation outside the Middle East, and had neither sufficient time nor information to do so then. Yet even many of the younger Israeli hostages were opposed to negotiation on principle. What everyone appreciated, however, was that any rescue operation would require absolute precision, as well as great courage and conviction.

The old terminal building of the Entebbe International Airport as it appeared in 2008

The Israeli commandos of 1976 flew into battle, not on the wings of eagles, but in U.S.-built Hercules troop transports, loaded with jeeps and command cars mounted with heavy machine guns, kosher lunch boxes and two complete surgery theaters.

A fiery sun was dipping into the Indian Ocean as the four Israeli air force planes ? one of them a Boeing 707 ? headed toward their destination 2,400 miles from David?s kingdom.

Their target was Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where airport in Uganda, where pro-Palestinian hijackers were holding 94 Jewish passengers and a 12-man Air France crew for ransom.

As the planes swung over Africa, the hostages were settling down for the seventh night of captivity. Some had been beaten by the hijackers trying to extract information on Israel?s military disposition.

All had been threatened with death, and many turned to prayer. None suspected that Israel?s terrible sword had already been unsheathed.

The resurgence of Palestinian hijacking caught Israel by surprise. The guerilla movements had deeply enmeshed in the Lebanese civil war and were on the defensive. Terrorism against Israel had dropped sharply since the beginning of the year.

Air France flight 139 was on a Tel Aviv ? Paris run on June 27 when it was commandeered by four hijackers ? two Palestinians and a man and woman from West Germany ? who boarded at the Athens stopover. After refuelling in Benghazi, Libya, the aircraft was flown to Entebbe. T

The hijackers demanded the release from prison of 53 comrades, 40 of them held in Israel and the others in West Germany, France, Switzerland and Kenya. Noon of July 1 was the deadline.

The hijackers released 148 passengers before the deadline arrived, in what they called a gesture of goodwill. Others saw it as a move to isolate the Israelis and point to Israel as the prime target.

When the released captives returned to Paris to tell of their experiences, it became obvious that this was no ordinary hijacking.

There were indications of Ugandan complicity. Evidence mounted that Uganda?s president, Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, was more than an impartial mediator.

The hostages claimed five or six more Palestinians joined the hijackers in Entebbe, that Ugandan soldiers had greeted the gunmen with bear hugs as they stepped off the plane, and were helping to guard the hostages, that food and medical supplies were awaiting the captured aircraft, as if the Ugandans had known of the hijack in advance.

In Tel Aviv, army commanders had been weighing the military chances. As the deadline approached, vital information was still lacking.

How many Ugandans ? What was their their disposition and armament ? A rescue operation seemed too risky. Reluctantly, Israel announced a reversal of it?s long standing policy never to negotiate with terrorists, and agreed to bargain for the lives of the hostages. Secretly, it kept its military options open.

When the hijackers extended the deadline by three days, the Israelis saw their chance. More intelligence was added to a growing dossier.

Teams of officers honed a rescue plan. By the following day, the commandos knew every detail of Entebbe airport and practiced the mission again and again at the secret base in Israel.

On the afternoon of July 3 about 20 hours before the second deadline, the Israeli sky raiders were airborne. The final plan had been approved by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin?s cabinet only that morning.

?When we received the final approval, a great many of the men involved did not quite believe it,? Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur said later. ?The concept was so daring and dangerous that they were not certain until the last minute it would get the green light.?

The Israelis never disclosed exactly how they landed with complete surprise. One version said the first Hercules cut its engines and glided onto the runway.

Another story said Israeli agents, who had slipped into Ugandan earlier, set diversionary explosions at a far end of the field.

Even before the Hercules came to a full stop, the rear doors swung open from the plane?s fat belly and began disgorging the deadly cargo.

Israeli Defence Minister Shimon Peres (left) and Major Dan Shomron (second from left) with Israeli paratroops after the completion of Operation Thunderbolt in 1976. Getty Images

Hoping for a non-violent resolution, the hostages even enjoyed a rare moment of levity when a passenger tapped the one female hijacker ? one of the Germans, and a woman who?d been harsh toward them ?

There was a ?moment of farce? in the hijacked plane, for instance, when some of the hostages felt compelled to draw the only female hijacker?s attention to the fact that two of her blouse buttons had come undone, presenting a view of her ?rather feminine brassiere?. Minor panic ensued as she tried to adjust things without dropping either pistol or hand grenade, with one hostage wryly speculating that they might all die simply for modesty. Unable to accomplish the task with her hands full, she used a hairpin borrowed from a passenger to lock the grenade?s handle. She then placed it on the floor and did up her buttons.

But then the hijacking took a disturbing turn. The pilot was ordered to fly to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where the passengers were herded into the airport?s Old Terminal building. Ugandan soldiers ? under the command of the country?s dictator, Idi Amin ? surrounded the terminal, and the hostages realized that their new hosts and the hijackers were a team. It was state-supported terrorism.

After landing in Entebbe, the hijackers spoke between themselves like crazy people. The passengers and the crew kept quiet. Only after three or four hours did people start talking. No one knew what was going to happen. Everyone was ?initially put in the same hall. They brought them mattresses and they slept on the floor. The hijackers had a separate area of their own. The Palestinians told the Germans what to tell the passengers. They were in control of the situation and the Germans merely helped them. Their mission was to carry out the hijacking at all costs.

Captain Michel Bacos flew the Air France plane that was hijacked to Entebbe, but when the hijackers offered to free him, he insisted on staying with his Israeli and Jewish passengers to the end. ?We heard commotion in the cockpit (coming) from the passengers? cabin. I asked the flight technician, who was with me, to see what was its cause. We didn?t know what was happening. Wilfried B?se, the German terrorist, was waiting directly on the other side of the locked cockpit door. He tackled the technician to the floor and pointed his gun at my head. He also had a grenade. I immediately realized that a hijacking was taking place and that we had no ability to resist it. We were not armed; we had to listen to the hijackers? directions.?

Today, Michel Bacos, the captain of the Air France plane that was hijacked to Entebbe, is 92 years old, but the story of the hijacking is etched into his memory, and he can recount it as if it happened just a few months ?and not 40 years?ago. When the plane landed in the Greek capital, four terrorists boarded the flight, ?two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans ?carrying weapons and explosives in their bags.??The hijacking was carried out four minutes after the plane took off from Athens towards Paris, ? Bacos remembers.
?My co-pilot had his hands raised and we put the plane on autopilot. We told him (B?se) a few times: ?Please, don?t shoot.? Then he calmed down and ordered the technician to return to his place and my co-pilot to sit with the passengers. I asked him why, and he responded: ?Because there are too many people here. I am alone and you are three, ? even though he was armed and we weren?t.

To this very day, Captain Michel Bacos is considered by many to be one of the heroes of the Entebbe hijacking because of his refusal to leave his Israeli and Jewish passengers behind.

?At a certain point, the hijackers took our passports and IDs, read the names, and those who had Jewish names were separated from the others and put in a nearby hall. They (the hijackers) said we were not allowed to go there. I told the Palestinians and the Germans: ?I?m responsible for all of the passengers and demand to be able to see all of them?be they Israeli or not?at any given moment.? I insisted, and the Germans agreed. I was able to go from one hall to the other without receiving permission, every time. It lasted until the non-Jewish passengers were released. The Germans told me on Tuesday that we were going to be released. I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave?we were staying with the passengers to the end. The crew members immediately agreed. I told B?se that none of us was going to leave Entebbe as long as there are any passengers left there. The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism, and morality. As a former officer in the Free French Forces, I couldn?t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.?

The flight crew members, with Bacos among them, remained with the Jewish hostages. ?We were not allowed to leave the hall, ? Bacos remembers. ?No one could escape or leave. At any moment we could?ve been executed. We had to remain calm, otherwise the Palestinians were capable of killing us. We all knew it. We had no contact to the outside world: No phones or radios. No one knew what was going on. Idi Amin (the Ugandan despot ?ed.) came and told us nonsense. I heard what he told the passengers, but I haven?t spoken to him personally. I didn?t have anything to say to him. I knew he was crazy. Passengers asked him to help us, and he insisted to be called all of the titles he gave himself. Every time he came to see us, he said: ?I?m your friend, but if your countries don?t accept the ultimatum of the Palestinians, I?ll give the order to execute you.’?

Three days later, on the ground at Entebbe, some non-Israeli hostages were released to promote negotiations. Among them 12-year-old Olivier Cojot bravely carried out his father?s detailed notes on the layout of the buildings, number and locations of the terrorists, guarding arrangements etc, hidden in the turn-ups of his jeans. On release, it was only after the next wash that he remembered the precious, and now illegible, information.

Once at Entebbe, the Israeli hostages ? children among them ? were separated from the others. They endured worse conditions, more violence, and no hope of early release. The German hijackers insisted they were anti-Israeli rather than anti-Semitic, but this nuance did little to impress Yitzhak David, a survivor of Auschwitz, who challenged them with the number tattooed on his arm. As the days passed, both the nationality and ?racial appearance? of the hostages became steadily more relevant to their chances of survival. Some older, immigrant Israelis ?missed their old passports?, and Operation Thunderbolt was in part motivated by the need for Israel to retain credibility as a country able to defend its own; its very?raison d??tre.

What Israel did next changed the way nations dealt with hostage situations and effectively put an end ? for several decades, anyway ? to airplane hijackings.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres and their advisors reviewed every scenario, trying to determine if there was any possibility for rescue. Peres concluded that the Ugandan army could be easily overtaken, and there was brief discussion of conquering Uganda outright before it was determined that it would take 1,000 men.

But rescue scenarios were taxed by the plane?s location. It was one thing to storm a plane on domestic soil. This was in a foreign country, ?thousands of miles away in the heart of Africa.? While the planners were able to get the terminal?s architectural blueprints, since it had been built by an Israeli company, they had no knowledge of where the hostages were being kept.

The Israelis caught a break when Amin decided to release the elderly, sick, and some of the women and children ? 47 of the 246 hostages. Once released, they were able to provide valuable intelligence regarding the setup of the terminal, the identity of the hijackers and the role being played by Amin.

With not enough time to formulate a rescue plan, Rabin informed his advisors that he intended to ?propose to the full Cabinet that we negotiate with the hijackers for the release of the hostages,? adding, ?If we are unable to rescue them by force we have no moral right to abandon them.?

Peres objected, reminding Rabin that Israel had never released prisoners who had murdered civilians.

? ?For God sake, Shimon,? responded Rabin angrily, his jaw set, ?our problem at the moment is not more of your heroic rhetoric. If you have a better proposal, let?s hear it.? He did not.

Rabin?s willingness to negotiate bought them three extra days from the hijackers and another 100 hostages released.

Over the course of the day, a plan took shape that would fly in troops and medical teams, call for the rapid killing of the terrorists and Amin?s men and rescue the hostages. Future Israeli prime Minister Ehud Barak was initially set to be one of the commanders on the ground but he was transferred elsewhere and replaced by Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of the country?s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Yoni explained the mission to this troops, one interjected, ?We?re breaking all the rules of combat with this operation,? explaining that they?d be ?outnumbered, as well as exposed and vulnerable . . . It doesn?t make sense.?
? ?Maybe not,? said Netanyahu, ?but we have no option. We?ll have to read and react to the battle as it unfolds.? ?

Rabin didn?t endorse the mission to his Cabinet until the morning of the rescue, July 3. When one of his Cabinet ministers asked about expected casualties, Rabin replied, ?I don?t know how many. But even if we have 15 or 20 dead ? and we can all see what a price that would be ? I am in favor of the operation.?

Named Operation Thunderbolt, the mission involved ?190 soldiers, 20 non-combatants and 10 vehicles . . . loaded aboard four Hercules C-130s.? The timing was so tight that the pilots took off before the Cabinet even approved the mission. They would receive confirmation en route.

Kenya allowed Israel?s planes to refuel upon their return, in exchange for a favor ? the destruction of Uganda?s air force to prevent a retaliatory strike.

?And if, of course,? Kenya?s attorney general added, ?Amin happens to be at the airport and is killed, that would be a bonus.?

Israeli hostages return to Israel after Operation Thunderbolt on July 3, 1976. Getty Images

The operation called for the Israeli soldiers, clad in Ugandan military uniforms, to land about five minutes from the terminal and drive there in several overstuffed vehicles, including a black Mercedes meant to mimic one of Amin?s cars.

Upon landing, the cars sped off as soon as the plane?s rear hatch opened. The plan had been to drive straight to the terminal and if they were spotted by any Ugandan soldiers to ignore them and continue driving, as the black Mercedes filled with uniformed men would make any solider think the car was part of Amin?s entourage.

As soon as they steered toward the terminal, they spotted two soldiers. One fled, but the other pointed his rifle and screamed, ?Advance!?

The other Israelis saw this as exactly what they planned for, and said to keep driving. But Netanyahu, for reasons unknown, saw a threat, saying, ?Let?s take care of him.?

One of the other officers ?felt they were making a fatal mistake before they had even reached the terminal. ?Yoni, no!? he urged. ?Don?t shoot!? But his warning was ignored.?

The sentry fell but wasn?t dead. He got back up, only to be taken down by Israeli gunfire. The element of surprise was gone, the operation in jeopardy.

The car was now under fire, and had to stop 50 yards from the terminal. Netanyahu and one of his men advanced, but before they reached the terminal door, Netanyahu was hit. He died soon after, the only Israeli soldier killed in the mission. Little-known beforehand, he became a national hero, this later contributed to his brother?s political ascent.

It was quiet in the terminal, with some hostages sleeping and others playing cards, when gunfire rang out. They heard shouting and thought either the Ugandans had turned on the terrorists or the terrorists had decided to kill the hostages.

As many of the hostages began sobbing, one of the German terrorists, Wilfried Bose, ?tumbled [in] through the door, holding a submachine gun in one hand and a grenade in the other.?

Several of the hostages were convinced he was about to kill them but instead he pointed his gun toward the door and screamed at them to take cover. As they did, he faced the door, pulled the pin from his grenade and threw it through a nearby window.

He then ?fired through the door at an approaching figure who shot back at him,? and his head ?twitched as a bullet hit it.?

Israeli Amir Ofer bounded into the room and fired several more bullets into Bose to ensure he was dead but, scanning the room for more terrorists, missed two to his left. Another Israeli soldier, Amnon Peled, burst through the door and shot them both, a split- second before they would have taken out Ofer.

Gunfire and grenade blasts continued for several minutes, by which point the four original hijackers had all been killed. Israeli Muki Betser, one of the mission?s leaders, saw a man leap up from a pile of blankets that had been ignited by a grenade. It was a particularly dark section of the room, and it was filled with smoke.

?In a split-second,? David writes, ?Betser took in the man?s youth, olive skin, mustache and curly hair and assumed he was an Arab terrorist. He opened fire, as did at least one of the others, their bullets striking the figure in the body as he tried to turn and run.?

The man they had killed was Jean-Jacques Mimouni, a 19-year-old French-Israeli hostage.

Once the terrorists were down, the soldiers rushed the surviving hostages onto the planes, running in chaos through Ugandan gunfire. Soon the planes were packed, and the soldiers and hostages were in the air.

The rescue, had taken just 53 minutes.

Of 106 hostages, 102 were rescued. Three were killed in the crossfire. A fourth, Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old Israeli who previously had been taken to a nearby hospital, was executed by Amin?s men as revenge.

Keeping up their end of the bargain with Kenya, the Israelis also blew up Uganda?s MiG fighter jets.

An Israeli pilot, his face obscured for security reasons, involved in the rescue of 102 hostages from Uganda is carried by cheering crowds on his return to Tel Aviv in 1976.

Within 53 minutes ? two minutes better than the fastest practice run the day before ? the hostages were aboard the Israeli planes and on their way home. The corpses of seven guerrillas and 20 Ugandan soldiers littered the airport.

In King David?s words : ?From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.?

The audacity and faultless precision of the raid stunned the world. President Ford cabled Rabin his congratulations that ?a senseless act of terrorism (had been) thwarted.?

Leaders of the Western warld hailed the rescue in almost Biblical terms as ?a triumph of good over evil.?

Israel was jubilant. Throngs of relatives and well wishers welcomed the bedraggled hostages at Tel Aviv?s Ben-Gurion airport.

The ?shofar? ram?s horn, reserved for joyous occasions in Jewish tradition, resounded over a delirious crowd dancing on the tarmac.

The celebration was tempered momentarily. At the grave of Yonatan(Jonathan) Netanyahu, David?s lament for his fallen heroes was read : ?Thy glory, O Israel, is lain upon thy high places ? How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle !?

After her remains were returned to Israel in 1979, Dora Bloch, an innocent woman murdered by thugs working for Idi Amin, was given a traditional Jewish funeral.

An aftermath of the raid was the case of Mrs. Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old hostage left behind in Uganda by the Israli raiders.

Mrs. Bloch was in a hospital when the rescue planes landed. A British citizen by marriage, she was a matriarch of one of Israel?s pioneering families.

A British diplomat visited the woman soon after the raid. When he returned late, he found his entrance barred by Ugandan soldiers. Mrs. Bloch had disappeared.

One report said Mrs. Bloch had been dragged from her bed. Another said her half burned body was seen discarded in a Ugandan forest.

Dora Bloch, a woman with dual British and Israeli citizenship, was taken to hospital in?Uganda?after some food got stuck in her throat. She was left behind in Mulago National Hospital when the Israeli commandos raided the airport and extricated all the hostages, including Bloch’s deeply concerned son. His concerns were justified as?Idi Amin?vented his rage on fellow Ugandans and Bloch. It later became known that shortly after the raid she was dragged from her hospital bed by two Ugandan army officers close to Amin and murdered, as retaliation for the Israeli raid on Palestine on 3 July. Her remains were discovered years later. Amin had strong ties with the?Palestine Liberation Organisation

The fate of Mrs. Bloch became a central issue in the U.N. Security Council meeting called by the 48-nation Organization of African Unity. The OAU protested what it called Israel?s ?flagrant violation of Ugandan national sovereignty.?

In 1979, Mrs. Bloch’s body was found buried near a village about twenty miles (30 kilometres) from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and was later identified by Israeli pathologist Dr. Maurioce Rogo. Mrs. Bloch’s son Bertram arrived to collect his mother’s remains, after visiting the Entebbe terminal where the other hijack hostages were rescued by Israeli commandos.

Later, Mrs. Bloch’s remains were taken from Kampala’s Mulago hospital and, were flown to Israel for burial in Jerusalem. The body was identified with the help of Mrs. Bloch’s Medical records. Her son said that he was touched at the way the nurses and doctors had preserved his mother’s belongings, and Israeli official Dr. Ayre Oded thanked the new Ugandan government for the priority they had given to the search for Mrs. Bloch’s body.

Beyond simply being a thrilling story of a successful counter-terrorist operation, the story of Flight 139 and the unprecedented action to recover it has deep links in European, American and world history, and remains an emotional subject for many people in various countries.

One of the historical links is to the Shoah (Holocaust). There were several survivors of the Shoah among the Flight 139 passengers, including a man who had a Nazi concentration camp number tattooed on his arm. This passenger showed the tattoo to one of the German?terrorists, who is claimed to have said, ?I?m not a Nazi! I?m an idealist!? Yet other passengers frequently heard the other German terrorist, Brigitte Kuhlmann, make anti-Semitic remarks. Germany in 1976 was still divided, and still grappling with the fairly recent past of its repression against the Jews during World War II. The Flight 139 hijacking was definitely a bump on the long road to reconciliation over the events of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Entebbe raid was by no means the end of the incident; it set off a cycle of further terrorist reprisals. The government of Kenya allowed the Israeli planes to refuel on their way to raid Entebbe. In retaliation, the dictator Idi Amin had hundreds of Kenyan citizens living in Uganda executed. A Jewish hotel magnate in Kenya had persuaded friends in the Kenyan government to offer assistance. In December 1980 the PFLP retaliated against him, setting off bombs at one of his hotels that killed 13 people.

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