Operation Entebbe was a hostage-rescue mission carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on 4 July 1976. A week earlier, on 27 June, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and supporters and flown to Entebbe, near Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Shortly after landing, all non-Jewish passengers were released.
The IDF acted on intelligence provided by the Israeli secret agency Mossad. In the wake of the hijacking by members of the militant organizations Revolutionary Cells and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, along with the hijackers’ threats to kill the hostages if their prisoner release demands were not met, the rescue operation was planned. These plans included preparation for armed resistance from Ugandan military troops.
The operation took place at night, as Israeli transport planes carried 100 elite commandos over 2,500 miles (4,000 km) to Uganda for the rescue operation. The operation, which took a week of planning, lasted 90 minutes and 103 hostages were rescued. Five Israeli commandos were wounded and one, the commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed, and 11 Soviet-built MiG-17s of Uganda’s air force were destroyed. A fourth hostage was murdered by Ugandan army officers at a nearby hospital.
The rescue, named Operation Thunderbolt, is sometimes referred to as Operation Jonathan in memory of the unit’s leader, Netanyahu. He was the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as the Prime Minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999 as well as since 2009. As a result of the operation the United States military developed highly-trained rescue teams modeled on the Entebbe rescue. The most visible attempt to imitate it was Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue of 53 American embassy personnel held hostage in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.
On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300 (Airbus A300B4-203), registration F-BVGG (c/n 019), originating from Tel Aviv, Israel, carrying 248 passengers and a crew of 12, took off from Athens, heading for Paris. Soon after the 12:30 pm takeoff, the flight was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two Germans from the German Revolutionary Cells—Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann. The hijackers diverted the flight to Benghazi, Libya. There it was held on the ground for seven hours for refuelling, during which time a female hostage was released—who pretended to be having a miscarriage. The plane left Benghazi, and at 3:15 pm on the 28th, more than 24 hours after departure, it arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
At Entebbe, the four hijackers were joined by at least four others, supported by the pro-Palestinian forces of Uganda’s President, Idi Amin. They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel and 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and West Germany. They threatened that if these demands were not met, they would begin to kill hostages on 1 July 1976. The hijackers deliberately sorted the hostages into two groups—Israeli nationals and others, or Jews and Gentiles. As they did so a Holocaust survivor showed Böse a camp registration number tattooed on his arm, Böse protested “I’m no Nazi! … I am an idealist”. The hijackers held the passengers hostage for a week in the transit hall of Entebbe Airport—now the old terminal. Some hostages were released, but 105 remained captive. The hijackers threatened to kill them if Israel did not comply with their demands.
Upon the announcement by the hijackers that the airline crew and non-Jewish passengers would be released and put on another Air France plane that had been brought to Entebbe for that purpose, the flight captain Michel Bacos told the hijackers that all passengers, including those remaining, were his responsibility and that he would not leave them behind. Bacos’ entire crew followed suit. A French nun also refused to leave, insisting that one of the remaining hostages take her place, but she was forced into the waiting Air France plane by Ugandan soldiers. A total of 85 Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish hostages remained, as well as 20 others, most of whom were the crew of the Air France plane.
In the week prior to the raid, Israel tried a number of political avenues to obtain the release of the hostages. Many sources indicate that the Israeli cabinet was prepared to release Palestinian prisoners if a military solution seemed unlikely to succeed. A retired IDF officer, Baruch “Burka” Bar-Lev, had known Idi Amin for many years and was considered to have a strong personal relationship with him. At the request of the cabinet he spoke with Amin on the phone many times, attempting to obtain the release of the hostages, without success. The Israeli government also approached the US government to deliver a message to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, asking him to request Amin to release the hostages.
On 1 July deadline, the Israeli government offered to negotiate with the hijackers in order to extend the deadline to 4 July. Amin asked them to extend the deadline until 4 July. This meant he could take a diplomatic trip to Port Louis, Mauritius, in order to officially hand over the chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity to Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. This extension of the hostage deadline would prove crucial in allowing Israeli forces enough time to get to Entebbe.
On 3 July, the Israeli cabinet approved the rescue mission, under the command of Major General Yekutiel “Kuti” Adam with Matan Vilnai as the Deputy Commander. Brigadier General Dan Shomron was appointed to command the operation on the ground.
Mossad built an accurate picture of the whereabouts of the hostages, the number of militants, and the involvement of Ugandan troops from the released hostages in Paris. While preparing the raid the Israeli army consulted with Israeli firms involved in building projects in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. While planning the military operation the IDF erected a partial replica of the airport terminal with the help of civilians who had helped build the original. It has been claimed by researchers that after arriving at the military base to begin work on the replica building (not being aware beforehand what they were to do), the civilian Israeli contractors were invited to dinner with the commander of the base. The contractors were told at the dinner that they would be held as guests of the military for a few days upon completion of the replica in the interest of national security.
According to a 5 July 2006, Associated Press interview with raid organizer “Muki” Betser, Mossad operatives extensively interviewed the hostages who had been released.[ One, a French-Jewish passenger, had been mistakenly released with the non-Jewish hostages. Betser reports that the man had military training and “a phenomenal memory”, allowing him to give information about the number and arms of the hostage-takers, among other useful details. After days of collecting intelligence and planning by Netanyahu’s deputy Moshe “Muki” Betser, four Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft flew secretly to Entebbe Airport, by cover of night, without aid of Entebbe air traffic control.
The Israeli ground task force numbered approximately 100 personnel, and comprised the following:
- The Ground Command and Control Element
- This small group comprised the overall ground commander, Brig. Gen. Shomron, and the communications and support personnel.
- The Assault Element
- A 29-man assault unit led by Lt. Col. Netanyahu, this force was composed entirely of commandos from Sayeret Matkal, and was given the primary task of assaulting the old terminal and rescuing the hostages. Major Betser led one of the element’s assault teams; Matan Vilnai led another.
- The Reinforcement Element
- Securing the area, and preventing any hostile ground forces from interfering with the C-130 Hercules aircraft and the actual rescue.
- Destroying the squadron of MiG fighter jets on the ground, to prevent any possible interceptions by the Ugandan Air Force.
- Providing protection for and assisting in the loading of the hostages aboard the transports.
- Assisting in the ground refuelling of the air transports.
The task force’s route flew over Sharm al-Sheikh and down the international flight path over the Red Sea, mostly flying at a height of no more than 30 m (100 feet) to avoid radar detection by Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian forces. Near the south outlet of the Red Sea the C-130s turned south and passed south of Djibouti. From there, they went to a point northeast of Nairobi, Kenya, likely across Somalia and the Ogaden area of Ethiopia. They turned west, passing through the African Rift Valley and over Lake Victoria.
Two Boeing 707 jets followed the cargo planes. The first Boeing contained medical facilities and landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. The commander of the operation, General Yekutiel Adam, was on board the second Boeing, which circled over Entebbe Airport during the raid.
The Israeli forces landed at Entebbe at 23:00 IST, with their cargo bay doors already open. A black Mercedes and accompanying Land Rovers were taken along to give the impression that the Israeli troops driving from the landed aircraft to the terminal building were an escort for a returning Amin, or other high-ranking official. The Mercedes and its escort vehicles were quickly driven by the Israeli assault team members to the airport terminal in the same fashion as Amin. Along the way, two Ugandan sentries, who were aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes to replace his black one, ordered this procession of vehicles to stop. The commandos shot the sentries with silenced pistols, but did not kill either of them. As they pulled away, an Israeli commando in one of the Land Rovers that followed the Mercedes noticed that the sentries were still alive, and immediately killed them with a burst from his assault rifle. Fearing premature alerting of the hijackers, the assault team was quickly sent into action.
The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and burst towards the terminal. The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. Upon entering the terminal, the commandos were shouting through a megaphone, “Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers.” in both Hebrew and English. A 19-year-old Frenchman named Jean-Jacques Maimoni—who chose to identify himself as an Israeli Jew to the hijackers even though he had a French passport—stood up, and was killed by the Israeli commandos, who mistook him for a hijacker. Another hostage, Pasco Cohen, 52, the manager of an Israeli medical insurance fund, was also fatally wounded by gunfire from either the hijackers or the commandos. In addition, a third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Israel, was killed in the crossfire.
At one point, an Israeli commando called out in Hebrew, “Where are the rest of them?”, referring to the hijackers. The hostages pointed to a connecting door of the airport’s main hall, into which the Israeli commandos threw several hand grenades. They then entered the room and shot dead the three remaining hijackers, thus completing their assault. Meanwhile, the other three C-130 Hercules had landed and unloaded armoured personnel carriers, which were to be used for defense during the anticipated hour of refuelling; for the destruction of Ugandan jet fighters at the airport so as to prevent them from pursuing the Israelis after their departure from Entebbe Airport; and for intelligence-gathering.
After the raid, the Israeli assault team returned to their aircraft and began loading the hostages on board. Ugandan soldiers shot at them in the process. The Israeli commandos returned fire with their assault rifles, inflicting heavy casualties on the Ugandans. During this brief but intense moment, Ugandan soldiers fired at them from the Airport control tower. Commander Yonatan Netanyahu was killed, possibly by a Ugandan sniper. He was the only Israeli commando killed in the operation. The Israelis finished the loading, loaded Netanyahu’s body into one of the airplanes, and then left Entebbe Airport. The entire operation lasted 53 minutes—of which the assault lasted only 30 minutes, and all seven hijackers that were present were killed. At least five other Israeli commandos were wounded. Out of the 105 hostages, three were killed and approximately 10 were wounded. One other hostage that had been earlier moved to a hospital in Uganda was left behind and was subsequently murdered on Idi Amin’s order. Around 33 to 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed during the raid, and about 11 Ugandan Army Air Force MiG-17 fighter planes were destroyed on the ground at Entebbe Airport. The rescued hostages were flown to Israel via Nairobi, Kenya, shortly after the fighting.
The government of Uganda, led by Juma Oris, the Ugandan Foreign Minister at the time, later convened a session of the United Nations Security Council to seek official condemnation of the Israeli raid, as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter, condemning neither Israel nor Uganda. In his address to the Council, Israeli ambassador Chaim Herzog said:
We come with a simple message to the Council: we are proud of what we have done because we have demonstrated to the world that a small country, in Israel’s circumstances, with which the members of this Council are by now all too familiar, the dignity of man, human life and human freedom constitute the highest values. We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people—men, women and children—but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.—HERZOG, Chaim.
Israel received support from the Western World for its operation. West Germany called the raid “an act of self defense”. Switzerland and France also praised Israel for the operation. Significant praise was received from representatives of the United Kingdom and the United States both of whom called it “an impossible operation”. Some in the United States noted that the hostages were freed on 4 July 1976 which was 200 years since the signing of the US declaration of independence. In private conversation with Israeli Ambassador Dinitz, Kissinger sounded criticism for Israeli use of US equipment during the operation, but that criticism was not made public.
UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim described the raid as “a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state” (meaning Uganda). Dozens of Ugandan soldiers were killed in the raid. The Arab and Communist world condemned the operation calling it an act of aggression.
For refusing to depart (and subsequently leave some of his passengers as hostages) when given leave to do so by the hijackers, Captain Bacos was reprimanded by his superiors at Air France and suspended from duty for a period.
In the ensuing years, Betser and the Netanyahu brothers—Iddo and Benjamin, all Sayeret Matkal veterans—argued in increasingly public forums about who was to blame for the unexpected early firefight which caused Yonatan Netanyahu’s death and partial loss of tactical surprise.