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Entebbe in person: A new oral history challenges official account of 1976 rescue

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23.08.2021

The raid on Entebbe — the 1976 rescue operation by Israeli commandos to release Jewish hostages after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists — is one of the State of Israel’s best known exploits, with no fewer than six documentaries, five dramatized films and one stage play having been produced about it.

And yet, despite its renown, central aspects of what actually transpired on the ground in the Ugandan airport on July 4, 1976, remain hotly debated, chiefly among those who participated in the operation. Advertisement

Last month, with the 45th anniversary of the raid, the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center released an English translation of its 2016 oral history of the operation, “Entebbe Declassified: The Untold First-Hand Stories of the Legendary Rescue Operation.” It is not a definitive history; it is instead an effort to set the record straight on what happened that night, or at least to act as a counterbalance to the existing narrative.

The basic facts are these: On June 27, an Air France plane was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells, a fringe leftist terrorist group. They had the plane flown to Uganda, having received the support of the country’s dictator Idi Amin, and released all non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers, save for the flight crew and a few others who decided to remain with the Jewish hostages at Entebbe Airport. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 pro-Palestinian terrorists and $5 million in exchange for the hostages. In the days that followed, Israel’s security services considered a number of responses, both rescue operations and capitulation to the terrorists’ demands.

(One proposed rescue mission would have seen Israeli naval commandos approach the Entebbe airport from Lake Victoria. But this idea was scrapped after Staff Sgt. Michael Aaronson, who happened to be in Kenya at the time, visited the lake and found that there were “giant Nile crocodiles lying in nearly endless rows all along the shore as far as the eye can see,” as he wrote in the book.)

Ultimately, in extremely little time and with limited intelligence about the conditions at the airport, Israel opted for a rescue mission, in which C-130 cargo planes flew roughly 100 commandos to Uganda, stopping in Kenya to refuel along the way, unbeknownst to the Kenyan government.

The book is made up of 33 first-person accounts from members of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit who took part either in the mission itself or in the preparations for it. The volume notably lacks two voices: understandably, that of Yoni Netanyahu, who left behind no notes about the mission; and, more contentiously, that of Moshe “Muki” Betser, Netanyahu’s second-in-command

A Mercedes sedan, similar to one once used by Amin, was brought along, as were Land Rovers of the same model as his security detail used, in an effort to trick the Ugandan sentries into allowing the Israeli commandos to drive up to the terminal where the hostages were being held.

Shortly after landing, however, things went south — more on that later — as a Ugandan soldier apparently saw that the Mercedes was black, not the white model that Amin had begun using. A firefight broke out and as a result, Yoni Netanyahu, who commanded the mission, was fatally wounded.

Yet the Israeli force was able to enter the terminal and release all but three of the hostages, who were killed in the crossfire. A fourth hostage, Dora Bloch, who had been taken to a hospital days before, was executed by Ugandan agents after the fact as revenge for the raid.

The book, translated by former Times of Israel military correspondent Mitch Ginsburg, is made up of 33 first-person accounts from members of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit who took part either in the mission itself or in the preparations for it.

The volume notably lacks two voices: understandably, that of Yoni Netanyahu, who left behind no notes about the mission; and, more contentiously, that of Moshe........

© The Times of Israel


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