Independence Day is the most joyful summer holiday in America. The Fourth of July is fêted with barbecues, outdoor gatherings of families, friends and spectacular fireworks displays.
Forty years ago, July 4, 1976, was a festival of special significance as America celebrated 200 years as a nation. Massive events were scheduled, historic tall ships graced waterways, and the Stars and Stripes fluttered in towns and cities across the land.
Unexpectedly, on that holiday morning, a different news story nearly upstaged the USA’s party. But as they read the bold face headlines, the American people quickly saw that they had one more reason to rejoice:
“Israeli Airborne Troops Rescue Hijacked Hostages”
On June 27, 254 passengers had been kidnapped during the hijacking of an Air France plane; 148 of these captives were later released, and only 94 Israelis and Jews and the 12-person flight crew remained as hostages. And now they languished in a scorching, filthy airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda. Would they be shot? Or ransomed? They had faint hopes of rescue.
On July 4, Israeli soldiers secretly flew to Entebbe in four Hercules cargo planes. The task force included the elite Sayeret Matkal unit (the “Unit”), led by Lt. Col. Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, along with Air Force pilots, Golani infantrymen and other forces.
The rescue was a deadly gamble. Up until the last minute, the Israeli government vacillated about whether it should be approved; the planes were already in the air before the go-ahead was given.
Yet against all odds, all but three hostages were safely rescued. And only one Israeli soldier was killed in the operation – the commander of the elite special forces unit, Yoni Netanyahu. Following his death, the Israeli government decided to rename the mission “Operation Jonathan.”
Iddo Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother, himself a member of the same Unit, researched and wrote about the raid, publishing two books about it, one of which, “Yoni’s Last Battle,” appeared in English.
On this 40th anniversary of the raid, another book has appeared, in Hebrew, titled “Operation Jonathan First Hand.” This is a collection of testimonies written by 35 men of Sayeret Matkal who participated in the raid and its preparation. Israel’s Ynet News received pre-publication exclusivity to the material and has released a three-part series based on the accounts.
It seems that the men of the Unit decided to publish their accounts, for the very first time, as a response to numerous erroneous and misleading reports that have appeared over the years about the raid and about their commander Yoni.
The author of the Ynet series, Ronen Berman, writes, “Yoni Netanyahu’s memory has suffered several blows since the operation because of ego and politics. That was the case when the most comprehensive and thorough investigation of the operation, written by his brother Iddo, was unjustifiably presented as a biased version of events. That was also the case when some tried to minimize (Yoni) Netanyahu’s part in the planning of the operation and in leading it.”
With all this in mind, I asked Iddo Netanyahu to tell me more about Entebbe, his brother Yoni’s legacy as the commander of the operation, and what Iddo has learned in the process of documenting the story.
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First of all why have you devoted some much time to research and writing about the Entebbe Operation?
“Because I believe in the need to document history correctly. I am the son of a historian, and maybe this view of mine is in my genes. But I think that for anyone really, truth is important. Ten years after Entebbe, I saw things being written and said about the raid and about Yoni that were patently false. And so I wanted to document the facts.
“At that time, I was the first person to interview the Unit’s participants in the raid. Strangely enough, the army did not do so, being satisfied with interviewing only one officer of the Unit. Thus, the military documentation was erroneous and slipshod, and a false account took hold in the army, which in large measure served as the basis for nearly all the subsequent literature about it.”
The raid has been described as a textbook hostage rescue operation. Yet it had to be accomplished in just a matter of days. What were the biggest risks the rescuers faced?
“There were several risks. One of them was the fact that if the Hercules cargo planes would be shot and incapacitated by missiles or even gunfire, there would be no way for the men to come back. This was due to the simple reason that Israel did not have the capability of rescuing them.
“The second, more immediate risk was to 33 men of the Sayaret Matkal unit, who were the first to land and who carried out the heart of the operation. Their task was to storm the terminal, kill the terrorists, fight the Ugandan army, and free the hostages. Just six people were to enter the large hall in the first seconds, where all 10 terrorists might be. The Unit wasn’t used to those kinds of odds.
“In a rescue operation like this, you don’t enter spraying fire, because you’ll be killing the very people you’re trying to rescue. You have to enter the hall and first determine where are the terrorists – who might be aiming their weapons on you – and only then shoot them. It’s very dangerous. As it turned out, there were only four terrorists watching over the hostages in the hall. The rest were elsewhere.
“The soldiers would also be facing an unknown number of Ugandan troops. Again, there were only 33 Sayeret Matkal members confronting numerous Ugandan soldiers in the building and around it.
“These seemingly poor odds were brought up by the Unit’s soldiers in discussion with Yoni, and he had to address them. Yoni believed that the men could overcome these odds because they were far better soldiers than the terrorists or the Ugandans, and he tried to calm their fears. He stressed the same thing in his last briefing to his men, before they took off for Entebbe, ‘You’re better soldiers than anyone there and you will succeed.’
“The men have said that he was able to give them tremendous confidence in their ability. So yes, it was an operation with great risks, but it succeeded – because of good planning, good execution, and the courage of the soldiers.”
How did Yoni help convince the powers-that-be that the operation should move forward?
“Well, not only he. But Yoni himself met with the Defense Minister, Shimon Peres, who called him in for a one-on-one meeting – something unheard of, that is, a defense minister meeting in this way with a lieutenant colonel. But Peres wanted to know firsthand from the man would lead the rescue party whether he thought the plan would succeed.
“Yoni explained to him why he thought the odds were very favorable and told him that the number of casualties among the hostages would be minimal. Peres was convinced.
“But Yoni wasn’t the only one making the case for the raid. In large measure, it was the officers in the army, who felt that the operation should be done, that caused the government to change heart. This was the same government that voted two days before the raid to agree to the terrorists’ demands.
The pressure upwards came from various men, whether the Deputy Chief of Staff Yekutiel Adam, who moved the preparations forward. Or from the head of the Israeli Air Force, Beni Peled. Or from many officers besides Yoni, including Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron who headed the ground operation. All this, in turn, influenced the Chief of Staff, Motta Gur, and finally the government and Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin.
“But Yoni’s meeting with the Defense Minister was without a doubt of crucial importance.”
Describe some of the intelligence that made the raid possible.
“The operation couldn’t have been undertaken if the hijackers hadn’t released the non-Israeli hostages. These were flown to Paris, and less than two days before the planes took off, an Israeli officer interviewed a few of them. They described where the hostages were located, how many there were, the floor plan of the building, and other details. The operation couldn’t be put together until the planners, both Yoni and his staff officers in the Unit, and commanders above the Unit, had that information.
“Another uncertainty was how many Ugandan soldiers surrounded the building.
“To answer that question, a member of the Mossad flew to Entebbe Airport in a small plane. He pretended that his aircraft was in trouble, managed to land there and took pictures both while he was hovering above the airport and while he was taking off afterwards. Those photographs proved that there was no huge Ugandan cordon surrounding the terminal.
“This agent phoned in his report, then sent his photos, which were given to the Israeli soldiers just as they were about to leave on the mission. The information allowed the Chief of Staff to recommend to the cabinet that the operation be approved.”
Were the Entebbe runway lights turned off at night?
“That was a major consideration, whether the planes could land in a darkened airfield. But the head of the Hercules squadron, Joshua Shani, assured the Chief of Staff that, yes, he would be able to do so. They had developed a mechanism for landing by radar, but it was not perfected. In fact, they had never yet actually done it on a darkened airfield. But Shani said, “We can do it.” The Chief of Staff didn’t quite buy it. “Show me,” he said. So Shani flew him all the way to Sinai, to an airport we had there, to demonstrate that he could land in the dark. But before the demonstration, unknown to the Chief of Staff, he practiced landing on that very runway during daylight. So he cheated a little.
“Once again, this shows the resolve of the officers from below. He was just a Lt. Col., like Yoni, and the same age. But the attitude of those officers was that this operation needed to be done.”
Things didn’t go as planned as the commandos raided the terminal building. Describe what happened.
“No operation ever goes exactly as planned, but like my brother’s deputy, Yiftah Reicher, said, the operation went more according to plan than any other operation he’d participated in.
“As the Mercedes – painted black to mimic Idi Amin’s limo – and two jeeps approached the terminal, they encountered two Ugandan guards, exactly at the spot where Yoni had placed in rehearsal such ‘Ugandan’ guards. They ordered the convoy to stop. The Israelis, who were wearing Ugandan uniforms, were able to get to within a few feet of them without problem, then shot at them with silenced weapons, but finally had to neutralize them with open gunfire.
“At that point the convoy rushed forward, and in seconds they arrived near the Old Terminal. Yoni stopped the vehicles at a spot that would give them cover. The got out quickly and moved toward the terminal. All went more or less according to plan up until then.
“But then the officer who was assigned to lead the force decided, for reasons unknown, to stop the charge. He took cover at the corner of the terminal and shot forward. That halted the entire assault. Nobody could pass him because he was shooting forward.
“This was a critical moment, because the terrorists would very soon realize that there was an invading force, and start mowing down the hostages.
“The officer did not move, despite Yoni’s shouts at him. But once he stopped shooting, Yoni himself moved forward and shouted to the men to follow him.
“At that point, they remembered what Yoni had told them before they left for Entebbe. ‘Things will go wrong,’ he said. ‘Thing will not go exactly according to plan. All you have to remember this: you have to reach the hostages as quickly as possible and kill the terrorists. Just do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.’
“And that’s what they did, even as Yoni was hit by gunfire in those very seconds, while they moved forward.
“They entered the hall and succeeded in killing the terrorists before the terrorists could kill the hostages. Only three hostages died in the process. The Entebbe raid was a success.”
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In the morning following the raid, around 100 weary but grateful hostages disembarked in Tel Aviv from the cargo hold of an IAF Hercules aircraft, welcomed ecstatically by thousands of Israelis. Only the death of one Israeli soldier, Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, cast a shadow of sorrow over the celebration.
Hours later, in the midst of the July 4 bicentennial festivities in America, then-President Gerald Ford made a proclamation:
“Our own Bicentennial Independence Day was enhanced by an event at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. That action of liberation freed our own hearts to fuller understanding of the universal meaning of independence – and the courageous action sometimes required to preserve it.”