Against All Odds: Operation Entebbe

On the 27th of June, 1976, Air France Flight 139, carrying over 200 passengers, took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport with the destination of Paris with a stopover at Athens. In Athens, 58 people boarded the flight, among them two Palestinians of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans of the German Revolutionary Cell. Shortly after takeoff, the flight was hijacked by the four terrorists and diverted to Benghazi, Libya for refueling. During the time on the ground in Libya, the hijackers released British-born Israeli Citizen Patricia Martell, who pretended to have a miscarriage, and was the first person to inform British intelligence of the hijacking. Later, this information was passed to Israeli intelligence services.

After refueling, the plane left Benghazi and arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda twenty-four hours after the flight’s original departure. At Entebbe, the passengers, now hostages, were let off the plane and transferred to a transit hall of an old unused terminal. The hijackers then separated the Israeli and Jewish hostages from the rest of the passengers. Uganda’s president, Idi Amin, supported the hijackers, sending forces from the Ugandan Military to help contain the hostages.

On June 28th, the hijackers issued a declaration of their demands: the release of over 50 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants, most of whom were prisoners in Israel, and a ransom of five million US Dollars for the airplane. They threatened that if their demands were not met by the 1st of July, they would begin executing the hostages. On the 30th of June, the hijackers released 48 hostages, and after the Israeli government had shown it is willing to come to the negotiating table the hijackers extended their deadline to the 4th of July, later releasing another group of 100 non-Israeli hostages. The French flight crew insisted on staying with the Israeli and Jewish hostages.

In the days before the operation, Israel tried using diplomatic and political avenues to secure the release of the hostages. When the negotiations failed, the Israeli government decided that their only option was clandestine military action. What followed was one of the most daring Special Forces operations in history.

The planning for the operation, codenamed Operation Thunderbolt, had begun. After only forty-one hours, between July 1st and July 3rd, the Israeli Government and the Israeli Defense Forces formulated a plan based on intelligence gathered by the IDF and the Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency.

On July 3rd, four Israeli Air Force aircrafts and two Boeing 707 aircrafts took off from Sharm el-Sheikh towards Uganda on a 2000 mile journey, flying no higher than a 100 feet above the ground to avoid detection by radar. The operation received its final approval by the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, only when the task force was already on its way. The task force comprised a command and control element, a securing element (forces from Sayeret Matkal, the Golani Brigade and the Paratroopers Brigade) and an assault element, a 29-man assault unit from Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s most elite Special Operations unit, led by the late Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel managed to acquire Kenya’s critical support, which allowed the Israeli task force to refuel before arriving at Entebbe.

The Israeli forces landed at Entebbe on the night of July 3rd, the Sayeret Matkal assault squad then disguised themselves in a convoy identical to that of the Ugandan President, who prior to the operation visited the hostages on a daily basis, while other forces secured the air strip and destroyed a third of the Ugandan Air Force on the ground. The assault squad drove the vehicles to the terminal building, killing two Ugandan sentries on their approach. The commandoes left their vehicles and ran toward the old terminal where the hostages were held, shouting in Hebrew and English “stay down”, as they breached the terminal. A firefight ensued, in which the hijackers were killed; three hostages were killed in the crossfire. After freeing the hostages, the Israeli force loaded the hostages onto the planes. At this point, Ugandan forces began firing at the Israeli forces, and in the ensuing firefight Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the assault element, was killed. The entire operation lasted fifty-three minutes. Out of 106 hostages, three were killed and one was left in Uganda because she was at a hospital at the time of the raid; she was later murdered by Ugandan forces. The 102 rescued hostages were flown to Israel immediately after the raid.

The operation received much praise in the west, while the Arab world and the Soviet Bloc condemned the operation and called it an act of aggression and a breach of Ugandan sovereignty. Uganda’s reaction was much more violent. In addition to killing the hospitalized Israeli hostage, Amin order the killing of hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda in retaliation for Kenya’s assistance to Israel in the raid.

The raid remains one of the most audacious Special Forces operations to this day and serves as a model for hostage rescue operations. The operation’s name was later changed to Operation Yonatan, in memory of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu’s sacrifice. The Friends of Zion Museum salutes these heroes, who fought courageously to protect Israel and her people.