4 July 1976
I don’t always write about the anniversary of the Entebbe hostage rescue, but this week feel moved to do so. We are now 45 years past this remarkable accomplishment, when Israel sent her most elite troops on a 2,500-mile journey to pry 100 Jews from the grip of evil, in this case Palestinian terrorists and two German revolutionaries.
The successful rescue is still astonishing. The daring plan, made up on the fly in only about 48 hours, involved complexities and challenges that would have prevented almost any other country from attempting it.
When the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” (PFLP) hatched the plan, they wanted scores of fellow terrorists freed from Israeli and European prisons. Remember, this was in the days of airline hijackings. When this particular French plane was flown to Uganda, the middle of Africa, the world knew they meant business. The threat was that if demands weren’t met, the hostages would be murdered. The long distance ensured there would be no rescue.
Air Force pilot Joshua Shani felt they might be able to send an airborne raid team, and in the end that’s exactly what the government of Yitzhak Rabin decided to do. Buying time by pretending to be willing to negotiate, Israel saw the terrorists push the deadline from Thursday to Sunday, July 4. Mid-morning.
Defense Minister Shimon Peres presided over the plan, then sold it to the Cabinet. They were all under intense pressure from both the terrorists and the families of the hostages, who wanted anything done to free their loved ones.
Kept in a cramped terminal building at the Entebbe Airport, the hostages—men, women, and children—knew they were alone. A handful of vicious terrorists and Ugandan soldiers guarded them.
Israel Defense Force planners enlisted the help of their most elite counter-terrorism unit, Sayeret Matkal. A rotation of one-day famous commanders (Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu) found the Unit in 1976 led by the oldest Netanyahu brother, Jonathan. A legendary fighter even during his career (One day at a base, Shani glanced at “Yoni” and told a visitor, “There goes the greatest fighter Israel has ever had”), Netanyahu was a 30-year-old colonel. Injuries in the Six Day War gave him an out from active combat duty, but he felt an internal tug to defend his people.
The 30-man squad from the Unit was all-volunteer! In 2005, I met two of those commandos, and their stories were like something from a book in the Bible. One said that everything had to go right that night, and the most important element was the element of surprise. Lo and behold, when he was the first one in the door of the terminal building, the terrorists were caught completely flat-footed. So shocked were they that they put up losing resistance. I was told that the Unit’s members that burst in the door fired 60 rounds in 15 seconds, killing all the terrorists. They then spent an hour loading the stunned hostages onto four transport planes for the eight-hour flight home to Israel.
I think about this story often. It is another reminder that Israel’s enemies always go down to defeat. This has been going on for thousands of years.
Why do we worry about Israel? Why do we continually question whether God will protect them?
From the time the Israeli planes touched down at midnight at Entebbe Airport, to the time the hostages were secured took…five minutes. Complete surprise. Superior forces. Close coordination.
And Yoni Netanyahu to lead them.
Israel’s planners estimated they would suffer at least 20 percent casualties. With an overall force of 200, that meant many deaths and injuries.
Netanyahu was the only one killed. So successful was the raid that it rocked the terrorist world for years. It is still studied at war colleges.
Yoni was shot just as the rescue force entered the hall. He was out front, leading his men. His funeral saw a standing-room only crowd at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, later in the week. His death drove his famous middle brother into politics. His youngest brother, Iddo, is a friend of mine and a remarkable man. Their father, Benzion, is one of my favorite people of all-time.
What a family.
And what a fighting unit the Jewish state sent to Entebbe 45 summers ago. I salute them this weekend, but I do that often. I remember them, always.
God is in control of everything: the hostages’ lives, your life, everything. All the time.