40 Years On - Entebbe Continues to Inspire
By Joe Nam, Media Specialist Christians for Israel Uganda.. It’s June 2016. I am entering a coffee café in Uganda’s capital city Kampala. I frequent this place during the evening social hour to catch up on news of the latest happenings in the city. Here, in between sips of coffee and tea, patrons get to discuss the hottest topics of the day. I am just in time to catch animated conversation going on about the Entebbe Rescue. So I sit to listen.
In Uganda, this epic event is referred to as the Entebbe Raid or Operation Thunderbolt. This was when, on the night of 4 July 1976, Israel landed over 200 commandos and soldiers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, East Africa, to rescue 105 hostages held by terrorists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The story is widely known. Air France flight 139 leaves Tel Aviv Airport on 27 June 1976 en-route to Paris. The plane lands in Athens to pick up more passengers. This is when terrorists enter the plane using forged passports. Half an hour into the flight, the terrorists jump up with weapons and hold up the passengers and crew. The pilot is ordered to divert the plane and fly south. After refuelling in Bengazi, Libya, the plane is commandeered further south, landing in Entebbe on 28 June.
Reminiscent of the Holocaust days, Jewish passengers are separated from non-Jewish passengers. Non-Jews are released while Jewish passengers and crew of Air France remain as hostages. The State of Israel is in a dilemma - should they meet the terrorist demands?
Meeting the terrorists’ demands seems the only logical thing to do as pressure mounts on Israel from families of the hostages who demand that the government should give in. But doing so would be self-defeating for the State of Israel which pursues a policy of non-negotiation with terrorists. So negotiations with the terrorists start while Israel also explores the option of rescuing the hostages.
The terrorists, now under the patronage of Uganda’s President, Idi Amin Dada, demand the release of 40 Palestinian militants held in Israel and 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and West Germany on charges of terrorism. The terrorists make it known in no uncertain terms that failure to meet their demands means they will kill all of the hostages.
Against all imaginable odds however, Israel carries out a daring operation rescuing all hostages except three who die in the cross fire, among them Jonathan Netanyahu ‘Yoni’, the commander of the operation, who dies from a sniper’s fire and Dora Bloch, who is left behind. The whole world is left stunned by the success of the rescue mission.
As I listen to the discussions at the café, it is obvious that, 40 years on, the Entebbe rescue still evokes as much excitement as it did 40 years ago. And with the expected visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Uganda on 4 July 2016, the Entebbe rescue is again at the forefront of national news. It has also become the topic of frequent discussions in homes and public places.
Key Events After the Entebbe Rescue
- The first casualty of Idi Amin after the Entebbe Rescue was Dora Bloch, an Israeli hostage who had fallen ill and was hospitalised at Mulago Hospital, twenty kilometers from Entebbe. She was not at Entebbe airport at the time of rescue. She was dragged from her hospital bed and shot dead on the orders of President Idi Amin in the morning after the rescue of the other hostages. Dora Bloch’s remains were exhumed from a shallow grave at a sugar plantation on the Kampala-Jinja Highway by her family in 1979, after the fall of Amin, and flown out of Uganda for a proper burial.
- In his address to the UN Security 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 like Israel, considers the dignity of man, human life and human freedom to 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.”
- Western nations spoke in support of the raid. West Germany called the raid ‘an act of self defense.’ Switzerland and France praised the operation. Representatives of the United Kingdom and United States offered significant praise, calling the Entebbe raid ‘an impossible operation.’ Some in the United States noted that the hostages were freed on 4 July 1976, 200 years after the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
- UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim described the raid as ‘a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state’ (meaning Uganda).
- The Arab and communist world condemned the operation, calling it an act of aggression.
- Idi Amin was humiliated by the surprise rescue. He believed Kenya had colluded with Israel in planning the rescue and hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda were killed soon afterwards. Amin also threatened to invade Kenya. The rescue operation significantly weakened Amin’s military strength. Amin was forced into exile three years later, by a combined force of the Tanzanian Peoples Defense Forces (TPDF) and Ugandan guerillas exiled in Tanzania. Idi Amin died in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in August 2003.
- As a result of the operation, the United States military developed highly trained rescue teams modeled on the Entebbe rescue. One notable attempt to imitate Operation Thunderbolt was Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue attempt of 53 American embassy personnel held hostage in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
- In 2007, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family made a private visit to Uganda at the invitation of President Yoweri Museveni and laid a wreath at Entebbe Old Airport where Yoni died.
- In August 2012, Uganda and Israel commemorated the rescue at a somber ceremony at Entebbe Old Airport. Uganda and Israel renewed their commitment in the fight against terrorism and to work towards humanity.
In addition, wreaths were laid, a moment of silence was held, speeches were given, and a poem was recited. The flags of Uganda and Israel waved side by side, demonstrating the two countries’ renewed and strong bilateral relations. The ceremony was attended by the then Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel, Daniel Ayalon.
What the Entebbe Rescue Inspired
The Entebbe rescue also became the subject of numerous films and documentaries including "Victory at Entebbe" 1976, "Raid on Entebbe" 1977, "The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin" 1980, "Delta Force" 1986, "Zameen" 2003, "The Last King of Scotland" 2006, "Cohen on the Bridge" 2010, "To Live or Die in Entebbe" 2012 and more. A number of plays and books have also been written inspired by the Entebbe Rescue.
Watch the photographs below.