In “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History,’’ British military historian Saul David provides a dramatic hour-by-hour account of eight days in the summer of 1976, capped by a successful, surprise attack in Uganda by the Israeli Defense Forces.
That mission changed our governing assumptions about how to deal with terrorists. Before then, most western nations did not maintain counter-terrorism units, believing they had no choice but to engage in direct negotiations with these violent extremists.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris carrying 246 passengers was hijacked a few minutes after taking off from Athens after a stopover. Two German and two Arab terrorists redirected the plane first to Libya and then to Uganda where the murderous despot, President Idi Amin, welcomed them with open arms.
Soon after landing at Entebbe Airport, the hijackers’ leader, Wilfried Böse — the name just happens to mean “evil” in German — announced that their objective was the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners held in France, Germany, Israel, and Africa. A day later, the terrorists issued an ultimatum — unless these demands were met by the afternoon of July 1, they would begin killing the hostages.
Back in Jerusalem, a debate soon broke out between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. In a meeting of the ministerial committee on June 29, Rabin reluctantly admitted that since “as of this moment . . . there is no concrete military solution,” he would have to “consider negotiating with the terrorist hijackers for the release of the hostages,” according to David.
A seething Peres dashed out of the room, determined to come up with a rescue operation as soon as possible. On July 1, Israel officially agreed to negotiate with the terrorists — a move which extended the deadline three days, giving Peres just the time he needed to put together Operation Thunderbolt.
On the evening of July 3, four Hercules transport planes carrying 190 Israeli commandos, led by Yoni Netanyahu, stormed Entebbe Airport. Within just 51 minutes, the Israelis had killed all the terrorists as well as 29 Ugandan soldiers who had tried to protect them. They had also managed to free almost all the remaining hostages — more than half had already been released during the negotiations. However, three hostages died in the crossfire, and Netanyahu was fatally wounded by a Ugandan soldier. In retaliation, an enraged Amin arranged for the murder of an elderly hostage languishing in a Kampala hospital.
While he was alive, Netanyahu had been unknown due to the clandestine nature of his day job, but he was immediately lionized as a national hero. His death would also help launch the political career of his younger brother, Benjamin, who was then studying at MIT and who is currently serving in his third term as prime minister.
This gripping tale has already been told in numerous books, feature films and documentaries. In fact, just six months after the events, ABC aired a made-for-TV movie, “Victory at Entebbe,’’ which starred Anthony Hopkins as Rabin and featured Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor in supporting roles. But David’s version, which cuts back and forth between the key players and reads like a film script, should prove definitive. He has tracked down formerly classified documents in four countries. His meticulous reconstruction has also been enriched by recent interviews with hostages as well as Israeli soldiers and politicians and even a former terrorist. Not surprisingly, the rights to David’s book were quickly gobbled up by a leading European film production company.
Operation Thunderbolt marked a major turning point in the west’s War on Terror. Within a few years, German left-wing radicals had mostly disappeared, and Palestinians had all but given up trying to hijack European, Israeli, or American planes as bargaining chips. Forced to concede that hijacking could no longer be counted on to be effective, terrorists would soon begin the search for other, more deadly means to achieve their objectives.
Unfortunately, the current wave of terrorism is likely to be much harder to eradicate. Spearheaded by ISIS, today’s terrorists constitute a more vicious form of evil, which aims solely to destroy as many human beings as possible. In contrast, Böse was not entirely devoid of human feeling. After first spotting the Israeli commandos at Entebbe, this violent revolutionary could easily have started killing hostages. Instead he encouraged those near him to “retreat” and take cover. “He [was],” notes David, “prepared to die for [his] beliefs, but not to murder women and children in cold blood.”
By Saul David
Little Brown, 446 pp., illustrated, $30Joshua Kendall’s next book, “First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama,’’ will be published in the spring of 2016.