Operation Entebbe, also known as the Entebbe Raid or Operation Thunderbolt, was a counter-terrorism hostage-rescue mission carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on the night of July 3 and early morning of July 4, 1976. In the wake of the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 and the hijackers' threats to kill the hostages if their prisoner release demands were not met, a plan was drawn up to airlift the hostages to safety. These plans took into account the likelihood of armed resistance from Ugandan military troops.
Originally codenamed Operation Thunderball by the IDF (or Operation Thunderbolt in some sources), the operation was retroactively renamed Operation Yonatan in memory of the Sayeret Matkal commander Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu who was killed in action. Three hostages were also killed and five Israeli commandos were wounded. A fourth hostage was killed by Ugandan army officers at a nearby hospital.
On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300 (Airbus A300B4-203), registration F-BVGG (cn 019), originating from Tel Aviv, Israel, carrying 248 passengers and a crew of 12, took off from Athens, heading for Paris. Soon after the 12:30 p.m. takeoff, the flight was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two Germans from the German "Revolutionary Cells (RZ)" (Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann), who commandeered the flight, diverting it to Benghazi, Libya. There it was held on the ground for seven hours for refueling, during which time a female British hostage who pretended she was pregnant and having a miscarriage was released. The plane left Benghazi, and at 3:15 it arrived at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
At Entebbe, the four hijackers were joined by three additional terrorists, supported by the pro-Palestinian forces of Uganda's President, Idi Amin. The hijackers were led by Böse (and not, as occasionally reported, by Carlos the Jackal). They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israel and 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and West Germany; if these demands were not met, they threatened to begin killing hostages on July 1, 1976.
The hijackers deliberately sorted the hostages into Jew and Gentiles. As they did so a Holocaust survivor showed Böse a camp registration number tattooed on his arm, Böse protested "I'm no Nazi! ... I am an idealist." The hijackers held the passengers hostage for a week in the transit hall of Entebbe Airport (now the old terminal). Some hostages were released, but 105 Israelis and French Jews remained captive. The hijackers threatened to kill them if Israel did not comply with their demands.
Upon the announcement by the hijackers that the airline crew and non-Jewish passengers would be released and put on another Air France plane that had been brought to Entebbe for that purpose, the flight captain Michel Bacos told the hijackers that all passengers, including the remaining ones, were his responsibility, and that he would not leave them behind. Bacos' entire crew followed suit. A French nun also refused to leave, insisting that one of the remaining hostages take her place, but she was forced into the awaiting Air France plane by Ugandan soldiers. A total of 83 Israeli and/or Jewish hostages remained, as well as 20 others, most of whom included the crew of the Air France plane.
On July 3, the Israeli cabinet approved a rescue mission, Operation Entebbe, under the command of Major General Yekutiel "Kuti" Adam, Deputy Commander was Matan Vilnai. Brigadier General Dan Shomron was appointed to command the operation on the ground. After days of collecting intelligence and planning by Netanyahu's deputy Moshe "Muki" Betser, four Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft flew secretly to Entebbe Airport, by cover of night, without aid of Entebbe ground control.
Their route was over Sharm al-Sheikh, and down the international flight path over the Red Sea. Near the south outlet of the Red Sea the C-130s turned right and passed south of Djibouti. From there they went to a point northeast of Nairobi, Kenya (likely across Somalia and the Ogaden area of Ethiopia), then turned west passing through the African Rift Valley and over Lake Victoria . They were followed by two Boeing 707 jets. The first Boeing contained medical facilities and landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. The commander of the operation, General Yekutiel Adam, was on board the second Boeing that circled over Entebbe Airport during the raid.
The Israeli ground task force numbered approximately 100 personnel and comprised the following:
The Israeli forces landed at Entebbe an hour before midnight, with their cargo bay doors already open. A black Mercedes with accompanying Land Rovers was taken along to give the impression that the Israeli troops driving from the landed aircraft to the terminal building were an escort for a returning Idi Amin or other high-ranking official.
The Mercedes and its escort vehicles were quickly driven by the Israeli assault team members to the airport terminal in the same fashion as Amin. However, along the way, two Ugandan sentries, who were aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes to replace his black one, ordered this procession of vehicles to stop. Both of these sentries were immediately shot dead by the Israeli commandos. Fearing premature alerting of associates to the hijackers, the Israeli assault team was quickly sent into action.
The hostages were in the main hall of the airport building, directly adjacent to the runway. The Israelis sprang from their vehicles and burst into the terminal yelling, "Get down! Get down!" in both Hebrew and English. A 19-year-old French Jew named Jean-Jacques Maimoni (who chose to identify himself as an Israeli Jew to the hijackers even though he had a French passport), stood up, however. He was killed by the Israeli commandos, who mistook him for a hijacker. Another hostage, Pasco Cohen, 52, manager of an Israeli medical insurance fund, was also fatally wounded by gunfire, either from the hijackers or accidentally by the Israeli commandos. A third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Israel, was also killed in the crossfire. At one point, an Israeli commando called out in Hebrew, "Where are the rest of them?", apparently referring to the hijackers. The hostages pointed to a connecting door of the airport's main hall, into which the Israeli commandos threw several hand grenades. They then entered the room and shot dead the three remaining hijackers, thus completing their assault.
Meanwhile, the other three C-130 Hercules had landed and unloaded armored personnel carriers, which were to be used for defense during the anticipated hour of refueling, for the destruction of grounded Ugandan jet fighters so as to prevent them from pursuing the Israelis after their departure from Entebbe Airport, and for intelligence-gathering.
After the raid, the Israeli assault team returned to their aircraft and began loading the hostages on board. Ugandan soldiers shot at them in the process. Without suffering any fatalities of their own, the Israeli commandos returned fire, finished the loading, and then left Entebbe Airport.
The entire assault lasted less than 30 minutes and all seven hijackers were killed. Yonatan Netanyahu was the only Israeli commando who died during the operation. He was killed near the airport entrance, apparently by a Ugandan sniper who fired at the Israeli commandos from the nearby airport control tower. At least five other Israeli commandos were wounded. Out of the 105 hostages, three were killed and approximately 10 were wounded. A total of 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed during the raid, and about 11 Ugandan Army Air Force MiG-17 fighter planes were destroyed on the ground at Entebbe Airport. The rescued hostages were flown to Israel via Nairobi, Kenya shortly after the fighting.
Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old hostage taken to Mulago Hospital in Kampala, was killed by the Ugandan government, as were some of her doctors and nurses for apparently trying to intervene. In April 1987, Henry Kyemba, Uganda's Attorney General and Minister of Justice at the time, told the Uganda Human Rights Commission that Bloch had been dragged from her hospital bed and murdered by two army officers on Idi Amin's orders. Bloch's remains were recovered near a sugar plantation 20 miles (32 km) east of Kampala in 1979, after the Uganda-Tanzania War led to the end of Amin's rule.
While planning the military operation, the Israeli army built a partial replica of the airport terminal with the help of some Israeli civilians who had helped build it. It has been claimed by researchers that after arriving at the military base to begin work on the replica building (not being aware beforehand what they were to do), the civilian Israeli contractors were invited to dinner with the commander of the base. At the dinner, it was indicated to them that, upon completion of the replica, and in the best interest of national security, they would be held as guests of the military for a few days. During the entire operation an extremely high level of secrecy was maintained.
According to a July 5, 2006, Associated Press interview with raid organizer "Muki" Betser, Mossad operatives extensively interviewed the hostages who had been released. As a result, another source of information was a French-Jewish passenger who had been mistakenly released with the non-Jewish hostages. Betser reports that the man had military training and "a phenomenal memory", allowing him to give information about the number and arms of the hostage-takers, among other useful details.
In the week prior to the raid, Israel had tried a number of political avenues to obtain the release of the hostages. Many sources indicate that the Israeli cabinet was prepared to release Palestinian prisoners if a military solution seemed unlikely to succeed. A retired IDF officer, Baruch "Burka" Bar-Lev, had known Idi Amin for many years and was considered to have a strong personal relationship with him. At the request of the cabinet he spoke with Amin on the phone many times, attempting to obtain the release of the hostages without success.
The report on this claim was written by David Colvin, First Secretary of the Paris Embassy on 30 June, 1976, a day after the contact telephoned him and while the crisis was still playing out. Colvin did not offer the allegation as factual or comment on its credibility; nor did he provide a transcript of the conversation he had with the informant. The absence of specific details supporting the allegation have led to the belief that this conspiracy theory was a deliberate act of disinformation.
Israel has firmly denied the contact's claim about Israeli involvement, with officials in the Vice Premier's office calling it "foolishness" and "not worthy of comment". No known UK government sources confirm the findings of this one source.
Another released document discusses British reticence to congratulate the Israelis based on a question of the operation's legality, which would be contingent on Ugandan collusion, and the public criticism that ensued. One of the draft documents addresses the question of legality, concluding that Amin's government had been in collaboration with the hijackers.
For refusing to depart when given leave to do so by the hijackers, Captain Bacos was reprimanded by his superiors at Air France and suspended from duty for a period.
Idi Amin was humiliated by the surprise raid. He believed Kenya had colluded with Israel in planning the raid and hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda were massacred soon afterwards. But from this time, Amin's regime began to break down. Two years later Idi Amin was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. He died in Jeddah in August 2003.
In the ensuing years, Betser and the Netanyahu brothers (Iddo and Benjamin), all Sayeret Matkal veterans, argued in increasingly public forums about who was to blame for the unexpected early firefight which caused Yonatan Netanyahu's death and partial loss of tactical surprise. This has become an open wound in the close-knit Sayeret Matkal family.