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Israel Commemorates 30th Anniversary of Entebbe Rescue

Thirty years ago today, while the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial, Israel was carrying out a daring trans-continental rescue of 100 hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 7/5/2006, 8:07 AM / Last Update: 7/4/2006, 12:05 PM

The Knesset will mark the day this afternoon with a special session commemorating the heroic rescue. Among the participants at the Knesset ceremony will be family members of the four Israelis who died in the operation, many of the hostages themselves and their family members, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, who oversaw the operation, as well as officers and soldiers who took part in the rescue.

Originally called Operation Thunderbolt by its planners, the mission was renamed Operation Yonatan in memory of its commander Yonatan Netanyahu (former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's brother), whose life was one of the prices Israel paid.

The incident began on June 27, 1976, when an Air France jet on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by a group of German and Palestinian terrorists, who embarked in Athens. They first flew the plane to Libya, and then to Entebbe, the capital of Uganda, 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from Israel.

At the Entebbe airfield, the hijackers separated the 100 Jewish passengers from the 150 non-Jewish ones, freeing the latter - though the plane's pilot Michel Bacos refused to abandon the Jewish passengers. (He was later temporarily suspended by Air France for his troubles.)

Uganda was ruled at the time by dictator Idi Amin, who had had some ties with Israel years before. Israeli officials made contact with Amin, who had been helped by Israel in the past but who was now cooperating with the hijackers. At the same time, the Israelis were making very detailed plans for the bold rescue plan, based on knowledge of the airport in which the hostages were being held - because Israel had helped build it.

After receiving the final go-ahead from then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, four large cargo planes carrying over 100 Israeli commandos took off for Entebbe. They landed under the cover of darkness, rolled out a black Mercedes of the type used by dictator Amin, and proceeded to the airport lounge and killed the hijackers with grenades and gunfire. One hostage was killed when he jumped up to greet the rescuers, and another hostage - Dora Bloch, 75, who had been taken to a Uganda hospital when she choked on food - was later murdered at Amin's behest.

The hostages and army forces were greeted joyfully by thousands of Israelis upon their return.

Three movies were later made of the Entebbe rescue. The official IDF account of the operation can be read here.

Israel's Ambassador to the UN and later to be its President, Chaim Herzog, told the UN at the time:

"It has fallen to the lot of my small country, embattled as we are, facing the problems which we do, to demonstrate to the world that there is an alternative to surrender to terrorism and blackmail. It has fallen to our lot to prove to the world that this scourge of international terror can be dealt with. It is now for the nations of the world, regardless of political differences which may divide them, to unite against this common enemy which recognizes no authority, knows no borders, respects no sovereignty, ignores all basic human decencies, and places no limits on human bestiality.

"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 in a small country, in Israel's circumstances, with which the members of this Council are by now all too familiar, the dignity of man, human life and human freedom constitute the highest values. We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over 100 innocent people—men, women and children—but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.

"We call on this body to declare war on international terror, to outlaw it and eradicate it wherever it may be. We call on this body, and above all we call on the Member States and countries of the world, to unite in a common effort to place these criminals outside the pale of human society, and with them to place any country which co-operates in any way in their nefarious activities..."