Today the world may be sleeping in peace and America celebrating its independence day. But the stature of the July 4th was not always the same. At least it was not the same in the fateful year of 1976. The night of July 4th, 1976 thought the world how to deal with terrorism the Israeli way. It thought the world, and also wrote it down on the pages of history for people to read, the Israeli motto of combating terrorism. It just reads, “No matter what, and no matter how we don’t negotiate with the terrorists and criminals. For today is the day when the operation Thunderbolt was executed with precision handling and with commendable military perfection.
It all had started a week earlier, on the 27th of June 1976. An Air France plane with 248 passengers that originated in Tel Aviv destined to reach Paris was hijacked by two members of the popular front for the liberation of Palestine and two members of the German revolutionary cells. The demand of the hijackers was very precise; they wanted the release of 40 Palestinian militants who were imprisoned in Israel and 13 other militants in prisons of 4 other countries. The plane was directed to the Entebbe airport in Uganda after a stopover in Benghazi in Libya. The Entebbe was the main airport of Uganda. Not much of a surprise is the fact that Uganda welcomed the hijackers, with its ill demurred President Idi- Amin himself welcoming the hijackers. The airport was cordoned and guarded by the Ugandan national army. The passengers were moved to an unused airport building, were the Israeli and the non-Israeli passengers were separated. Over the following 2 days, 148 non-Israeli passengers were released in 2 separate batches and they were flown out to Paris.
94 Israeli nationals and 12 crew members were retained as hostages (The crew offered to be free, but they instead chose to stay with the hostages. A big salute to the crew and their dedication). The negotiations were going on, but budging to the demand was not so Israeli way of dealing with things. With intelligence from Mossad, The Israeli defense force (IDF) derived a plan for a rescue operation which had to include a strategy to deal with the armed resistance from the Ugandan national army.
On a military operation which was carried with unprecedented precision, Israeli transport planes, popularly known as the Hercules carried 200 Israeli soldiers over 2500 miles to Uganda. Two Boeing 707 jets accompanied them for medical assistance and command post. The planes were flown at a very low altitude at about 35 feet above ground to avoid being spotted by Military and Civilian Radars. The Plan was executed with perfection. It had taken a week of practice and planning, and the results were dramatically successful. The Israeli army was prepared for 35 -40 casualties during the course of the mission. However, there were only 4 casualties, 3 Hostages and one Commando succumbed during the mission. All the hijackers were eliminated. In order to avoid a military retaliation 30, Soviet built MiG-21’s of Ugandan army were destroyed at the airbase. Kenya had offered refueling support for the Israeli aircraft for a 4000 km marathon flight back home.
The loss of one soldier was not to be neglected, such was the legacy of the unit Commander Lt.Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, who commanded the Sayreet Matkal. This was the elite commando unit of the IDF. Netanyahu was a distinguished soldier with a Medal of Distinguished Service for his conduct in the Yom Kippur war. He was shot outside the building after the hostages were moved to the plane. He soon martyred in the arms of the military doctor Efraim Sneh. The mission of Entebbe was later renamed as Mivtsa yonathan, or Operation Yonathan in honor of the deceased soldier.
But Thunderbolt set some high standards principles in dealing with terrorism. The wit of Israel and its decision to not negotiate with terror stands high as a role model for other nations to follow. Amazing was the way it was planned, practiced and executed. It has its sets of speculations and confusions on the alleged exaggeration of Netanyahu. But it was a landmark mission and an object of study for Special Forces around the world for years. The American Special Forces studied the same plan to eliminate Osama Bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. Never again did Palestine dare to hijack an Israeli plane, for it knew Israel wouldn’t mind flying half way round the earth to save its citizens.