Thirty-eight years ago today, on June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 took off from Tel Aviv, Israel, bound for Athens, Greece and eventually Paris. There were 246 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. Not long after the Airbus A-300 plane left Athens, four terrorists–two German nationals and two Palestinians–hijacked Flight 139. They were armed with pistols as well as a grenade with the pin removed, which one of the terrorists held onto as insurance against being attacked or overwhelmed by the passengers. The hijackers, who were affiliated with the Marxist-leaning terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the equally radical Baader-Meinhof Gang of West Germany, forced the plane to land in Benghazi, Libya, and eventually in Entebbe, Uganda, which was then ruled by dictator Idi Amin. The passengers who were not Israeli nationals were released, but this left over 100 innocent people still in their hands. The terrorists demanded that the Israeli and other western governments release 53 prisoners held in Israel, Kenya, Switzerland, France and West Germany, or they’d start killing passengers one by one on July 1.
This act of terrorism was the beginning of a long and very dramatic episode that culminated in one of the most spectacular military rescues of all time. After being held for several days at the airport terminal in Entebbe, the passengers and crew of Flight 139 were unexpectedly rescued during a daring raid by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) on July 4, 1976. “Operation Thunderbolt” involved about 100 Israeli commandos and a very ballsy (pardon the expression) plan to sneak up on the Entebbe airport using air-dropped vehicles disguised as official cars of dictator Idi Amin. When the commandos sprang out and began shooting, an intense firefight erupted, resulting in the deaths of about 40 Ugandan soldiers, plus all 7 hijackers and 3 hostages. The only Israeli military casualty was Yonatan Netanyahu, whose younger brother Benjamin is today the Prime Minister of Israel.
The current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, lost his older brother in the 1976 Entebbe raid. Yonatan Netanyahu was hailed as a hero and martyr.
Many people know the basic story of the Entebbe raid. It’s been dramatized heavily, most notably by a 1977 TV movie, Raid on Entebbe, directed by Irvin Kershner (George Lucas’s film teacher at USC film school, and who later went on to direct The Empire Strikes Back). The jingoistic 1980s action film Delta Force was a Reagan-era rehash of the same story, except (of course) using heroic Americans under the command of Chuck Norris–who else?–instead of Israelis. But beyond simply being a thrilling story of a successful counter-terrorist operation, the story of Flight 139 and the unprecedented action to recover it has deep links in European, American and world history, and remains an emotional subject for many people in various countries.
One of the historical links is to the Shoah (Holocaust). There were several survivors of the Shoah among the Flight 139 passengers, including a man who had a Nazi concentration camp number tattooed on his arm. This passenger showed the tattoo to one of the German terrorists, who is claimed to have said, “I’m not a Nazi! I’m an idealist!” Yet other passengers frequently heard the other German terrorist, Brigitte Kuhlmann, make anti-Semitic remarks. Germany in 1976 was still divided, and still grappling with the fairly recent past of its repression against the Jews during World War II. The Flight 139 hijacking was definitely a bump on the long road to reconciliation over the events of the 1930s and 1940s.
Another link, again through the German hijackers, is to the bizarre and incredibly involved story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, which more accurately encompasses several terrorist organizations with similar names and goals. This relatively small group was among the flashiest and most radical of the leftist terrorist groups that sprang up in Western countries during the 1960s and especially 1970s–a roster that includes the Red Brigades of Italy and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States. Western leftist terrorism was essentially an outgrowth of the shift in postwar First World countries that caused so much social, economic and political turmoil in the 1960s, and the mid-1970s was the “golden age” of this kind of political-ideological terrorism. In the 1980s, after most of these groups were disrupted or disbanded, terrorism began to shift to religious-nationalist-ideological, but the involvement of West German leftists with the PFLP shows the flirtation that western terrorists had at the time with what they perceived as Third World liberation struggles.
After her remains were returned to Israel in 1979, Dora Bloch, an innocent woman murdered by thugs working for Idi Amin, was given a traditional Jewish funeral.
There are other links too. The Entebbe raid was by no means the end of the incident; it set off a cycle of further terrorist reprisals. The government of Kenya allowed the Israeli planes to refuel on their way to raid Entebbe. In retaliation, the dictator Idi Amin had hundreds of Kenyan citizens living in Uganda executed. A Jewish hotel magnate in Kenya had persuaded friends in the Kenyan government to offer assistance. In December 1980 the PFLP retaliated against him, setting off bombs at one of his hotels that killed 13 people. A Kenyan governmental official–actually a British citizen–was also assassinated on Idi Amin’s orders. Dora Bloch, a British-born Israeli citizen who had been taken off the plane and sent to a Ugandan hospital when she developed health problems, was brutally murdered the day after the raid, also on Amin’s orders. Her remains were found in 1979, after Amin was deposed, and returned to Israel. Amin finally died in 2003 without ever having been brought to justice for his crimes.
The most enduring legacy of the Entebbe raid, of course, is the fear and respect it generated for Israel’s counter-terrorism operations. Throughout the 1970s through the 1990s–until airplane hijackings as an organized tactic of terrorism severely declined as a result of 9/11–terrorists, when they seized a plane, would routinely release the Israel nationals almost immediately. This happened, for instance, in the 1985 TWA 847 hijacking and several others. Israel has suffered its share of terrorist attacks since 1976, but no terrorist has had the gumption to invite another overwhelming response like Entebbe. The United States has tried to duplicate Israel’s counter-terrorist capability, without quite the same success; the U.S. Delta Force attempted an Entebbe-style raid in 1980 to rescue the hostages in Iran, but it was unsuccessful.
The Entebbe raid is an important event in the tangled and tragic post-WWII history of international relations, terrorism and foreign policy. Its tendrils run through the recent history of Israel, Palestine, Germany, Uganda, Kenya and the United States. But, as with many such important events, its historical import shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow that at its heart it was a very human event, touched as much by tragedy and anguish as by victory or pride.