While America celebrated its Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, an Israeli military mission made one of the most daring rescues in history. Sixty-five members of Sayeret Matkal, the elite special-operations unit of the Israel Defense Forces, flew to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, rescued 102 hostages, and returned them to Israel. The hostages had been passengers on an Air France jet hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The rescue was soon dramatized in several films, most notably Menahem Golan’s feature Operation Yonatan (released in America as Operation Thunderbolt.). Entebbe Declassified tells the story in a very different way, through the unique first-person accounts of thirty-three of the soldiers who were there. The moment-by-moment details of the operation are fascinating, but the book’s true appeal lies in the voices of the individuals who took part in the rescue. Their personal recollections transform a historical event into an intensely human experience.
Omer Bar-Lev, Israel’s current Minister for Public Safety, reflects on one key decision he had to make during the mission and credits the mission’s success to “the initiative of the individual soldier.” Shaul Mofaz, later Israel’s Defense Minister, believes the key was “the element of surprise.” Amos Goren, part of the assault force on the mission, recalls “that moment in which those people [the hostages] moved from a world of horror and desperation to a world of hope and freedom.”
Most of the team point to Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu’s extraordinary qualities as an inspirational leader, a canny strategist, and a treasured friend. He was the mission’s leader, as well as the sole casualty among the rescuers. Adam Kolman, of the assault force, wrote about Yoni’s charge to the troops: “He spoke of the spirit of the Jewish People and the People of Israel, the duty not to forsake those in captivity…a speech mindful of the beating of the wings of history above us.” Giora Sussman recalls him as “a symbol of courage, composure, and responsible leadership, a true intellectual, a man of letters.” We can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he lived.
A single dissonant note sounds through these recollections. One of the assault-team leaders, Muki Betser, was supposed to enter a particular door as they stormed the airport terminal. According to several witnesses, he stopped outside, seemingly preoccupied with his rifle. Over the years Betser kept changing his explanation of what had happened, and he is remembered unkindly by many of his comrades. On the other hand, the rescuers’ accounts are unanimous about the decision to drop two original members of the team: a giant Schnauzer assault dog “with foot-long fangs” and its handler. The idea of being in a plane for hours at close quarters with the intimidating beast unnerved even these intrepid fighters.
It has now been four-and-a-half decades since Israel electrified the world with the dazzling success of this operation. Many younger people have never heard of it. Entebbe Declassified brings the rescue back to mind with riveting, moment-to-moment details, in the voices of the individuals who made it happen. It is an important addition to the literature on this still-astonishing exploit.