Forty-five years ago, a small force of Israeli sol­diers flew south over the Red Sea, skim­ming the ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters of a string of ene­my states and res­cu­ing near­ly all of the 105 hostages at Entebbe, Uganda.

The sto­ry is well-known. But what few peo­ple real­ize is that those sol­diers, many of whom served in the elite Say­eret Matkal recon­nais­sance unit (or the Unit,” as the out­fit is known), met with the prime min­is­ter and defense min­is­ter and, after being dri­ven back to their base, sim­ply ate, show­ered, con­grat­u­lat­ed one anoth­er on a job well done, and went home. The post-mis­sion debrief­ing that is so cru­cial to all IDF spe­cial oper­a­tions nev­er hap­pened. There was a meet­ing in the mess hall that after­noon dur­ing which some of the sol­diers spoke of the mis­sion, but it was con­duct­ed in front of the entire unit, includ­ing non­com­bat troops and guests, and was more of an enter­tain­ment than an inter­ro­ga­tion of fact. The rit­u­al of self-exam­i­na­tion is how the IDF improves itself, how it deter­mines pre­cise­ly what hap­pened in the field. But after the res­cue mis­sion in Entebbe, the coun­try was in the throes of ecsta­sy, the major­i­ty of the sol­diers involved in the actu­al hostage takeover were on the cusp of dis­charge from mil­i­tary ser­vice, the Unit was in high gear for a pend­ing covert mis­sion, and its for­mer com­man­der, Yoni Netanyahu — the man who had led the sol­diers into action​— was dead.

No one asked the oth­er sol­diers to step for­ward and recount what they had seen and done. The result of this over­sight has been a decades-long fight over the facts. Who planned the mis­sion? Was then-Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu right in giv­ing the order to open fire on the Ugan­dan sen­tries, or had he risked the entire oper­a­tion by dis­re­gard­ing the hard-earned advice of Major Muki Betser, who had lived in Ugan­da and trained the nation­al guards? What about Betser him­self? Is it true that he, the leader of the assault team, fal­tered on the way into the ter­mi­nal, endan­ger­ing the force and the hostages alike? Did the fact that he paused out in the open cause Netanyahu to step into the exposed area and pay with his life — or was that neces­si­tat­ed by the sit­u­a­tion on the ground?

This book ulti­mate­ly tri­umphs in detail­ing the way tragedy and ela­tion can coin­cide, the way vic­to­ry is often just a hair’s breadth from defeat, and the way his­tor­i­cal fact is illu­mi­nat­ed, rather than veiled, by myr­i­ad points of view.

A new book, Entebbe Declas­si­fied, which I had the plea­sure of trans­lat­ing, does not try to draw a sin­gle autho­r­i­al con­clu­sion. Instead, what it offers is a stage on which thir­ty-three of the sol­diers who took part in the mis­sion final­ly relay their expe­ri­ences in their own words. The result is the most prob­ing look at the most suc­cess­ful hostage-res­cue mis­sion of all times and a glimpse into an IDF ethos that may no longer exist.

I came away from the project with sev­er­al insights.

1: The sol­diers. These guys are as good as the leg­end. How dis­ap­point­ing it would have been to find them pet­ty or jad­ed or crooked. But no, they are stellar.

2: Yoni Netanyahu. The por­trait of the com­man­der of Say­eret Matkal that emerges from this vol­ume is fas­ci­nat­ing. He was clear­ly a strange bird in the Unit. He read books; he spoke Eng­lish; he’d been to Har­vard. There were those who revered him for his courage and his poise under fire. And there were those who felt that he was dis­tract­ed by per­son­al affairs and ill-suit­ed to the covert nature of the Unit’s work. The clash of opin­ion is most sharply brought into focus, I feel, in two tes­ti­monies. The first is by Mas­ter-Sgt. Dani Dagan, the old­est enlist­ed man in the Unit at the time. He describes him­self as a field work­er from [Kib­butz] Mish­mar Haemek, a guy who believes no one, an old fox who’s seen a lot,” and Netanayahu as a pro­fes­sor, a believ­er, an inno­cent, a schol­ar.” And yet the two were close. Sev­er­al weeks before the oper­a­tion, Dagan called Netanyahu on Shab­bat and said they need­ed to talk. Netanyahu invit­ed him over. Whiskey was poured, and Dagan said he want­ed to dis­cuss what appeared to be a sort of mutiny brew­ing in the Unit. If Netanyahu thought the top­ic inap­pro­pri­ate, Dagan rea­soned , he’d drain the whiskey and be gone. If he want­ed to hear more, Dagan would share his thoughts. In his tes­ti­mo­ny, Dagan is vague on what pre­cise­ly was said and what Netanyahu even­tu­al­ly decid­ed to do, but it is clear that Netanyahu flew to Entebbe with this sit­u­a­tion still weigh­ing heav­i­ly on him.

The ambiva­lence toward Netanyahu is fur­ther illu­mi­nat­ed in the riv­et­ing account giv­en by then-Lt. Omer Bar Lev, who went on to com­mand the Unit and today is the Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Secu­ri­ty. In all of his years in uni­form, Bar Lev writes, he nev­er once used his con­nec­tion to his father, a for­mer IDF Chief of Staff who was a Cab­i­net mem­ber at the time of the mis­sion. But on July 2, the night before the mis­sion, Bar Lev, along with sev­er­al oth­er offi­cers, decid­ed that there was too great a dis­crep­an­cy between the truth and Netanyahu’s pre­sen­ta­tion of the facts regard­ing the capac­i­ty of the Unit to car­ry out the mis­sion. He final­ly got into a truck to dri­ve to his father’s house and report the nature of the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion to him. But while he was dri­ving, the hood of the trunk sud­den­ly popped up, and after steer­ing the vehi­cle off the road, he shut the hood and turned back around. In ret­ro­spect, he writes, Net­nyahu was right. Our point of view was … one-dimen­sion­al and mistaken.”

3. The sen­tries. The first Israeli plane land­ed alone, on a run­way that was still lit. The para­troop­ers hopped off and marked the tar­mac for the fol­low­ing planes. A Mer­cedes slid down the rear ramp, fol­lowed by a pair of Land Rovers. That, at the time, was the entire Israeli force on the ground. The sol­diers regrouped and loaded their rifles. Around them the air was warm and lush. Many of the men recall the trop­i­cal smell of the night. Netanyahu guid­ed the for­ma­tion off the tar­mac and toward the old ter­mi­nal. On the way, as expect­ed, a pair of Ugan­dan sen­tries manned a road­block. They raised their rifles. Betser, sit­ting in the mid­dle in the front seat, said it was only a salute. Netanyahu ordered the dri­ver, Lt. Amitzur Kafri, to swerve right, toward the sen­tries, so that he could shoot them with his silenced hand­gun, as they’d prac­ticed dur­ing pre-mis­sion drills. Kafri veered right. Betser ordered him left. The Mer­cedes swerved again, the jeeps fish­tail­ing in its wake. Netanyahu coun­tered. Amitzur com­plied. The silenced pis­tol fire from Netanyahu and oth­ers elim­i­nat­ed one of the sen­tries, per­haps, but cer­tain­ly not both. The sol­diers in the trail­ing jeeps, real­iz­ing that they could not leave armed guards behind them, opened fire with unsi­lenced weapons and mowed down the guards. The ter­mi­nal was awakened.

Betser and Netanyahu both made judg­ment calls in a mov­ing car, near mid­night, 2,500 miles from home. The acclaimed book Oper­a­tion Thun­der­bolt by mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an Saul David hews close­ly to Betser’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the events. But the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of those in the Mer­cedes that night — there were ten, ful­ly loaded oper­a­tors squeezed into the three bench­es — believes that Natanyahu was right to have giv­en the order to open fire, even at the cost of jeop­ar­diz­ing the ele­ment of surprise.

4. The charge. There was a span of per­haps no longer than six­ty sec­onds in which most of the oper­a­tion was decid­ed. The crux could almost be caught in a paint­ing, so brief and con­densed were the events. It was then that the force was stalled behind Betser, then that Netanyahu was shot, then that a sin­gle sol­dier, Staff-Sgt. Amir Ofer, sprint­ed alone towards the doors, charg­ing through a sev­en­teen-bul­let blast of glass-shat­ter­ing auto­mat­ic fire. And then that his com­man­der, Lt. Amnon Peled, sens­ing the imme­di­ate per­il to his sol­dier, surged ahead, and killed the two Ger­man ter­ror­ists by the door just as they were in the act of swivel­ing their rifles toward Ofer’s back. For sev­er­al long sec­onds, Ofer and Peled were the only sol­diers in the room — a twen­ty-five-meter-wide hall, filled with over one hun­dred hostages and sev­er­al armed terrorists.

This is the mar­gin of error. It is so very slim. And this book, writ­ten by for­mer sol­diers who today are farm­ers and builders and high-tech entre­pre­neurs, is albeit unruly at times, lay­er­ing tes­ti­mo­ny over tes­ti­mo­ny. But in my opin­ion, it ulti­mate­ly tri­umphs in detail­ing the way tragedy and ela­tion can coin­cide, the way vic­to­ry is often just a hair’s breadth from defeat, and the way his­tor­i­cal fact is illu­mi­nat­ed, rather than veiled, by myr­i­ad points of view.