Only an unavoidable drive, a moral necessity dictated by history, could inspire, on the 4thof July forty years ago, an action like the one Israel dared carry out 3,500 kilometres from its borders, in Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue the 106 hostages held prisoner in the airport terminal by a Palestinian-German commando. It is perhaps the most incredible gesta ever made by a country to state a principle and to save over one hundred human lives.
The commando of Israeli soldiers that carried out the mission consisted of one hundred young people divided into teams. The first assault team was led by Jonathan Netanyahu, the older brother of the current Prime Minister. “Yoni” was the only soldier to lose his life in Operation Thunderbolt, later renamed Operation Jonathan in his memory.
The objective was to rescue by surprise the Jewish prisoners held by the terrorists, thus definitely putting an end to the idea that Jews are easy prey of the Anti-Semitic furor that, in various forms, has persistently rained upon them throughout history while the world looks on with indifference.
Two members of the Palestinian group of Wadie Haddad, together with a German man and woman, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, members of the left-wing terrorist group Baader-Meinhof, high-jacked the Air France 139 flight from Tel Aviv to Athens and Paris. The terrorists boarded at Athens armed with guns and Molotov bottles hidden in candy boxes and a false Champagne bottle.
Böse, who the night before had stayed at Hotel Rodos, penetrated the airplane pilot’s cabin while his comrades held the 246 passengers under threat of fire, declared himself the new commander of the flight now in the hands of the “Che Guevara Force”, as he called it, and renamed the plane “Haifa”.
The airplane was directed to land in Benghazi for refuelling and then on to Entebbe, in Uganda, the country of the violently crazy and opportunistic dictator Idi Amin Dada, who hosted and aided the terrorists in order to foster relations with the Arab world and exploit the prey the terrorists brought to the airport’s largest hangar.
The entire kidnapping action can be divided into two phases, which evolved with increasing brutality as the actors inexorably revealed their roles. The Palestinians became the beasts on the leashes of the German communists whose behaviour progressively morphed into that typical of their Nazi parents by instinct and by choice.
From the very first, the obvious target are the Jews. The Jews are the typical new-ancient enemy, the hostage beyond the bars needed “to fight the Zionist imperialism and capitalism”, as Böse explained, reduced to objects, a human sub-species, bargaining chips to be exchanged with forty Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
The woman, in an escalating mimesis of the Kapo model, yells “Schnell, schnell” as she pushes the crowd of travellers towards the hangar/prison, like deportees getting off the train at Auschwitz. Sheonly showed a greater degree of hate when an elderly prisoner showed her the tattooed concentration camp number on his arm.
Together with Böse, once all of the terrified passengers have entered and slumped in a heap on the floor in a mingled mass of children and adults, she performs the ritual that most probably led the Israeli government to attempt the impossible: the selection of the Jews, providing Anti-Semitism with its modern face, i.e. its identification with the State of Israel. The passports are piled onto a table and all of the Israeli citizens are led into an adjacent hall through a hole prepared by Idi Amin Dada’s willing soldiers. Out of the initial 249 passengers,106 remain, including the French airplane crew members who refuse to abandon the prisoners. The Jews are called one by one, by name, and the emulation of a Nazi scenario becomes is clear. The other 148 passengers are released and allowed to leave on the Air France airplane, that takesoff with its load of “Arians”.
To understand how Israel arrived at the decision to attempt the unattemptable, one must imagine that the scene in Jerusalem is of a total anguish: according to the tradition and to a famous movie about the operation, one of Yizhak Rabin’s friends whose daughter was among the hostages asked him directly (in the midst of the storm of questions by the press, the radio, the public opinion toShimon Peres, Ministry of Defence, toMotta Gur, Chief of Staff): “How long will we allow them to play roulette with our children?
”The massacre of Maalot in 1974, in which the Palestinians had murdered 22 school children, was still fresh, as well as the Munich slaughter of the israeli athletes. Terribly anxious days went by, and the uncertainty lasted throughout the eight-hour flight of the Hercules that transported yo their target the Israeli rescue team through the night. The government permission arrived only when the commando was already close to its destination, flying through a lightning storm.
But in the three previous days, as the 4th of July midday deadline approached, when the terrorists said they would start killing the hostages, a plan had already been drafted in silence, tested, reviewed during anxious meetings. Mostly Netanyahu and Muki Betzer, who was at the head of the special Sayeret Matkal unit prepared it together with Commander Dan Shomron. Rabin, Peres and Motta Gur, even if they lacked all the information usually necessary for such a risky operation.
Yoni met Shimon Peres in private when he and Rabin were on the brink of negotiating with the terrorists.
Peres asked Yoni if he thought he could make it. Yoni answered that he thought it was possible, that they might well succeed, that often enough one didn’t have all of the necessary information when launching a large-scale operation. Rabin has finally been the one who had the guts to give the go-ahead.
Many important characters, such as Matan Vilnai or Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak (who organised the return refuelling operations in Kenya),were involved in the implementation and set-up of the plan at supersonic speed. From the first of four aircraft that left Tel Aviv on that night, counting on the surprise factor, a commando of 29 people on a Mercedes followed by two jeeps headed first towards the terminal, simulating a visit by Idi Amin Dada. A sudden gun battle with the guards, at the terminal, shot Yoni down but did not stop the liberation of the hostages and the killing of the terrorists. Despite the shooting, the Israeli rescue team went ahead and succeeded.
Yoni’s fortitude -as well as Betzer’s, who today claims a greater amount of acknowledgement than the one he received in Yoni’s shadow– has left a permanent mark in Israel’s collective memory.
The image of the generous young hero cut down in the field in the full of his young life, has become the model of insouciant audacity that the whole world envies of Israel, the same which has led this country to bomb the Osirak reactor (another mission impossible), andto kidnap Eichmann, as well as to win the Six-Day war with unimaginable speed.
Entebbe is, together with the Six-Day war, the achievement that more than any other has changed the image and the perception itself of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world.
No longer sacrificial lambs but owners of their own lives, protagonists of actions deemed impossible by the largest part of humanity. No longer abandoned to their destiny and to the violence of their enemies, Jews hade since those events the right to think that someone will come for them: they will be the Israeli soldiers. Since Entebbe, Jews are no longer alone.
Three Israeli hostages died, including an elderly woman who had the misfortune of being taken to a Ugandan hospital. Yoni’s death is one of Israel’s most tragic episodes.
The explosion of joy for the return of children, wives, and mothers was wounded by this, just as today the daily joy of life of this alive democratic country is saddened by daily terrorist attacks. And as in the past, today very few in the world expresses solidarity for its tragedies, let alone comes in Israel help Israel, as the state of the Jews does for other countries plagued by terrorism.
In the wake of Entebbe, the UN Security Council debated a request for Israel’s condemnation – yes, that’s right – and Kurt Waldheim, its president, described the incident as a “serious violation of a member State’s sovereignty”.
As a small consolation we can remember that the motion was rejected. But still today many of the responses Israel gives to terrorism are still a matter of blame for the UN.
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale ( 2 July 2012)