Zehavit Meltzer

In search of my father

Zvi Meltzer flew to Entebbe aboard one of the four Hercules airplanes on July 3, 1976, with strict instructions not to disembark
Courtesy of the IDF Archives at the Ministry of Defense
Courtesy of the IDF Archives at the Ministry of Defense

Amidst the current dire hostage situation in Gaza and the recent heroic execution of Operation Arnon, named in honor of the late Chief Inspector Arnon Zmora z”l who sacrificed his life in the rescue mission, memories of Operation Entebbe and our family’s tale of my father’s involvement come vividly to mind. Operation Thunderbolt/Operation Entebbe or Mivtzah Yonatan executed with remarkable precision by the Israeli Defence Forces on July 4, 1976, stands as a testament to audacious military rescue efforts. This operation aimed to liberate Jewish hostages from Air France Flight 139, held by terrorists in Entebbe. In William Stevenson’s book “90 Minutes at Entebbe,” a photograph depicts my father, Zvi Meltzer, though his eyes are obscured for security reasons, standing among a group of men deeply engaged in strategic planning and analysis for the operation.

The photo, capturing my father with his hands casually tucked into his army coat pockets, portrays his essence vividly. Known as a laid-back, contemplative individual who spoke only when his words held weight, he never sought the limelight. His posture—slightly leaning back, one knee bent, and a perpetually ill-fitting hat—reflects his distinctive demeanor, familiar to those who knew him well.

When my father revealed he was in the photo, he omitted details about his actual involvement in the operation, and we never pressed him for more. All we knew was that he flew to Entebbe aboard one of the four Hercules airplanes on July 3, 1976, with strict instructions not to disembark. His role, concealed behind his intelligence service and the IDF’s protective measures due to his status as an only child, remained a mystery.

Sadly, I never had the chance to directly inquire about his experiences—he passed away almost 20 years ago from cancer at the age of 52. Determined to uncover the truth about my father’s military contributions and share his untold story, I embarked on a mission to delve into his military history.

My approach was straightforward: find the original photo, delve into Operation Thunderbolt’s details, and verify whether my father was indeed aboard one of the four Hercules planes. After an extensive search through archives for the original photograph, a surprising discovery awaited me: the photo was actually taken in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, not during Operation Thunderbolt.

Upon re-examining the photo within the context of the Yom Kippur War, its elements fell into place seamlessly. The setting was unmistakably a battlefield, with soldiers using a tank as an impromptu table for strategizing. Binoculars and canteens visible on the soldiers further affirmed the authenticity of the moment captured in real-time combat, not a training exercise. Moreover, the thick army coats worn by four men indicated the photo wasn’t taken in the warm July climate preceding the Entebbe raid, but rather during the chillier October battles of the Yom Kippur War.

An intriguing aspect surfaced regarding the photo’s misattribution in “90 Minutes at Entebbe”: it prominently featured Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu z”l, elder brother of Benjamin Netanyahu and commanding officer during Operation Thunderbolt, who tragically became the operation’s sole IDF casualty. This association understandably cemented the photo’s link to Operation Thunderbolt in public consciousness. Additionally, the figure of General Rafael Eitan, though obscure in the shadowed image, emerged more clearly in a subsequent photo when he shifted to a standing position. General Eitan, division commander during the Yom Kippur War on the Golan Heights front, lent further context to the photo’s wartime backdrop.

With these insights, the photo now had a definitive time and place: 1973, Yom Kippur War, Golan Heights, during a pivotal clash against Syria. This revelation aligned seamlessly with my father’s personal military chronicle. As previously mentioned, he served in Israeli Intelligence and, as an only child, was stationed along Israel’s borders in the lead-up to Yom Kippur 1973. The sudden eruption of hostilities on that sacred day thrust him into an unforeseen frontline role—an experience that would have been inconceivable under normal circumstances.

As Israeli military reserves were making their way to the front lines, a relatively small number of soldiers were fighting on the banks of the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights trying to hold back the enemy from entering the land. While in the first few days of the war, many Israeli soldiers in the southern war front died, soldiers in the northern war front fought a strong defense against the Syrians even though they were largely outnumbered. On October 9, 1973, a brigade led by Yossi Ben-Hanan continued their battle in the north. During that time, Ben-Hanan was injured in enemy territory. A mission to rescue Ben-Hanan began. Recently recordings from this mission were released. The recordings reveal conversations between Yoni Netanyahu (Head of Sayeret Matkal) communicating with Yossi Ben-Hanan for his exact location. The voice of Brigade General Avigdor Ben-Gal, the commander of the 7th Armored Brigade is also heard in the recording. Sayeret Matkal completed the mission successfully and Ben-Hanan was returned safely to Israel. 

The photo is credited to photojournalists Avi Simhoni and Micki Tsarfati. Simhoni spent his entire career, close to fifty years, as a photographer for the weekly IDF magazine Bamahane and eventually became department head of the photography division. He spent his life capturing moments such as this photo. I believe the photo was taken shortly before Sayeret Matkal left on its mission to rescue Ben-Hanan. It captures the necessity of a military unit to strategize, analyze and evaluate information before entering a life-risking situation. It captures a group of soldiers collaborating as they focus on accomplishing one goal as a unit. It also captures a story of heroism, determination, friendship, and the value of ‘no man left behind.’ 

The story behind this photo was resolved, however, my father’s direct involvement in Operation Thunderbolt is still uncertain. The journey continues with fragments of his story pieced together, yet gaps remain. I’ve obtained his IDF file, heavily redacted, prompting this appeal: if anyone knows him or can shed light, I seek your help. As we mark the 48th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt, I honor all who served, including those like my father, whose stories deserve recognition and remembrance.

About the Author
Zehavit is the Director of Judaic Studies at JPPS-Bialik school in Montreal, Canada. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Israel Education from George Washington University in partnership with The iCenter and a Master's Degree from McGill University in Educational Leadership. Having previous experience working at Jewish overnight camps, Zehavit believes in providing learners of all ages with opportunities to connect to their Jewish identity, Eretz Israel and Am Israel through various educational opportunities.
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