Nostalgia for the Entebbe raid

Age of Terror: Terror International
BBC2, April 15

For any government wishing to rescue hostages, the operation on Entebbe remains the gold standard. It spawned four star-studded feature films and dozens of documentaries. Indeed the survivors have spent most of the 30 years since the operation being interviewed; as this documentary demonstrated, the news footage from those eight days in June 1976 have been played so much that it is beginning to wear out.

However, this film, the first of the BBC’s Age of Terror series, was welcome. Veteran journalist Peter Taylor managed to obtain compelling testimony from hostages, soldiers both Ugandan and Israeli, and friends and relatives of the hostage-takers.

Strange to say about a military operation in which people lost their lives, there was also intense nostalgia. For we were transported back to a golden age when Israeli soldiers were audacious and heroic, when the country itself was a David fighting — and winning — against the Arab Goliath, and the rest of the world was awed by this young country greening the desert and flourishing against the odds.

Air France flight 139 took off from Ben Gurion airport on June 26, 1976 bound for Paris via Athens. However, among the passengers boarding in the Greek capital were five Palestinian and two German terrorists who diverted the plane from its intended flight path and took it on a tour of Africa’s craziest dictatorships. First stop was Benghazi Libya, home of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, then on to Entebbe, Uganda, where the hostages were welcomed personally by President Idi Amin Dada, described by Taylor as “flamboyant, ruthless and quite possibly mad”.

According to one of the hostages, Sara Davidson, Amin looked “huge” and was wearing a “scary uniform”. But Amin’s uniform was possibly the least scary thing about the hostages’ plight. The terrorists were threatening to execute them unless Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons. They were operating with the active assistance of Amin, whose former friendship with Israel had ended after he failed to settle his bills. The Israeli government, headed by Yitzhak Rabin, felt it had no option but to capitulate but the military were told to investigate the feasibility of a rescue.

In the meantime, the terrorists set about dividing the hostages into Jews, and non-Jews. Davidson recalls the horror as the names of the Jews were read out coldly by a female German terrorist, evoking horrific echoes of the Holocaust.

Once the non-Jews had been released, the world learned of the “selections”. It galvanised the Israelis into action. Said Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Shani of the IDF: “I was angry. It made me ready to kick ass and take names.”

Using their knowledge of Entebbe airport, gained while working in the African republic in the 1960s, the Israeli military came up with a rescue plan. The government dithered. Eventually, Dan Shomron, the general heading the operation, begged Rabin for permission to take off, arguing that this still left the government four hours to make a decision. Over Ethiopia, the operation was authorised.

It seems incredible that Hercules transport planes could land without arousing suspicion, but they did. The Israeli special forces sped towards the terminal in black Mercedes (the favoured transport of African top brass), to be confronted by Ugandan soldiers who were waking up to the possibility of an attack by the “children of God”, their term for the Israelis. After a brief firefight which cost the lives of all the terrorists, three civilians, a number of Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli soldier, the hostages were rescued. Another hostage, 75-year-old Dora Bloch, who had been taken to hospital after being taken ill, was later brutally murdered by Amin’s forces in revenge.

As the planes landed, Israel erupted in celebration. The Jewish state was triumphant, the forces of terror had been vanquished. It was all poignantly and meticulously recalled by Taylor.

When a story is this good, who needs Burt Lancaster, Liz Taylor or Anthony Hopkins?

Last updated: 1:13pm, June 2 2008