'I flew to Entebbe a Zionist Israeli... I came back a Jew. It took me 40 years to understand that'

The JC speaks to Rami Sherman, one of the first on the ground for the Entebbe special ops mission


For the past three years, Rami Sherman has left behind his kibbutz home in northern Israel and crisscrossed the globe to audiences eager to hear his story.

He has been in Britain for the last three weeks, receiving a spellbound reception as he recalls the scarcely credible events of July 4 1976, when he and elite forces of the IDF rescued 102 Jewish and Israeli hostages from capture in Entebbe, Uganda.

The effrontery of the daring and successful raid made headlines around the world — but it’s only recently that Mr Sherman has been able to talk about the events of that hot summer week.

On June 27 1976, the 23-year-old kibbutznik was the operations officer of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He had spent the weekend at home and was returning to base when news filtered through that an Air France plane had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.

“We thought it might land at Lod [later Ben-Gurion] Airport, but we didn’t know what would happen,” he told the JC. Israel in those days had one strictly controlled TV channel — most people opted for radio news —but Mr Sherman said he and his colleagues were kept informed by army intelligence.

“We heard that the plane had landed at Benghazi in Libya, and had taken off from there, and we thought, well, Libya is so far away, there’s nothing we can do about this.”

The soldiers of Sayeret Matkal went down to the Sinai to carry out other duties. In the meantime, a furious debate was taking place inside the cabinet about what, if any, action to take.

According to Professor Saul David, the author of one of the most authoritative accounts of the Entebbe operation, Yitzhak Rabin and his defence minister Shimon Peres should have been working together, “but these fierce political rivals spent that week disagreeing on strategy.

Rabin wanted to give in to the terrorists’ demands — the exchange of hostages for 40 Palestinian militants — if there was no military option; Peres thought that would encourage more terror.

“Rabin gave in, and authorised the rescue after the terrorists’ extension of their deadline — from July 1 to 4 — gave Israeli military chiefs enough time to come up with a viable plan.”

It was at this point that Rami Sherman’s unit returned to Tel Aviv from Sinai.

“We felt there was hardly a plan in place to go to Entebbe,” he said. “We barely talked about it as an option, because we believed it was too far away for us to do something”.

But a plan had indeed been hatched and eventually Dan Shomron, the overall commander of what was codenamed Operation Thunderbolt, gave the order to Sayeret Matkal and two other commando units.

“We were told on Thursday night [before the rescue on Saturday night] that our task would be to free the hostages from the Old Terminal at Entebbe”.

65 men from Rami Sherman’s unit were part of the 240-strong squad that landed in Entebbe in three Hercules jets.

“It was a very unpleasant flight,” Mr Sherman recalled. “The Hercules was full of equipment — including cars — and many soldiers, and we were flying very low. Almost everyone was vomiting”.

He said that even on the Saturday morning before they left, very few of were confident that they were ready.

“But we knew it was a dynamic situation — and we knew how to deal with terrorists”.

They were all, like Mr Sherman, young men, many of whom had never left Israel before. But he said fear was not something they felt or discussed: “In the 1970s it was hardly acceptable for the IDF to talk about fear or to have tears in your eyes. It was only years later that people wrote about the fear they felt going to Entebbe”.

Rami Sherman was in the first Hercules to land, and with 33 others scrambled into a jeep behind one of the Mercedes cars brought to resemble the car used by Uganda’s ruler, Idi Amin. The hope was to dupe the Ugandan forces manning the Entebbe base that Amin himself had arrived to talk to the hostages, as he had previously done.

“I was with five soldiers and our orders were to shoot at the control tower [of the airport] to stop gunfire from the Ugandan soldiers — which happened immediately,” he recounted. A gunfight ensued and then after about 20 minutes, he said, he caught his first sight of the bewildered hostages.

“We had to take them back to the Hercules but some of us were wearing Ugandan army uniforms and even though we were shouting at them in Hebrew, they thought we were Ugandans come to kill them. Some of them were in their night clothes, some were holding children’s hands… they were in shock.”

For Rami Sherman, it was a seminal moment. “My parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. To see Jews walking out like this, it was a march of freedom. I felt so proud that I had had the chance to take part in an operation to bring home Jews. For me, time stopped, and it was so joyful.”

Alongside the euphoria of the rescue there was also tragedy. Four hostages died, three in cross-fire between Israelis and Ugandans, and the commander of Sayeret Matkal, Yoni Netanyahu, the older brother of future prime minister Benjamin, was killed. Rami Sherman took him to the Hercules plane, but it was too late to save him.

He said he draws three main messages from the Entebbe rescue: “First, that there was a very clear connection between the state of Israel and the Jews in the diaspora, and that everyone knew that Israel would never forget them.

“Second, it showed Israel not only as a people who created difficulties in the world, but as a people proud of what they are.

“And third, the decision of the Air France captain [Michel Bacos] and his crew to stay with the hostages is a message for human values, not just for Jews.”

Of one thing, Rami Sherman is sure: “I flew to Entebbe as a very clear Zionist Israeli and I flew back as a Jew — but it took me 40 years to understand that”.

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