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Review: Operation Thunderbolt

Daring Herculean rescue

By Saul David, Hodder & Stoughton, £20

    Home: a mother and daughter embrace at Ben Gurion airport, July 4 1976 (Photo: AP)
    Home: a mother and daughter embrace at Ben Gurion airport, July 4 1976 (Photo: AP)

    The daring rescue of nearly 100 hostages by Israeli special forces from Entebbe International Airport, Uganda, in 1976 marked a watershed in the global fight against terrorism and a turning-point for Israel, too. Until then, plane hijackings, pioneered by the Palestinians and enthusiastically taken up by sympathetic terrorist groups, were rife and usually successful. But Israel's eventual decision to launch the raid, after several days of dithering and soul-searching at the highest level, paid off in spectacular fashion, with the loss of only four hostages and one soldier: Yonatan Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister's older brother, who led the operation.

    After the rescue, other countries set up similar special forces units to deal with hijackings and other hostage-takings with marked success. And the operation gave a huge shot in the arm to Israel, which was still in the doldrums in the aftermath of the near-disastrous Yom Kippur War of three years earlier.

    The operation has been well documented in memoirs, documentaries and movies but Saul David's gripping new account, published in good time to coincide with the 40th anniversary next year, will introduce a new generation to an extraordinary story.

    If it reads like a movie script, that's probably deliberate (the rights have already been sold). David constantly cuts between the deepening plight of the hostages from Air France Flight 137 and the increasingly frantic atmosphere in Israel as the government tried to work out what to do, conscious that, if it mishandled things, the consequences for the hostages and for Israel would be catastrophic.

    The arguments within the Cabinet were dominated by the open hostility between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the man he had beaten to the job, Shimon Peres, the defence minister. Oddly, it was the old soldier Rabin who favoured negotiating with the hijackers, through a mixture of concern for the safety of the hostages and his native caution, verging on the indecisive, while Peres, the career bureaucrat and politician, pressed for a military response.

    'The raid was launched after days of dithering'

    Fortunately, Peres won out, though the ideas that the IDF top brass came up with verged from the ludicrous to the merely impractical, such as dropping a landing force with boats on Lake Victoria to take the airport by land. Even the eventual plan, to send four Hercules transport planes by night, was narrowed down from an original idea to send 1,000 troops to Entebbe.

    The grim story is enlivened by the occasional lighter touch: the young Frenchman who managed to make love to a fellow hostage, even asking an older hostage for the loan of his more comfortable mattress for the occasion; the Ugandan officials who arrived at the airport to sell the hostages duty-free goods, while their mad and unstable president, Idi Amin, colluded with the hijackers.

    The climax of the rescue itself is brilliantly told; nearly 40 years on, you still heave a sigh of relief when the last Hercules lifts off from the Entebbe runway and lumbers off into the night and a new dawn for the hostages - and for Israel.

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