Saul David’s account of the raid on Entebbe airport by Israeli commandos in July 1976, known as Operation Thunderbolt, has rightly received glowing reviews. I was particularly interested to compare it to the film Raid on Entebbe one of two films made immediately after the successful operation and release of the Jewish hostages and Air France crew.
An Air France flight from Israel to Paris stopped at Athens where the security was lax and four terrorists boarded from a Bahrain flight. They commandered the flight which went to Libya then onto Entebbe. Idi Amin President of Uganda played a pivotal if self-imposed and duplicitous role in the negotiations and it was generally considered that he was hardly neutral. He may well have invited the terrorists to land at Entebbe, certainly his troops on guard at the airport could have overcome the terrorists, the PFLP, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a breakaway group of the PLO.
Th terrorist leader Wilfred Bise and another in the group Brigiite Kuhlermann were German. One of the unresolved elements of the siege was why, when Bose was alerted of the raid when Israeli commandos fired at a Ugandan sentry, did not turn on the hostages. It may well have been that the hostages, outraged that they were separated as Jews into a separate area with clear overtones of the concentration camp, “worked on” Bose whose conscience became troubled by Germany’s past.
One thing that is not in doubt is the meticulous planning in 4 days to execute the military option. In fact the final option of storming the terminal from a plane drop was one formulated in the final 24 hours. The Israelis had certain advantages namely an Israeli construction firm Soleh built the terminal and had the plans of it, the released non-Jewish hostages provided detailed information of the lay out and terrorists and ex Chief of Staff Bar Lev knew Amin well from the days when Israel had close relations with Uganda called and flattered Amin, thus protracting the negotiations. However it was the surprise and speed events that were essential to the success of the operation.
It differed from the film in key ways. There was no singing on the plane of the song We are all Brothers now by the soldiers, The leader of the group Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the present Prime minister, who was shot from the control tower died by the plane, not on it; Defence minister Shimon Peres, not Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was the real driving force in advocating the military option, the more cautious, nervy Rabin preferred to negotiate; and the film did not deal with the aftermath when Israel was roundly condemned in the United Nations for attacking a UN ttsovereign state, though privately Henry Kissinger and aides of President Gerald Ford congratulated them. Even France, whose air crew was rescued, were slightly miffed whilst The United Kingdom, one of whose citizens Dora Bloch an elderly lady was dragged screaming from her hospital room by Ugandan henchmen of Amin to her murder by the roadside, remained neutral.
Not for the first time as one thinks of the nautralisation of the Iraq nuclear thread in 1981, Israel helped global security by showing that terror organisations – some of whom were paid blackmail money by European airlines – could be overcome even in foreign parts. Given current security measures it’s amazing to think 4 terrorist could get on board a plane with 4 holdalls of hand grenades and Kalshnikov automatic rifles.
David tells the story in real time from the key places of the story, the old terminal at Entebbe, the political and military nerve centres in Israel, the flight and a shot by shot account of the actual raid which was accomplished in less than an hour with four casualties. Although the planning was meticulous, personal initiative was taken as with the elimination of Ugandan sentries. It’s a gripping book not least for the fact that it a scrupulous work of history not a novel.