It happens that July 4, the 225th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, also marks the 25th anniversary of the heroic rescue raid by Israeli Special Forces on Uganda's Entebbe airport. Israel's moment and the characters involved are well worth remembering alongside our own, for in both events heroic deeds were accomplished, and insurmountable odds overcome by remarkable individuals. Most Americans have at least passing knowledge of our own country's founding; for many young Americans, however, the story of the Entebbe raid is entirely alien to them.
The hijacking of Air France Flight 139 began on Sunday, June 27, 1976 shortly after the plane left Athens en route to Tel Aviv. The hijackers included Palestinians masquerading as Latin American tourists, and two German terrorists with connections to the Baader-Meinhof group. This act of air piracy had been masterminded by Dr. Wadi Hadad, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with the probable support of Carlos Ramirez, a.k.a. The Jackal. Hadad also enjoyed the cooperation of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who had severed ties with Israel in 1972 and taken up the Palestinian cause, allowing Yassir Arafat's PLO terrorists to train in the country. Once they had landed in Uganda and separated the Jews from other passengers, the hijackers issued their demand: release of 53 convicted terrorists of various nationalities, most imprisoned in Israel. Failure to comply, they promised, would result in the systematic execution of the Israeli hostages.
How should the Israeli government respond? Pressure from the families of the kidnapped passengers to comply with the hijackers' demand was intense. But for Israel, release of the terrorists was not simply unpalatable, it was intolerable. Having been informed of the options, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin authorized the secret rescue mission, Operation Thunderbolt, to move forward alongside a public posture of negotiation.
Prominent among those chosen for Thunderbolt was a young officer, Col. Jonathan "Yonni" Netanyahu, whose brother Benjamin would go on to become Prime Minister. Remarkably, Yonni was the son of an American professor of Jewish history, and had himself studied philosophy as a graduate student at Harvard. He emerged from the academy unscathed, however, consciously choosing a life of action informed by an intense patriotism for Israel. In his account of the rescue, "90 Minutes at Entebbe," William Stevenson includes this assessment by one of Yonni's men:
I was lucky to get into his unit. He did more than teach night marches through the desert, jumping from planes, moving fast from a helicopter in battle. He knew all the weapons but he made me see them as the means of preserving the nation. He taught me history and opened my eyes.
Once final approval for the raid had been given, with the terrorists' final deadline approaching, Thunderbolt was set in motion, employing four C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to make the 5,000-mile round trip. One would carry commandos, supplies, and medical support, a second would carry Brigadier General Dan Shomron and a borrowed Mercedes-Benz painted black to resemble Idi Amin's limousine, the third a demolition team prepared to destroy or immobilize Uganda's MiG fighters, and the fourth fuel for the others.
One minute past midnight Uganda time, and mere moments after landing, the rescue assault began. After dispatching the two German terrorists and Ugandan soldiers, the team located the hostages and engaged in a furious 100-second firefight with their Palestinian captors, killing five PFLP terrorists and possibly capturing three others. A short 53 minutes after the Israeli planes had landed at Entebbe, 103 surviving hostages were on their way back to Tel Aviv, with the other Israeli planes close behind. The raid cost Yonni Netanyahu his life, as well as the lives of several hostages killed in the gunfire. Another hostage, 75-year old grandmother Dora Bloch, had been taken to a Ugandan hospital and thus was not rescued. She disappeared and must be counted another casualty.
While many in the United Nations condemned Israel's action, there was little doubt among Israelis that they chose the right course. A few days later, during a debate about the rescue in the U.N. Security Council, Israel's UN Ambassador Chaim Herzog said, "the Israeli action at Entebbe came to remind us that the law we find in statute books is not the only law of mankind. There is also a moral law, and by all that is moral on this earth Israel had the right to do what it did. Indeed it had also the basic duty to do so." Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King would have approved these words.
If our country's great security and immense wealth have a drawback, it is that Americans have lost some of our political seriousness and intensity. Our survival skills as a nation grow rusty, because relatively few of us need exercise them. By contrast, Israelis know that every day will bring fresh challenges, and that the nation and its people must keep spirit strong and training up to par in order to carry them through times of turbulence, as they are experiencing once again. This Independence Day, remember not only our country's founding principles and leaders, but the spirited patriotism and sacrifice of Jonathan Netanyahu.