If you’ve never heard of Entebbe, you’ve probably never heard of what makes Entebbe famous—or why that matters.
This July 4, as the United States celebrates its 242nd anniversary of independence, Israel and those who support her will celebrate the historic milestone and miracles connected to the rescue of hostages and heroic counter-terrorism operation in Uganda’s capital 40 years ago. The celebrated operation was remembered for tremendous bravery and numerous miracles.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by Arab and German terrorists, and flown to Entebbe, Uganda’s main airport. Uganda’s government provided cover for the hijackers, who were welcomed personally by dictator Idi Amin. In the ensuing week, as the United States was gearing up to celebrate its 200th anniversary of independence, Israel was gearing up for a brave, imaginative and outrageously bold operation to rescue hostages held by the terrorists as yet another battle in a decades long fight to secure its independence.
While Israel had been fighting Arab terrorists for decades, the involvement of German terrorists brought back haunting memories of Jews being rounded up and murdered throughout Europe just 35 years earlier.
As horrific and scary as the situation was, throughout the planning and implementation of the rescue, it was clear how God’s protection of Israel against its enemies continued at every turn. Today, in a world where insidious Islamic terrorism flourishes, this remains a model of the resolve needed to overcome and defeat terrorists.
Initially, the terrorists separated the Israelis and Jews from the larger group of hostages and forced them into another room. The first day, 47 non-Israeli hostages were released. The next day, 101 more non-Israeli hostages were allowed to leave. More than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers remained as the hijackers threatened to kill them if their demands were not met. This threat led to the planning of the rescue operation.
During the time between the hijacking and the rescue, Israel’s Mossad built an accurate picture of the hostages’ location, the number of hijackers and the involvement of Ugandan troops from the released hostages. Additionally, because Israelis were involved in many building projects in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, a large Israeli construction company had built the terminal where the hostages were held. This allowed Israel to construct a replica of the building with the assistance of those who had helped build the original, while planning the military operation. Divine intervention continued.
The Israeli government and military considered many options, yet what seemed like the most improbable choice was made. In a modern version of David the child taking on Goliath the giant, an Israeli commando force of some 100 soldiers was trained and briefed, practicing and preparing for any imaginable scenario. One of these was securing a Mercedes that was the same as that of Idi Amin, painting it to look like Amin’s car and, after touchdown, driving that car loaded with Israeli troops straight to the terminal building.
“Operation Thunderbolt” was led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, composed entirely of elite commandos. His unit was given the primary task of attacking the airport terminal and rescuing the hostages. A paratroopers force was tasked with securing the civilian airfield, clearing and securing the runways, and protecting and fueling the Israeli planes. A group from Israel’s famed Golani unit secured the C-130 Hercules aircraft for the hostages’ evacuation, getting as close as possible to the terminal to board the hostages. Another elite commando unit was tasked with destroying the squadron of MiG fighter planes on the ground to prevent any possible interceptions by the Ugandan Air Force, and holding off potential hostile ground forces.
The operation took place under cover of night and a nearly new moon. In what took most of a week to plan, it lasted less time than the length of the movies made to tell the story. The result: 102 hostages were rescued, five Israeli commandos were wounded, and one was killed. Three hostages, all the hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Most of Uganda’s Soviet-built MiGs were destroyed.
It would have been impossible for Israel to transport a convoy of planes and equipment 2,500 miles alone, undetected, without God’s protection and the involvement of numerous people He set in place to help carry out the mission. Because of good relations in Kenya with the Jewish owner of the Block Hotel chain, and with other members of the Jewish and Israeli community in Nairobi, they used their influence to persuade Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta to help. Israel received Kenyatta’s permission for the IDF task force to cross Kenyan airspace and refuel at Nairobi’s International Airport.
After the operation when it became public, it also became clear that Kenya’s president, a Christian, understood God’s imperative to bless Israel. His support provided cover and allowed the essential refueling of the Israeli planes. This was another way of God showing His Hand and merciful protection. Yet in the aftermath of the operation, Idi Amin retaliated and slaughtered several hundred Kenyans in Uganda.
Lt. Col. Netanyahu, the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the only Israeli military casualty of the entire operation. “Operation Thunderbolt” was renamed “Operation Yonatan” in his memory.
I remember “Operation Yonatan” as if it were yesterday.
The heroism and success were celebrated globally. It represented a combination of human bravery, imagination, the will to fight and overcome terrorists, and many instances of God’s protection. There are numerous examples of this all. I welcome you writing to me, and I’ll be glad to share other sources with you.
Indeed, with the rise of Islamic terrorists threatening Jews and Christians, and Western civilization and the rest of the world, there are many inspiring lessons that can and should be learned from this to help in our fight against a new generation of the same terrorists.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the United States and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is President at RunforZion.com. He can be reached at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.
This article was originally published at The Israel Forever Foundation.