The IDF (Zahal)’s history is filled with many notable events, from the unforgettable triumphs to the heartbreaking hardships. Today (July 4th), we celebrate an epic chapter of the IDF (Zahal)’s history by recalling an incident that gained international acclaim and respect for the heroism of Israel’s soldiers.
Read on for a remarkable account of the successful completion of Operation Entebbe 37 years ago today, as Lt. Col. (res.) Avi Mor – the navigator of three of the four planes sent to rescue the hostages in Uganda – describes in detail his experience in directing 103 Jewish hostages to freedom.
Lt. Col. (res.) Mor knows what it means to fight for freedom. He was born in Poland and escaped to Israel with his parents and seven siblings during the Nazi regime. He enlisted in the Israel Air Force and passed the rigorous Flight Academy course. While a captain in the IAF, he became a trained navigator. His talent for navigation was put to the test when, on June 27th, 1976, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked.
The flight, which had originated in Tel Aviv, had a scheduled layover in Athens, Greece, before it was to continue to Paris, France. Shortly after taking off from Athens, four of the new passengers hijacked the flight and demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners worldwide. The hijackers – Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann of the German the Baader-Meinhof German militant group, and two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – directed the hijacked flight to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where Ugandan soldiers, under the leadership of then-Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada, helped support the hijackers and trap the hostages.
Upon arrival, the terrorists immediately separated the Jewish and Israeli hostages from the rest of the captives. “Even now, as I am telling you the process by which the terrorists selected their hostages, it hurts me to say it,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor said, recounting that “it was a similar selection process the Nazis administered when selecting who would go work and who would be sent to the gas chambers.”
The Israeli security establishment faced a ticking clock. Room for negotiation? None. Information about the terrorists’ plans? Minimal. Deadline for terrorists’ demands? Forty-eight hours – or else, they threatened, they would start murdering hostages.
With the deadline in motion and little known about the underlying motives of the hijackers, their exact whereabouts in Entebbe Airport, and their plans moving forward, Israel’s government and security officials sought to collect information about the situation as quickly as possible.
“One of the biggest problems we had,” recalled Lt. Col. (res.) Mor, “was that we were operating with minimal clarity throughout the entire mission, as we had no reliable source of information. And, when faced with an ultimatum, time is of the essence.”
In the week before the raid, Israel tried a number of political avenues to release the hostages. Faced with little choice, the Israeli government announced that it would enter into negotiations. This provided Israel with just enough time to consolidate a seemingly impossible military rescue operation, as the terrorists issued a new ultimatum for July 4th.
Gathering intelligence took a few days and, by midday Tuesday, IDF (Zahal) forces were able to gather enough information about the situation to provide them with basic clarity to work desperately on a possible rescue attempt.
In the middle of the night on Wednesday, Lt. Col. (res.) Mor received a house visit from a friend and fellow soldier in the Israel Air Force.
“My wife answered the door. My friend told her ‘Norit, I suggest you go to your room and close the door,’” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor recalled. “By 6 the following morning, I was at an exercise with Sayeret Matkal.” From that moment on, every single person who was in some way relevant to the mission was in a period of intensive brainstorming for the best possible rescue scenario to present to Israel’s governing officials.
A few options were thrown around until, on July 1, the mission’s main commander, Brig. Gen. (res.) Dan Shomron (later to become the IDF (Zahal)’s Chief of Staff), presented the rescue plan to Lt. Gen. (res.) Mordechai Gur (then Chief of Staff), Shimon Peres (then Israel’s defense minister) and Yitzhak Rabin (then prime minister) for final authorization to complete the highly secretive rescue mission.
Surprising the Enemy
The incredible was deemed possible, as the IDF (Zahal)’s plan was based on a few advantages that Israel held over the terrorists. The Entebbe airport terminal at which the hostages were being held was, coincidentally, built by an Israeli construction firm. This company provided blueprints allowing the IDF (Zahal) to erect a partial replica of the airport terminal to assist in planning the rescue.
Additionally, the captors had released the non-Jewish prisoners, who were able to describe the terrorists, their arms, their positioning and the amount of help provided by the Ugandan military forces. As a result of this information, the IDF (Zahal) decided to send in an overwhelmingly powerful force: over 200 of its best soldiers.
Finally, the element of surprise was probably the biggest edge that Israel held. According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Shomron: “You had more than a hundred people sitting in a small room, surrounded by terrorists with their fingers on the trigger. They could fire in a fraction of a second. We had to fly seven hours, land safely, drive to the terminal area where the hostages were being held, get inside, and eliminate all the terrorists before any of them could fire.”
By pinpointing these advantages, the IDF (Zahal) was able to use the element of surprise in its favor, explained Lt. Col. (res.) Mor. “Keep in mind it was the Sabbath, during which the IAF does not hold exercises or routine operations – making the rescue aircrafts more likely to stand out. We had to fly slowly and in very low altitudes to remain unnoticeable.”
The fact that no one expected the IDF (Zahal) to take such risks was precisely the reason that it got away with them. “For this mission we had 103 Jewish hostages in Entebbe, and over 200 IDF (Zahal) soldiers heading there to rescue them. It was essential for us not to blow our cover,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor elaborated. “It is enough for the terrorists to have any sort of suspicion, and not only would there have been no rescue mission, but there would have been a tragedy.”
Without a second to spare, the IDF (Zahal) began the rescue mission, sending four Hercules aircrafts to Entebbe. The first was led by the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, and contained the rescue force. It landed at the Entebbe airport at 1 a.m., with only six minutes to take out the terrorists and rescue the hostages before the rest of the planes were due to arrive with reinforcements.
One of the aircraft crews that landed at Entebbe poses with their plane after the mission.
Ready, Set, Don’t Fire
Out of this plane emerged two jeeps and a black Mercedes, practically identical to the car of then-Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada. Lt. Col. Netanyahu’s unit drove slowly and calmly towards the old terminal, appearing as if they were Ugandan forces in familiar vehicles. They were ordered not to shoot before reaching the old terminal and to take the terrorists by surprise. However, one of the IDF (Zahal) soldiers shot at a Ugandan soldier who was heavily armed and close to their vehicle. They were no longer undercover, and their plan was now altered as they had to reach the old terminal as quickly as possible.
The second and third Israeli planes arrived six minutes later, carrying reinforcements and troops assigned to help fight the Ugandan forces surrounding the airport. “I had the great honor of being the leading navigator for aircrafts two, three, and four,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor said proudly.
The fourth aircraft – the only aircraft with enough gas to fly to Entebbe and back to Israel, arrived empty, ready to evacuate the hostages and take them home. “The rest of us had no details about the first aircraft and what was going on down there. I was in the second aircraft and, whether the first was successful or not, we had to land at the airport precisely six minutes after them,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor said. “Luckily, they succeeded and, in six minutes, killed the terrorists and rescued the hostages.”
Within 20 minutes of their arrival, IDF (Zahal) soldiers began evacuating the hostages in the fourth aircraft. “Our mission was accomplished the instant the hostages had left Entebbe,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor recalled.
Everyone was accounted for besides one: Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the first aircraft’s Sayeret Matkal rescue unit, who had been shot and killed while helping hostages return to the aircraft. At least five other soldiers were wounded during the escape, but the soldiers finished evacuating the hostages, loaded Lt. Col. Netanyahu’s body into one of the planes, and left Entebbe Airport only 58 minutes after their arrival. The operation was later named “Operation Yonatan” in honor of its commander and one of Israel’s greatest soldiers.
Thirty-seven years ago today, on the morning of July 4th, 1976, the rescued hostages and their defenders landed safely in Israel, concluding one of the most daring chapters in the history of the IDF (Zahal). “I did not register it then, as we were still in mission mode,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor explained, “but we landed at Ben Gurion [Airport in Israel] to a sea of Israelis swarming with pride, elated to welcome us home.”
Looking back, Lt. Col. (res.) Mor insists this was one of Israel’s finest moments, as its heroic actions were heard around the world. “It marked one of the best times in Israel’s history in terms of international recognition and respect,” Lt. Col. (res.) Mor stated.
Operation Entebbe marked a dramatic victory over international terrorism, but it did not eliminate the danger. Thirty seven years later, as Israel continues to cope with the threat of terror, the rescue at Entebbe serves as a reminder that victory is worth the fight.