A glorious moment in Israel's history.
July 4, 1976 marked America’s bicentennial and, in neighboring Montreal, Canada, the Summer Olympic Games were riveting the attention of the world.
In Israel, however, somber if not depressing events were affecting the populace. The country was still mourning the loss of 3000 of its best young men and women who fell in the Yom Kippur War; a war which pointedly exposed its vulnerability - in sharp contrast to the days that followed the Six Days War of 1967, when the Jewish nation experienced an overwhelming sense of euphoria.
On the economic front, 1976 saw an inflation rate of 31.5% (compared to 4% in 2011), and more people were leaving Israel than arriving. As if all of this was not enough, in April of 1976 Arab-Israelis rioted in the Galilee prompting the Israeli daily Maariv to describe it as the “Darkest day in the history of relations between Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel.”
To Israel’s north, a civil war was raging between Yaser Arafat’s Sunni-Muslim Palestinian terrorists and the Christian militias. The conflict soon became one of Christian against Muslim, as the Sunni-Lebanese entered the fray and gave their support to the Palestinians.
Then, on June 27, 1976, four Arab terrorists (members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-PFLP) and German terrorists (from the Baader-Meinhoff gang), hijacked an Air France Paris-bound flight from Tel Aviv, following a stopover in Athens, Greece. The terrorists diverted the plane to Dictator Idi Amin’s Entebbe airport in Kampala, Uganda, after having refueled in Benghazi Libya.
Upon their arrival in Uganda’s Entebbe airport on June 28, 1976 the German terrorists, in a move reminiscent of Nazi concentration camp selections, released the Air France crew and all of the non-Jewish passengers. The terrorists then demanded the release of 53 convicted Arab-Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel and abroad, setting a 48-hour deadline, after which execution of the 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages would begin.
In Israel, relatives of the hostages demonstrated outside Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s residence demanding the government take action to save the hostages. The Rabin government, forced to act, announced that it would enter into negotiations with the terrorists (a taboo in Israel at that time); thereby buying the precious time needed to consider the seemingly impossible military options. The terrorists, in the meantime, issued a new ultimatum - setting the deadline at 13:00 hours on Sunday, July 4, 1976.
Israel hurriedly dispatched intelligence officers to interview the released non-Jewish hostages, asking them about the number of terrorists; the terminal location and where the hostages were being held; and what weapons the terrorists possessed (it was later learned they were supplied by Ida Amin). Fortunately for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) planners, an Israeli construction company and its architects had the layout and blueprints of the Entebbe terminal.
Brig. General Dan Shomron was selected to command the full mission (he would later become the IDF Chief-of-Staff), while Lt. Colonel Yonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu (elder brother of the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu) was chosen to command the actual field operation.
On July 1, 1976, Shomron was ready with an operational plan which he presented to the Defense Minister. The following day the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister reviewed a full-scale dress rehearsal of the operation. The impossible proved to be possible. The Prime Minister gave a green-light to the operation, and Shomron selected 200 of the best from Sayeret Matkal (Israel’s top reconnaissance unit) and other elite units.
Four Hercules C-130 transport planes were chosen for the operation which commenced late July 3/early July 4th. While the four IDF planes were in the air Prime Minister Rabin revealed the rescue plan to the cabinet. Quick approval by the cabinet assured the continuance of the mission. The lead C-130 held Yoni Netanyahu and 29 other commandos, in addition to a Black Mercedes - a replica of Idi Amin’s car - and two Land Rovers. Flying low, to avoid radar detection, the four C-130’s crossed Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya. Netanyahu’s C-130 was the first to land in Entebbe - in total darkness - leading the way for the other three.
Netanyahu and the Israeli commandos burst into the terminal and quickly eliminated the terrorists, caught totally by surprise. However, in an exchange of fire that killed all of the terrorists, three Israeli hostages were also killed. An elderly Israeli hostage who had taken ill was taken to the hospital in Kampala and deliberately murdered on orders of Idi Amin. Commandos from the second and third C-130 destroyed 11 Ugandan MIG-17 fighter planes parked in the airport to prevent pursuit. The remaining hostages were quickly freed, loaded onto the C-130’s and flown to Kenya.
Sadly, a Ugandan sentry from the control tower shot Yoni Netanyahu as they withdrew to the C-130’s with the hostages. Israeli commandos returned fire and killed 47 Ugandan soldiers around the airport. The incredible success of the mission was however marred by the mortal wounds sustained by Yoni Netanyahu and his subsequent death.
Nevertheless, the mission was a great mood-changer in Israel. The vulnerability felt by Israelis as a result of the Yom Kippur war losses, gave way to feelings of tremendous pride and security with the realization that Jews would no longer be victimized with impunity. The Nazi-like selection of Jewish hostages brought back memories of the horrors of the Holocaust germinated into a deep sense of psychological satisfaction that, in some measure, the Jews had triumphed over the Nazis.
And then, capping off this mood-changing July 1976, Rina Mor, Miss Israel, was crowned Miss Universe.
In retrospect, 35-years later, Operation Yoni, named after the fallen hero of the Entebbe raid, was a most daring and glorious moment in Israel’s history.