A massive military blitzkrieg — perhaps among the greatest by the Israeli Army — saw the rescue of 100 Jewish hostages kidnapped from an Air France flight that was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda.
While the much-publicised bonhomie between Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s maiden visit to India is being seen as a sign of renewed vigour in relations between the two countries, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Israel in July last year – the first ever by an Indian PM – had set the tone for it. Away from the hype that surrounded the deals and investments that the reciprocity was expected to usher in, Modi recalled the sacrifice of the Israeli PM’s elder brother Yonatan in his speech, immediately making a personal connection with the leadership and the country’s common folk.
Diplomatic overtures aside, “Operation Thunderbolt” is seen as a mission that catapulted Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career to new heights. A massive military blitzkrieg — perhaps among the greatest by the Israeli Army that saw the rescue of 100 Jewish hostages kidnapped from an Air France flight that was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda. The Prime Minister’s elder brother Yonatan or ‘Yoni’ as he is fondly remembered, led that raid as Commander of the crack Sayeret Matkal unit.
What was ‘Operation Thunderbolt’?
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel, heading for Paris with a stopover in Athens, carrying 228 passengers of Israeli, French and various other nationalities. Security at the Lod airport was famously tight — but in Athens, where security was lax, four hijackers boarded the Airbus carrying large black bags that held guns and hand grenades, took over the plane and forced the pilot to divert to Entebbe Airport, on the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda.
In a dramatic military blitzkrieg six days later, a team of Israeli Special Forces personnel attacked the airport in a daring and ingenious raid, named Operation Thunderbolt, and freed the hostages.
What is Benjamin Netanyahu’s link to Operation Thunderbolt?
His first and foremost connection to the military operation was his elder brother Yonatan, the leader of the rescue operation. In the early hours of July 4, 30-year-old Yoni, who had been newly installed as the head of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, led a raid to rescue more than 100 Israeli hostages held at Entebbe, Uganda. As Israel celebrated the success of the successful rescue operation, Yoni had been killed in the action.
His younger brother Benjamin, whose political career received a major boost post the mission and his elder brother’s death, was also a member of Sayeret Matkal, or “the Unit,” which performed the raid. He did not actively take part in the raid, in keeping with the policy that two brothers not be risked in a single operation.
How did Benjamin Netanyahu benefit from Yoni’s sacrifice?
It has been widely believed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career received a major boost post his brother’s supreme sacrifice. Netanyahu has since been elected as Prime Minister of Israel four times and is in line to become the longest-serving PM of the country.
Yoni is regarded a hero for carrying out what was termed as the most audacious rescue operation of the generation. Despite his own involvement in several missions for Israel — including taking a bullet on his shoulder during one of them –, it is his brother’s courage and his sacrifice that many still associate him with.
It was 1976 when a young nation had changed forever . As the world looked stunned when a new hope was born, this hope inspired every other nation to stand up and fight against terrorism. This article will tell you how a small nation changed the way the world looked at them. The article talks about one of the world’s best rescue operation.
It was 27th June 1976, Sunday. Air France flight 139 with 200 passengers and 12 crew members from Tel Aviv to Paris makes a scheduled stopover in Athens. The security is relaxed as 50 more passengers board the plane before it takes off to Paris. 2 minutes after the plane takes off, 3 men and a women take off the feet brandishing their machine gun and grenades. Flight 139 was hijacked.
The terrorist were the members of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine. As the terrorists planted bombs inside the flight and collected the passports of the passengers, their destination remained unknown. As the air traffic controllers lost contact with the flight, a message is sent to then President Ephraim Katzir by Israeli intelligence forces. The armed forces of Israel is put on high alert expecting the plane to return to the airport. However the hijackers turn the plane towards Benghazi, Libya. As the plane lands, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi allows the plane to refuel however doesn’t allow it to be stationed in Libyan airports. The terrorist then rout the flight to central African nation Uganda. As the flight lands at the Entebbe Airport the terrorists were greeted by the dictator of Uganda Idi Amin Dada. Idi Amin Dada had associated himself with Israel for quite some time until Israel refused to provide him with high advanced jets which he wanted to use for attacking neighboring countries and joined hands with supporting Palestinian cause.
Palestinian and Israel were going through a rough patch for the land which both nation claimed to be theirs. As the flight with hostages landed in Entebbe, 2 more terrorists joined the 4 already holed up inside the plane. The Uganda government provides protection to these terrorists and deploys their army to prevent any possible attack from Israel. The passengers were moved from flight to the airport terminals as Ugandan army took over the airport to guard the terrorists who hijacked.
Back in Israel, President Ephraim Katzir calls for a high level meeting with his intelligence officials to draft a rescue plan however this is unlikely possible as Uganda was 2500 miles away. As the time was running out, the officials discovered that the Israeli company had built the Entebbe airport and can provide detailed architectural plan of the airport and the pictorial representation of the land mass around the airport. However there was no information on what was happening to the hostages and where were they kept as no one had access to the airport as it was seized by the Ugandan army. Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister of Israel and also the most decorated soldier of the Israeli defense force. He took upon himself the task to rescue the hostages. The intelligence forces in Israel discover that the Palestine based doctor was the master mind behind the hijack.
Meanwhile radio in Uganda finally announced the hijackers demand. They demanded the release of 53 deadly Palestinian militants from Israel’s prison and other prisons of the world, they also placed a demand for a ransom of 5 million dollars from the French government. The deadline was just two days away and if the demands were not met then they would kill the hostages. The release list was filled with most wanted terrorists who had brutally killed Israelis in the past.
As the demand is placed before France and Israel, the hijackers separate the hostages into Jews and Non-Jews. While all this unfolded, the Ugandan radio kept announcing how Jews were lined up to be executed first. Back in Israel, the government was tensed however they didn’t want to give up. While the hijackers finally facilitated the release of the French passengers but threatened to the blow up the entire airport and kill the Jews. This move to release French passengers was a tactical blunder by the hijackers as released passengers were immediately questioned by Mossad, the intelligence wing of Israel’s defense forces. Mossad gathered complete information of the hijackers and where the hostages were kept. No detail escaped Mossad’s attention.
It was not just the terrorists who were a threat to rescue operation but the larger threat was the Ugandan army. It was Thursday morning and terrorist freed 100 plus hostages holding 101 Jews and crew as hostages. The whole world turned down Israel’s plead for help and the only way left for Israel was to trust themselves. As the dead line fast approached for execution, the Israel government unanimously votes to negotiate with terrorist. After 3 decades of military victory over the radicals, Israel is finally forced to capitulate to her enemies as hijackers extended their deadline to Sunday. Israel’s intelligence knew that it was logistically impossible to agree for Hijackers demand. This left them with only one option and that was military option. The job to rescue the Israeli citizens and the crew was handed over to Mossad. Mossad is today one the most deadly and the most feared intelligence force.
They hatched a plan a plan which no one could ever imagine in their wildest of dreams. Mossad decided to fly 4 C 130 Hercules 2500 miles above the hostile territory. While the commandos from the first plane would attack the terrorists and the remaining 3 would rescue the hostages. The Israel government was confident on Mossad and the plan. While the Israel government was trying to convince terrorist that they need more time, Mossad was all set to execute the plan and launch a final assault. A code name is selected from the mission and it was called “Operation Thunderbolt”.
Pilots who had experience in flying over African continents were called to the Mossad headquarters and they predicted that Entebbe runway could be blacked out. C 130 have never been landed on dark runways. These are humongous machines with accurate control. However pilots were confident using the light of the plane, they could land if explained the layout of the airport. Meanwhile, it was impossible for these gigantic carriers to fly to Uganda and then return without refuelling and the only country that would assist them in the region was Kenya which they agreed to. A Mossad agent who runs a small aircraft in Nairobi, flies Entebbe where he fakes a malfunction flying at low altitude and clicks the pictures of the airport. These pictures reach the assault team with moments to spare. 30 year old Col Yoni Netanyahu was chosen to lead the mission.
Yoni Netanyahu was the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yoni Netanyahu was one of the most respected and looked up soldier of the Israeli army. He was deeply injured in the 6-day war with the Arab country, however he displayed immense courage to destroy enemies. Just two months before Operation Thunderbolt he was promoted to the anti-terrorism unit of Israeli defense force. Yoni Netanyahu unit was all set to launch the final assault as they dress up in Ugandan army uniform to trick their soldiers at the airport.
In Uganda, top officials use black Mercedes limousine with Ugandan flag as the mode of transport and a plan was hatched to play the assault team in the limousine to fool the guard into thinking a commander or a top official is approaching him. The operation was kept top secret, not even one Israeli knew about Operation Thunderbolt. A British flight was scheduled to refuel at Entebbe airport shortly before midnight and if the first C 130 lands immediately after the British flight there are chances their radar doesn’t recognize Israel aircraft and the runway light would still be lit.
Israeli commandos leave to Uganda at 3 pm Saturday. As the hostages were counting their last minutes, none of them knew 300 brave men are flying towards them for one of the world’s most unbelievable rescue operation. Yoni Netanyahu along with his team of commandos were in the first flight that would land to carry out the assault. As the C 130 lands on the Entebbe airport, the commands head towards the airport terminals in the black Mercedes limousine but when Ugandan soldiers salute the black pistols fitted with silencers fired at the guards and the guards collapsed immediately. The Ugandan guard, however, manages to open fire at the limousine before he breaths his final breath which alerted the other Ugandan soldiers.
The limousine reached the second terminal where the hostages were held the second C 130 lands at Entebbe. The limousine breaks into the terminal and the Israeli commandos immediately begin a massive assault on the terrorists and Ugandan army. One of the hostage recalled the event while speaking with the media and said the assault was so intense and accurate that Terrorists and Ugandan army looked surprised and confused. Many of whom were killed within a fraction of second. In just 1 minute 23 seconds Israeli commandos had secured the lounge area killing 7 terrorists, however, 3 including the mastermind managed to escape the assault.
While Yoni Netanyahu and his team started evacuating the hostages from terminals and took them towards the C 130 the commandos who landed in the second flight was already engaged in a shootout with Ugandan army men, stationed outside the terminals. As all hostages were boarded to the C 130 flight, Yoni Netanyahu who headed the operation thunderbolt was hit by a sniper. He immediately collapsed, but as he was within the flight the C 130’s took off from the Entebbe airport. One of the greatest warrior of Israeli defense forces Yoni Netanyahu has succumbed to the injury. After a 50 minutes flight from Entebbe the first C 130 lands in Nairobi for refuelling. It carries the 10 most seriously injured hostages and 1 injured commando. Incredibly only 3 hostages were killed in the rescue. All 3 Israeli flights leaves to Israel from Nairobi. The only evidence of their visit is the blood stains in the Entebbe airport.
At 3 am BBC transmits the reports of the rescue to the stunned world. As the Israelis took to the streets to welcome the Heroes and the world looked in surprise. They knew a new super power was born. The world knew it found an answer for the terrorism. Operation Thunderbolt is one of the most successful military rescue operation conducted by any country even to this day. This operation is hailed and admired by many countries around the world. Operation Thunderbolt is Israelis answer to the world of terrorism. Israel defined a whole new dimension about protecting sovereignty and security of their country. If there is one country I admire after my motherland India it is Israel. If there is a land where every other child is a warrior, it has to be Israel. Israel is a land of hope and an answer to radical terrorism. Israel is India’s oldest and the most trusted friend. The world had faith in Israel before it was established and we continue to have. A nation which has constantly fought the radicals and stood as an example to the world. Israel is here to stay and she is here to protect the world from radicals. Operation Thunderbolt would be remembered forever.