Book Review | Half a Century Ago, a Hostage Rescue That Gripped the World

By | Feb 03, 2022
Israel, Latest
Enttebbe Declassified

Entebbe Declassified: The Untold First-Hand Stories of the Legendary Rescue Operation 
By Sayeret Matkal Operators
Translated by Mitch Ginsburg
BooxAi and Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center, 412 pp., $5.99

When the news broke on July 4, 1976, that an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces had rescued the hostages of a hijacked flight in a distant African airport called Entebbe, I was preparing to enjoy a day of pageantry in New York City. The United States was marking its 200th birthday with a procession of tall ships in the harbor, to be followed at night by mammoth fireworks. Because I felt close to family in Israel, the week had been overshadowed for me by the hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv and the reports of how the mercurial Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had sheltered the hijackers and helped them imprison their captives. Israel’s surprise achievement made the celebration complete. 

Now, 45 years later, more than 30 members of the Sayeret Matkal—the elite commando unit that carried out the raid—share their memories of that rescue in a book, newly translated from the Hebrew, composed of chapters in which each one separately describes the experience. This 400-page paperback offers an often fascinating window into how Israel’s uniquely talented and motivated commando soldiers rescued hostages—and killed all the captors—at a Ugandan airport so far away that the raid seemed impossible and thus has become legendary.

One retired soldier writes that they were sending “a defiant message that we shall not surrender to terror.” Several reveal that they headed into this noble battle while thinking of their relatives who had survived or had perished in the Holocaust. One of his comrades writes about knowing he might die on this mission: “I didn’t pity myself or worry about my fate. I thought mostly about my parents.”

In the days before the rescue, news reports had indeed evoked a Holocaust-related nightmare with the revelation that the terrorists were Palestinians and Germans who conducted a “selection”: permitting all non-Jews to go free, while continuing to hold the Israelis and other Jews as hostages. Fortunately, the passengers released were flown to Paris and were thoroughly debriefed by Israeli intelligence agents. Now there was some solid knowledge about the hijackers and the terminal building at Entebbe’s airport where 105 hostages (including the Air France crew members who refused to abandon the Jewish passengers) were held at gunpoint.

That information made the raid possible, but still many of the commando soldiers write that they never expected Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres to approve the highly risky mission. Surely they would negotiate with the hostage-takers and release some Palestinian prisoners.

It is clear that for the members of Sayeret Matkal, hearing the “go” command was precisely what they wanted. They reveal that their plan was imperfect, because of a lack of preparation time, but almost all of their improvisations during the 90 minutes on the ground at Entebbe were effective. One Israeli soldier did die: the unit’s commander, Yoni Netanyahu, elder brother of a future prime minister. Every commando praises Yoni’s leadership skill and courage, many also noting that he was “a man of letters” who loved to read and write poetry.

To find the pages that tell of his death and of the brief but lethal encounters with seven terrorists, plus the killing of around 40 Ugandan soldiers, we have to skim through each chapter. Recollections do differ, and two of the authors make frustrated references to Rashomon, the Japanese film about clashing narratives. Several refer to a feud that festers unresolved since 1976, largely about whether Yoni’s deputy was brave enough, or inexplicably hesitated, as the troops were about to burst in to effect the rescue. 

There are a few funny moments. One soldier writes that he was terrified of a doberman pinscher attached to the rescue force: The dog was trained to be vicious toward terrorists, but might have reacted to the seven-hour flight from Sharm-el-Sheikh (in then-occupied Sinai) to Entebbe by biting the face off an Israeli or two.  One man recalls that he was assigned to shepherd the Air France crew to safety: “I’m the only IDF soldier to have ever had the privilege of carrying, under fire, a beautiful woman dressed only in her undergarments—and a French stewardess at that.”

A few myths are shattered. Contrary to reports, there was no Israeli soldier in blackface, posing as Idi Amin. But the rescue force was led by an old Mercedes taxi, painted to resemble Amin’s limo, that rolled out of one of the Hercules transport planes.  The Israeli planners figured Ugandans would never open fire on what looked like their president’s motorcade.

Within minutes after that arrival, the Israelis rushed into the terminal and killed the captors—without any attempt to capture or interrogate them (any more than the American commandos who would find Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and immediately shoot him in the head). Three hostages, the authors note, were also killed by gunfire. Several soldiers describe their beloved leader, Yoni, lying gravely wounded. But still, there was the euphoria of knowing their mission was accomplished.

“It was surreal and very exciting,” writes another soldier, whose job was to stay outside the terminal and fire a machine gun at any Ugandan soldiers who approached. He watched the freed hostages: “In total darkness, a line of people walked, a convoy of survivors.” He says the rescuers “were reminded of other convoys from other darker times in another period. This time it was a rescue train.  A convoy of hope, victory, and life.”

Reading Entebbe Declassified is like having 30 conversations with aging men telling their war stories. Some frame their place in history as just another ho-hum firefight, but most realize they were part of a significant source of inspiration. Hearing their voices in 2021, we can marvel that there was a time when Israel’s army could use its firepower and garner the admiration of nearly everyone on the planet. 


Dan Raviv, a contributor to Moment and a former CBS News correspondent, is coauthor of books on Israeli intelligence including Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.