Entebbe Rescue Operation 20th Anniversary
We have just lived through a clear divine miracle—the liberation of Israel from the control of the leftists and atheists. If we look back on our history, we can point to many, many miracles—situations where our survival hung by a hair. The greatest miracle of all is, of course, our very survival after 4,000 years.
Since the beginning of time, we have been surrounded by enemies whose main aims have been to eliminate that trustee for truth, justice, and morality—the Jewish people. Our continued existence bothers them to no end, because we have put them to shame. Compared with the Jews, they must be shamefaced because of their shortcomings. So instead of trying to reach the intellectual, moral, and ethical heights of the Jews, they try to eliminate us and the humiliation of being compared to us.
We must therefore never forget the miracles that saved us and helped us over come the non-stop onslaught by our adversaries. To be ever-thankful for these results is to be makkir tov the good—which G-d is giving us. The miracle of the victory in the War of Liberation in 1948-49, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War . . . we can never thank G-d enough for these salvations.
And one miracle that we must never forget is that of the Entebbe rescue operation which took place on July 4, 1976. As it is likely that this dramatic and heroic event will be commemorated in the media this year—the 20th anniversary of the rescue—I offer herewith my account of my own involvement in this event, even though I have mentioned it briefly in past columns.
In 1972, Uganda—a lush, fertile land with a highly capable population—was the scene of a military takeover. An obscure parachute officer, Idi Amin, took over a democratic government, which the British colonial power had left behind, and ruled his country as a dictator.
Although nominally a Christian, he "converted" to Islam in order to get financial and political support from the oil rich Arab sheikdoms. His "conversion" brought with it bloodbaths against the black Christians on a large scale. For this he relied on his new friend, Yasser Arafat, who installed his PLO training camps in Uganda, from where PLO-trained thugs massacred hundreds of thousands of Christians. Idi Amin became an outcast in the civilized world, but he still had some warm feelings for Israel, where he had been trained as a parachutist. The Israeli military attaché, Col. Bar Lev, lived in Kampala, Uganda, in a beautiful home where I visited him sometimes.
The plot that the PLO and Idi Amin hatched came suddenly to the foreground in the last days of June 1976. An Air France plane was hijacked by PLO terrorists on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris and was flown, at gunpoint, to Entebbe, Uganda's airport.
The world was at first uncertain whether the hijacking was directed against France for its role in Lebanon. But soon enough the demands became known: The hijackers demanded the release from Israeli and Kenyan jails of a number of terrorists captured in past operations. (It later turned out that Kenya had no prisoners. They had been turned over to Israel long before.)
The threat to kill hostages, one by one, was broadcast around the world. Family members in Israel marched around Prime Minister Rabin's office demanding that Israel lift its old policy of not giving in to terrorist demands. The deadline for beginning the killings naturally heightened the tension in Israel, and the pressure on Rabin to do something became unbearable. (In his autobiography he wrote that Peres had nothing to do with the decision to try a rescue operation; yet, after its success, Peres tried to take the credit away from Rabin.)
While planning various alternatives, Rabin decided to find "our man in East Africa" who could negotiate with Idi Amin for the release of the hostages. And that man was myself: An Agudah member in the government, Rav Shlomo Lorentz, knew of my connections in East Africa and reached me in Nairobi by telephone Friday afternoon, July 2, a few hours before Shabbat. His message: Rabin needs someone who can establish personal liaison with Amin and make an offer leading to the release of the hostages. I was of course bewildered. It was true that I had met Idi Amin a few times, but I doubted that I could establish the link that Rabin wanted. All I could do was try. I could see before myself the hundreds of suffering hostages facing death and the thousands of Israelis who clamored for action.
Suddenly I remembered a high-ranking Ugandan officer whom I knew and who might be helpful, even in Amin's absence from Kampala, the capital. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was holding a conference on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Amin was there and was being feted like a conquering hero for having humbled a powerful white nation—Israel. After various attempts, I reached the Ugandan officer, Col. Marjan. To my surprise he acted as if he had been waiting for my call: "Ransoming the hostages? That is exactly what the Field Marshall has been waiting for!" (Idi Amin was called Field Marshall among his people—not bad for a soldier who had never risen above the rank of sergeant!)
I quickly reported back to Israel that contact had been established. I asked for instructions. Instead, Rav Lorentz reported back that I had "carte blanche": "You can offer them any deal—Israel will back you. Just act fast because the deadline for killing the hostages is near." After a few more phone conversations with Col. Marjan, the details of my meeting with Idi Amin, the giant Ugandan, were set. I would take a flight on Sunday, July 4 from Nairobi to Entebbe, from where—after a l-hour meeting with the "Field Marshall," I would continue to fly to Lagos, Nigeria, to report on my meeting at Entebbe to Rabin's security people.
Rav Lorentz was delighted with the encouraging news. He told me that he always consults with the gedolei Yisrael on important decisions. In this case, he told me, he had consulted Rav Greineman in Bnei Brak, kinsman of the late Chofetz Chaim. Rav Greineman sent me the message that I should not be overly optimistic in my reports to the Rabin government, as it might discourage them from undertaking other avenues for the rescue....
Next, Lorentz advised me that Rabin was sending a Mossad man named David to brief me the next day in Nairobi.
That Friday night there were more Jews in the local synagogue than I had ever witnessed. Clearly they were Israelis who had come to help with a rescue operation. One local prominent Israeli contractor came to visit me. He showed me that it had been his firm that had designed and built the Entebbe Airport terminal, so he had all the plans and blueprints for every bolt and nut in the airport....
All my local friends came to dissuade me from keeping a date with the Ugandan dictator. There was no guarantee that I would come out alive from my trip. But I would not let anyone dissuade me from my plan, which could mean the saving of hundreds of Jewish lives. I did not tell my wife, who was in New York, about my undertaking, in order not to upset her. I did inform my late son, Jamie, so that I would have a line of communication with my family. Later my wife told me she would not have dissuaded me from going. I give her much credit for being so idealistic in the face of danger to Jewish lives.
The next day in shut we said with fervor the prayer for the well-being of President Jomo Kenyatta, whose cooperation was vital. I waited in my hotel room for the appearance of David. Some Africans were visiting me when David entered my room. I asked him to wait a few minutes before my friends left, but his answer was: "When Jewish lives are to be saved, you do not stand on ceremonies. Send them away! "
He then gave me a list of instructions: 1) Find out if our people are still alive; 2) Find out exactly where they are being kept; 3) Try to meet at least one Jew and assure him that we are all working hard for the hostages' release. (At his point he sat down, and cried. It showed me the strength of true Jewish compassion. I must confess that I, too, at that point cried together with the sturdy Mossad man. It was such a moving moment.); 4) As to the negotiations, offer Amin any amount he wants. It will be made available.
"We know that Amin can settle the whole affair in five minutes. But warn him, if one Jew is hurt, he will not get one cent!" David said. "We know the number of Amin's secret Swiss bank account; paying him the ransom money will pose no problem. But Israel cannot afford to release one single terrorist!"
As quietly as David had entered my room, he disappeared again.
That night I heard on Israel short-wave radio the voice of Menachem Begin, calling for the release of the PLO hostages—as requested by the terrorists. I was of course stunned: How could Begin make such a statement? But later it became apparent that this was a ruse to lull the Ugandans into complacency, making them think they had won the battle....
Sunday morning, July 4: In the United States the nation was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the nation, and here in Kenya, in the darkest part of Africa, I was getting ready to meet face-to-face the feared African dictator, to save Jewish lives....
As I was getting ready to go to Nairobi's airport for my Entebbe-bound plane, my phone rang. It was Jamie calling from New York. There was overwhelming emotion in his voice: "Daddy, do not go. Our people are already back in Tel Aviv!" I was stunned. How had it all changed? How had they been rescued? Jamie filled me in with news reports: "The rescuers had come, taken away the Jewish hostages, and left. . ." In a flash, I could see a repeat of the biblical rescue operation in Shchem 3,000 years before: "Dinah's brothers took their sister and left...."
I decided to drive out to the airport despite the news. Maybe some assistance was needed; perhaps those wounded and killed had to be looked after. At least a few would need to put on Tefillin....
As I came to the airport, I saw a giant Israeli hospital plane parked. It had been estimated that some 50 persons would be killed or wounded in the operation. Soon I heard the truth: Only one officer was killed, Yonni Netanyahu, whose name became synonymous with heroism and Jewish courage.
Later my Kenyan friends told me that the head of the Kenyan Telephone Company, William Gitau, had simply cut the telephone links between Uganda and the outside world, preventing any of the news about the rescue operation from going out of Uganda.
Back in my hotel I had a call from Rav Lorentz to exchange mazel tov wishes. He thanked me profusely for my role in the drama. Only one call I never got: Rabin never called off my Entebbe mission! Had Jamie not notified me, I would have flown to Entebbe and would have been torn limb from limb by Idi Amin in his fury, like the poor Mrs. Dora Bloch, who had been rushed to the Kampala hospital—and there was torn apart by Amin. I never understood Rabin's evaluation of a Jewish life. Was I expendable?
Arafat and his PLO also let out their fury and frustration: On New Year's Eve, 1981, a PLO terrorist blew up the Jewish-owned Norfolk Hotel, with 16 people killed and 85 maimed. The PLO terrorist escaped to Saudi Arabia. Kenya's request for his extradition was never answered. Idi Amin lives as an honored guest in Saudi Arabia until this day.
The world reaction to Jewish heroism was characteristic: Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, deplored Israel's invasion of the sovereign territory of Uganda, a U.N. member state. The world should have noticed right then and there that Waldheim was a pathological anti-Semite and Nazi. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Chaim Herzog, delivered one of his finest oratories defending Israel's action.
Years later I met Bibi Netanyahu in Kenya. He told me, "If your plan had been allowed to proceed, my bother Yonni would still be alive today." In honor of Bibi, and in memory of Yonni, the Entebbe rescue operation should be commemorated—as a message to the world that Israeli strength and Jewish heroism are back again. A warning to our enemies.
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