Israeli Rescue at Entebbe

by John Hunt


In the summer of 1976, a shocked world watched as a terrifying hijacking unfolded in the small, central African country of Uganda. Far from their original destination, 245 passengers turned hostages fearfully awaited an end to their harrowing ordeal at the previously obscure airport at Entebbe. The terrorists, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, demanded the release of fifty-four political prisoners from various countries in exchange for the passengers' freedom. Since Israel held the majority of those prisoners, the hijackers believed that the Jewish state would undoubtedly negotiate. Ostensibly demonstrating their good faith as well as their seriousness, the hijackers released all the non-Jewish passengers after arriving at Entebbe. Yet, in detaining almost one hundred Jews, seventy of whom carried Israeli passports, the terrorists singled out Israel as the primary target of their negotiations and potential vengeance. Only too aware of what this dangerous turn of events signaled, a desperate Israeli government faced overwhelming political and emotional pressure to secure the release of the remaining passengers.

Raid On Entebbe and Victory at Entebbe are two films that recreate this terrible ordeal in Israel's historic struggle against Palestinian terrorism. Additionally, these movies stimulate meaningful thought on national responses to terrorism by exploring the effectiveness and the limitations of resorting to military action. Their production was unusual, for each of these made-for-television movies aired only months apart and less than a year after the actual events. Moreover, both follow a similar chronological progression from the initial hijacking to the spectacular commando raid; yet, here the similarities end. Victory at Entebbe betrays the rush to air a special on current events through its relatively poor quality and facile treatments, while Raid on Entebbe portrays a more in-depth, realistic, and dramatic account of an event that is remembered by many as one of Israel's finest hours.

Both movies open with a scene at the notoriously unsafe Athens airport, where the passengers boarded the ill-fated Air France flight to Paris. Once in the air, the terrorists, led by two Germans, take control of the aircraft, diverting it to Libya. At this point in the crisis, the two movies diverge. Raid on Entebbe, while showing the same scenes, promotes an air of realism that Victory at Entebbe fails to convey. The early scenes depicting the normalcy of a departing commercial flight, the attack and takeover of the aircraft by the terrorists, and the fears and tensions of the hostages, are more expertly revealed in Raid on Entebbe, while at the same time the film manages to keep melodrama to a minimum.

One key element where Raid on Entebbe excels from the beginning is its portrayal of the various governments involved. The Israeli government's commitment to bringing about a safe resolution of the situation, while presented in both movies, is shown to much greater effect, and without oversimplifying a complex situation, than it is in Victory at Entebbe. Numerous high level meetings between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his advisors are explored in Raid on Entebbe while Victory at Entebbe devotes altogether too little time to this obviously important aspect of the crisis. Similarly, since the aircraft was an Air France jet and many of the passengers French citizens, the French government had a strongly vested interest in the hijacking. Victory at Entebbe in failing to sufficiently address these political and governmental issues, tends to turn a profoundly disturbing modern debate into just another simplistic and mediocre drama.

The disparities in historical quality between the two films become increasingly evident once the hijackers land with their prisoners at Entebbe. During these scenes, Victory at Entebbe producers demonstrate a somewhat sloppy and hurried production, apparently predicated on their rush to cash in on recent events. The scenes were obviously filmed in a sound studio with a minimum amount of effort or concern for realism. As a result, it is reminiscent of the type of old war movies where artificially created underwater scenes show the reflection of the water on the side of the water tank. Given the state of technology even in the mid 1970s, its careless, to say the least. In contrast, Raid on Entebbe, was actually filmed on locations that promote the feel of reality and with technology that lends assurance to the total movie. The gulf between the two different approaches only widens as the movies progress, especially in the choice of actors.

Evidently, the producers of Victory at Entebbe believed that the inclusion of numerous "big-name" actors might compensate for cinematographic shortcomings. It doesn't. The stars, who include Richard Dreyfuss, Kirk Douglass, and Elizabeth Taylor, are grossly miscast. Anthony Hopkins, still relatively unknown to American audiences in 1977, cast as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Burt Lancaster as Defense Minister Shimon Peres, are outstanding exceptions. Both, as usual, put forth a solid and satisfying effort. On the other hand, Raid on Entebbe used more obscure actors, deciding appropriately to focus on the events instead of the stars. One exception is Charles Bronson, who expertly plays, and for once understates, the part of General Dan Shomron, commander of the Entebbe assault.

As the actual events unfolded in Uganda, the Israeli government and the world increasingly realized that Ugandan President Idi Amin was actively aiding the terrorists. Certainly Idi Amin plays a key role in both movies; however, his portrayal in Raid on Entebbe contains greater depth. Yaphet Kotto, the police chief on the recent television show, Homicide, does an excellent job portraying the narcissistic, often buffoonish, dictator who captured world attention by acting as a self appointed intermediary between the terrorists and Israel. Amin appears at his best when an Ugandan television crew films him deceptively providing comfort to the hostages; a compassion the dictator lacked in reality. Raid on Entebbe, by reflecting the director's desire to instill realism through the use of various cinematographic techniques, also shrewdly captures the varying perspectives of different nationalities caught up in the same incident. It is a perception and Technique totally lacking in Victory at Entebbe.

In fact, the Israeli government expressed early concern about Amin's involvement. As a former "ally," Idi Amin was known to a number of important military men in Israel. The Ugandan President was not only suspected of terrorist sympathies but also was feared for his increasingly erratic mental behavior. Indeed, the two countries experienced a falling-out over Amin's demand for the use of Israeli aircraft to bombard neighboring Kenya. Thus, it was difficult for Israeli authorities to rely on either Amin's promises or his sanity. Above all, the Israeli government clearly recognized and feared that Entebbe could establish a dangerous precedent to future terrorists. Nevertheless, in dealing with the hostage situation in Entebbe, Israel possessed an amazing and initially overlooked advantage. An Israeli firm had constructed the airport terminal at Entebbe where the hostages were being held. As the days wore on and a frustrating and deadly stalemate developed, Israel increasingly realized that action must be taken. The hijackers had set the deadline for Israeli release of Arab terrorists as 2 PM, July 1, 1976.

Both films record the release of the non-Jewish hostages, 148 in all, and the passing of the first deadline. Eventually, a "final" deadline for the hostages-for-prisoners exchange was set to expire on Sunday, July 4. Even as many passengers were reunited with their families, the Israeli government, fearing the steadily escalating tension in Entebbe, began formulating a rescue option, based on the potential failure of all negotiations. This proved a crucial decision, for all the remaining hostages, save the Air France crew, were Jewish. This striking fact placed the burden of effecting the hostages' release squarely on the shoulders of Israel.

By Friday, July 2, the Israeli military possessed a substantial amount of intelligence about the situation at Entebbe, allowing it to begin training for a last resort military option. Israeli intelligence personnel obtained much of the information from the released passengers, who revealed the number of terrorists and Ugandan soldiers at the airport, the types of weapons and the location and condition of the remaining hostages. The original terminal plans drawn by and built with Israeli technology at Entebbe, permitted the military to build a full-scale mockup. Israeli paratroopers, chosen to lead a raid that appeared more and more inevitable, and using a hastily fabricated replica of the terminal, trained intensely and at incredible speed for an assault that could prove as deadly as it was dangerous. As aircraft and support units were readied, military planners focused on solving last minute problems. Again, both films recount these preparations; however, Raid on Entebbe documents the military preparations in much greater detail. Paratroopers and air force personnel are seen planning, readying equipment, and rehearsing the mission. Victory at Entebbe only mentions these vital activities, presumably since the movie's sound stage would not accommodate such elaborate scenes.

The final decision for executing the military option rested with the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Throughout the ordeal, many Israeli citizens demanded that the government negotiate with the terrorists, a position that Israel adamantly opposed. The pressure proved intense; and in order to get an extension of the deadline, the government agreed to enter into negotiations. This allowed the military to perfect their plans, for the raid would have been impossible without the extension. Consequently, by Saturday, July 3, the Israeli government possessed only a few hours before the absolute point of no return to initiate "Operation Thunderbolt." During those vital, few, hours, the Israeli Cabinet intensely debated the potential for disaster at Entebbe and world response. Unknown to the conferring Cabinet ministers, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, desperately worried about time, had already ordered the rescue mission into the air to begin its 2,500 mile flight to Uganda.

The debating Israeli cabinet is effectively portrayed in both movies. The fraught discussions of possible, even disastrous, failure as well as the massacre of numerous hostages, provide a gripping tension. The importance of political decision making at the top echelons of government with potential global consequences, whether made during the October Days of the Cuban Missile crisis or in the Israeli cabinet during Entebbe, reminds the viewer of the terrible fragility of power.

When debate ended, the cabinet unanimously voted for "Operation Thunderbolt" to proceed. Quite simply, Israel did not trust the terrorists to honor their pledge to release the hostages unharmed. Instead, faced with an incredible choice, the cabinet placed the lives of the remaining hostages into the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces. Their confidence was not misplaced. The military and intelligence men leading the mission were veterans of the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and numerous antiterrorists operations. In a few hectic days, the Defense Forces planned the mission down to the minute, trying to account for every eventuality. Yet, many knew that a raid of this complexity and daring was unpredictable as well as unprecedented in history.

In the middle of the night on July 3, less than twenty-four hours before the final deadline expired, three C-130 aircraft landed unnoticed at Entebbe airport and taxied almost to the old terminal building. At a given signal, the aircraft disgorged the assault force led by a young Lieutenant Colonel, Yonatan Netanyahu. Approaching the terminal in a black Mercedes similar to Idi Amin's and transported to Uganda in the belly of one of the C-130's, the paratroopers achieved sufficient surprise to neutralize the soldiers on guard outside the building. Once inside, the commandos ordered the hostages to get on the floor and stay down; thus, allowing the rescuers clear shots at the terrorists. Three startled hostages failed to heed the warnings and were shot, along with six terrorists. While the assault force secured the hostages, other Israelis surrounded the terminal, eliminating the Ugandan threat. On the other side of the airfield, the pride of Idi Amin's air force sat idle yet potentially menacing. To ensure that the soviet-built jet fighters did not pursue the rescue force, Israeli soldiers destroyed or disabled all the aircraft on the field. Speed, skill, and professionalism were the watchwords.

With the Ugandan threat eliminated and the terrorists dead, the Israelis loaded the passengers into the awaiting aircraft. At the same time, an undetected Ugandan soldier fatally shot Lt. Col. Netanyahu. As soldiers loaded their wounded assault leader onboard, the raid's commander ordered the strike force to take off. The original plan called for refueling the aircraft in Uganda; however, the process proved slower than imagined and the risks of remaining on the ground to refuel too dangerous. As a result, the strike force simply landed in Kenya without permission to refuel. Following daybreak on Sunday, July 4, the strike force triumphantly returned to Israel.

Israel had accomplished a mission impossible. Three hostages and one soldier died in the assault while another hostage, who had been taken to an Ugandan hospital earlier in the week, was never heard from again. Although tragic, the causalities were unbelievably few for such a daring and risky operation.

Both movies appropriately conclude with the triumphal rescue operation; yet, once again Raid on Entebbe eclipses Victory at Entebbe. The realism, action, cinematography, and special effects proved much more effectively and imaginatively detailed, considering that many aspects of the operation remain secret even today. More importantly, Raid on Entebbe remains definitely the movie to see, not only for its realistic depiction of the fantastic events that transpired in Uganda in the summer of 1976, but also because it both demands and requires thoughtful analyses of the still ominous dangers of terrorism.

There are many sources of information on world political and military leaders who were in some way involved in the Entebbe situation. Among the works on Shimon Peres are Matti Golan's biography as well as Shimon Peres' own memoirs. For information on Yitzhak Rabin, there is the recently published Soldier of Peace: The Life of Yitzhak Rabin, 1922-1995, by Dan Kurzman.

As for the dictator Idi Amin, there are also numerous sources on his reign in Uganda. Thomas Patrick Melady's Idi Amin Dada: Hitler in Africa, relates much of Amin's violent and oppressive activities against Ugandans as well as other neighboring nations. A novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland published in 1998 captures the "dark" and "compelling" Uganda of Amin's regime. The movie Amin: The Rise and Fall, portrays the violent leader as he was, and the film is rated for its violent content.

In addition, readers can find many accounts of the events at Entebbe in the numerous books on special operations; however, one of the best works is Max Hastings' Yoni: Hero of Entebbe, which focuses on Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, the leader of the assault force and the only Israeli soldier killed during the operation. Max Hastings received the utmost support from the Israeli army, which permitted him to interview participants in the raid as well as military men Yoni had previously commanded. The work spans Yoni's life, from his birth in the United States and his time at Harvard to his career in the Israeli army. Hastings begins and ends this study fittingly at Entebbe, where Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the present prime minister of Israel, died fighting for his country and its people. In his honor, the Israeli government renamed the mission to Entebbe, Operation Yonatan, and as such it continues to inspire a nation with more cause than most to fear world terrorism.