Operation Thunderbolt

Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport

By Saul David

(Hodder and Stoughton pp. 446, 20 pounds)


In 1976 Palestinian Arabs from a splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and German far leftists from the Revolutionäre Zellen hijacked an Air France Airbus with nearly 250 passengers on a flight from Athens to Paris. The aircraft finally landed at Entebbe, Uganda and the fate of the passengers depended on the unfathomable madness of Idi Amin – the self-styled ‘president of all-Africa’. Some of the hostages were released while the Israelis and several identifiable Jews were retained. The Israelis flew four Hercules C-130s, containing an assault force, thousands of miles to Entebbe, killed the hijackers and rescued all bar three of the hostages. At the time this remarkable action enthralled people the world over and the military historian, Saul David now tells the story once more in a well-researched highly readable account.

Israel’s victory in the Six Day war in 1967 coincided with the rise of Palestinian nationalism. While Yasser Arafat headed the nationalist Fatah, his Christian Marxist rivals, George Habash and his deputy, Wadie Haddad, of the PFLP instigated a spate of hijackings of civilian airliners to draw the world’s attention to the fate of the Palestinians. While Arafat soon realised that acts of terror did not always further the Palestinian cause and in parallel began to tread a diplomatic path, the PFLP as a pan-Arab, anti-imperialist group, submerged in Marxism-Leninism, did not. Its various splinter groups were even more hardline. Common cause was made with revolutionary groups such as the Japanese Red Army and the Baader-Meinhof gang.

They had attempted to shoot down an El Al airliner at Orly airport in January 1975. The two German hijackers at Entebbe endorsed this approach and as Saul David remarks, led a double life and were ‘after-work terrorists’. Wilfried Bӧse separated the Israelis from the rest of the passengers, according to their passports together with those Jews who either dressed in an ultra-orthodox style or who had pre-ordered kosher food on the aircraft. For many, this stirred up subterranean flashbacks to the concentration camps, ‘the selekzia’ – those who would live and those who would enter the gas chambers. When some passengers engaged Bӧse, he argued that they were not born-again Nazis, they were merely anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic. Yet the Israelis just happened to be Jews too. Pointedly David mentions the effect that this incident had on the former German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer who had been involved in the revolutionary Left in the early 1970s. The very notion of German leftists blindly imitating their fascist opponents of an earlier era was too much. He turned his back on his past and followed a different political path.

The hijackers’ demands were centred on securing the release of over 50 prisoners in numerous countries including Kozo Okamoto, one of those responsible for the massacre of passengers – mainly Puerto Rican pilgrims – at Israel’s Lod airport. The Jews, they argued, were ‘an alien people’ planted on the soil of Palestine by western imperialism. They should be expelled and ‘a socialist secularist democracy’ established. If their demands were not met, the aircraft with its passengers inside would be blown up.

Idi Amin, as private protector of the hijackers and puffed-up public mediator on behalf of the hostages, was no figure of fun. Yet in the midst of all this, in a truly Orwellian episode, he instructed the airport’s duty free to be opened and that the hostages should queue in an orderly fashion to purchase their holiday gifts.  Following the rescue, Amin sought revenge by killing the air traffic controllers, ethnic Kenyans – Kenya had allowed the Hercules to refuel at Nairobi, following a secret understanding – and the hospitalised Dora Bloch, the only passenger who had been left behind. Bloch, a 74 year old grandmother who was in poor health carried both British and Israeli passports.

The military option was originally deemed to be non-existent and the possibility of negotiations was entertained. When a last-minute plan was formulated, the idea of an ongoing dialogue served as a cover. Shimon Peres, then Israeli Minister of Defence, argued strenuously that if Haddad won, then this would open the way for similar incidents. As David records, after Entebbe, the hijacking of civilian aircraft virtually stopped and western governments refused to give way to the demands of those who held civilian hostages.

David paints a vivid portrait of the commander of the assault force, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s current prime minister. Netanyahu paused momentarily in open ground at Entebbe before the rescue and was hit in the chest by a Ugandan sniper. He was the sole casualty of the Israeli military force. His family had long supported the Revisionist movement, the precursor of the Israeli Right. Yet Menachem Begin’s Irgun was never ‘the paramilitary wing of the Revisionists’ as Saul David states. In fact, the Irgun – as a political party, Herut – stood against the Revisionists in the first Israeli election in January 1949.

David records that Israel was subsequently accused of ‘unprecedented aggression’ by the Organisation of African Unity. The Soviet Union labelled the Israeli rescue as ‘the latest act of piracy’ while the US was distinctly unhappy that American aircraft had been used. The rescued hostages and their families undoubtedly thought differently.

Times Literary Supplement  23 October 2015


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