Forty years ago, June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris with 200 passengers aboard made a schedule stop-over in Athens, Greece and entered into the realm of world history. Minutes after the plane, now carrying 256 passengers along with a 12 member crew, was airborne for Paris. Four terrorists, 3 men and a woman, brandishing guns and grenades hijacked the plane and forced it to change its flight pattern.
Directing the flight south and westward, the plane first landed in Benghazi, Libya, where it was allowed to refuel but Gadaffi insisted it not stay. Seven hours later, the hijacked plane airlifted with its 256 sweating and miserable passengers, and flew eastward to Uganda where it landed at Entebbe.
The terrorists announced that they had commandeered the plane in the name of the PFLP – Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by George Habash in 1967, as a Marxist-Leninist socialist revolutionary organization.
Iddi Amin, the murderous dictator of Uganda, had turned from support of Israel after being denied high-performance jets that he wanted to use to attack Tanzania. Angry over the denial, Amin had pulled away from Israel and aligned with Yassar Arafat and the PFLP, a branch of the PLO.
On Monday, June 28, the 256 passengers and 12 crew members, were herded into the old airport at Entebbe where they were held hostage in a hot, crowded room, by 10 terrorists – the four from the plane plus six more that were already in Uganda.
While the world stood shocked and then silent, Israel began to look for solutions to the problem. The terrorists were demanding the release of 53 prisoners held in several countries: France, Israel Germany, Kenya and Switzerland plus a ransom of five million dollars from France. An hour after the demands were issued, the terrorists broke through a sheet rock wall and separated the passengers. All Jews were forced to go through the opening into the adjoining room – the separation had begun again.
Israel already was adamant in not negotiating with terrorists determined there had to be another way. Under a cloud of intense secrecy, Israel called her intelligence and military experts together to determine a way to rescue the hostages. She knew it would be difficult and risky, if not impossible, but there didn’t seem to be any other way.
Although they had agreed not to negotiate a release for French citizens only, the French government side stepped the agreement and arranged for the release of forty-seven non-Israelis. Although the crew members were from various countries, the French captain of the ill-fated flight asked his crew to stay, if their conscience would allow them to do so, to fulfill their responsibilities to the remaining hostages. All twelve members stayed behind with the hostages.
Once the freed French hostages were on safe soil, they were interviewed by the Mossad to learn about the conditions, placement and treatment of the hostages as well as that of the terrorists. Adding this information to what they had already learned from the Israeli contractors who had initially designed and built the airport building, Israel had a pretty good idea of what they were up against. The problem was how to cover 2,500 miles with a rescue team large enough to do the job, enough planes to bring the people out and enough fuel to cover the return trip, without being discovered and stopped by hostile nations.
Through negotiations, the hijackers had extended their deadline by three days to Sunday, July 4, 8:00 AM before they began shooting passengers one at a time. Although Israel was negotiating with the terrorists, the demands were logistically impossible and she knew they would have to be rescued to prevent a small holocaust. The job had to precise and planned to the moment.
The remainder of the story is miraculous, with almost every event being orchestrated by a higher power. Four C-130 Hercules Transport planes would fly 2,500 miles, through hostile territory to Entebbe. They would land shortly after midnight, on the heels of a British Airways flight which was scheduled to land shortly before midnight on Saturday, July 3. The hopes were that the lights of the runways would still be on as C-130s had not been successfully landed on dark runways. Additionally, the plane’s tanks would be nearly empty and they would have to refuel somewhere before they could fly back to Israel; refueling at Entebbe would take too long and be too dangerous.
Everything was meticulously planned. Nothing was left to chance. Although the first rehearsal on Friday was a bad one the plan had to move forward. For the tightly scheduled plan to work, the commandos must lift off from Israel by 3:00 PM on Saturday in order to meet the 8:00 AM deadline on Sunday, July 4. All was ready to go with the exception that the Israeli government had not yet reached a unanimous decision to allow the mission. Because of the time constraints, the flights took off at 3:00 PM, as scheduled, while the government leadership debated. If they did not agree to the mission, the planes could turn around before they reached the point of no return.
Six planes in total: 4 C-130s, 2 Boeing 707s – one a hospital ship, the other an operation command ship, lifted off at 3:00 PM. They had to fly in a very low pattern, only 100 feet above the ground to avoid radar discovery by hostile nations. Any slip of the hand could cause a catastrophic disaster as they flew only 20 feet above the Red Sea toward the Ugandan destination.
The first C-130 landed with it’s cargo bay doors opened expelling a black Mercedes and two Land Rovers, all loaded with Israeli assault team members. Hoping to fool any security personnel at the airport into believing that Idi Amin had returned to the hostage scene, they drove past the two security guards who attempted to stop them. Using handguns with silencers they shot the guards, killing one and wounding the other which caused a team member in the Land Rover to shoot a spray of bullets from his weapon that had no silencer tipping off the hijackers that a rescue attempt was underway.
In 53 minutes, from start to finish, the rescue was completed and the hostages were on Israeli planes, lifting off from the Ugandan tarmac, headed to Kenya where they would refuel and treat the wounded. Three hostages were killed in the gun battle, one Israeli soldier – Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyhu – was killed, and several were wounded.
The daring rescue was a clarion call to the world that Israel was now a nation that would no longer be mistreated. She did and will always stand for her own independence and to protect her citizens, wherever they are.
As America celebrated the 200th birthday of Freedom from Tyranny, apparently oblivious to what was going on in the only democracy in the Middle East, the hostages of unstable terrorist organizations returned to their own freedom in the land of Israel. Am Israel Chai!