Friday, July 17, 2015

Reflections on the 39th Anniversary of the Entebbe Rescue

The murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust while the nations that did not actively collaborate in the genocide stood idly by and did nothing showed that the only way the Jewish people would ever be safe in this world was to rebuild their independent nation and depend on no one else to protect them from their enemies. The ominous specter of a nuclear-armed Iran is just the latest example of this truth; if Israel does not act to stop the threat, no one else will and many--not just Jews--will suffer.

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs something to inspire him to act or if his fellow citizens need a reminder of what is at stake and what can and must be done, the answer is to look no further than Netanyahu's own family history at Entebbe.

Entebbe--nearly 40 years later, the name still evokes powerful emotions both in those who were there and in those who understand what that name represents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, terrorists conducted a wave of airplane hijackings but they only succeeded in hijacking one Israeli El Al plane; after the 1968 hijacking of an El Al plane to Algeria, the Israelis solved their hijacking problem by becoming the only country in the world whose civilian airliners had armed guards and reinforced steel cockpit doors (precautions that would have come in very handy in the United States on September 11, 2001).

Mind you, those Israeli precautions did not stop terrorists from trying to hijack Israeli planes. El Al pilot Uri Bar-Lev's quick and brave thinking thwarted a potential hijacking in 1970. When two anti-Israel terrorists attempted to commandeer his El Al Flight 219 from Tel Aviv to New York on September 6, 1970, Bar-Lev calmly assessed the situation, refused to give the terrorists access to his cockpit and sent the plane into a dive that did not harm the strapped-in passengers but momentarily stunned the terrorists. That gave one of the Israeli air marshals the time and opportunity to kill one of the terrorists. The other terrorist rolled a grenade but the grenade did not explode and she was detained. Bar-Lev explained his actions simply: "As long as you know you're not going to allow it to happen, then you'll find the way."

Bar-Lev's heroism was not appreciated at home or abroad. He diverted the plane to Great Britain to seek medical attention for the chief flight attendant, who had been critically injured after attempting to subdue the terrorists. Diverting the plane likely saved the chief flight attendant's life, but almost led to Bar-Lev and the air marshals being arrested for killing the terrorist. Bar-Lev managed to sneak both air marshals off of the plane and on to another El Al plane bound out of the country but Bar-Lev and his crew were detained overnight by British authorities before being set free. Upon arriving in Israel, Bar-Lev was pressured to resign from his job by Israeli security officials who felt that Bar-Lev violated protocol during the crisis (Bar-Lev had asked one of the air marshals to join him in the cockpit during the flight after Bar-Lev thought that some of the passengers looked suspicious) but after Bar-Lev personally called Prime Minister Golda Meir and explained his actions he was given two weeks off and then reinstated as a pilot, with honors for his bravery.

Once terrorist organizations realized that it would be futile to try to target Jews and Israelis by hijacking Israeli planes, they shifted their focus to hijacking other, less secure planes that had Jewish and/or Israeli passengers. On June 27, 1976, Germans from the Baader-Meinhof terrorist organization and Arabs from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist organization hijacked Air France Flight 139 and forced the pilot to fly the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. The terrorists separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers from the other passengers; as Benjamin Netanyahu later noted, "(Just) thirty odd years after the Holocaust, German terrorists were differentiating between Jews and non-Jews, keeping the Jews and threatening to murder them." After the terrorists declared that they would start killing hostages within 48 hours if their demands were not met, Israel--acting alone--planned and executed one of the most daring rescue missions ever.

In an article titled Entebbe Memories, Paula Stern recalled those harrowing events:

I was sick thinking of how they had separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers; releasing the Christian ones. That a German terrorist was involved in this separation brought home again the knowledge that the Holocaust will never really leave us. I will forever remember that the French crew was offered the chance to leave with the Christians…and chose to stay. The deadline was approaching. The terrorists were threatening to kill the passengers. At any moment, I expected to hear that explosions and gunfire had been heard coming from the compound.

Stern's apprehension turned to exultation when she learned that an Israeli rescue operation had freed almost all of the more than 100 hostages (three hostages were killed during the rescue operation--Jean-Jacques Mimouni, Pasco Cohen and Ida Borochovitch--and a fourth hostage who had earlier been taken to the hospital, Dora Bloch, was later killed in the hospital by Ugandan soliders) and brought them safely back to Israel:

My heart sang with such joy. I remember crying--but they were tears of relief. I had expected 100 dead, not 100 freed. Yoni Netanyahu--commander of the operation and older brother of the current prime minister--gave his life bringing the passengers home. He epitomized the Israeli army officer. Follow me, he told his men. He led them in and was the first and only Israeli army soldier to fall. He died on the plane flying home, despite desperate efforts to save his life. There is a sense of peace knowing that in his last moments, he must have known that he had succeeded. He had risked all for the freedom of others, for his people--those who no one else but Israel could have saved.

Three years ago, Israeli Brig. Gen. (res.) Joshua Shani, the son of refugees who escaped the Holocaust and the lead pilot in Operation Entebbe, spoke about his experiences during the mission:

We began our journey from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which at the time was under Israeli control. The takeoff from Sharm was one of the heaviest ever in the history of this airplane. I didn't have a clue what would happen. The aircraft was crowded. I was carrying the Sayeret Matkal assault team, led by Yonatan Netanyahu. I was also carrying a Mercedes, which was supposed to confuse Ugandan soldiers at the airport, because Idi Amin, the country's dictator, had the same car. And I also found room to pack Land Rovers and a paratrooper force.

I gave the plane maximum power, and it was just taxiing, not accelerating. At the very end of the runway, I was probably two knots over the stall speed, and I had to lift off. I took off to the north, but had to turn south where our destination was. I couldn't make the turn until I gained more speed. Just making that turn, I was struggling to keep control, but you know, airplanes have feelings, and all turned out well.

We had to fly very close to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, over the Gulf of Suez. We weren't afraid of violating anyone's air space--it's an international air route. The problem was that they might pick us up on radar. We flew really low--100 feet above the water, a formation of four planes. The main element was surprise. All it takes is one truck to block a runway, and that's all. The operation would be over. Therefore, secrecy was critical.

At some places that were particularly dangerous, we flew at an altitude of 35 feet. I recall the altimeter reading. Trust me, this is scary! In this situation, you cannot fly close formation. As flight leader, I didn't know if I still had planes 2, 3 and 4 behind me because there was total radio silence. You can't see behind you in a C-130. Luckily, they were smart, so from time to time they would show themselves to me and then go back to their place in the formation, so I still knew I had my formation with me...

[After landing at Entebbe,] I stopped in the middle of the runway, and a group of paratroopers jumped out from the side doors and marked the runway with electric lights, so that the other planes behind me could have an easier time landing. The paratroopers went on to take the control tower. The Mercedes and Land Rovers drove out from the back cargo door of my airplane, and the commandos stormed the old terminal building where the hostages were. While coordinating the assault, Yonatan Netanyahu, Sayeret Matkal's commander, was fatally shot by a Ugandan soldier...

We had a little problem: We needed fuel to fly back home. We came on a one-way ticket! We had planned for a number of options for refueling, and I learned from the command-and-control aircraft flying above us that the option to refuel in Nairobi, Kenya, was open. After about 50 minutes on the ground in Entebbe, I gave the order: "Whoever is ready, take off." I remember the satisfaction of seeing plane number 4, with the hostages on board, taking off from Entebbe--the sight of its silhouette in the night. It was then that I knew. That's it. We did it. The mission succeeded.

After my father's death, I found his letters from Bergen-Belsen that he sent to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek. The letters describe his experiences during the Holocaust, what happened to his family, etc. I won't discuss it here. One of his letters said, "My only comfort is Joshua. He gives me reason to continue."

The reason I mention this letter is because, 30 years later, when I returned from Entebbe, my father hosted a party for me. Family and friends were all there to celebrate the success of my mission. My father was in a great mood. I know what he was thinking, a Holocaust survivor. His son at the time was a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Air Force and had just flown thousands of miles in order to save Jews. It probably added ten years to his life.

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