Self-Portrait of a Hero: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, 1963-1976
Just before midnight of July 3/4, 1976, four Hercules transports of the Israeli Air Force landed without warning at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. They had flown the 2500 miles from their home bases nonstop and were carrying a force of Israeli commandos, a team of doctors, and a collection of assault vehicles. The oddest was a Mercedes, resprayed to resemble the presidential limousine of Field-Marshal Idi Amin. It was first off the lead aircraft and its occupants, blacked up as Uganda riflemen, were led by the commandos’ senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu.
Driving first to the control tower, the Mercedes party killed the Ugandan guard there with silenced weapons, as they stood at the salute in the belief that the car was indeed Amin’s, and then swung to the old International Terminal. Inside it a band of Palestinian and German terrorists had been holding hostage eighty-three Israelis, twenty French Jews, and the crew of an Air France airliner since they had hijacked it a week before. In one minute forty-five seconds of shooting, seven of the terrorists were killed and the other three overpowered. Two hostages were killed in the crossfire. Five others were wounded. So also were four of the commandos; and in a belated outburst of shooting between the commandos and the Ugandans, a stray bullet caught Colonel Netanyahu in the back. He died shortly afterward.
The story of the raid, of the escape by plane of the surviving hostages and their rescuers, and of the safe return of the whole party to Kenya and then to Israel on the morning of July 4 broke as a sensation almost without parallel in the postwar world. Like that of President Kennedy’s death, it came as news which would recall ever after to the hearer the place, time, and circumstances in which he learned it, so complete was its unexpectedness. But unlike the news from Dallas, and so heightening its impact, was the quality of improbability, mystery, almost fantasy that it carried with it. The world had speculated for a week on the terrorists’ intentions, Amin’s complicity, and the likelihood of a massacre. It had simply not entertained the notion that the Israelis might bring off a rescue. And even after they had done so, the raid continued to seem a piece of wizardry, of mythic legerdemain in the tradition of Ulysses against Cyclops, rather than an act of war.
“How?” was the question, a stream of hows—how did the commandos get there, land unobserved, overcome the terrorists, avert the reaction of the Ugandans, refuel their aircraft, get clean away without pursuit or retribution? The “Whos?” were left unraised. For all the tarnishing of Israeli military glister by the setbacks of 1973, Europeans and Americans were still apt to regard Israeli soldiers as supermen, so that the raid in their eyes merely restored a reputation never really compromised. Israeli military practice reinforced their incuriosity. Zahal, the Israeli Defense Force, makes a fetish of secrecy and anonymity …