Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History, Saul David

It is actually fortune that I write this post today, because July 3rd 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt. In late June 1976, a group of terrorists that were part of a splinter off of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) called the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) hijacked an Air France plane in Athens bound for France. They took all the people on the plane hostages and coerced the pilot and the aircrew with bombs, grenades, and small arms weapons to land the plane in Libya. The plane was full of Israeli’s as well as many other nationalities. After refueling in Libya, the plane went on to Uganda, where the hostages were trotted off the plane at Entebbe Airport into the old airport terminal and were held captive. The terrorists demanded that Israel release over 50 Palestinian terrorists in Israel’s captivity. The government of Israel was, then, in a bind: bow to terrorist pressures and release the prisoners in exchange for the hostages or not to give into terrorist pressures and risk the lives of the hostages. The situation was made even more complicated because Ugandan President, Idi Amin, was covertly aiding the terrorists by giving them Ugandan troops and other resources to fuel their hate against Israel.

Israel balked at the proposition by the terrorists, but refused to give up on the hostages. Many lessons were learned at Entebbe, but it’s important to remember that 1976 was not 2016: meaning, a military operation had never been carried out to rescue hostages before and therefore even the idea was uncharted waters. But Israel has never been shy about taking drastic measures during a crisis (as I read about in another one of Dr. Mohler’s suggested readings in 2014 about the Six Days War, where small Israel launched a preemptive strike against their enemies instead of waiting to be attacked; this unprecedented military strike actually knocked out the Jordanian and Egyptian Air Forces before they even knew what hit them, which you can read about more in my review of Steven Pressfield’s book, “At the Lion’s Gate” here). Plans began to come in about utilizing Israel’s special forces unit, aptly named “The Unit”, to commit to a rescue operation.

On July 3rd, 1976, the Unit carried out the audacious plan to rescue the hostages. They did so with precision, speed, and ruthlessness. In total, they were in Uganda for just about an hour and a half and lost only 6 lives; one of which was current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, Yoni Netanyahu.

What Operation Thunderbolt did for Western relations with terrorists was to demonstrate that the first solution was not always to capitulate. The Israelis showed that dealing with terrorists actually fueled their campaign: if they could simply hijack a plane and then get what they wanted, they would keep utilizing that course of action. On the contrary, if they knew that military units would come for them to kill them and release hostages, then they would be much less inclined to hijack airplanes. In fact, after Operation Thunderbolt, the amount of terrorist hijackings went dramatically down. It also fueled interest in special military units in Western democracies. For example, the Army’s Delta Force was began to respond to terrorists threats in light of Israel’s success in Operation Thunderbolt.

Much of the book focuses on the prisoners and their living conditions in captivity, governmental procedures and planning, and military jargon about the structure of the raid. The actual raid is only covered in about 2 chapters time. I thought it was a little anti-climatic for how long the book is. But nonetheless: this is a page turner. And although I knew all along that they were successful in their mission, I couldn’t stop reading. The twists and turns will make you double check that it is indeed a non-fiction book.

One annoying part of the book is that all the times are in GMT instead of local times. I understand the author was trying to help by having that base line, but when you say something like “0300 GMT” you infer that that is the middle of the night, when in fact it could be in the middle of the afternoon. I wish he just stated “local time” instead of using GMT, but that’s a minor inconvenience.

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