40 years later, youngest Entebbe survivors tearfully recall hijacking, rescue
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Hiding under mother's skirt, I asked her, 'Does it hurt to die?'

40 years later, youngest Entebbe survivors tearfully recall hijacking, rescue

In a bittersweet ceremony hosted by Shimon Peres and Dalia Rabin, former child hostages piece together memories of 1976 ordeal

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Survivors of Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, along with former Israeli president Shimon Peres and Dalia Rabin, a former member of Knesset and daughter of former prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, present Sorin Hershko with a certificate of appreciation during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)
Survivors of Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, along with former Israeli president Shimon Peres and Dalia Rabin, a former member of Knesset and daughter of former prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, present Sorin Hershko with a certificate of appreciation during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)

For decades, the daring Israeli military rescue operation at Entebbe has overshadowed the men, women and children who endured the week of captivity that prompted the raid.

Two hundred and forty-six people were taken hostage by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorists on June 27, 1976, on an Air France flight from Israel to Paris. The plane was diverted first to Athens — where another 58 people were brought aboard, along with four more hijackers — and finally landed in Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

In the days that followed, almost all of the non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers were released, save for the French flight crew, who volunteered to stay behind with the Jewish hostages.

On July 4, 1976, a group of approximately 100 Israeli commandos, led by future Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Dan Shomron, Maj. Gen. Yekutiel Adam, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Peled and Lt. Col. Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, launched one of the most daring rescue operations ever conducted, which resulted in 103 out of the 106 hostages being brought back alive and only one fatality among the Israeli forces — Yonatan Netanyahu.

The rescue operation goes by many names: Operation Thunderbolt, its official code name; Operation Yonatan, after the fallen officer; Operation Entebbe, for the locale; and the Raid on Entebbe, for the movie of the same name made just a year after the event.

Forty years later, the bravado of the IDF, the over-the-top personality of Ugandan leader Idi Amin — whose full honorific includes “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas” — and the action movie quality of the rescue operation are still regularly discussed, taking center stage in discussions of the incident. Often forgotten are the hostages, the 106 men, women and children who were held at gunpoint for a full week.

Shay Gross, 6, returns to Israel after Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, after an airplane hijacking by Palestinian terrorists. (Courtesy)
Shay Gross, 6, returns to Israel after Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, after an airplane hijacking by Palestinian terrorists. (Courtesy)

On Monday, the “children of Entebbe” — who are now grown up with children of their own — were invited to a special commemoration ceremony with former president Shimon Peres, who served as defense minister during the operation.

Peres was joined by Dalia Rabin, the daughter of Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister during the incident.

The rescue operation was carried out almost “blindly,” Peres said, with a vast amount of information about the airport, terrorists and hostages unknown.

Dalia Rabin recalled her father telling her mother ahead of the risky operation that “tomorrow, either I will be a king, or I will be hanged in the town square.”

The event, which was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, had the atmosphere of a bittersweet reunion, full of hugs, reminiscing and some tears.

The seven “children of Entebbe” who attended the event also presented an award to Sorin Hershko, a soldier from the rescue team who was severely wounded during the operation and was paralyzed for life.

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2nd right) and Dalia Rabin (right), a former member of Knesset and daughter of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, speak with survivors of Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2nd right) and Dalia Rabin (right), a former member of Knesset and daughter of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, speak with survivors of Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Unlike the adult survivors, the kids were somewhat shielded from what was going on, according to Benny Davidson, who was 13 at the time of the kidnapping.

The adults had the children play games, write letters, do anything to keep their minds off of what was going on around them.

Survivors of Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, hug during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)
Survivors of Operation Thunderbolt hug during an event at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa marking 40 years since the kidnapping, on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

“They kept us busy and they kept the terror to themselves,” Davidson said about his parents before the ceremony began.

When the plane was hijacked, Davidson was on his way with his family to the United States to celebrate his recent bar mitzvah.

Davidson’s father served in the Israeli Air Force. When the terrorists came around to collect the hostages’ identifying documents and to divide them into groups of Israelis/Jews and non-Jews, his father quickly shredded his army ID, and the family swallowed some of the pieces and stashed the rest in a can of Coca-Cola, Davidson told the crowd.

“Luckily it was made of paper and not plastic like today,” Davidson said.

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres speaks with survivor Benny Davidson at an event marking 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, which was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Former Israeli president Shimon Peres (right) speaks with survivor Benny Davidson at an event marking 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, which was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

To some, this division was reminiscent of the Nazi Selektion, the process by which Germans in the Holocaust determined which Jews would live and which would die.

One of the Jewish passengers, a Holocaust survivor, apocryphally showed the number tattooed on his forearm by the Nazis to Wilfried Böse, one of the German terrorists involved in the plot. “I’m no Nazi! … I am an idealist,” Böse is said to have responded.

“As a 13-year-old, it was clear that they were calling names and looking for Israelis and Jews,” Davidson said, “but at 13, it didn’t bring up thoughts of the Holocaust.”

Survivor Dana Zuckerman cries next to fellow survivor Anat Brodesky Charniak during an event makring 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)
Survivor Dana Zuckerman cries next to fellow survivor Anat Brodesky Charniak during an event marking 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

The survivors who spoke at the event all discussed their memories of the event with a distinctly childlike understanding, often to heart-breaking effect.

Shay Gross, who was six years old at the time, told the crowd he “remembers hiding under his mother’s skirt. I asked her, ‘Does it hurt to die?'”

Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)
Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)

Tzipi Cohen, who was 8 years old, said she couldn’t remember much from the incident. “But I remember my mother yelling ‘Run’ during the rescue, and the soldiers giving us candy on the airplane,” she said.

Even for the teenagers, the kidnapping retained some vestiges of childhood in their accounts.

Ada Atzman, who was 16 in 1976, remembered the first Israeli commandos bursting into the room and telling the hostages to follow the other IDF soldiers’ orders. “They used megaphones, like lifeguards at the beach,” Atzman said at the event.

A letter written by survivor Benny Davidson to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is displayed at an event marking 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, which was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
A letter written by survivor Benny Davidson to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is displayed at an event marking 40 years since Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli rescue of over 100 hostages from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976, which was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on June 27, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In addition to the stories, the survivors brought with them artwork, scrapbooks and other memorabilia from the kidnapping.

Davidson’s mother, who had also been taken hostage, brought a letter her son had written after the ordeal.

“I wrote a letter in polite, proper English to Idi Amin to ask: ‘Why did you help the terrorists?'” Davidson said.

“But my mother never sent it,” he added with a laugh.

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