ENTEBBE, Uganda — Jean-Jacques Maimoni was 20 years old when he boarded Air France flight 139 at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 27, 1976 — 40 years ago. He was about to join the Israel Defense Forces and wanted to visit his family in Paris first.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had other plans. Four terrorists belonging to the group — two Palestinians and two Germans — hijacked the plane (having boarded with those who joined the flight in Greece), landed it in Entebbe and took 248 passengers hostage. The terrorists later released all non-Israeli passengers, but held on to 106 Israelis, all but four of whom were freed in a breathtaking rescue operation by the Israeli army. Jean-Jacques Maimoni was one of those four.
Maimoni was a dual French-Israeli citizen; the terrorists thought he was a spy and would not let him go, his sister, Marlene Moskovitz, recalled Monday. “He could have left (with the foreign nationals, if the French authorities had pushed harder),” Moskovitz told The Times of Israel as she made her way to Monday’s ceremony at Entebbe’s old airport to mark the 40th anniversary of the rescue. “I’m angry at the French. If they had been stronger they could have insisted. They could have said, ‘We release everybody or nobody.’”
Moskovitz, who flew on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plane to Uganda for the ceremony together with one of her sisters, Martine Arnold, was so upset with the French behavior that she decided to leave France for good. In February 1977, half a year after the Entebbe operation, she immigrated to Israel. “I decided I don’t want to live in a country that so easily released the French hostages and didn’t stand up for the Israelis.”
Three Israeli hostages died during the operation, in which Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan (Yoni), commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, was the only military fatality. One elderly woman, Dora Bloch, was taken to the hospital before the raid and was later killed by then Ugandan president Idi Amin’s troops as an act of revenge.
Jean-Jacques was 20 when he died. When the first Israeli commandos stormed the airport, he must have gotten up rapidly and somehow was caught in the crossfire, his sister said. Afterwards they found six bullets in his body, from the weapons of both the terrorists and the Israeli troops.
“It’s the closing of a circle,” she said of Monday’s emotional ceremony. “We are really happy to be here. For 40 years, this episode stuck with us like a bone in our throats.”
The place where it happened
The theme of closing circles and tying up loose ends repeated itself frequently en route from Israel to Uganda and at the airport event in conversations with family members of those killed in Entebbe, especially those who had never visited the site before.
“Today, for me to be at the place where it happened, even though she was not present when the raid happened, is the closing of a circle,” said Ofer Bloch, grandson of Dora, the British-Israeli citizen who was in Kampala’s Mulago Hospital when the Israeli commandos arrived, and was murdered shortly after the rescuers and the freed hostages had taken off for Israel.
Ofer Bloch knew his grandmother well; he was 17 when the terrorists hijacked the Air France flight she had boarded to attend a wedding.
“They called us at night and took my dad to the Kirya (Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv),” he recalled. “We didn’t know what was happening to her. They told us a rescue operation was going on. There was a lot of uncertainty. It was a very tense time.”
The family went to the airport to greet the rescued Israeli hostages, but quickly learned that Dora remained in Uganda. When they realized that she had been murdered, they sat shiva [mourning] for her, but only for an hour. “That’s what the rabbis instructed us to do, because it was a case in which her death was certain but there was no proof of it,” Ofer recalled.
His grandmother, who lived in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, had been visited by the British consul in Uganda shortly before her death. The consul left her hospital room for a few hours to arrange for an ambulance to take her out, but when he returned, her bed was empty.
Idi Amin’s henchmen had brutally murdered her, and disposed of her body in an abandoned spot in a nearby forest.
“While Idi Amin was in power, we didn’t even attempt to get her remains,” Ofer Bloch recalled. Three years after the operation, in 1979, Idi Amin was ousted in a coup and fled the country. The subsequently improved Israeli-Ugandan ties enabled the IDF to send a delegation, including a pathologist, to identify her remains, and to bring her for burial in Jerusalem.
Is he angry that the Israeli troops managed to saved 102 Israeli hostages but not his grandmother? “No, you can’t be angry at them for that,” Bloch replied. “Their mission was to rescue the hostages in the airport and then get out of there as quickly as possible. We thought — we hoped — that the Ugandans wouldn’t kill a 72-year-old sick lady out of revenge.”
The Israeli leadership and those commanding the rescue operation took the right decisions, he added. “My anger is reserved for Idi Amin and his killers.”
‘You can faint afterwards’
Marlene Moskovitz, who today lives on a small kibbutz on the border with Gaza, did have some grievances with the Israeli authorities — for not updating her family about Jean-Jacques’ fate.
“Nobody told us [he had been killed],” she said; she learned about her younger brother’s death on the radio.
“It was 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I called Air France right away. I said I wanted tickets to Israel. I told them that they were partially at fault for what happened.” Airline officials at first refused, but she insisted and somehow got seats on a flight to Israel for her and her sister; they made it in time for Jean-Jacques’ funeral in Netanya, where their parents lived. “My sister was falling apart. I said to her, ‘I don’t care, we need to get on this plane. You can faint afterwards.’”
Jean-Jacques was his parents’ only son. “All those years they were heartbroken. They couldn’t live after that,” Moskovitz said. Four decades on, the pain still sits deep for her, too. Only two of Jean-Jacques’ four sisters wanted to come to Entebbe on Monday. For the others it was too painful.
For decades, Moskovitz herself refused to talk about what happened to her brother in Entebbe, not wanting to irritate the open wound. Her nephew Jonathan Haiyat, a French filmmaker, once asked her to participate in a documentary he was making about the operation, but she refused.
When the Prime Minister’s Office invited the siblings a few weeks ago to attend the official commemoration in Uganda, she hesitated. “When they asked us, I had nightmares for three nights. To imagine seeing the place is sometimes more difficult than going to actually see it.”
But eventually, she decided to fly to Entebbe and join the prime minister at the memorial event.
“This is a real closure for me,” she said. “To see the place, and to finally put it aside. We’ll still think about it. Jean-Jacques is a part of our lives. But now we can be in peace.”
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