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Israeli commandos in a black-painted Mercedes-Benz. (Defense Ministry archive)
Defense Ministry archive: Israeli commandos in a black-painted Mercedes-Benz.

Entebbe in person: A new oral history challenges official account of 1976 rescue

Brimming with detail and at times looking to settle old scores, newly translated book ‘Entebbe Declassified’ brings voices of the commandos who took part in the legendary operation

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

Main image by Defense Ministry archive: Israeli commandos in a black-painted Mercedes-Benz.

The raid on Entebbe — the 1976 rescue operation by Israeli commandos to release Jewish hostages after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists — is one of the State of Israel’s best known exploits, with no fewer than six documentaries, five dramatized films and one stage play having been produced about it.

And yet, despite its renown, central aspects of what actually transpired on the ground in the Ugandan airport on July 4, 1976, remain hotly debated, chiefly among those who participated in the operation.

Last month, with the 45th anniversary of the raid, the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center released an English translation of its 2016 oral history of the operation, “Entebbe Declassified: The Untold First-Hand Stories of the Legendary Rescue Operation.” It is not a definitive history; it is instead an effort to set the record straight on what happened that night, or at least to act as a counterbalance to the existing narrative.

The basic facts are these: On June 27, an Air France plane was hijacked by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells, a fringe leftist terrorist group. They had the plane flown to Uganda, having received the support of the country’s dictator Idi Amin, and released all non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers, save for the flight crew and a few others who decided to remain with the Jewish hostages at Entebbe Airport. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 pro-Palestinian terrorists and $5 million in exchange for the hostages. In the days that followed, Israel’s security services considered a number of responses, both rescue operations and capitulation to the terrorists’ demands.

(One proposed rescue mission would have seen Israeli naval commandos approach the Entebbe airport from Lake Victoria. But this idea was scrapped after Staff Sgt. Michael Aaronson, who happened to be in Kenya at the time, visited the lake and found that there were “giant Nile crocodiles lying in nearly endless rows all along the shore as far as the eye can see,” as he wrote in the book.)

Ultimately, in extremely little time and with limited intelligence about the conditions at the airport, Israel opted for a rescue mission, in which C-130 cargo planes flew roughly 100 commandos to Uganda, stopping in Kenya to refuel along the way, unbeknownst to the Kenyan government.

The book is made up of 33 first-person accounts from members of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit who took part either in the mission itself or in the preparations for it. The volume notably lacks two voices: understandably, that of Yoni Netanyahu, who left behind no notes about the mission; and, more contentiously, that of Moshe “Muki” Betser, Netanyahu’s second-in-command

A Mercedes sedan, similar to one once used by Amin, was brought along, as were Land Rovers of the same model as his security detail used, in an effort to trick the Ugandan sentries into allowing the Israeli commandos to drive up to the terminal where the hostages were being held.

Shortly after landing, however, things went south — more on that later — as a Ugandan soldier apparently saw that the Mercedes was black, not the white model that Amin had begun using. A firefight broke out and as a result, Yoni Netanyahu, who commanded the mission, was fatally wounded.

Yet the Israeli force was able to enter the terminal and release all but three of the hostages, who were killed in the crossfire. A fourth hostage, Dora Bloch, who had been taken to a hospital days before, was executed by Ugandan agents after the fact as revenge for the raid.

‘Entebbe Declassified’ presents an oral history of the 1976 Entebbe raid with accounts from 33 members of the Sayeret Matkal unit. (Courtesy)

The book, translated by former Times of Israel military correspondent Mitch Ginsburg, is made up of 33 first-person accounts from members of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit who took part either in the mission itself or in the preparations for it.

The volume notably lacks two voices: understandably, that of Yoni Netanyahu, who left behind no notes about the mission; and, more contentiously, that of Moshe “Muki” Betser, Netanyahu’s second-in-command, who played a critical role in planning the mission and who is at the center of the controversies about the operation.

While Betser’s version is not to be found in “Entebbe Declassified,” it is the best known and official account, as he and he alone from Sayeret Matkal was interviewed about the events on the ground when the Israel Defense Forces wrote its history of the raid.

“Entebbe Declassified” functions, in part, as a corrective, with contributors countering Betser’s telling — sometimes explicitly contradicting his claims and sometimes just offering a differing personal account. As an oral history, the book itself does not weigh in on who’s correct.

Yoni Netanyahu, in a photograph taken shortly before his death at Entebbe in 1976. (GPO, Wikimedia)

In an apparent bid at peacemaking, Tamir Pardo, who took part in the mission and went on to become the head of the Mossad intelligence service, lamented the arguments and chalked up the differing accounts of what happened to the Rashomon effect, the phenomenon of eyewitnesses experiencing the same event differently, spotlighted in a 1950 Japanese film of the same name.

“We can but regret the unnecessary differences of opinion, for a Rashomon is a foundation in the soul of man, and there is room for everyone in this ‘hall of fame,'” Pardo wrote.

Who shot, who stopped

In his book, “Secret Soldier,” Betser describes the initial firefight as having been caused by a mistake, by Yoni Netanyahu misjudging the situation and unnecessarily opening fire.

In Betser’s telling, Netanyahu incorrectly believed that when a Ugandan soldier raised his gun as the Mercedes approached the gates it was because they suspected that something was amiss. Instead, he wrote, based on his experience as a military instructor in Uganda from years before, this was standard operating procedure whenever a car approached.

The cover of Muki Betser’s book, ‘Secret Soldier.’

“I knew that this was just the practice and that we could pass by the soldier without fear. He wouldn’t dare to open fire on a Ugandan vehicle,” Betser wrote.

When Netanyahu prepared to open fire, Betser says that he tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Netanyahu and another soldier in the car opened fire, sparking the firefight that eventually ended with Netanyahu’s death.

However, in “Entebbe Declassified,” Netanyahu’s decision to open fire was almost unanimously seen as having been the correct move or at least justified.

“This action was without any shadow of a doubt the right thing to do. From where I was sitting there wasn’t even a question of, ‘Should we open fire?’ The only feasible question was, ‘Who would seize the advantage and open fire first?’ Without question the soldiers standing guard recognized us and had we not shot them they would have opened fire from point blank range and gunned us down like sitting ducks,” wrote Amir Ofer.

Adam Kolman, who was in the Mercedes with Netanyahu and Betser, recalled the intense fear he felt as they drove toward the Ugandan soldier.

“The rifle barrel is about half a yard from me and I think that if he does squeeze the trigger, he’ll skewer all of us with a single bullet,” Kolman wrote.

Another contributor, Gadi Ilan, wrote that he even — incorrectly — believed the sentry had opened fire at them.

The homecoming of the hostages on July 4, 1976 (Courtesy IDF Archive)

“Through the screen of those seated in front of me, I saw a Ugandan soldier raise his rifle toward us and stomp his foot; it looked like he was yelling something. To me it was clear that he was going to open fire. In my recollection, he even fired a shot or two, but I’m not sure about that,” Ilan wrote.

In addition to disputing Betser’s claim that Netanyahu unnecessarily blew their cover by opening fire at the guards, the contributors accuse him of downplaying or covering up his own missteps during the raid, after they got out of the vehicles and made their way on foot to the terminal.

During the sprint to the terminal from the cars, Betser — by all accounts, including his own  — stopped suddenly just before entering the airport. In “Secret Soldier,” Betser wrote that he had run out of ammunition and had to put in a new magazine.

One of the mission-enabling aerial photos taken by a still anonymous Mossad combatant. (Courtesy: Avner Avraham)

But the contributors to “Entebbe Declassified” find this hard to believe, with some noting that this was a departure from his initial explanation, given on the flight back to Israel, that his Kalashnikov had malfunctioned.

“When asked by one of the operators why he had stopped, and started firing in a standing position, instead of storming ahead, [Betser] said it was because he’d spotted a terrorist. We looked at one another in surprise and said we had not seen a terrorist, and certainly not one who was firing at us and barring us from charging in. Later on, he said he had stopped because he’d had a firearm malfunction. Later still, Muki said it was because his magazine had been empty,” wrote Shlomi Reisman, who also edited the book.

Amir Ofer, who is by far the harshest critic of Betser, also noted the changing explanations for the delay, adding that even if he had run out of ammunition, this was in itself irresponsible.

“It is not clear how an officer as experienced as Muki could have neglected to keep rounds in his magazine before the crucial stage of charging into the hostage hall, a charge that he was to lead. In short, the explanations given about the stop have not been convincing and it remains unsolved,” wrote Ofer.

A picture taken on June 14, 2016 shows Amir Ofer, one of the former Israeli Commandos, speaking during a press conference about Entebbe hostages in Uganda, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the rescue operation. (AFP PHOTO / RONALD KABUUBI)

During this delay, Netanyahu ordered Betser to advance and ran forward himself. It was then that he was shot and fatally wounded, though most of the contributors said that they didn’t realize that at the time.

“Out of the corner of my eye, while running, I saw Yoni fall. I didn’t know if he’d tripped or been hit,” wrote Amos Goren.

Betser then apparently ran past the door he was supposed to breach into the terminal, taking his team instead through the subsequent opening, which had been designated for a different squad, causing confusion. Betser initially claimed that there hadn’t been a first door, but then later, in his book, said that there had been a door, but that it had been blocked, though this has since been found to be incorrect: There was a door and it was unobstructed.

“It was crucial that we charge through two doors simultaneously, Muki’s squad through the first door and Amnon’s squad through the second, and in the end we, Muki’s squad, missed our door and both squads entered through the second door,” Goren wrote.

Goren, who had a long career in Sayeret Matkal before becoming involved in biotechnology, said that this mistake was never addressed in debriefings and internal probes.

The battle vest worn by Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu during the Entebbe raid (Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

“The matter of why we hadn’t gone in through the first door, what we’d seen, if there was or wasn’t a door, had it been blocked (the photos show that there was a door and it was not blocked) was never raised,” he wrote.

Despite the hiccup, the commandos made it inside the terminal halls and within the span of a few minutes killed the hijackers, as well as one of the hostages, a French national named Jean-Jacques Meimoni, who apparently misunderstood the Hebrew calls of the Israeli soldiers to get down and jumped up suddenly during the firefight.

“Jean-Jacques Meimoni, who jumped up when the operators burst into the hall, was mistakenly shot and killed by our soldiers. I saw three entry wounds in the center of his chest,” wrote Dr. David Hassin.

Two other hostages were killed in the crossfire, and two Sayeret Matkal members were injured, one hit by shrapnel in the leg and another, Surin Hershko, shot in the spine, paralyzing him for life from the neck down.

“We diagnosed the devastating nature of the injury only on board the plane, en route to Nairobi, and treated him accordingly,” Hassin wrote.

Crocodiles and car hoods

“Entebbe Declassified” is not just score-settling and responses to the prevailing narrative. It is also a deeply personal glimpse into the memories of the individuals who took part in one of Israel’s most defining military operations.

Yael Zangen Taterka, Netanyahu’s bureau chief and the sole female voice in the book, recalled the bittersweet feelings in the tight-knit Sayeret Matkal after the operation.

“The world rejoiced. Only we were sad and marked by loss. I don’t remember anyone gathering us, the female soldiers, to speak, to listen, to process our feelings. Each of us was left with her own baggage,” Taterka wrote.

Though some members of the unit learned of Netanyahu’s death during the mission, others only found out afterward, on the plane ride back to Israel. Netanyahu was a beloved commander in the unit, but while some were immediately stunned by his death, others responded differently.

“Surprisingly, news of his death did not completely douse the excitement. The adrenaline levels were too high; it took time to calm down. Only later was there space made for the fact that Yoni was no longer,” Kolman wrote.

The world rejoiced. Only we were sad and marked by loss. I don’t remember anyone gathering us, the female soldiers, to speak, to listen, to process our feelings. Each of us was left with her own baggage

The book is also rife with anecdotes and little-known details, such as the aforementioned plan to approach Entebbe from Lake Victoria, which was scrapped after they realized that it was full of crocodiles, as well as the fact that the preparations for the operation were “rather amateurish,” as Tamir Pardo described them.

“I’ll admit that during the preparation stage I never believed that the operation would be executed: the distance from Israel, Uganda’s standing as a hostile country, the lack of familiarity with the theater of operations and the understanding that success rested on the preservation of the element of surprise until the moment the force burst into the hostage hall—all seemed to me to be irreconcilable and yet fascinating, good kindling for the imagination,” Pardo wrote.

Zionist Union MK Omer Bar-Lev holds a press conference at the Knesset on November 30, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Omer Bar-Lev, now Israel’s public security minister who was then a team leader in Sayeret Matkal, wrote in the book that he almost had the operation called off but was stopped by car trouble. Following a meeting with other officers from the unit, in which they griped about their questionable level of preparedness, Bar-Lev, the son of former IDF chief of staff and then-minister of trade Haim Bar-Lev, was led to believe that he should do something to prevent a potential catastrophe.

“I felt that the officers around the table were putting pressure on me to inform my father that there was a huge gap between the level of readiness that had likely been presented to the government and the reality,” he wrote.

So Bar-Lev took a vehicle and went to speak to his father.

“While riding along, right after Sirkin Junction, the hood of the pickup truck popped open, covering the entire windshield and blocking my field of vision. I stopped immediately, closed the hood, started the car up again, turned around, and headed back to the base. More than once I have wondered what would have happened if the hood hadn’t suddenly popped open? What exactly would I have told Dad? What would he have done?” he wrote.

“Each time I’ve come to the same conclusion — he would have listened, asked some questions and, maybe, tried to assure me that the situation was not so dire… He would undoubtedly have taken a deep breath, bitten his lips hard, buried the information deep inside and kept his fingers crossed until I returned.”

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