Recordings from the return of the hostages in the dramatic 1976 rescue in Entebbe were made public on Thursday, to mark the first anniversary of the death of Shimon Peres.
Peres, who was defense minister at the time, was at the airport to greet the hostages, the Air France crew members who were held with them and the soldiers who freed them as they landed after the daring rescue operation in Uganda. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister at the time, was with him on the tarmac.
Peres addressed the soldiers who carried out the operation, thanking them on behalf of the entire country.
“You left a very worried country but you returned to a very proud country. We owe you our thanks for this,” he said. “You take a risk, perhaps greater than you realized… this was carried out in an exceptional and perfect way.”
Rabin addressed the soldiers who carried out the operation.
“I think that this operation, in many ways, was above and beyond what was expected,” the prime minister said. “Not only did you save people but you changed the image of Israel.”
Peres was defense minister during the July 4, 1976 operation, which rescued the hostages taken captive on June 27, 1976 by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Air France jet from Tel Aviv to Paris. The plane was diverted to Uganda, where the hijackers were welcomed by dictator Idi Amin.
The raid saw the rescue of 98 hostages. Four hostages were killed during the operation, along with Yonatan Netanyahu, elder brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was the sole Israeli soldier killed during the raid at the Ugandan airport.
The terrorist freed the non-Jewish passengers immediately upon arrival in Uganda. However, the Air France crew members refused the captors’ offer of release, instead choosing to remain with the Jewish passengers.
Peres told one of the crew members that he heard they had been kept separately from the Jewish hostages. “No,” said the crew member. He estimated that there were between seven and nine members of the terrorist team who took them hostage.
Rabin thanked the crew for their decision to remain with the captive passengers.
“The passengers very much value the way that you were concerned for them under these difficult conditions,” he said. “And we value it too and wish you everything good.”
Peres spoke with Aryeh Guretzky, who was one of those held in the Entebbe airport terminal and rescued by the elite Israeli force.
“Did you know what was going on?” Peres asked.
“I understood, but I don’t know if the others did,” Guretzky replied.
The defense minister asked if there were many shots fired during the operation. Guretzky told him that there were “many” shots fired and that, “the entire thing took 12 minutes.”
Ron Davidson, another of the rescued hostages, told Peres of the way everyone looked after everyone else.
“I must tell you, minister, that the Israelis behaved with self-respect and mutual assistance in an exemplary manner,” he said. “It was good that we were with a crowd like this.”
One of the relatives of a hostage is heard in the recording telling Peres, “They said they would do everything to save them. But what they did is unbelievable.”
Saturday marks the anniversary of Peres’s death according to the Hebrew calendar.
In a career spanning seven decades, Peres held nearly every major office, serving twice as prime minister and lastly as president from 2007 to 2014.
He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo peace accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.
Peres was also an architect of Israel’s nuclear programme, with the country now considered the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, although it has never declared it.
AFP contributed to this report.