Avner Avraham, a pudgy Mossad veteran in charcoal jeans and high-top sneakers, has assembled Israel’s first large exhibit of the 1976 Entebbe raid, which was displayed at Mossad headquarters last year and was aired to the public for the first time on Thursday at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, marking 39 years since the rescue operation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother led one of the rescue forces and was killed on the tarmac, attended the opening – his first time visiting the Rabin center, a national institute dedicated to the slain former prime minister’s legacy.
“The dramatic hostage rescue operation in Entebbe raised Israel’s stature in the world and gave the Israeli people tremendous pride,” Netanyahu wrote the following morning on his Facebook page. “For my family, the operation led to terrible anguish, which was with my parents until their death and which my younger brother Iddo and I still carry with us every day.”
The exhibit moves chronologically along two tracks – the decision making process in Israel and the plight of the hijacked Israelis in Uganda – and features a trove of never before exhibited material. This includes a hand-written letter by the army’s top commander, several days before the raid, stating that it might well be impossible to free the hostages, and the battle vest worn by Sayeret Matkal commander Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, who was shot and killed by Ugandan forces as he led an Israeli rescue squad to the old terminal at the airport.
The blue track, following the decision-makers, opens with a note that Brig. Gen. Efraim “Froyke” Poran passed to Rabin during a Sunday cabinet meeting, June 27, 1976. It reads: “PM, Connection to an Air France flight on which there are many Israelis has been lost. The plane was en route from Athens to Paris. Froyke.”
Sara Guter Davidson, whose diary from those days is on display at the exhibit, detailed her experience at the time. Flying with her husband – an IAF fighter pilot – and her two sons, aged 16 and 13, she sipped champagne on board and tried to tamp down the feeling of unease upon learning that the plane had stopped in Athens, a notoriously unsafe destination in those days. When an ashen stewardess ran down the aisle, she turned to her husband, Uzi, and said, “We’ve been taken hostage,” to which he replied, “You and your ideas.”
When a terrorist with a thick German accent announced that they represented Wadia Hadad and that the plane was now called Haifa 1, Uzi took the un-laminated entry pass to his air force base out of his shirt pocket, she said in an interview at the Rabin Center last week, and chewed it up and stuffed it into his Coke can.
Sara, whose mother had given her the notebook and a handful of sleeping pills, handed the pills out to her sons and swallowed one herself. Uzi refused.
Air France Flight 139 continued on to Benghazi, Libya. There a dual citizen of Britain and Israel, Patricia Martell, a nurse, pretended to have had a miscarriage and was allowed to leave the plane. In London, Martell met with Mossad officers and conveyed the first bit of valuable information about the hijackers and the weapons they carried. Moreover, as Avraham revealed in the exhibit, she had served as a nurse to Idi Amin during his visits to Israel, back when relations between the two states were good, and shared her insights about the Ugandan leader.
In Israel, on June 30, the night before the hijackers’ ultimatum to release prisoners expired, Chief of the IDF General Staff, the late Motta Gur, wrote a note to Rabin under the heading “Personal.”
The note, made public for the first time, reads: “The IDF must defend every Israeli whoever he may be. If the IDF cannot do that – the Israelis must be saved. Therefore – if all of the efforts and systems don’t work – the CoS will recommend giving the terrorists their demands.”
In the meanwhile, Gur added, stretch the ultimatum to the last possible second and make a final decision then.
Several hours earlier, on June 29, the Palestinian and German terrorists made a crucial mistake. They separated the Israelis from the others. Ninette Moreno, a Canadian Israeli with a name that the hijackers did not recognize as Jewish, was allowed to leave Entebbe. Upon arrival in Paris she sat with Israeli intelligence officers.
The map she helped draw, pinpointing where the Israelis were being held in the terminal and the positioning of the armed guards, is on display for the first time, with neat lines marking the different hallways and doors and benches. Avraham, the Mossad agent, noted that Ninette’s grandson, Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War, was one of the best officers in the history of Sayeret Matkal.
Avraham, a 28-year veteran of the Mossad, who launched his curating career with a 2011 exhibit of the capture of Adolf Eichmann and is today a working artist, reveled in the small details: how the commandos from Sayeret Matkal broke into a medical clinic to steal child-appropriate supplies that would otherwise have raised some eyebrows; how the pilot of the third Hercules took off with perhaps the heaviest load ever; and how Mossad photos arrived while the cabinet met in Tel Aviv and while the commandos and pilots waited for authorization on the runway in Sinai.
But he particularly relished a story that is not featured in the exhibit and which he learned of only recently. On Saturday July 4, a Mossad officer in Nairobi, Kenya – a country that had broken off diplomatic ties with Israel after the Yom Kippur War – gathered a group of well off, Israel-friendly men at a Mossad safe house. He told them to show up with their Land Rovers and said, I need your help. It will take five hours. If you say yes, you can’t leave this house. They agreed and at a set time he sent them to wait at the Nairobi airport, where the planes had to re-fuel on the way back to Israel. The drivers were there to serve as impromptu ambulances.
Guter Davidson went to sleep that night with the knowledge that the first of the executions of hostages would begin the following day. When gunfire rang out in long bursts, she was sure her time had come. She rolled on top of her 13-year-old son and shut her eyes and prayed that it would be over soon. He too called out the Shema prayer, or at least some improvised version of it, she said.
She opened her eyes and saw tiger stripe uniforms and white kibbutz-style hats and heard Hebrew and thought she was in a dream. A man whose name she only learned many years later – Amir Ofer – told them to link hands and to follow him out of the terminal. Bullets were still racing overheard and she saw vividly the balls of fire as Israeli soldiers destroyed the Ugandan MiGs on the ground.
When they landed in Israel, she recalled, Rabin called her husband aside. He shook his hand and told him he had warm regards from his father, an octogenarian who had encouraged the prime minister to hold firm in the face of the terrorists’ demands. “That man, who didn’t so much as bat an eyelash throughout the whole situation,” she said of Uzi, “stepped aside and broke into tears.”