NAIROBI — On the night of July 3, 1976, three troop transport planes, alleged to have been Israeli C-130 military aircraft, reportedly landed at Nairobi airport.
The airport lounge is said to have been turned into a makeshift field hospital, complete with operating table, anesthetic equipment and oxygen canisters, and regular Kenya army troops and members of the General Services Unit (GSU) moved in to secure the airport area.
Later that night, the three aircraft carrying Israeli commandos took off from Nairobi’s JKIA for the slightly over one-hour flight to Entebbe, flying via Kenya with secret permission from the Kenyan government.
What is widely labeled as “the most audacious hostage rescue mission in history” was carried out 40 years ago this week by Israel Defense Forces commandos as a successful counter-terrorist mission at Entebbe airport in Uganda that saw the killing of the terrorists who had taken 260 men, women and children hostage.
The Entebbe raid was a result of the hijacking of an Air France plane by Palestinian and German terrorists. The hijackers, members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Revolutionary Cells (RZ) diverted the plane to Benghazi, Libya for refueling and later flew it to Entebbe in Uganda.
There were 248 passengers and 12 crew members on board. All non-Jewish passengers were freed, leaving behind 106 hostages. Of the remaining passengers, 102 were rescued and flown to Israel via Nairobi shortly after the raid.
The raid has been highly praised as next-to-impossible, but ultimately it could not have proceeded without assistance from one of the East African governments. And as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his way to Africa this week, the ongoing ties between the nations has never been stronger.
“The operation wouldn’t have succeeded without Kenya’s collaboration,” says Simiyu Werunga, director of the African Center for Security and Strategic Studies.
His sentiments are echoed by Kenya’s spokesman for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of the National Government, Mwenda Njoka. According to Njoka, Kenya played a key logistical role which was very necessary for the success of the Entebbe rescue mission.
Kenya allowed Israeli fighter jets to land and refuel at Jomo Kenyatta international airport. The country also provided a base for Mossad agents to gather intelligence on the Entebbe old terminal prior to the operation.
‘The operation wouldn’t have succeeded without Kenya’s collaboration’
“Israel needed a staging ground and Kenya was the only stable democracy at that time. It provided an ideal logistical center for Israel to carry out the rescue operation,” explains scholar Werunga.
Those wounded in the operation were also treated in Nairobi before being flown back home to Israel.
According to the new book “Operation Thunderbolt” written by British military historian and broadcaster Saul David, Kenya’s involvement had to be kept top secret.
“The two sides shook hands on a deal that, had it been made public, would have badly damaged Kenya’s credibility in the eyes of its fellow OAU [Organization of African Unity, now the African Union] members: not only was Kenya plotting with a country that had been blacklisted by the OAU, but the chief target of the plot, President Idi Amin of Uganda, was the serving chairman of the OAU,” David explains in his book.
Kenya’s attorney general at that time, Charles Njonjo, and then-minister of agriculture, Bruce Mackenzie, were highly involved in the secret deal to assist Israel.
“Thunderbolt” revealed that the planning of the Entebbe raid took place at two secret meetings held at the then-attorney general Njonjo’s home in Nairobi.
“Israel has a long memory of all those who were involved in assisting us. Minister Bruce McKenzie had to pay the ultimate price with his life, while Attorney General Charles Njonjo is still alive to date. I hope he will be among those who will meet our prime minister when he arrives in Nairobi. We forever remain indebted,” says Israeli ambassador to Kenya, Yahel Vilan.
Bruce MacKenzie is said to have persuaded the Kenyan president of the time, Jomo Kenyatta, to allow the Mossad to gather intelligence before the operation and permit the Israeli Air force access to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
In retaliation, Uganda’s President Idi Amin, who collaborated with the terrorists behind the Israeli plane hijacking, ordered his agents to assassinate MacKenzie. He was killed on May 24, 1978, following the explosion of a time bomb attached to his aircraft while traveling back to Nairobi from Uganda. In his honor, former Mossad head Meir Amit had a forest planted in Israel.
Although Kenya and Israel has enjoyed a cordial relationship since 1963, the 1973 Yom Kippur War had strained the relations.
Kenya’s willingness to collaborate with Israel in 1976’s Operation Thunderbolt marked the resumption of the strong but quiet relationship in a variety of areas, most notably security, seeing Israel support Kenya in times of emergency.
During the 1998 United States Embassy bombing in Nairobi where over 200 people were killed, Israeli troops were on hand to help rescue those trapped in buildings.
In 2013 when terrorists attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi killing at least 67 people, Israeli agents arrived for a rescue mission and to help with investigations.
Israeli troops were also quick to respond when terrorists bombed the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in 2002.
“There is a direct line between the assistance that Kenya offered to Israel during Operation Entebbe and what we have been doing to the country during terror threats,” says ambassador Vilan.
Vilan says Israel is working closely with Kenya in the fight against terrorism and has promised to help the country prevent the occurrence of any terror attacks in the future.
‘When Kenya is attacked we feel obligated to help. We are always the first to arrive’
“When Kenya is attacked we feel obligated to help. We are always the first to arrive. Sometimes we don’t wait to be requested but we offer,” says Vilan.
“In the past we have come in a minute too late and all we have done is assist with rescue. We now want to get involved in the prevention of any terror attacks in Kenya,” he says.
According to Mwenda Njoka, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of the Kenyan Government, Israel has offered much support both in training and technical support to Kenya’s security and special forces.
When Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Israel in February 2016, there were discussions on further security cooperation in the war against terror.
Vilan says that although security was not the only agenda, there were discussions on how to help Kenya in the war against terrorism, especially against the Somali militia group Al-Shabaab.
He confirms that Israel is ready to cooperate with Kenya in its counter-terrorism operations.
Al-Shabaab militants have carried out several terror attacks in Kenya. The most recent are the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 that left 67 people dead and the 2015 attack in Garrisa University in the northeastern part of the country, where 157 people were killed.
As a counter-offense, Kenya Defense Force troops are part of the pan-African peace support mission to Somalia. Several of them were killed and others captured in an Al-Shabaab attack on a Kenyan base in the town of El-Adde a few months ago.
Werunga says Israel-Kenya security cooperation dating back 40 years has been commendable, and believes that Netanyahu’s visit to Kenya will only strengthen the relationship and lead to the establishment of enhanced formal agreements with a clear road map in terms of security cooperation.
“Every country needs international friends. Many will talk about the US and Britain, but Israel has been closest to Kenya. It’s because Israel doesn’t shout about it. All that Kenya needs to do is just make a phone call in case of an emergency response obligation and Israel will be in. They are true friends,” says Werunga.