A cross-continent raid that curbed hijackings – the full story

Title: Operation Thunderbolt - the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History; Author: Saul David; Publisher: Hodder Books/Hachette India; Pages: 464; Price: Rs 499
A cross-continent raid that curbed hijackings – the full story
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Title: Operation Thunderbolt – the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History; Author: Saul David; Publisher: Hodder Books/Hachette India; Pages: 464; Price: Rs 499

No other anti-terror mission has been more successful. Tasked to rescue over 100 hijack victims in hostile territory 4,000 km away, a team of elite soldiers landed there at night in total surprise, killed all the terrorists and brought out almost all the captives safely at the cost of one dead soldier. But Israel's Entebbe Raid in 1976 was not entirely a smooth affair as usually portrayed, and had ramifications beyond the mission.

Not only was the rescue option accepted by the Israeli government quite late, Operation Thunderbolt reached its final shape in a hurry (with some officers retaining misgivings), and got the green signal at the last possible moment. And as this book tells us, the actual mission, in its few tense minutes, fell into jeopardy after the commander on the ground reacted instinctively on seeing the first 'enemy' combatant, despite advice and agreed plans.

The author, British military historian Saul David also contends – and most plausibly, the mission and its success helped set Western policy towards such incidents and may contributed to their phasing out for other means, marked the beginning of the end for a tyrannical African despot, weaned a generation in Europe away from terror, and launched the career of an Israeli politician, who is still in power.

The crisis began when Air France Flight 139 (Tel Aviv-Paris) was hijacked on June 27, 1976 soon after it took from its Athens stopover – a halt viewed with suspicion by its mostly Israeli and Jewish passengers due to its lax security against the backdrop of recent hijackings.

And this is where David begins his story with a vivid panorama of the passengers, and the circumstances in which some came to be onboard this flight.

As he recounts, their worst fears were realised as four German and Palestinian hijackers got on board with weapons, took the plane with around 250 passengers and 12 crew members, first to Libya's Benghazi, where one woman passenger managed to get free, and then flown to Entebbe in Uganda, then ruled by Idi Amin.

David, whose works so far focus on British military history of the 19th century and then the World Wars, skillfully constructs a breathlessly detailed minute-by-minute narrative of these tense eight days and their aftermath, from multiple points of view – of the desperate captives shifted to a disused terminal and then ominously divided into Jew and non-Jew, their anxious relatives around the world, the Israeli government and military, some key African protagonists, and a then terror associate of the left-wing German hijackers. 

As the settings shift from Entebbe's old terminal, the heart of Israeli political and military establishments, various European and African capitals, the US and even Iran (which then had diplomatic relations with Israel), he gives us a vivid feel of how the crisis played out across the week.

David further builds up the tension as he recounts how the distrust of (then) Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of his Defence Minister Shimon Peres led to fissures on Israeli response – and the incongruity of a decorated war veteran looking for a negotiated solution and one with indirect experience of warfare plumping for use of force – and the desperate efforts of soldiers to devise a workable plan. 

And he doesn't miss on the other incongruities – the Libyan officials' meticulous observance of immigration norms and how Ugandan soldiers setting up wire outside the building alarmed the hostages till they were told what it was for.

But out of familiar characters popping up, like soldier (and later politician) Ehud Barak, the most haunting portrayal is of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. The elder brother of present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he led the mission on the ground, was the first to open fire when even not needed, and was the sole Israeli soldier killed in the mission (one more was paralysed for life) but now we know the period of uncertainty he was going through then.

David's book is not the first on the Entebbe Raid – Canadian journalist William Stevenson's "90 Minutes at Entebbe" came out months after the incident and film "Raid on Entebbe" is a classic, but this is a comprehensive retelling, with many facts never known and the ramifications that went on for years and resulted in quite a bit of collateral damage. It is apt reading for these days of continuing terror.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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