‘Operation Thunderbolt,’ by Saul David
By ALAN FURST NEW YORK TIMES BOOKREVIEW JAN. 22, 2016
Israeli soldiers carry a hostage rescued in the raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, July 1976.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel, heading for Paris with a stopover in Athens, carrying 228 passengers of Israeli, French and various other nationalities. Security at the Lod airport was famously tight — but in Athens, where security was lax, four hijackers boarded the Airbus carrying large black bags that held guns and hand grenades, took over the plane and forced the pilot to divert to Entebbe Airport, on the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Six days later, a team of Israeli Special Forces personnel attacked the airport in a daring and ingenious raid, named Operation Thunderbolt, and freed the hostages.
That raid is the subject of Saul David’s new book, “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History.” This is a minute-by-minute narrative of that week by a scrupulous and thorough historian, who has written what will most likely be the definitive work on the subject and produced a tense and riveting account of what has come to be known as the Entebbe raid. By means of extraordinarily deep research, David essentially lets the characters speak for themselves.
And what characters they are. The hijackers were led by two German left-wing terrorists, a man and a woman with connections to the Baader-Meinhof gang, supported by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They were opposed and ultimately defeated by the leading political and military personalities of Israel. Some 40 years later, many of the names associated with the hijacking are still remembered: the Palestinian terrorist Wadie Haddad and the Israelis Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Menachem Begin (with a brief appearance by Moshe Dayan). The leader of the raid, killed in combat at the airport, was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In some ways at the center of the narrative is Idi Amin Dada, “Uganda’s eccentric, flamboyant and ruthless dictator who, just two days earlier, had been declared ‘president for life’ by the Ugandan Parliament.”
These characters and a vast assortment of others — hostages, diplomats, aircrew members and soldiers — are all described in great detail and, through the use of diaries, articles, books and private papers, heard as well, as they attempt to deal with the inevitable conflicts arising in a crisis. David is a military historian; his previous books include “The Indian Mutiny,” “Military Blunders” and “Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879,” and he is especially adept at explaining the decision-making process that takes place as a complex military operation is considered, planned and executed.
The gravely difficult choice facing the Israelis was this: Do we give in to the hijackers’ demands and, in exchange for the hostages, free terrorists captured in previous attacks, even those who have Jewish “blood on their hands”? Or do we initiate a rapidly planned and daring operation that may turn out to be a disastrous failure? Both options are explored in depth, with the defense minister, Shimon Peres, supporting the military operation and the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, undecided as the 48-hour deadline set by the terrorists approaches. David’s exploration of the various conflicts generates a high level of drama and tension for the reader, even though the outcome is known. This is the achievement of a masterly, first-rate historian.
He is also a master at detailing the chaotic action of combat: “With his team strung out behind him, Giora Zussman” — one of the Israeli commandos — “made a solo entry into the small hall that had held the Israeli hostages. He could see several empty mattresses with sheets, a number of suitcases and a table piled with passports; but no hostages or terrorists. Just in case, he sprayed the hall and the gap in the wall of boxes with bullets from his Kalashnikov until his clip was empty. As he ducked back out of the hall to reload, the two missing members of his team moved past him and into the hall, firing as they went. Reaching a room at the far end that had been used as a kitchen, they found and killed two Ugandan soldiers.”
The great value of a work like “Operation Thunderbolt” is that it relights the dim corners of past events. For the Israelis, meeting in a secure bunker known as the Pit, the problem was not so much murderous enemies as it was the role played by Idi Amin. As Peres told his staff, a hijacking had never had the “explicit support of any president, army or state.” If this was now the case, the game had changed, and the Israelis would have to send sufficient troops to fight Ugandan soldiers guarding the airport.
Amin himself kept visiting Entebbe, making speeches to the hostages with basically two themes: We must hope that your home governments are sensible about your predicament and will accede to the hijackers’ demands; and we want to make sure that you, though hostages, are as comfortable as possible in a concrete airport building. Mattresses and food were provided from local tourist hotels.
Then there was the response of the victims. Michel Cojot, a leader of the hostages and David’s principal character among them, spoke to the airport director, saying, “It is not easy to receive 257 persons unexpectedly.” The airport director looked perplexed: “But I expected you.” Amin had, in fact, been in on the hijacking from the beginning.
Recalling that week in 1976, the fight against terrorists may seem like a fairly standard procedure — the Israelis did it so courageously and well that the event became famous, and will remain so. But in these times of ISIS and its brutality, the terrorists of 1976 look like political idealists. In a way, that’s the scariest part of “Operation Thunderbolt.”
Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History
By Saul David
Illustrated. 446 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $30.