- - Monday, February 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: FLIGHT 139 AND THE RAID ON ENTEBBE AIRPORT, THE MOST AUDACIOUS HOSTAGE RESCUE MISSION IN HISTORY

By Saul David

Little, Brown, $30, 446 pages, illustrated

Since the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, it has been fashionable in some circles to express nostalgia for the good old days of hijacking back in the 1970s. It is certainly true that nothing back then was even remotely comparable to Sept. 11, where the vicious destruction and sheer number of lives lost both in aircraft and on the ground would have seemed inconceivable in what were more innocent times in such matters. But the unknowable future cannot figure into events as they are happening. For people caught up in a protracted hijacking like that of Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris in June and July of 1976, experiencing terror of imminent death, extreme discomfort and privation, beatings and all manner of psychological torture was a hellish experience all around.

The story of this ever more dramatic story culminating in the audacious successful rescue of the hostages by Israeli military forces thousands of miles from home in the hostile territory of the notorious Idi Amin’s Uganda has been told many times on page and screen. But never better than British historian Saul David does in this meticulously researched, vivid account. He has a knack for making the reader feel he is right there, sharing the feelings of everyone from the hapless passengers to the brave, disciplined commandos and the agonized government leaders back home who had to take the leap of faith and courage to authorize a mission they knew could so easily go awry.

The hijackers were threatening to kill the remaining passengers unless Israel freed several notorious terrorists. At that time, such a policy was anathema to it, but domestic pressure from the families — deeply concerned that by now only Israelis were at risk of death, having been separated from the others who had been let go — drove them to open negotiations. This was in part a delaying tactic until a rescue operation, if such a thing was possible. Which was very much in doubt, given the enormous obstacles.

If negotiating with terrorists was rebarbative to Israel’s Cabinet, it appalled the United States. When told of this step, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared he “was rather astonished by their decision you are going to have Israelis picked up all over the world now.” And when Mr. David tells us of Mr. Kissinger’s brutal response to Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz’s explanation that otherwise “men, women and children” would have been slaughtered, you get an idea of just how stoneheartedly realistic that apostle of Realpolitik could be:

” ‘I wonder,’ replied Mr. Kissinger, ‘if that would not have been better. Then you could react.’ “

The ambassador’s response to this shocking remark tells you so much about Israel’s imperatives when caught on the horns of such a dilemma: “Politically I’m sure you’re right. But humanly and emotionally? Here we have the human element.”

But Mr. Kissinger remains unconvinced: “I am worried what will happen now.”

The secretary of state is obviously and genuinely deeply concerned for what will befall Israel’s citizens in the future, but their government has the awful responsibility of deciding how to save these particular ones in the here and now. What shines through every discussion reported here among Israeli politicians and soldiers alike, both taking risks in their own spheres, is the primacy of doing whatever it takes to accomplish that immediate task.

Accomplish it they did, with relatively little loss of life on their side, including less than a handful of hostages, although the loss of mission leader Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu (older brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), shot by a Ugandan sniper, made Defense Secretary and future Prime Minister Shimon Peres weep. “His joy at the operation’s success,” writes Mr. David, would forever be ‘tinged with sadness because of Yoni’s death.’ “

For the passengers stuck in the hot, steamy, filthy, mosquito-infested “old terminal” at Entebbe Airport (where in better times Queen Elizabeth II, who had just found out in East Africa that she had ascended to the throne, had started her journey home), the separation of Jew from non-Jew had terrible echoes of the selections that were such a feature of the Nazi Holocaust. Not just for them, either: The brave men who knew they were risking their political futures and the even braver ones putting their actual lives on the line were driven by the same ineluctable imperative. It would fall to opposition leader Menachem Begin — who, along with his colleagues had admirably put partisan differences aside to provide unflinching support for the government in its agonizing hour — after the triumph to proclaim what he termed “the message of Entebbe.”

Mr. David writes, “The world should know, he added, that if ‘anyone, anywhere’ is ‘persecuted, or humiliated, or threatened, or abducted, or is in anyway endangered simply because he or she is a Jew,’ then Israel would marshal all its strength ‘to come to their aid and bring them to the safe haven of our homeland.’ “

The Entebbe Raid took place on July 4, 1976 and when told of it by the Israeli premier’s chief of staff, Amos Eiran, President Ford’s “aide responded: ‘Tell Mr. Rabin I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Bicentennial.’ ” The raid was one of history’s truly stirring and awe-inspiring events, and Mr. David’s gripping book truly does it justice.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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