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Mission impossible: the miracle of Entebbe

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Tense looks and joyous are seen as the Air France hostages return home. MOSHE MILNER/ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. Today, Julien Bauer looks at the miracle of the rescue at Entebbe.

On June 27, 1976, in an era when international phone calls were more the exception than the rule, I received a call from my father who was living in Paris. In a voice choked by emotion, he told me of the hijacking of an Air France plane travelling from Israel to Paris, of its landing in Entebbe, Uganda and of the demand by the hijackers for a ransom. Even more ominously, he told me of their demand that 40 terrorists from Israel and 13 from other countries be released, and of the threat that, if their demands were not fulfilled, they would kill all the Jewish travellers. My father added: “What can Israel do? If we accept the conditions of the hijackers, it would become open hunt on all Jews all over the world. If we refuse, Jews will be murdered. If we try to intervene, we may be able to save a few, but at what cost? Only a miracle can save the Jewish People.”

As if that was not bad enough, we learned that the hijackers were made up of two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a gang of psychopaths whose goal was to kill Jews, and two members of the German Revolutionary Cells, a group that espoused leftist ideology and Nazi practices.

In order to emphasize their anti-Semitism, the terrorists separated the travellers into two groups: the gentiles, who were released soon after, and the Jews, who were kept hostage and threatened with death. The United Nations kept silent – no state said anything in support of Israel.

Idi Amin Dada, the president of Uganda at the time, had been trained as a paratrooper by Israel, but had become an enemy of the Jewish state, apparently because the Israeli government had refused to sell him some military aircraft. As he was known for his irrational behaviour and his cruelty, it is not by chance that the terrorists chose to land in Entebbe – they knew Amin Dada would put his country and its forces at their service. To even try to negotiate with him was not an option. The Israeli government would have to intervene with force, in order to save the hostages. Such an operation was without precedent and fraught with danger.

We should consider that the slightest hitch in this operation would have led, not in failure, but to a disaster.

The logistics constituted a “mission impossible.” Entebbe is 4,000 kilometres from Israel and getting there required flying through hostile airspace. Negotiations had to be entered into with Kenya, to secure the airlift. A replica of the airport was built with the expertise of a company that had been in charge of building the airport in Entebbe. A black Mercedes similar to the one used by Amin Dada was transported there, in order to confuse the Ugandan soldiers guarding the airport and the hostages. Each element in itself was a complex enterprise; to co-ordinate all of them in a limited time period was an even more amazing tour de force.

We know what happened. On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos landed in Entebbe and freed the hostages, telling them that “we have come to take you home.” The planes flew back to Israel, to a tremendous welcome. The cost was a fraction of the most optimistic predictions. Only one commando was killed in action, Lt.-Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Three hostages were killed, including Dora Bloch, who had been transferred to Kampala Mulago Hospital and was murdered on the order of Amin Dada, in revenge for the liberation of the hostages.

A bird’s eye view of the Entebbe International Airport, with the terminal building in the centre. ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

This was the most amazing success Israel had since the Six Day War. Most decent people were happy about the outcome and the Jewish People, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were overwhelmed by emotion. Many people, including my father, considered the Entebbe operation a “miracle.” But was it really a miracle?
Rather than a miracle, the success could be attributed to the superbly trained Israeli army, the extraordinary co-operation between the commandos, the intelligence services, the companies that had built the Entebbe airport, etc. But we should consider that the slightest hitch in this operation would have led, not to a failure, but to a disaster.

Perhaps the miracle resides in how Jews reacted to Entebbe. Many religious people lauded the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), without which, no miracle could have occurred; while many secularists did not limit their appreciation to the IDF and did not hesitate to talk about divine intervention. As in 1967, exclamations of “Yisrael betach beHashem” (Israel, trust in God) were heard. Both groups were right: the miracle happened because of what men do – i.e., the IDF – and the IDF won because of God’s blessing.

When something so amazing happens and we cannot rationally explain it, we cannot help but call it a ‘miracle.’

It is interesting to note how non-Jews reacted, and still react, to Entebbe. Kurt Waldheim, secretary general of the United Nations, declared on July 5, 1976, that Israel had committed “a serious violation of sovereignty of a member state,” but that it was not the “only element involved.” The UN Security Council saw it not as a “miracle,” but – believe it or not – as “an act of aggression.”

On July 4, 2016, the 40th anniversary of the operation, Netanyahu landed in Entebbe on an official visit. He was greeted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and the heads of state of Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, whom he planned to meet with over the next several days. The heads of state of three other African countries – South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia – also travelled to Entebbe, specifically to meet the prime minister of Israel. Who would have believed that leaders of these countries would travel outside their borders to welcome the brother of the late Jonathan Netanyahu? Is this reversal of what happened 40 years ago another “miracle”?

READ: RECALLING THE RAID AT ENTEBBE, 40 YEARS LATER

Miracles are perceived as religious events that are far above regular, logical states of affairs. But they do not occur in a vacuum. No angel comes down to earth to change the course of events. The messengers of the Almighty who herald the miracle are human beings. In the times of the first Chanukah celebration, the Temple was rededicated to worship, not following the intervention of an angel, but by the very factual revolt of the Hasmoneans and their victory in their war against the Greeks. The Entebbe hostages were saved because Israeli soldiers were ready to put their lives at risk, in order to rescue them. Nevertheless, when something so amazing happens and we cannot rationally explain it, we cannot help but call it a “miracle.” One day after landing in Israel, one of the hostages, Akiva Laxer, himself a self-described “non-believing Jew,” said: ”I saw through the window a form. I did not even fathom it could be an Israeli soldier. I saw an angel.” Does that mean this hostage became religious? No – no more than all the Jews did after the victory of the Hasmoneans and the cleansing of idols from the Temple.

A miracle may occur when Jews are ready to put their lives on the line, in order to save other Jews; when they are united by a common goal; when they plan to be active within the real world and postpone the philosophical discussions for later; when they behave, not as angels created to do one, and only one, specific act, but as humans with free will who deliberately choose to do what is right. In that sense, Entebbe was a historical miracle and continues to resonate for Jews and gentiles alike as a modern-day miracle.