ON June 27, 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine after a stopover in Athens. After a brief refuelling in Libya, the plane continued to its final destination - Uganda. Within a week, Israel had formulated a courageous rescue mission . . .
OFFICER Amitzur Kafri curled up around a bag of oranges on the floor of the Hercules-130 military plane, drifting in and out of sleep. Around him, 28 fellow Israeli Sayeret Matkal special forces' reconnaissance soldiers in fake Ugandan army uniforms sat or lay, squished together, sweating and silent, on their way to Entebbe, Uganda.
Preceding them by six days were 100-plus Israeli and other Jewish passengers from skyjacked Air France flight 139, held at gunpoint in Entebbe after most non-Israeli passengers were freed.
The soldiers were drooping after intense training through the night followed by endemic vomiting on the first leg of the flight, as the squads flew low to the ground under the radar and through heavy turbulence to avoid detection by Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, American and Russian radars.
With three cars - two Land Rover jeeps and a civilian Mercedes - filling the Hercules, there was little space for the 29 soldiers to sprawl out comfortably, except under, inside and atop the vehicles. When Kafri fully opened his eyes from resting, several hours had passed.
He stared mindlessly up at a hamsa amulet (good luck charm) dangling in the shadows under the Mercedes. Through the darkened porthole in the other direction, the moonlight reflecting off East Africa's Lake Victoria suddenly came into view, giving him a start.
"That's when we realised there was no escape plan; nobody to rescue us," Kafri remembers. "We were too far from home."
Further back in the aircraft, Sgt-Maj Amir Ofer, huddled over a jeep, was having his own epiphany: "We realised there was no way back - we had no fuel. The mission would be a success or the alligators would have a festival."
The plan to rescue more than 100 hostages held at Uganda's Entebbe airport was certainly unprecedented.
The elite team was used to covert operations on Israeli or nearby soil, where the terrain was familiar. But passing over Ethiopia and then Kenya, their final mission in Uganda would be an unparalleled 2,360 miles from Israel - the round-trip distance too far for the Hercules to handle without refuelling.
Meanwhile, Uganda's leader, despot Idi Amin, was helping the hijackers from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, allowing them to keep the hostages in his military airfield terminal.
According to hostage testimonies taken later, Amin visited the hostages a number of times, greeting them with "shalom", and telling them he was appointed by God and was their friend.
Their release, he said, was dependent not on him, but on the Israeli government's ability to be reasonable and release 53 Palestinian "freedom fighters" from jails, primarily in Israel, but also held in France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya. Israeli Intelligence warned that hundreds of Amin's soldiers were guarding the terminal. Many of the 29 Sayeret Matkal soldiers in the first Hercules and some 170 other Sayeret Matkal, Golani Brigade and Paratrooper backup with armoured vehicles in three other Hercules planes behind them were in a semi-state of disbelief.
They struggled to grasp that they were on their way to a far-away and suddenly hostile country whose government and army were protecting and guarding the hijackers.
Trailing a safe distance behind the Hercules planes were also two Israeli 707s: a medical unit headed by Ephraim Sneh and a command headquarters filled with high-ranking officers and generals.
Later, soldiers would joke that the plan sounded like a script from Mission Impossible. The Israelis would land without arousing suspicion, pretend to be Ugandan guards travelling in an entourage of Land Rovers behind President Idi Amin in his famous black Mercedes, and overtake the terrorists with the element of surprise, despite hundreds of enemy soldiers in every direction.
Kafri would be the first in the counterfeit convoy as the driver of the Mercedes, sitting next to Sayeret Matkal Commander, Lt-Col Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, in charge of the inner ground assault, and Sayeret Matkal officer Maj Muki Betzer, second in command for the inner ground assault. Ofer would be the last soldier in the convoy, in the back of the second Land Rover.
Together, the 29 Israelis in the three cars commanded by Netanyahu were to kill the terrorists, ward off the Ugandan guards and free the hostages, while the other teams, acting in parallel - some as far as one mile away - secured the periphery areas, guarded the planes, refuelled, destroyed the Ugandan fighter planes and reloaded the Israeli planes with the hostages.
Back in the first Hercules, the 29 soldiers looked out on the view of Africa. Already over Lake Victoria, there would soon be no time to wonder.
The deadline the terrorists had set for 2pm was quickly approaching. According to hostage testimonies, hijackers had begun separating out the Israelis the previous night. Jews and non-Jews shivered and protested, as they recalled the separation in Nazi death camps of those chosen to live and those to die.
A nun who refused to separate herself from the Jews was pushed out to freedom. The French air crew, led by pilot Captain Michael Bacos, who insisted on staying in solidarity and responsibility for their passengers, were allowed to stay. The rest of the passengers were flown to Europe.
Through the night and the early morning, Israeli agents met with the freed hostages to collect descriptions of the areas where the hostages were kept and the hijackers' dress and behaviour.
Without waiting for cabinet approval, Netanyahu, Major Muki Betzer, Major General Dan Shomron, Intelligence officer Colonel Ehud Barak and other top IDF officials continued to work on their military rescue plan.
The Idi Amin entourage ground plan sounded convincing to them, except for a few minor details - like the fact that the army did not own a Mercedes. Kafri, in charge of special military operations and arms, was put to the task.
Through the previous night and the early morning, he set about hunting down a Mercedes in Tel Aviv from a government connection and getting it into shape.
"It was a lousy, stupid car that didn't work," he says. And the car was white. A civilian mechanic rebuilt the car and painted it black, while another person made a Ugandan flag and number plate.
"If we had believed the mission was really going to happen, we could have gone to a proper Mercedes dealer and bought some new tyres. Instead, we went to a friend's tyre shop in Tel Aviv at 1am to replace the four burned out tyres. He didn't know why and I think we might still owe him money."
Back in Jerusalem, Defence Minister Shimon Peres was continuing to amass intelligence information and formulating a plan to stroke Amin's ego.
To gain time, he was buttered up over the phone by a retired colonel who had been stationed in Uganda when the two countries had better diplomatic relations. Amin was told: "You are very ambitious. You can win the Nobel Peace Prize [if you help us]."
Peres listened in on many of the calls, taking note of anything Amin let slip. But while he was able to uncover some information, the cabinet, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, still wasn't fully convinced that the military option was feasible.
With the deadline less than two hours away and the threat of the hostages being killed overhead, the cabinet voted unanimously to begin negotiating the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages.
Perhaps the charm offensive on Amin paid off. When Amin received the news that the Israelis agreed to negotiate, he ordered the hijackers to extend their deadline to 2pm on July 4.
The IDF planning for a rescue mission went into a frenzied overtime. A few hours later that Thursday night, Ofer was just settling in to a good night's sleep when his Sayeret Matkal commander called, ordering him back to the base by 8 am.
Unlike Kafri, he was not a career officer. Ofer was a young draftee, one-week short of finishing his mandatory army service and counting the moments to his return to civilian life.
"I lay in bed and asked myself how it could be done in a foreign country where the army is cooperating with the hijackers," he recalls. "At 2.30 am an idea came to me - Idi Amin was such a criminal that if we bribed him enough he would just look the other way and we could do a fake rescue mission - that would not be as dangerous. Only then did I relax."
All over the country, soldiers were being summoned to base.
"When I arrived at 8am on Friday, I was shocked," says Ofer. "Everyone was looking for ammunition as if we were going to war. The Paratroopers and Golani were gathering too, as if it was D-Day. My commander told me that the IDF was planning a rescue mission, with our unit as the spearhead and our team the tip. I understood the situation was very dangerous." That first day, preparations for a military rescue were underway, but nobody knew exactly how the team would make it to Uganda.
While soldiers prepared the vehicles and planes and organised artillery, Yoni Netanyahu divided up the Sayeret Matkal team into squads, each responsible for storming one area of the terminal, where the hijackers were guarding the hostages.
Ofer initially landed a back-up position for the first team to storm the first doors to the hostages.
"I was so relieved to be just back-up because it was extremely dangerous," he says. "But after an hour or so, they changed the plan, and we were no longer back-up. We were to storm the second door ourselves. And at that moment it was very frightening."
The knot in his stomach continued to grow. By the fate of a draw, Ofer would not only be in the squad at greatest risk, but now he would be the team member among them to carry special explosives to break down any necessary doors or walls.
The intelligence file showed 200 to 1,000 Ugandan soldiers in a military airport with about 20 MIG-21 and MIG-17 fighter plane. The 30 soldiers from the Sayeret Matkal team were hugely outnumbered.
As the commanders decided to go with the Hercules plan, the build-up of intelligence information was growing rapidly.
A contact in East Africa sneaked into Uganda to photograph the Entebbe terminal. The freed hostages helped the Israelis draw a picture of where the hostages were held and where the hijackers camped out.
And from a bout of wild good fortune, the contractor who built the terminal where the hostages were held turned out to be Israeli.
Major Muki Betzer, who had been previously stationed in Entebbe, was assigned to the inner circle and briefed the team about the Ugandan military and terminal. It was all coming together.
Late on Friday, a mock terminal was built and planes were flown into the runway, loaded with the soldiers, the Land Rovers and the Mercedes. The soldiers spent the rest of the night in dry runs.
There was a glitch, says Kafri: "The Mercedes was the first car to leave the Hercules and it didn't start well. Being an automatic car, there is no way to start it up by pushing like you can a shift car. We were afraid something was going to go really wrong, so we decided during the real thing to turn on the car engine five or 10 minutes before landing."
Very late on Friday night, the soldiers were ordered to check every weapon, including machine and submachine guns, rocket launchers and semi-heavy weapons. A local kibbutz initially complained about the noise and the illegal use of firearms.
During the night, Ofer checked the intelligence files and saw the mission had been named "Operation Stanley", after the African explorer Henry Stanley.
When Ofer peeked again in the intelligence file, there was a thick line through "Operation Stanley". In its place - "Operation Thunderbolt".
"That was nice for me because Thunderbolt was the name of a James Bond book I'd read recently," says Ofer. "And I was proud, but believe me, even James Bond didn't do such a job."
But the cabinet were having trouble being persuaded that the soldiers could pull off the element of surprise, flying in all those planes and then convincing the guards that they were the entourage of Idi Amin.
By the time the four Hercules planes took off from Israel in the afternoon, the prime minister had still not announced a decision.
"The flight to Sharm el-Sheikh for refuelling was the most difficult I had ever had," recalls Ofer. "I threw up many times - it was very hot. Flying beneath the radar there was so much turbulence. When I got to Sharm I couldn't take it anymore. The doctor gave me pills to take. And I was so afraid that I would collapse that I took one every hour for the rest of the flight."
Another soldier was so ill he could not reboard, and was replaced.
In the Sinai, when Rabin finally approved Operation Thunderbolt, Netanyahu delivered his team their final briefing.
"He was cool as ice and didn't show the slightest fear; he was full of confidence and focus," says Ofer.
In Sinai, the soldiers switched into their fake Ugandan uniforms, made the previous day by an Israeli tailor, and boarded their flights again, this time above the turbulence. Many of the exhausted and sick soldiers slept.
Passing over Lake Victoria, the energy of the soldiers quickly transformed from enervated to alert. Some joked about life and death moments while others stared in silence.
Everyone prepared themselves, their arms and their vehicles for landing at Entebbe Airport. Kafri jumped into the driver's seat of the Mercedes and turned on the engine; Yoni Netanyahu jumped in beside him.
Ofer jumped into the Land Rover, feeling faint. A young kid who had never left the Middle East, he was expecting lions, tigers, giraffes and wilderness to surround the airstrip. But he could see nothing but darkness and the outline of the landing strip. There was good news: the landing strip lights were on.
The planes touched down and soldiers jumped out first to place back-up lights around the ramp, and the convoy - the Mercedes and two Land Rover jeeps - followed, heading towards the old terminal. Ofer recalls: "I asked myself in this moment I will never forget: Of the 29 fighters, how many will survive?"
Then, two Ugandan guards at the terminal entry raised their rifles. It is speculated that in the days preceding the Entebbe raid, Amin no longer drove a black Mercedes.
Also unknown to the soldiers - until 20 years later, says Kafri - Ugandan cars are right-hand drive, unlike the Israeli Merc.
Rifles were pointed at them and there was no time to pause. A silencer was shot from the right window as a soldier in the second vehicle fired with an automatic machine gun.
Though it may have saved lives, his echoing shot did take away the element of surprise on which the whole mission was founded.
Netanyahu had to change the plan without a moment's consideration. Instead of driving the convoy directly to the terminal where the hostages were being kept, it stopped a distance away at the control tower.
As soon as the shots were fired, the Ugandans ordered the airport landing lights switched off, and shooting began. In the darkness, everyone jumped out of the cars. The minute Ofer's legs hit the ground, he began trembling uncontrollably. He had to grab the car for balance, he recalls, so he wouldn't fall down. The commander of his squad was to lead him and two others to door number two. But when Ofer looked up from holding on to the car, his commander, Amnon Peled was nowhere in sight.
"I was sure he was already far ahead and his back exposed. The fear and trembling disappeared and I ran as fast as possible to cover his back. It was dark, there was shooting, and I was running as fast as I could.
"But it was a mistake - he was still behind me. And when he saw me he understood, and tried to catch up. All the others were advancing along the building according to plan, but stopped because the officer leading them stopped for a few seconds."
At this moment, Netanyahu shouted at him to advance and everyone continued.
"Only I was running at an angle towards the building to get there faster, and when I heard Yoni, I was already almost at the door, and seconds later, by the last 20 metres before I got there, I heard a shout that 'Yoni has been injured.' But I did not have time to even flicker, my instructions were to reach the door or they could blow up the building in a matter of seconds," Ofer says.
When he was only a few metres away, he saw the door was glass and difficult to differentiate from the rest of the glass wall.
"Suddenly, someone lying on the floor started shooting at me. I counted later what was left in his magazine, he had shot about 15 bullets at me, only God knows how he missed me, there was not even a mark on me," says Ofer.
"We shot at each other, and finally I saw his head drop. I rushed in, shot him again, and looked to the right, and realised I was - unintentionally - alone. I was the first to arrive."
Ofer's mistaken dart ahead of his unit turned out to be fortuitous in more than one way. After he shot the first hijacker, two more hijackers in a second room were lying on the floor, their weapons pointed at the line of soldiers approaching along the wall. But in a flash, they suddenly heard Ofer on their other side, and rotated their guns towards him.
"In exactly that moment, my commanding officer had reached the door, and saw the hijackers rotate. He shot them before they could shoot me in the back," he says. "A fourth hijacker was hiding behind a pillar and pointed his gun to shoot at Amos [Goren]. And a fraction of a second before him, Amos shot him. "We checked his [the hijacker's] gun and he had already pulled the trigger - the piston had moved forwards through the cylinder, but Amos's bullet hit the cylinder and the bullet didn't lock and fire. Even the best director could not have planned it better," says Ofer.
Ofer ran to the hostages with the loudspeaker he was also carrying, and shouted to them in Hebrew and English to lie down.
Within seconds, the rest of the unit arrived. One hostage jumped up and was shot by two other IDF soldiers who mistakenly thought he was a terrorist. Two other hostages were also killed, ostensibly by the hijackers.
Within minutes, all of the hijackers were dead. Around the terminal, there was shooting everywhere for at least 15 minutes.
The Israelis were engaging the Ugandan soldiers and the periphery troops were ordered to destroy the Ugandan army's fighter planes, so they couldn't follow them out. At least 20 Ugandan soldiers were killed trying to stop the Israelis.
Seven IDF soldiers were slightly wounded and three were seriously injured, including Yoni Netanyahu. Only one of the three in critical condition would survive - Sorin Herschko, who would become a war hero and a paraplegic.
Ofer remembers a young hostage confusing the shots and lights for firecrackers, and shouting: "Wow, how beautiful!" Former Sayeret Matkal Deputy Commander Major Shaul Mofaz was called back with his teams and armoured vehicles from guarding the runways, the terminal sides and the new terminal areas to assist the small inner circle of soldiers.
"It was a great relief to know we were in stronger forces here and our chances of survival increased somewhat," says Ofer. "Then a very young, beautiful French flight attendant was slightly wounded from ricochets, and I was commanded to carry her to the plane.
"I think I'm the only soldier in the history of the IDF who carried a half naked beauty in red underwear over his shoulder while running from bullets. [She had been sleeping in her underwear when the commandos arrived]. I stepped out of a building and bullets were racing past my head.
"When the hostages started coming out it was amazing," says Kafri, who had helped ward off Ugandan soldiers from the control tower and later counted the hostages to make sure none were left behind. "There were at any time 15-20 people climbing on your jeep like bees and we were taking them back and forth to the Hercules."
With orders not to leave anything behind, Kafri then ran to recover the Mercedes. He had left the keys in the ignition, some 500 metres away. Major Ephraim Sneh, in charge of the air hospital, treated the wounded on the ground before putting them on the air hospital's return flight.
"This was my strongest memory from the mission," Sneh says, "leaning on the ground taking care of the wounded at Entebbe's old terminal, when suddenly I heard all this noise. I turned around and saw the hostages being loaded on to the airplane. And I thought, 'Now we have succeeded'."
In the air hospital on the one-hour flight to Nairobi to refuel and transfer the seriously wounded, Sneh and Dr David Hasin were treating Yoni Netanyahu when he died. The plane, filled with the wounded and the hostages, was heavy with emotions and silence.
After some time, a female hostage shouted to Sneh: "Major! Major! I'm afraid I'm sitting on some military thing," he remembers.
"She takes from under her [bottom] a mini-hand grenade," says Sneh. "This was the sort of grenade notorious for its low safety, used only by special forces units for special operations.
"I think it fell from Yoni's gear when he was rushed aboard. The wounded were loaded before the hostages - so I believe that 100 or so hostages trod on this grenade. You can imagine what could have happened if that grenade had exploded in the Hercules holding all those hostages."
It was in Nairobi that the rest of the soldiers on the other planes were told of Netanyahu's death.
In the first Hercules, on its way back to Israel, a pilot heard Idi Amin on shortwave radio and attached it to the loudspeaker.
"Idi Amin announced that he had reoccupied the airport. Everyone burst out laughing. It was a grand finale," says Ofer.
The soldiers were drained and all the way back from Kenya people slept. But there was much mixed emotion - sadness over the death of their commander mixed with a feeling of euphoria: the hostages were free and the danger past.
The first planes landed, met by Peres, Rabin and a host of top officials. There was excitement, but Ofer didn't feel like celebrating.
"It was a very hot day and the sun was glaring in my eyes. After three nights of no sleep and extreme mental stress, after everything I had been through, and all the miracles, I just wanted to be left alone. I was drained of every last drop of energy."
He had dreaded the mission, but in retrospect would say he had no regrets. "This was the right thing to do and I am only sorry that we were not that determined in other situations."
Kafri meanwhile took some of his men in the Mercedes with the Ugandan flag and number plate back to base, driving past Ben-Gurion Airport, past hundreds of Israelis singing, dancing and celebrating. They kept driving.
"We went back to the base and carried on with our life," says Kafri. "I never met the hostages until 20 years later. Our unit didn't go to a party."
Early the next day, Sayeret Matkal had a new commander, Amiram Levine, and attended, with thousands of others, Netanyahu's funeral. Israel was in a rare moment of simultaneous elation and mourning.
Several months later, when Kafri got married, his one-night honeymoon was a trip to Tel Aviv for Chinese food and to see the just-released Operation Yonatan movie before going back to base.