Read part I here.
The Rescue Operation Begins
Just before the C-130s took off from Lod airport, Shimon Peres came to the airfield. He shook a few hands and answered the concerns of the individual commanders regarding the Cabinet’s approval of the mission. Yoni came up to him, shook his hand, and reiterated that their plan was “tip-top.”
The C-130s left Lod in five-minute intervals, flying in different directions and then shortly after turning south to the Sinai. An extra Hercules accompanied them to Sharm al-Sheikh in the event that one of the planes developed mechanical issues.
The four C-130s had to fly low to avoid radar detection. There were no seats and the commandos had to sit on the vehicles. The lurching of the planes in the heat made almost every commando sick. The floors were slick with vomit.
At Sharm al-Sheikh, the commandos recovered from the turbulent flight and got ready for the final flight to Entebbe. One soldier remembered that a change came over Yoni. “He was more relaxed now… he was in his element.”
The planes were loaded much more than they had ever been during any training exercise. Shani’s Hercules One carried 33 men of the Unit’s assault force, their three vehicles, 52 paratroopers, and part of the command team. Hercules Two was even heavier. It carried two of the Unit’s APCs, 16 Unit troops, a jeep, and 17 more paratroops. Hercules Three carried two more of the Unit’s APCs, 16 Unit troops, 30 Golani fighters, and their jeep. Hercules Four carried two Peugeot pickups — one for the Golani troops and one for the fuel pump — the 10-man-refueling team, the 10-man medical team, and 20 more Golani troops.
As they were flying along, the men were all lost in their own thoughts. Some tried to sleep but the cramped quarters of the C-130s made it difficult. Many of the troops were amazed to see Yoni climb in the Mercedes and calmly begin reading a book to pass the time. His calmness had a positive effect on the men.
The Israelis flew across the length of the Red Sea — to avoid Saudi radar — then over Sudan, South Sudan, and into Ugandan airspace. As they were flying above Lake Victoria, they started descending. Not too long before touchdown, Yoni moved through the cabin and spoke with each soldier. A little encouragement, a smile, a touch on the shoulder, almost as a premonition that these were their last moments together.
The first C-130 was to touchdown on the airfield while the others were to circle over Lake Victoria. It was 12:01 a.m. Ugandan time on July 4 when the first aircraft landed and disgorged its vehicles. The plane taxied to the starting point exactly as planned with Netanyahu leading from the first vehicle, the Mercedes disguised as Amin’s limo. They drove to the terminal at 40 mph, the speed that one would expect Amin’s entourage to drive across the airport.
As the vehicles carrying the commandos were driving to the terminal, they passed a guard post. The guard snapped to attention and raised his weapon in a menacing manner ordering them to stop. He was exactly in the spot that Yoni had them practice in the rehearsals.
Netanyahu and a soldier behind him leaned out the window with silenced .22s and shot the guard. Although he tottered, he was still alive. A soldier in the Land Rover behind the limo blasted the guard with an automatic burst. Another burst took out the second sentry. They were now only 200 meters from the terminal building.
In order to protect his men from incoming fire from the terminal area while they were getting out of the vehicles, Yoni had the Mercedes limo stop short of the terminal building on the near side of the control tower so that his men would be covered by the control tower’s wall.
Netanyahu yelled to his troops, “Come on, charge! Come on, charge!”
Muki Betser, all of a sudden and for no operational reason, fired a burst just by the building’s corner. He then continued firing bursts forward along the front of the terminal while not moving but still taking cover behind the corner of the building.
At that stage, with Betser stopping and the whole force stopping behind him, Yoni shouted at Betser to move forward. Betser didn’t budge. The men, by now, understood that there was no objective reason for the halt in the assault, but nobody, including Yoni, could pass Betser because he was firing forward along the front of the terminal building to where the commandos were meant to run. Had they gone forward, they would have been mowed down by his fire. Only when Betser stopped firing and changed magazines (even though he apparently did not empty his magazine) could Yoni and the other men pass him by.
“You can’t run past the first man who is firing forward since you will be cut down by his bullets,” Iddo said. Yoni was yelling at Betser to move forward. Yoni was the first man to move, followed by several others, once Betser stopped shooting forward. At some stage Yoni started running more slowly, supervising the entrance of the men.
This event has been confirmed in an after-action report from around July 1976 by Yiftah Reicher: “Right after getting off the vehicles… I moved quickly together with Yoni and Muki towards the building. At the building’s beginning, Muki stood and started shooting forward. I saw no target and Yoni shouted at Muki to continue moving forward, and even took a step to bypass him. I passed Muki and entered my hall.” (From Operation Yonatan in First Person, p. 143)
Yiftah Reicher reiterated his remembrances in a taped interview on July 17, 1986. The below interview (translated from Hebrew) is included in Iddo’s latest book Sayeret Matkal at Entebbe:
“If Muki was supposed to run forward and be the first team that enters [the building], then Muki stood there and shot forward, with me not seeing what he was shooting at, and did not move. He stood there and simply shot forward… and did not move… He was supposed to run at the head of his team… and reach his entrance and eliminate the kidnappers. Instead of running, he stood there at the corner and shot forward and did not move.”
Question: “At whom was he shooting?”
Answer: “In my opinion, he shot at no one… I did not see anyone… And Yoni shouted: ‘Muki!’ or ‘Forward!,’ or ‘Run!,’ and ‘Come on already, do it!’… It was a shout that repeated itself: ‘Muki, forward!'”
Question: “Specifically at him?”
Answer: “Specifically at him.”
Amos Goren, another soldier in Muki Betser’s team, repeated the same version in a taped interview on August 11, 1986, included in the same book:
“I saw Muki run and shoot, and didn’t see what he was shooting at, but saw him run and shoot. And then he hugged the building. He hugged the building to the left and stopped there.”
Question: “Before the turn to the front?”
Answer: “Yes, yes… When I heard this shooting of Muki, I was very much surprised.”
“At the time, they had talked about this matter of speed, that you need to run… That was the main point of the whole thing, that you don’t stop… And so it was very strange that [there is a halt in the assault]… I was in the mode of running, and I see that Muki is stopping there. I didn’t understand what was going on… I think that at first, the person who first came out of the corner was Yoni. That is what I remember… And I think that afterward, Amir Ofer and Amnon bypassed him. I think that [Yoni] was more to the right in order to let them pass him… I remember Yoni in front of me and to the right… He certainly came out before me, and I was right behind Muki… I went crazy during the halt… We knew it was a matter of seconds until [the terrorists] recovered.”
A Ugandan soldier stepped out from behind some crates on the right and fired on the Israelis who were fanning out in a V formation and approaching the buildings. He was quickly eliminated by automatic weapons fire. It is believed that then, from inside the terminal, one terrorist fired through the windows shattering the glass.
One of the men saw one of the Israelis fall. It was Yoni. He had slowed down and turned to see how the command team was deploying when he was shot by an AK-47. One round hit him in the chest, another in his arm. Later, after the operation was over, an AK round was found flattened in his vest, stopped by his magazines. No one had stopped to help him. Those had been his orders, wounded men would not be treated until the hostages were rescued and safe.
Tamir Pardo, the future director of the Mossad, was Netanyahu’s radio operator during the mission. “As we were running, I stayed close to Yoni. We came under fire from the tower, and if memory serves me right, a Ugandan soldier who was by the terminal also opened fire (at us). Yoni was hit… he was so close I could reach out and touch him. His body did half a turn and then he fell… I remember myself saying on the comms ‘Yoni [is] hit.’ David [Hassin] the doctor came up to him and I joined Zussman’s team,” Pardo told Ynet.
Israeli commando, Amir Ofer, was the first inside the large hall. As he was approaching the outside of the hall a terrorist on the floor fired nearly an entire magazine at Ofer but missed. Ofer shot a four-round burst with two tracers impacting the terrorist, killing him instantly. As he entered the hall, Ofer came across the terrorist’s body. He fired another burst to ensure he was dead.
In an interview with Iddo Netanyahu conducted by my friend Lela Gilbert, Iddo described what his brother told the commandos about things going wrong.
“At that point, they remembered what Yoni had told them before they left for Entebbe. ‘Things will go wrong,’ he said. ‘Thing will not go exactly according to plan. All you have to remember this: you have to reach the hostages as quickly as possible and kill the terrorists. Just do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.”
“And that’s what they did, even as Yoni was hit by gunfire in those very seconds, while they moved forward.”
As Ofer moved inside the building two terrorists, an Arab man and a German woman aimed their AK-47s at him intending to shoot. But Lieutenant Amnon Peled, right behind Ofer, put two rounds in each and kicked their weapons away.
Ofer began to yell into a megaphone in Hebrew and English, “Everyone on the ground; we’re here to take you home.” Another Palestinian terrorist, hiding among the hostages leaped to his feet and was trying to bring his weapon to bear on Ofer when another commando, Amos Goren, fired two rounds at him before he could pull the trigger. The first hit his Kalashnikov, knocking it from his hands, the second hit the terrorist in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. He was the last terrorist in the terminal with the hostages.
The room was clear. Less than three minutes from the time the Hercules touched down, the terrorists guarding the hostages were eliminated and the hostages were safe. The Ugandans on the second floor and the customs building attempted to flee. About 60 ran and escaped. Several more were cut down when running towards the Israeli soldiers.
Another group of commandos under the command of Captain Giora Zusman secured the smaller hall in the terminal. Two terrorists, one with a grenade, tried to rush past but one of the men fired a burst that killed both; the grenade exploded beneath their two bodies. One commando got a tiny sliver of shrapnel in his lip from the explosion.
The seventh terrorist was killed in the area but who killed him is unknown.
Right on time, exactly seven minutes after the first C-130 touched down, the next three planes landed, two with the Unit’s armored vehicles. They were receiving fire from the control tower. One MAG-58 gunner unleashed two belts of ammo at the tower while another fired an RPG from point-blank range silencing the fire.
Another armored vehicle raced to where the Ugandan Air Force had its MiGs parked. In one row were five MiG-21s and in another three MiG-17s. The commandos cut loose with a MAG-58. One jet was loaded with fuel and exploded. Soon, the conflagration ignited the others in a huge fireball.
The dazed passengers, some of whom still insisted on clinging to their luggage although told by the commandos to leave it behind, began to stagger onto the fourth C-130, past the medical team that tried but failed to resuscitate Yoni. His body was carried past them to the front of the aircraft, covered with an aluminum foil sheet.
The paratroopers covering the new terminal had it secure and were watching several Ugandan civilians who, although terrified and dazed, were unharmed. The new terminal was secured without firing a shot. But at that moment a man in police uniform and a woman coming down the stairs encountered Surin Hershko, an Israeli paratrooper. The police officer fired twice, the second round hitting Hershko in the neck, instantly paralyzing him.
When the hostages were loaded onto the plane, one of the commandos recognized the Air France pilot from his uniform. “You’re the pilot?” he asked in French, “is your whole crew here?” Michel Baccos, the Air France pilot responded, “yes, but what about my passengers?” Throughout the entire ordeal, Baccos remained concerned about his passengers. He could have chosen to be released along with the other non-Jewish hostages but didn’t.
With the threat neutralized, it was time to leave. The commandos and the hostages boarded the C-130s for the flight to Kenya, where they would refuel, and then to Israel. Twenty-six minutes after the last C-130 had touched down, they were taking off for Israel. The time was 1:40 a.m. The entire operation had taken an hour and 39 minutes.
But the elation of freeing the hostages was crushed by the news that their commander had been killed.
Back in Israel, after the jubilation of learning of the successful rescue, things turned somber when Yoni’s death became known. Shimon Peres wrote in his diary, “at four in the morning, Yotta Gur (Chief of Staff) came into my office and said that Yoni was gone… This was the first time in this whole crazy week that I cannot [sic] hold back tears.”
There were few tense moments when flying over the Red Sea but Israeli Phantom jets appeared to escort the C-130s home. The first plane with the hostages landed at 9:43 a.m. at the Tel Nof airbase and then continued on to Lod.
The men in the Unit were feeling hollow. They’d pulled off the greatest hostage rescue operation only to lose their beloved commander.
Yet, the Unit accomplished its mission without significant issues. This reflects its preparedness and training, which allowed Yoni to simplify the plan and limit the objectives. It had all come down to getting good intelligence and putting it to use. The fact that the Israelis were able to take down all of the terrorists and many Ugandan soldiers without heavy casualties speaks volumes about having a high level of tactical training and conducting good rehearsals. The Unit gained superiority on the objective within just three minutes of commencing the operation, using the classic Special Operations tenets of surprise, speed, and violence of action.
In the U.S., amid all the bicentennial celebration, President Gerald Ford released a statement on the raid: “Our own Bicentennial Independence Day was enhanced by an event at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. That action of liberation freed our own hearts to a fuller understanding of the universal meaning of independence — and the courageous action sometimes required to preserve it.”
The Epilogue of Operation Thunderbolt
Betser later attempted to state that he, not Yoni Netanyahu, did the majority of the operation’s planning and that Yoni was not even involved with it. But the fact of the matter was that no true operational planning had taken place until the evening of Thursday, July 1st when Yoni sat with a few of his men and began crafting the detailed plan. On that afternoon Yoni had arrived from the Sinai to Tel Aviv, spent time being updated in the IDF headquarters, went to the Unit to start organizing things, and from there went with his staff to meet Dan Shomron.
Betser also denied many times that he stopped at the corner of the terminal building, thereby halting the assault, which could have led to the death of many, if not all, of the hostages. Yet, several of the assault team members stated the opposite in their testimonies.
He also ran by the initial door of the terminal that he was assigned to, claiming it was locked or even that no door was there… which again proved to be erroneous. Commandos were using the door after the raid was completed.
Betser’s claim that Yoni’s actions during the rescue almost caused its failure, making him responsible for his own death as well as the deaths of three hostages, has been seriously debunked by not only Iddo’s interviews but by the work of Israeli journalist Ariella Ringel-Hoffman, who published The Unfinished Battle on the 30th anniversary of the raid. But the strongest rebuttal to Betser’s claim came from the Unit’s men who published Operation Yonatan in First Person on the raid’s 40th anniversary.
Ringel-Hoffman’s piece also contained an open letter by 12 of the Unit’s men who took part in the raid. The letter stated the following regarding Muki Betser and the falsification of history:
“Even 30 years after the operation, it turns out there is someone who thinks that history can be rewritten, trying for years to create his own version about the Unit’s preparations for the operation and its execution, all this in order to glorify his own acts at the expense of the Unit’s fighters and staff members… Yoni has become, rightly so, a national hero, and we will not allow his memory to be tarnished and will not consent to continue [sic] efforts to falsify Yoni’s part and to falsify what we and our comrades did in the operation.”
About Ringel-Hoffman’s piece, Iddo didn’t pull any punches:
“Over the course of 20 years, the Israeli press had decided to accept Muki Betser’s accounts at face value, despite the fact that within an hour or less, any journalist can research previous statements he gave and realize that his versions of what happened do not tally with each other, and are so contradictory and illogical that they should not see the printed page.
Yet the more outrageous his accounts, the more support they received in the Israeli press. Until recently, virtually the entire Israeli media stood behind him in his attacks on Yoni, including the most preeminent commentators. It’s a sad indication of the professionalism and principles of the Israeli press.
All that changed because one journalist actually decided to ask the other men who were involved, and actually looked at the accounts Muki gave immediately after the operation, which contradict what he said later, and of course because Yedioth Ahronoth decided to carry the story.
So, at least in Israel, it seems his gig is up. But the fact that it took 20 years indicates that ‘there’s something rotten in the State of Denmark.'”
We asked Iddo about the motivation behind Betser’s conflicting narrative, and to his credit, he declined to answer. Is it political? No one knows. However, Yoni always held Muki Betser in high regard as both a soldier and an officer. The two had served together in the Yom Kippur War and in the Unit where Yoni was his commander — which is why Betser’s move is perplexing, to say the least.
Iddo said, “it is hard to read all of these different stories and books and then try to make sense of them because they just weren’t based on facts… I’m not going to say intentional lies, but there were a lot of mistakes.”
“I interviewed a few of the men more than 40 years ago, right after the operation, and most of them more than 30 years ago… all recorded interviews. But some of the stuff that was written 40 years after the raid, the people interviewed may not remember well. But nothing, besides Betser’s account, that was intentionally misleading.”
In the end, Iddo’s motivation, beyond protecting his brother’s legacy, is getting the raid’s history right.
“We came out against the falsification of history. It was a long, continuing struggle, but remarkably, in the end, it succeeded.”
This article was originally published in July 2020.