For seven days, Air France Flight 139 out of Athens had been out of its owners’ hands. Having left Greece on June 27th bound for Paris, the aircraft was soon diverted to Libya after four hijackers – two Palestinians and two Germans – stormed the cockpit. Late in the evening on July 3, 1976, a team of 100 commandos from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched Operation Entebbe, one of the most daring counter-terrorism rescues in history.
The ordeal began after the Airbus A300 lifted off from Athens International Airport. The hijackers commandeered the aircraft and directed the pilot to fly to Benghazi Airport in Libya, where the plane sat on the runway for seven hours in order to be refueled. A solitary passenger was released, a pregnant woman who pretended to have a miscarriage. The following afternoon, the terrorists directed the pilot to fly towards Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Once on the ground in the pro-Palestinian nation, an additional four terrorists climbed on the plane and helped the original four separate the passengers into two groups – Israeli and not. The hijackers’ intent became clear as they moved the passengers to Entebbe’s former terminal. Those with Israeli passports would soon watch as the rest were released and placed on another Air France plane. Only the crew of Flight 139 and a handful of others would remain behind with the 85 Israelis being held, putting 106 people under terrorist control. Now the real work would start.
The hijackers released a simple demand: the release of 40 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and 13 others behind bars in four other countries. Without compliance by the five nations in question, the team of terrorists would begin killing hostages on July 1st. Desperate for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, the Israeli cabinet tapped Baruch Bar-Lev to contact Amin in the hopes of securing the passengers and crew. But for convincing Amin to argue for a three-day extension to the deadline, Bar-Lev was unsuccessful. (The Egyptian government, led by Anwar Sadat, applied pressure without results, as well.)
As the direct and indirect efforts to release the hostages continued to fail, the IDF was tasked with executing a raid to secure their countrymen locked away in Entebbe. The Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, spoke with those who had flown out on the second Air France flight and monitored the movements of the Ugandan military to create the most comprehensive plan possible in just 48 hours. Facing little help for flyover rights from African governments, the help of Jewish businessmen created an opening in Kenya.
With the plan secure, six aircraft slipped over the Red Sea under the cover of darkness on July 3rd – only hours before the hijackers planned to begin murdering civilians. Four of the airplanes, C-130s filled with ground forces who would execute the rescue, navigated onto the airfield at Entebbe without help from air traffic control. The attack unit, speeding off the back of the first C-130 to hit the ground, hit the terminal in force, swept into the old terminal building and killed the hijackers in a matter of minutes. Three passengers were killed in the crossfire, but 102 were soon being loaded onto the three other C-130s in armored personnel carriers.
The firefight, lasting just 53 minutes, resulted in a single death for the IDF – Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of two-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin.