July 4th isn't just the anniversary of American independence – it's also the anniversary of the 1976 Entebbe operation (known as Operation Jonathan and Operation Thundebolt), the Israeli military raid that rescued over 100 Israelis and Jews, who were being held hostage by Arab terrorists in Uganda with the cooperation of then-Ugandan President Idi Amin,
Thirty nine years after the rescue, documents have surfaced that show the fierce debate that went on in the government then about the possibility – and prospects – of a rescue effort. In notes that were released by the IDF Archives, Defense Minister Shimon Peres is seen questioning the wisdom of the operation. In a note to Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Peres writes “how do we begin such an operation? They say is it impossible, the timing is wrong, and the government will never approve it. My only question is – how will this operation end.”
The incident began on June 26, 1976, when an Air France plane was hijacked by Arab terrorists as it flew from Paris to Tel Aviv. The terrorists landed the plane in Uganda, in an operation that it later became clear was fully coordinated with Amin. After several days, the terrorists released the non-Jewish passengers – keeping the Jewish and Israeli passengers hostage, and demanding the release of several top terrorists in exchange for their release.
Rabin refused to negotiate with the terrorists, and insisted that his military men come up with a plan to free the hostages. The result was one of the most celebrated military operations in the world's history, as IDF troops led by Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the future prime minister, led several dozen troops to Uganda, flying under cover of night and avoiding radar in half a dozen African countries. The troops flew 3,800 kilometers (over 2,000 miles) to reach the airport where the hostages were held. Fortunately, the troops were able to learn the layout of the site in advance of their arrival – the airport had been built by an Israeli contractor, who still had the plans for it in his safe.
In another note, an apparently won-over Peres writes that he has a suggestion for the “final touch” of the operation. Writing to Rabin, Peres says that “instead of field vehicles, let them use a big Mercedes sedan with flags attached.” That detail was able to divert the attention of Ugandan troops, who thought that Amin was paying a nighttime surprise visit on them.
The operation, which took a week of planning, lasted 90 minutes. 102 hostages were rescued. Five Israeli commandos were wounded, while Netanyahu was killed. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed, according to Ugandan figures.