When Air France Flight 139 left the Tel Aviv airport on the afternoon of June 29, 1976, the passengers and crew could not have imagined the terrifying, yet heroic, events of which they would be a part. The flight flew from Tel Aviv to Athens, and, after a quick refuel, was on its way to Paris. The four terrorists who boarded in Athens, however, had other plans. Not long after the plane began to cruise, the terrorists forced the pilot to redirect the flight to Uganda, an African nation controlled then by the ruthless dictator Idi Amin, who gave the hijackers his full support.
The passengers were taken off the plane at a disused airport terminal in Entebbe. The terrorists, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, demanded $5 million USD and the release of 53 Palestinian or Pro-Palestinian prisoners by July 1st. As the diplomatic shuffling began, the terrorists separated the Israeli passengers, approximately 105 people, including a few non-Israelis and the crew, from the rest of the passengers. The non-Israeli group of hostages was released over the next few days.
As negotiations continued and the deadline was moved to July 4th, the Israeli government realized that action was needed. With little time and facing tremendously difficult odds, Israel planned and implemented an unthinkable rescue operation. (It helped that the now unused terminal in Entebbe had originally been designed by Israeli architects who still knew the layout!)
Over 200 commando troops were flown to Uganda, traveling seven and a half hours under the radar of un-friendly territory. They landed and approached the terminal in what appeared to be Idi Amin’s personal convoy and snuck into the building. Once they were detected, a firefight broke out. Three passengers were, unfortunately killed, but the vast majority made it home. Many Israeli soldiers were wounded, but only one, unit commander Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu) , was killed.
Operation Thunderbolt, as it was officially called, is often referred to as Operation Entebbe or, more recently, as Operation Yonatan in honor of the raid’s fallen leader.
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