Israel’s 1976 Invasion of Uganda: The Unlikely Mission that Brought Israel into the Heart of Africa

On June 17, 1976, an Air France flight carrying over 248 passengers from Athens to Paris was hijacked mid-air by a team of two leftwing German terrorists and two Palestinian extremists.

The hijackers brandished weapons and threatened to kill passengers if the pilots did not divert the plane to Africa. The plane landed in Benghazi, Libya to refuel before continuing to Uganda.

Ugandan military forces surrounded the plane as it landed to the excitement of the passengers who assumed they were being rescued. Instead, a Ugandan colonel boarded the plane and shook hands with the terrorists.

Uganda’s brutal dictator Idi Amin, who hailed from the country’s small Muslim minority, had conspired with the Palestinian hijackers when they were were searching for a refuge well out of the reach of the Israeli military.

The two German hijackers immediately sorted the passengers between Israelis/Jews and non-Jews. The non-Jews were permitted to walk free leaving just 104 Israeli and Jewish hostages in the hijackers’ custody.

The hijackers demanded a $5 million ransom along with the release of 53 Palestinian and German militants from prisons in Israel, the US, and Europe. The terrorists threatened to start murdering two children for every 24 hour window that their demands were not met.

The Israeli cabinet debated intensely whether or not to give in to the hijackers’ demands and prepared to release the 40 prisoners in their custody. The USA, the UK, and France, however all adamantly refused to cooperate with any form of negotiation with the hijackers, which they held would only encourage more terrorist threats in the future.

This tipped the scales in favor of military solution. The main roadblock was that the Israeli air force was not capable of refueling six aircrafts some 4,000 kilometers from home in the heart of Africa.

A Jewish hotel magnate in Kenya along with that country’s Jewish business community pressured Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta to allow the Israeli military to refuel its planes in Kenya.

Israel intelligence units, meanwhile, flew to Paris to interview some of the freed hostages to gather intelligence about Entebbe airport, the hijackers, and the weapons they carried. The Israeli construction firm that built the airport terminal provided a miniature replica of the terminal for the operatives to study and speculate where the hostages were being kept.

In less than a week, four C-130 planes carrying a hundred Israeli commandos were deployed to Uganda to assault the airport and bring the hostages home. The planes flew extremely low (30 m) and fast (400 mph) over the Red Sea to avoid radar detection by hostile Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi forces who could tip off Uganda or shoot down the planes. As such an altitude and speed, even the smallest mistake could lead to the immediate destruction of the aircrafts.

The planes landed disguised as commercial flights. Israeli operatives approached the terminal in a fleet of Mercedes Benz disguised as Uganda’s presidential entourage, but the guards were not fooled. The commandos shot the guards, raided the building, and assassinated the hijackers inside. Four hostages were killed in the crossfire.

As the rescued hostages were being loaded into the aircraft, a platoon of Ugandan troops opened fire, wounding five Israeli commandos and killing Lieutenant Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli forces fired back with a rocket-propelled grenade that wiped out the remaining positions in the tower and finished loading the hostages into the aircraft.

Israeli armored tanks, meanwhile, decimated Uganda’s fleet of eleven MIG fighter jets. Ugandan pilots poured out of their barracks only to retreat in terror when the found their aircrafts being shelled into oblivion.

By the time the rescue planes embarked to refuel in Kenya, the 30-minuted operation had killed forty-five Ugandan soldiers, four hostages, and just one Israeli commando.

The Aftermath

Idi Amin

Quite predictably Operation Entebbe drew international condemnation across Muslim Africa, with several UN resolutions propositions emerging to condemn or punish Israel.

The furious Idi Amin threatened to invade Kenya in retaliation for its role in supporting the operation. In response, the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean to protect Kenya.

While Amin did not make good his threat to attack Kenya, he did order the murder of a 74-year-old Israeli woman who was previously released to a Ugandan hospital when she began choking on a chicken bone during the hostage crisis. Ugandan military officers dragged her out of her hospital bed and shot her point blank along with several Ugandan doctors and nurses who tried to intervene.

He then ordered the execution of all Kenyans living within Uganda’s borders. 245 Kenyans were murdered while over 3,000 fled across the border to Kenya.

Where We Are Today

Nationalist euphoria sweeps across Israel as news of the unlikely success of the mission reaches the public.

Operations Entebbe represented a dramatic rewrite of a similar terrorist hijacking incident four years earlier at the Munich Olympics, which ended in the brutal torture and murder of the entire Israeli olympic team after German authorities botched a half-hearted attempt to rescue them and forbade Israeli intelligence forces from intervening.

Just as the German authorities had failed during the Munich Massacre, the Egyptian and PLO-brokered negotiations of the Uganda hijacking incident came to naught, and the US and Europe produced no meaningful solutions either. Israel’s bold decision to flout international law with Operation Entebbe was handsomely rewarded, and this set a new precedent.

The triumph of muscle over diplomacy in this episode catalyzed a long-term shift away from compromise-based multilateral solutions toward heavy-handed unilateral action. The steady conciliatory tone of Israel’s then liberal Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began evolving toward the hawkish give-no-quarter approach of today’s Benjamin Netanyahu – whose very brother is remembered as the sole Israeli military casualty from Operation Entebbe.

Israel’s self-reported raison d’être was to guarantee the safety of the Jewish people, but even that, it soon discovered, was not possible while limited by the pesky rules of the international community; and so a rogue state was born.

*The first four frames are screenshots taken from the trailer for 7 Days in Entebbe (2018)*

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