Operation Entebbe

The rescue of the hostages of Air France Flight 139.

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On July 3, 1976, the Israeli Defense Force swept into the airport in Entebbe, Uganda and freed the hostages of Air France Flight 139. Operation Entebbe, also known as Operation Jonathan and Operation Thunderbolt, saved nearly all the passengers on the flight as well as its crew. It has become the most famous rescue mission in Israeli history.

The hijackers of Flight 139 were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Operation Entebbe raidThe PFLP was founded in the 1960s by George Habash, a Christian Palestinian, with the aim of liberating Palestine, and from "reactionary imperialism." The first PFLP hijacking was on July 18, 1968, taking a Rome-bound El Al plane to Algeria, where the passengers were held hostage for a month until Israel negotiated their release. By the late 1970s,  the PFLP had splintered off into different factions, and the destruction of Israel was the organization's only explicit goal. 

How to Steal an Airplane

In June 27, 1976, the new PFLP leader, Waddia Haddad, coordinated another aircraft hijacking, this time on an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. Four terrorists--two Palestinian and two German--were on the flight. The terrorists took over the plane shortly after a brief layover in Athens. They diverted the aircraft, which had 254 passengers, to Benghazi, Libya for refueling, and then flew to Entebbe, Uganda, where more terrorists were waiting to aid them.

The hijackers were highly organized. After they landed in Entebbe, the dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin announced the hijackers demands, which included freeing 53 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons. Though Amin never admitted involvement in the hijacking, he functioned as an intermediary between the hijackers and the Israeli government. He announced that if the hijackers demands were not met they would kill all of the hostages.

Negotiations Break Down

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres took the lead in handling the hostage situation. Their plan was to appear to negotiate with Amin and the PFLP in order to buy time to coordinate a covert rescue mission.

Israel caught two unexpected breaks in preparing for its operation. The terrorists Raid on Entebbeoriginally announced that if their demands were not met by July 1, they would kill the hostages. But, thinking that the Israelis were serious in their willingness to negotiate, the PFLP extended their deadline by 72 hours, which was crucial in planning the rescue mission.

Secondly, the PFLP freed 150 non-Jewish passengers. Some of these freed hostages provided information to the Mossad about where the Jewish hostages were being held, and where the terrorists were placed.

By July 3rd, the Mossad had coordinated its plans, which were subsequently approved by Rabin and Peres.

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Jeremy Moses

Jeremy Moses is the Editorial Fellow at MyJewishLearning.com. He has a BA in American History and Modern Jewish Studies from McGill University. He served as the advisor for United Synagogue Youth in Montreal. He spent two summers working as a Unit Head at Camp Ramah in Canada.