June 28, 2001
Entebbe Teaches Israel to Dare
Ephraim Sneh, a stocky, taciturn soldier-turned-politician, doesn't scare easily. Entebbe, the most daring rescue operation in Israel's military history, wasn't his first taste of combat. The Yom Kippur War, he shrugged, was worse. But he shudders at how easily it could have gone disastrously wrong.
As the giant Hercules transport plane lumbered through the night sky out of the Ugandan airport on July 4, 1976, one of the 98 hostages beckoned to Col. Sneh, who headed the medical team. "Excuse me, sir," the plump woman said, "I'm afraid I'm sitting on something military."
Before Sneh, who is now Israel's minister of transportation, could check, the woman groped on the floor, where she and all the other hostages were sprawling, and handed him a grenade.
"It was a kind of grenade that the IDF doesn't regularly use," he recalled in a 25th anniversary interview, "because it's not very safe. It's highly volatile. The commandos took it specially for the Entebbe operation because it's very small, the size of a tennis ball. So they could carry more of them."
Sneh suspects it fell off the gear of Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed while leading the force that struck at the disused terminal where the hostages were held. "Yoni was rushed first onto the plane," he said. "The grenade probably fell from the stretcher, and then a hundred hostages trod on it. And this heavy lady was sitting on it. If it had gone off, that would have been the end of all of us."
Entebbe was an elaborate, ingenious mission, 2,500 miles from home. Yet, inevitably, it was planned in a hurry. The Air France Airbus was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists on June 27 and flown first to Benghazi in Libya, then to Entebbe on the humid shore of Lake Uganda, where the non-Jewish passengers were separated from the Jews and Israelis, then released. The politicians -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres -- wrangled over whether and how to attempt a rescue. Deadlines were running out.
The task force, as Sneh recalled, had barely 24 hours for preparation. It left them no time for life-and-death reflection on the flight out from Israel. "We were preoccupied, thinking what to do if this happened, or that happened," Sneh explained. "I had full confidence that we were going to succeed. Our team was invincible. They were world champions."
Two of them -- Dan Shomron, overall commander of the rescue operation, and Shaul Mofaz -- went on to become chief of staff. Five more of the Entebbe veterans rose to major general. One of these, Matan Vilnai, is now a minister in Ariel Sharon's government. Sneh rode in the same pick-up truck as Effie Eitam, an outspokenly aggressive brigadier who recently retired into far-right politics.
The greatest risk, Sneh said, was to be too late. "If you are late, even by a few seconds, and the terrorists understand who you are and why you came, their immediate reaction is to open fire and kill the hostages. Fortunately, the attack on the terminal was so swift that after 40 seconds, the fighting with those who guarded the hostages was over."
Netanyahu, older brother of the future Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was shot dead by a Ugandan sentry in the dash to the target. Muki Betser, a legendary commando who was in Netanyahu's jeep and took over after he was hit, complained later that Netanyahu had jeopardized the whole operation by shooting first at the Ugandan and thus forfeiting the advantage of surprise.
"The only one who could argue with him," Sneh said, "is Yoni, who cannot argue with him. I respect Muki Betser. He's one of the greatest Israeli warriors I ever knew. He planned the attack on the terminal and carried it through. But I don't want to discuss whether Yoni was wrong to open fire."
In any event, the operation triumphed, with the loss of only three Israelis: Netanyahu and two civilian hostages. Dora Bloch, an elderly hostage who was taken ill before the rescue, was murdered in a Ugandan hospital.
Sneh said that the lesson Israelis should learn from Entebbe is "that we have to dare to do more. We have to know that there are no limits to our operative imagination."
And what lesson should Israel's enemies learn 25 years on? "That we shall reach them, no matter where they are," he said.
Could this still work in the messy, low-intensity warfare now confronting Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Sneh, who served as deputy defense minister in the first five months of the current intifada, scorned such skepticism.
"Our successful operations are based on the same way of thinking," he insisted. "Being smart, using technology. If you made a list of the archterrorists who were alive a year ago and are not alive now, you would understand that the ingenuity is still with us."