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Rescue of the Hostages

One of the most amazing rescue stories I know about occurred in July of 1976 when, in a swift display of military precision, courage, and sheer daring, Israeli commandos rescued 102 Jewish hostages from Uganda, in Central East Africa. Their plane had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to that safe haven protected by the monstrous madman, dictator Idi Amin. The hostages were probably good as dead if something could not be done to save them. Something was done.

The dramatic series of events began shortly after noon, Sunday, June 27, when a white Air France Airbus lifted off the runway at the Athens International Airport. It banked west, then began the flight over the brilliant blue gulf of Corinth and on to the Aegean Sea. It was a beautiful day to fly, a sharp contrast to the events to follow.

The serenity of the early moments of the flight was shattered by a scream as a man and a woman jumped to their feet, brandishing hand grenades, quickly training pistols on the flight attendants. The man stepped toward the pilot’s cabin and ordered the plane taken to the airport at Entebbe, the capital of Uganda. The goal—to force Israel and four other nations to release fifty-three Palestinian or pro-Palestinian terrorists from jail. They made it clear that if the jailed terrorists were not freed, the 102 hostages would be slaughtered like diseased cattle.

Two days later, two thousand miles away, the leaders of Israel sat in the wood-paneled Cabinet Room of the Israeli Knesset. Weary and anxious, they had to face still another threat to their people. In addition to the safety of the Jewish people aboard the flight, they had to consider another issue: If the terrorists got away with this, more acts of violence and terrorism would follow. No Israeli would be safe unless the terrorists could be stopped.

Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur, the military chief of staff, and all the cabinet members decided they should explore the possibility of negotiating a release without bloodshed. But at the same time, they would make an all-out effort to come up with a military option. They had no reason to believe the terrorists would negotiate honorably.

Immediately, a strike force was assembled on a military base in the Israeli desert to begin planning the impossible: a raid on Entebbe to save the hostages. Staff members of El Al, the Israeli national airlines, gave information about possible flight routes, refueling opportunities, and communication facilities. Israel slipped secret agents into Uganda to analyze the situation. Information began pouring back.

On June 30 and July 1, the terrorists released all non-Jewish passengers. This was good news, because fewer hostages increased the chances of success. Israeli intelligence learned that the hostages were being kept in the central open area of the small airport terminal building in the capital city, and that the airport was not wired with explosives. It was another good sign that the terrorists and the Ugandans hadn’t considered the possibility of a rescue attempt. The United States gave Israel satellite photographs of the airport, and Kenya gave secret assurances that an Israeli strike force would be allowed to land at Nairobi to refuel and, on the return trip, care for any wounded.

The raiding party was selected and honed to a strike force specially trained in air-assault operations. They were among the finest military men in the world, led by thirty-year-old Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, who had moved to Israel from the United States when he was only two. Deep in the desert at the isolated military base, they practiced the raid again and again, shaving the ground rescue time down to fifty-five minutes.

The airplanes chosen to take the strike team to Entebbe were four U.S.-built Hercules C-130 cargo planes and two Boeing 707 jets. One jet was an airborne command-and-communications center and the other was a hospital plane. The six planes followed El Al’s usual route to South Africa: down the Red Sea and over Ethiopia and Kenya. The hospital plane landed in Nairobi. The five military aircraft left the Nairobi landing pattern and redirected toward Entebbe. No suspicion was aroused anywhere, because it was assumed that the radar reading of the planes, to this point, was the normal El Al flight to South Africa. The planes then dropped very low to escape radar and flew directly to the airport at Entebbe.

As one cargo plane rolled to a stop in the darkness—as yet undetected because the airport was not being used—its huge tail ramp dropped and out came a large, black Mercedes Benz limousine, closely followed by two Land Rovers filled with Israeli commandos dressed in Palestinian uniforms. In the back of the limousine was bulky Israeli officer dressed like dictator Idi Amin. The license plate on the limousine was identical to that of Amin’s official car. As the party drove up to the terminal building, the Ugandan guards snapped to attention, allowing the Israeli commandos to get within a few yards of the building before the first shots were fired.

Bullets were soon raining on the airport like hail in a thunderstorm. Within ten to twenty minutes, the shooting was over. The commandos ordered the hostages to the planes that were waiting in takeoff position, engines still running. As the hostages ran to the planes, great fireballs erupted in the distance as Israeli commandos blew up the eleven parked MIG jets that would have scrambled to intercept the escaping Israeli planes. As the hostages and commandos rushed onto the huge Hercules, the rear hatch slammed shut. Fifty-three minutes after the raid began, the planes began moving into position for takeoff. The hostages were saved!

The rescue was not letter perfect. Three hostages lost their lives. That was deeply saddening, but all of them may have died otherwise. Remarkably, only one Israeli commando lost his life—the assault-force commander, Col. Jonathan Netanyahu. A sniper in the control tower killed him with a bullet in the back. Netanyahu gave his life to save others.

Stories like this cause me to ask what will move one person to risk death in order that another person might live? Why would Col. Netanyahu risk his life to save someone else from death? If someone is going to die, isn’t it “better him than me?”

To me, this willingness to risk on behalf of others is part of the image of God in man. Something placed by God deep in the core of our being allows us to put ourselves in the helpless person’s shoes, imagine what a terror they are experiencing, and say, “If I were him, I would long for someone to rescue me; therefore, I’ll try to rescue him.” God’s image within us gives rise to this nobility, this courage, dignity, and honor.

As great as the mission at Entebbe was, it pales in comparison to the greatest rescue in history—the saving of mankind by God. Mankind found itself lost in life, held hostage by evil, helpless and hopeless. Jesus risked Himself—even gave His life—to rescue mankind. His is the greatest of all acts, marked with nobility, dignity, and honor. “Rescue” resides within the heart of God.

Max Anders, Jesus, Knowing Our Savior, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publ., 1995), pp. 1-4