Friday 30 September 2016

Books: Zero Dark Thirty in Uganda

Non-fiction: Operation Thunderbolt, Saul David, Hodder, hbk, 448 pages, €29.50

Keith Lowe

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

An Israeli rescue pilot returns home to cheers after rescuing hostages in Uganda
An Israeli rescue pilot returns home to cheers after rescuing hostages in Uganda
Operation Thunderbolt

The night Israeli special forces launched a daring mission to save 260 hostages from terrorists.

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To those who remember it, the long, hot summer of 1976 evokes nostalgia and disquiet in equal measure. This was the summer when the Wurzels topped the UK music charts with a song about a combine harvester and Björn Borg won his first Wimbledon title.

However, as Saul David reminds us in his latest book, it was also a time of deep unrest. Terrorist groups flourished not only in Britain and Ireland, but all across the world. By 1976, many of these groups were pooling their knowledge and resources to form a kind of violent international brotherhood.

In July that year, there was only one story dominating the world's media. A group of German and Palestinian terrorists had hijacked Air France's Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris and had forced it to turn south. After refuelling in Libya, the hijackers had taken the plane to Uganda, a nation that was ruled by one of the 20th century's most feared tyrants, Idi Amin.

According to David, Amin had known about the hijacking in advance and was willing to harbour the terrorists in the hope he could use the crisis to his own political advantage.

At Entebbe airport, the hijackers were greeted by Ugandan troops and allowed to imprison their 260 hostages in the terminal buildings.

Over the following week, a tense drama developed that was to have consequences throughout the world. The hijackers announced that they would free their prisoners only if the governments of Israel, Germany, France and Switzerland first released 53 terrorists of varying nationalities, including members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Japanese gunman Kozo Okamoto and dozens of Palestinian "freedom fighters".

From the outset, they made it clear their main gripe was with Israel. Not only were the bulk of their demands directed at Israel but they had separated the Orthodox Jews and Israelis from the rest of the passengers. The pressure on the Israeli government to give in to their demands was immense, not least from the families of the hostages.

When a government spokesman met relatives in Tel Aviv to explain the situation, they shouted him down and even tried to punch him. "Just tell us that you're accepting all the terrorists' demands," cried one family member. "We just want our people back home, and not to arrive in boxes."

The Israeli government kept the families in the dark about its true intentions... and for good reason. While the negotiations were taking place, it had dispatched a special forces unit to Uganda.

In a daring night-time operation, Israeli commandos landed four transport aircraft at Entebbe, unloaded a series of vehicles and sped towards the airport buildings.

Within just a few minutes they had evaded the cordon of Ugandan guards, broken into the terminal and killed all the terrorists. They managed to save all but four of the hostages: three were caught in the crossfire and one elderly woman, who had been taken to a Ugandan hospital, was later murdered by Idi Amin in revenge for his embarrassment.

The only Israeli military casualty was the operation's commander, Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli prime minister Benjamin. Before they left Entebbe, the Israelis destroyed 11 Ugandan military aircraft on the ground.

This, it turns out, was a favour to the Kenyan government, which regarded the Ugandan air force as a threat to its own security. The Kenyans had secretly allowed the Israelis to stop off in Nairobi to refuel: this sabotage was part of the quid pro quo.

In a fitting finale, as the Israelis took off into the night with their cargo of rescued hostages, the airfield behind them resounded with explosions.

David tells this story in a classic countdown structure, from the moment the passengers boarded the ill-fated flight to the moment they arrived back in Israel.

It is a brilliant, breathless account that reads like the plot of an action movie, switching between events in different parts of the world as the drama unfolds.

There is a lot of dialogue, which is always suspicious in a history book, but David has researched this well: he interviewed 20 of the participants and has made good use of recently declassified documents from archives in Germany, Israel, the United States and the UK.

Perhaps a more subtle achievement is the way he evokes the atmosphere of 1976 - not the rose-tinted version, but the version that also includes the anxieties and uncertainties of the time. Many of these anxieties have come back to haunt many cities' citizens today.

David's book is a good reminder that the War on Terror has deep roots.

Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin)

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