Sunday, July 4, 2010

As everyone knows, today, the 4th of July is celebrated as “Independence Day” in the US -- even though it really isn’t.

The actual legal separation of the American colonies from Great Britain took place on July 2, 1776. That’s when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a ‘resolution of independence’ a document written by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.

In the two days that followed the vote, Congress drafted and revised and finally adopted a document that explained their previous decision, one that begins with those famous words, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another….”

That secondary explanatory document, known as the Declaration of Independence, was ultimately approved two days later, on July 4, 1776.

The fact that the 4th is observed as the holiday would have surprised just about everyone back in those days. On July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

In Israel, July 4th is also a date many of us in Israel remember – and in our case, the event actually took place on July 4 – in the year 1976, precisely two hundred years after the American event.

It was our Operation Entebbe, one of Israel’s most astonishingly successful military operations, one which proved the greatness of the Israeli military establishment – not to mention the courage of its political leadership and the unbreakable will of the Israeli people. On July 4, 1976, the IDF carried out an almost impossible hostage rescue operation to free 105 Jewish passengers who had been taken hostage by Arab terrorists and flown to Entebbe in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The drama started seven days earlier when on June 27, Air France flight 139, originating in Tel Aviv on its way to Paris, was hijacked by two Arab terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the 1967 parent group that today includes Fatah, the political party of Abu Mazen, also called Mahmoud Abbas, our alleged “peace partner”. The two Arabs terrorists were joined by two German nationals, Wilfried Bose and Brigitte Kuhlman.

At the direction of the hijackers, Flight 139 was diverted to Benghazi, in Libya, where it spent seven hours on the ground being refueled. One passenger who pretended to be having a miscarriage was released.

The flight then continued, taking off for Idi Amin’s anti-Israeli stronghold, Uganda, where it landed at Entebbe Airport at 3:15 pm. Here's what the terminal looked like.

The Arab terrorists were joined by four of Idi Amin’s hand-picked henchmen. One of their first acts was to separate the passengers into two groups, Jewish and non-Jewish. An elderly Holocaust survivor held up his arm to showed Wilfried Bose, one of the German terrorists, his tattooed concentration camp number. Bose roughly pushed the elderly man aside, saying “I am not a Nazi! I am an idealist!”

Good to know.

Shortly after, all the non-Jewish passengers were told that they would be released and that another Air France plane would fly them back home. But some refused to leave. The flight captain, a non-Jew named Michel Bacos refused. Insisting that the passengers on his airplane were his responsibility, he insisted on remaining with the Jews. He was joined by his entire flight crew who also insisted on staying, as did a French nun, who said she would remain, but that a Jew must be released in her place. The Arabs were having none of that, so the nun was forced into the Air France flight.

Overall, 85 Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish hostages remained, in addition to 20 others, mostly the flight crew.

The Arab terrorists made clear their demands: The release of 40 Arab terrorists held in Israeli prisons, plus an additional 13 other detainees imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and West Germany. If these demands were not met, they would begin to kill hostages on July 1.

Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister then, and the Mossad was in charge. There was no question but that the hostages would be rescued. The question was how. Amin had already sent troops to bolster the hijackers, and the situation seemed almost impervious to attack – the airport terminal building was surrounded by armed forces, and even if the hostages were liberated from the building, how would they be flown out of Uganda?

Books have been written about all the nuances of what was called “Operation Thunderbolt” at the time, but later came to be called “Operation Yonatan”, in honor of the single Israeli soldier who fell, Yoni Netanyahu, younger brother of today’s Prime Minister.

The rescue operation was among Israel’s finest moments. It was a combination of meticulous planning, elaborate subterfuge and audacious daring – the kind of thing Israelis used to do every day of the week. Today, our political leaders seem too weak-kneed to allow our military to carry out such politically incorrect missions as rescuing captive Jews – witness Gilad Shalit, who has now languished for four years just a few kilometers from Israel.

It's a little hard, after all, to mount a hostage rescue operation to take back a captured Jew when he's being held by what the world insists is our 'peace partner'. Of course no one thinks to ask why a 'peace partner' would be holding another 'peace partner's soldier captive, much less while denying him legally mandated Red Cross visits or any other verification of his well being, but of course that's another matter.

But back in 1976, things were different. We were in a battle for our survival, and we knew it.

In any event, on July 4, just before midnight, Israeli transport planes carried 100 elite commandos 2,500 miles to Uganda where, in a 58 minute raid, they rescued 103 hostages.

Five Israeli commandos were wounded and only one, Bibi’s brother Yoni, fell. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Eleven Russian-built MiG fighters of Uganda's air force were destroyed. One other hostage, Dora Bloch, a British-Israeli grandmother, had been released for medical treatment and was left behind. She was later murdered by Amin’s soldiers – as were 200 members of Amin’s own army, who by their failure to defeat the Israeli invaders had brought such shame on his mighty forces.

Among the anecdotal stories: Israeli forces were greatly helped because the airport terminal had been built by an Israeli company – and the company still had the blueprints. Another invaluable source of information was a French-Jewish passenger, traveling on a French passport, who’d been released. The man had military training plus what Israeli officials termed "a phenomenal memory". He was able to give important details about the number of arms and hostage takers.

The ruse was spectacular: Israeli forces landed at Entebbe with their cargo doors open. A black Mercedes and several Land Rovers drove out, giving the impression that the vehicles were some sort of escort for Amin himself, or some other officials. Two Ugandan sentries -- who knew Amin favored white Mercedes, not black –tried to stop the convoy and were shot.

Arriving at the terminal, the Israelis jumped out of the vehicles, shouting through megaphones, “Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers." in both Hebrew and English. A 19-year-old Frenchman named Jean-Jacques Maimoni—who chose to identify himself as an Israeli Jew to the hijackers even though he had a French passport—stood up and was killed by the Israelis who mistook him for a hijacker. Another hostage, Pasco Cohen, 52, the manager of an Israeli medical insurance fund, was fatally wounded by gunfire – whether it was Israeli gunfire or Ugandan was never determined. A third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch was also killed in the crossfire.

The hostages were loaded into the Israeli aircraft under fire from the Ugandan soldiers. During these last few seconds, the Ugandans fired from the airport control tower and managed to strike Yoni Netanyahu. His body was loaded onto the aircraft and flown out of Entebbe with 103 hostages whose lives he had been instrumental in saving.

Among Yoni’s most memorable words, these written in a letter to his brother Bibi: "I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end."

For those of you who are Americans, by all means celebrate Independence Day – and look for a new ‘independence day’ on November 2.

But if you have just a minute, help us in Israel remember a hero who gave his life to make sure that Israel remained independent, too.

You can join Yoni’s Facebook page, “Remembering Yoni Netanyahu”

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