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Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History
By Saul David
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On June 27, 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by a group of Arab and German terrorists who demanded the release of 53 terrorists. The plane was forced to divert to Entebbe, in Uganda — ruled by the murderous despot Idi Amin, who had no interest in intervening.
Days later, Israeli commandos disguised as Ugandan soldiers assaulted the airport terminal, killed all the terrorists, and rescued all the hostages but three who were killed in the crossfire. The assault force suffered just one fatality: its commander, Yoni Netanyahu (brother of Israel’s Prime Minister.) Three of the country’s greatest leaders — Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — planned and pulled off one of the most astonishing military operations in history.
Table of Contents
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DAY 1: SUNDAY 27 JUNE 1976
0500hrs GMT, Lod, Israel
A chaotic scene greeted Frenchman Michel Cojot and his twelve-year-old son Olivier as they entered the ground-floor check-in area of Ben-Gurion International Airport's Terminal 1, an unsightly four-storey concrete and glass construction that had replaced the original whitewashed terminal built by the British in the 1930s. The flow of people reminded Cojot of an Oriental bazaar as it 'tried to make a path among the baggage carts, the pillars, and the barriers under the watchful eyes of young women in khaki and young soldiers… the only persons there who were not bustling about'.
A spate of recent terrorist attacks against Israel–including the infamous massacre of twenty-six people, most of them Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico, by three pro-Palestinian members of the militant communist Japanese Red Army at Ben-Gurion four years earlier–had left the country with the tightest airport security in the world. Anyone who could not convince the officials that he was harmless would have his alarm clock 'dismantled, the heels of his shoes probed, his camera opened, his can of shaving cream tested'. Despite the delay, most were happy to cooperate because they 'approved of the reasons for the controls'.
In truth the stringent checks were the final straw for young Olivier Cojot. His parents had recently separated and he had jumped at the chance to join his management-consultant father on a week-long business trip to Israel, leaving his mother and two younger siblings in France. He had hoped to bond with his father and learn more about his Jewish heritage. But apart from a 'pretty interesting' visit to a factory run by Negev Phosphates, the mining firm his father was advising, he had spent much of his time alone and sweltering in a Beersheba hotel and could not wait to get home.
Not that the temperature in France was any cooler. It, like the rest of Western Europe, was wilting in a heatwave that would prove to be the hottest on record. Olivier was just relieved that the queuing for the early-morning flight was at a comparatively cool time of day. He found the lengthy security checks at Ben-Gurion 'a pain in the arse' and the terminal's lack of air-conditioning did not help.
Finally reaching the Air France check-in desk, the Cojots were told their flight to Paris would be making an unscheduled stopover at Athens. The Greek capital's international airport was well known for the laxity of its transit security, and Olivier voiced his father's fears when he piped up: 'Hey Dad, if I were a terrorist I would get on at the stopover.'
Such fears of a terrorist attack–more specifically a plane hijacking–were far from unfounded. Since Israel's victory over the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967, various Palestinian and pro-Palestinian terror groups had used plane hijackings as a means of forcing concessions out of Israel and publicizing their cause to the world. Before the Six-Day War there had typically been five hijackings annually. By 1969 this had risen to eighty-two hijackings worldwide–the most in a single year–and, though the average had since fallen, it was still more than three a month.
Only too aware of the recent spate of hijackings, Cojot inquired about a direct flight to Paris on the Israeli airline El Al that, with its armed sky marshals, 'seemed to offer better security'. But hearing the flight was full, and unwilling to wait for another, he reluctantly returned to Air France, his concern only partly assuaged by the knowledge that his frequent-flyer status meant he qualified for 'service plus'.
Other travellers on Air France Flight 139 were just as alarmed by news of the stopover. Ilan Hartuv, forty-nine, a short-sighted and rotund former Israeli diplomat and now deputy director-general of a Jerusalem urban-regeneration company, was accompanying his seventy-three-year-old mother Dora Bloch on the first leg of her journey to New York for the wedding of his younger brother Daniel. Hartuv planned to part from her in Paris where he would meet his brother-in-law and their respective wives for a short holiday and, aware of the threat from terrorists, he had specifically instructed his travel agent to book non-stop tickets. So too had Sara Davidson, en route to the United States for a coast-to-coast tour with her husband Uzi and their two sons, seventeen-year-old Roni and Benny, thirteen. 'Let's not go on the plane,' she told Uzi when she heard it would stop in Greece. 'We don't know who's likely to get on in Athens.' They also tried to change to El Al without success.
Other passengers made late switches to Flight 139. Nineteen-year-old Jean-Jacques Mimouni, French-born but of Tunisian descent, had been booked on a Saturday flight to Paris. Tall and boyishly handsome, with a moustache and fashionably long, dark-brown curly hair, a talented guitar player and artist, Jean-Jacques had just finished his matriculation exams and was planning to spend the summer in France with two elder sisters before either staying on–his father's preference–or returning to Israel for military service. But he was persuaded to delay his flight until Sunday by his best friend Thierry Sicard, the son of the French consul in Tel Aviv, so that they could fly together.
Belgians Gilbert and Helen Weill had just completed a short holiday in Israel and were due to take a later Air France flight to Paris. Their plan was to pick up their children in Metz and then return home to Antwerp. But when told that their original plane had been delayed in Iran and their best option was Flight 139, leaving in just an hour, they took it. Walking away from the Air France desk they met an acquaintance travelling on their original flight. 'Quick,' advised Mr Weill, 'get on the earlier flight before all the seats are taken. Who knows how long that other plane is going to be delayed.'
At 8.59 a.m. local time, Air France Flight 139 took off in perfect weather–a blazing sun and clear blue skies–and headed north-west across the Mediterranean for Athens. The plane was one of the recently introduced wide-bodied Airbus A300B4s, a comfortable twin-engined jetliner capable of carrying 272 passengers in a two-class layout: 24 first-class seats at the front of the plane in a 2:2:2 configuration; and a further 248 seats in two economy cabins to the rear, the seats divided 2:4:2 by two aisles. For the last six rows, as the fuselage tapered towards the tail, the middle row was just three seats. Possibly because of late cancellations, only 228 seats were occupied.
Captaining the plane was a dashing fifty-one-year-old father of three called Michel Bacos, a former naval pilot who had fought with de Gaulle's Free French forces in the Second World War. His eleven-man crew consisted of a co-pilot, flight engineer, chief steward, four stewards and four stewardesses. Apart from a Swedish stewardess called Ann-Carina Franking, all were French.
Sitting in the rear economy cabin, three rows from the front, Michel Cojot quickly forgot his fears as the Air France crew made a fuss of him and his son. 'After this heavy dose of the East it was a pleasure' for him 'to go back to the language, the elegant restraint of the stewardesses' uniforms, and even the food tray'. There was nothing in the way of in-flight entertainment on a 1970s airliner, and Cojot passed the two-and-a-half-hour flight time to Athens by writing 'a probably useless professional memorandum' and giving Olivier 'an exercise in spelling by dictating a vaguely humorous piece on the joys of air travel'. It was typical of the high-achieving Cojot to try and educate his son even when he was on holiday. For Olivier, a 'terrible speller', these regular dictations by his father were 'a huge pain in the behind'.
The only bleak spot for the thirty-seven-year-old Cojot was the proximity of unruly neighbours who included 'brawling brats, a woman who spilled over her seat on both sides, and a couple of retired Americans'.
0902hrs GMT, Athens, Greece
Just after noon local time, the Airbus touched down at Athens's Ellinikon International Airport, a few miles south of the Greek capital. As the stop was a brief one–just forty-five minutes–only the thirty-eight disembarking passengers were allowed to leave the plane. They included the retired Americans but not, to Michel Cojot's chagrin, the squabbling children.
In their place came fifty-six new passengers, bringing the total to 246, not far from capacity. The majority were still nationals of Israel and France, though more than twenty other nationalities were now present, including American, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian, Canadian, Colombian, Greek, Japanese, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish. Of the new arrivals, many had been holidaying in or around the Greek islands. Among them were British yachtsmen and old friends Tony Russell, a married fifty-five-year-old senior official for the Greater London Council, and George Good, sixty-five, a retired accountant and widower, who had been sailing round Ithaca and Paxos in the Ionian Sea; Frenchman Gérard Poignon and his English-born wife Isabella, twenty-eight, who had left their eighteen-month-old daughter in the care of Gérard's parents while they enjoyed a ten-day cruise; Colin and Nola Hardie from Christchurch in New Zealand, where Colin was general manager of the Star newspaper; Peter and Nancy Rabinowitz, two young Jewish American academics who were teaching literature at Kirkland College in New York State; and Claude Moufflet from Versailles in France.
The Rabinowitzes were in Europe to celebrate thirty-one-year-old Nancy's recent completion of her PhD in comparative literature (a degree that Peter, two years her senior, already possessed). Arriving in London from the US, they had asked if they could buy a return plane ticket to Athens with a stopover in Paris on the second leg. Informed that that was impossible, they bought a standard return with the intention of taking the boat-train over the Channel. But when they returned to Athens Airport after a two-week stay in Greece, they were told by their airline that they could trade in their Athens–London tickets for Athens–Paris–London at no extra cost. As a switch to another carrier was also possible, Peter chose Air France because he did not like Greek food and thought that airline cuisine on a French plane would be the best. Both Rabinowitzes were acutely aware of the danger of hijacking and would not have got on Flight 139 if they had known it was on a stopover from Tel Aviv. It never occurred to them to ask.
Claude Moufflet was returning from a work trip to Teheran in Iran, where his company owned a business, and had arrived at Ellinikon's East Terminal–an ugly single-storey concrete building designed by the celebrated Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in the 1960s–by taxi from Athens's original airport at 11.30 a.m. local time. Shortly after checking in his suitcases at the Air France desk, he was approached by a young Greek man who asked him if he was willing to post a very urgent letter in Paris. Satisfied that the envelope contained only paper, he put it in his briefcase.
Moufflet next passed through passport control and security, the latter a 'systematic and rigorous' series of checks. As his hand luggage went through a radar detection tunnel he could clearly see his electronic calculator, Dictaphone, camera, film and flash appear on the screen. Alarmed by this last unusual image, the policeman on duty stopped the conveyor belt and instructed Moufflet to open his briefcase so that he could check the authenticity of these objects. Once he was satisfied, he passed Moufflet on to his colleague for a body search. Finally convinced that the Frenchman was a harmless businessman, and that the cylindrical 1.5-volt batteries that appeared on the radar screen were for his Dictaphone and calculator, and not part of 'an elaborate explosive system', they let him continue.
Four of Flight 139's new passengers, however, were not subjected to the same level of security because they were in transit, having landed at 6.45 a.m. on Singapore Airlines Flight 763 from Bahrain. Two were travelling on South American passports: a tall blond-haired Peruvian called A. Garcia, wearing a natty brown corduroy suit and a green shirt; and a young Ecuadorian woman, Ortega, in a blue denim skirt and top, with shoulder-length dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The other pair were Middle Eastern in appearance and carrying Bahraini and Kuwaiti travel documents: one was tall with long fair hair and 'wild staring' blue eyes that put one of his fellow passengers in mind of Mick Jagger on drugs; the other short and stocky, with dark hair and a bushy moustache.
Despite the fact that all four were carrying large bags, none was particularly scrutinized because it was assumed they had been scanned at their airport of origin. It did not help that 'nobody was on duty at the metal detector in the passenger corridor, and the policeman at the fluoroscope was paying little attention to the screen at his side'.
At 12.15 p.m., Air France Flight 139 was announced. Clutching his briefcase and a Duty Free bag containing two bottles of ouzo, a bottle of Scotch and a carton of cigarettes, Claude Moufflet slowly made his way to Gate 2, 'through which passengers were flowing in dribs and drabs to board the shuttle bus'.
With an outside temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and no air-conditioning on the shuttle, the passengers were perspiring freely by the time they reached the waiting plane at 12.35 p.m. Moufflet had scanned his fellow travellers on the bus, but none particularly drew his attention. He was more interested in the type of plane and noted with satisfaction that it was a modern Airbus 'which, given the temperature, promised a comfortable, quick and cool flight'.
The two South Americans had first-class tickets and took their seats at the front of the plane. The other pair in transit had cheaper tickets and sat in the forward economy cabin where their Arab appearance, large bags and cans of stuffed dates caused some suspicion. Ilan Hartuv was looking out of the window when his mother whispered to him that she had seen two young people get on who looked like Arabs and had very big bags, and that she was afraid. Hartuv wanted to alert the crew, but as everyone had fastened seatbelts and the plane was about to depart, he decided not to.
Another alarmed by the new arrivals was Helen Weill, an Orthodox Jew from Antwerp in Belgium who was sitting with her husband Gilbert at the front of economy class. 'Arabs!' she hissed at him. 'Maybe we should find another flight.' But Gilbert was more concerned with picking up his children on time and told her to stop worrying. French-born Emma Rosenkovitch–en route with her husband Claude and their two children Noam and Ella to visit her parents in Paris–hardly noticed that two of the Athens passengers were Arabs: she and Claude were peace activists and had many Palestinian friends. Instead she was struck by their rudeness as they struggled up their aisle with their giant black bags, bumping into people. 'Why would an airline let people get on with such big bags anyway?' she wondered.
Meanwhile Claude Moufflet, having stowed his briefcase and Duty Free in the overhead locker, had settled down in the row behind the Weills. With his seatbelt fastened, he began reading a newspaper. So too did Gilbert Weill, noticing as he flicked through his paper an article about Idi Amin Dada, Uganda's eccentric, erratic, flamboyant and ruthless dictator who, just two days earlier, had been declared 'President for Life' by the Ugandan parliament. A few minutes later, as the plane was about to take off, Weill heard a young boy a few rows behind him asking one of the Arabs what was in the large bag he was carrying. 'Dates for you,' the Arab replied, 'and grenades for your parents.'
As if to show his comment was harmless, the Arab offered a stuffed date to his neighbour, a forty-eight-year-old Tunis-born Israeli called Joseph Abougedir who took and ate it. But not before noting the place of origin on the box's Arabic label: Iraq.
1010hrs GMT, Greek airspace above the Gulf of Corinth
Barely eight minutes after takeoff, with the plane still climbing towards its cruising height of 31,000 feet, and the stewards and stewardesses 'already busy in the galleys preparing lunch', the two South American transit passengers in first class sprang to their feet, both holding a pistol and a grenade. While the female Ortega stood guard, Garcia made straight for the door leading to the flight deck. Nearby passengers screamed in alarm.
Inside the cockpit was Bacos, his co-pilot Daniel Lom and flight engineer Jacques Lemoine. Hearing shouting in the first-class cabin, and thinking that a fire had broken out, Bacos told his flight engineer to check. But no sooner had Lemoine opened the door than he came face to face with a man holding a pistol and a grenade. The engineer was forced to the ground, the gun pressed to his temple, as Bacos begged: 'Please don't kill him!'
Convinced as he was that Lemoine was about to be executed, those first few minutes seemed endless to Bacos. But the crisis passed and, having confiscated Bacos' oxygen mask and microphone, Garcia told the occupants of the flight deck that the plane had been taken over by a commando of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and that the captain should set a course for Benghazi in Libya. If he and his crew cooperated, no harm would come to them. By now the terrorist's gun was pointed at Bacos' head; if he tried to turn round, the muzzle was prodded in his neck to discourage him.
Back in economy class, the two Arabs had leapt out of their seats to join in the hijacking. Moshe Peretz, a twenty-six-year-old Israeli medical student, noted in an improvised diary that one was 'a long-haired youth wearing a red shirt, gray trousers, and a beige pullover' and the other had 'a thick mustache, wears long trousers and a yellow shirt'. They were 'running towards the first-class compartment'. Soon after 'frightened and hysterical stewardesses' emerged from there and, with 'trembling arms', tried to calm the agitated passengers.
In the aisle to the left of Claude Moufflet appeared a 'livid, flustered' stewardess who kept saying: 'Stay calm. Sit down. Stay calm.' Moufflet repeated the instructions 'without knowing the reason, in English and French', to the passengers on his right until he noticed the barrel of a pistol 'resting on the backrest of the first seat in [economy] class, approximately 20 centimetres' from his face. The man holding it was 'about 25 years old, average height, stocky, Mediterranean looking, his tanned faced sporting a very black moustache'. In his left hand he was holding a 'fragmentation grenade' that was clearly unpinned because Moufflet could see the pin 'passed like a ring' around the hijacker's middle finger.
Then to his left Moufflet saw the second Arab–'small, very thin, with a pale, angular face, blue eyes and long straight hair'–herding two stewards at the point of a gun. He and his comrade kept shouting in bad English: 'Don't move! Put your hands on your head! Don't move! Keep quiet! Don't move!'
Back in the rear economy cabin, the passengers thought the plane was on fire. Michel Cojot heard a shout 'and saw a man, bent over, running towards the front of the plane'. The rumour quickly spread that the plane was on fire, though there was no sign of smoke or flame. Cojot's son Olivier felt more excited than afraid, and was 'already thinking this is going to be a good story to tell at school'. As he kept glancing back, half expecting to see smoke, he heard his father curse, 'something he never did, and it was a bad curse, so I know something bad has happened'.
He turned to see a steady stream of passengers, stewards and stewardesses coming from the front of the plane with their arms raised. Some were screaming but most were mute with shock. They were the occupants of first class and the first fifteen rows of the forward economy tourist cabin–among them Claude Moufflet, Moshe Peretz and the Weills–and had been moved to create a cordon sanitaire between the cockpit and the passengers in case anyone tried to intervene. Herding the crowd were three hijackers: two Arabs and one young Western woman who kept shouting in heavily accented English: 'Sitonzeflor! Sitonzeflor!'
She was, thought Moufflet, 'about 25 years old with straight dark black hair that came down to her collar, a fringe at the front, dark eyes and a very pale face that reminded me of a prison guard. She wore little round glasses with steel rims and was dressed in an outfit of navy and petrol blue, black shoes with wedged soles and holding in her right hand an automatic pistol and in her left a grenade. I couldn't see from where I was whether or not it had the pin taken out.'
Shortly after the appearance of the female hijacker, who sounded German, 'a short bearded man, about five feet three, who spoke French with a heavy Yiddish accent, tried to resist'. Julie Aouzerate, a sixty-two-year-old Algerian-born French Jewish grandmother, watched on in horror as the hijackers 'knocked him to the floor and beat him severely–the German woman doing most of the punching'. As everyone froze, chief steward Daniel Courtial tried to calm the situation by saying: 'There's nothing to worry about. Don't be frightened.'
Yet even he was shaking like a leaf.
The intercom crackled into life. 'This plane has been hijacked,' said a male voice with a German accent, 'and is now under the control of the Basil al-Kubaisi* Commando of the Che Guevara of Gaza Group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The plane has been renamed "Haifa" and only that name will get a response. I'm your new captain. As long as you obey our orders and do exactly as we ask you, you will not be harmed.'
Moments later the message was repeated in French by a stewardess's trembling voice. It was now clear to many of the 246 passengers–most of whom were Jews–that their greatest fears had come to pass: the plane had been hijacked by the PFLP, a Palestinian guerilla organization that was committed to the destruction of the Israeli state. The threat to the Israelis on board was obvious, and on hearing mention of the dreaded PFLP many of them began 'ripping off their Jewish star necklaces and throwing them on the floor'.
Every Israeli knew and feared the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Formed by Dr George Habash, a Palestinian Christian, in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967, it was the second largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after Yasser Arafat's Fatah. Yet it quickly became the best known after it pioneered the use of plane hijackings to strike back at Israel. The architect of this strategy was Habash's forty-nine-year-old deputy Dr Wadie Haddad, another Palestinian Christian from Safed in northern Israel, who realized that the initial tactic of cross-border raids from the PLO's bases in Jordan would 'never achieve the liberation of Palestine'. In 1967 he told the PFLP leadership that it was impossible to fight the Israelis 'plane for plane, tank for tank, soldier for soldier'. Instead they had to concentrate on the Israelis' 'weak points' by using 'spectacular, one-off operations' that would help to focus the world's attention on Palestine. This would cause people to ask: 'What the hell is the problem in Palestine? Who are these Palestinians? Why are they doing these things?' In the end the world would 'get fed up' and decide it had to do something about Palestine. It would be forced to give the Palestinians 'justice'.
Bassam Abu-Sharif, the public face of the PFLP and a member of its Central Committee, thought Haddad's speech electrifying. Once it was over, he 'felt like standing up and applauding', and could tell others felt the same way. It was as if the world had tilted on its axis in favour of the Palestinians. Here, at last, thought Bassam, 'was a new way forward–a chance to get the Israeli boot off the back of the Arab neck'. Henceforward they 'would carry the attack to Israel'; they 'would take–and keep–the initiative'. From this moment on, Haddad became known as 'the Master'.
With his strategy duly endorsed by Habash and the Central Committee, Haddad went to work training selected guerillas to hijack planes in mid-air. Most of the early volunteers came from within the PFLP. Talent spotters in the camps would refer the best recruits for further training, and 'from this second, much smaller pool, Haddad would select the best again, looking for intelligence, persistence, strength of character, resourcefulness and physical toughness'. Their final training, according to Bassam Abu-Sharif, 'went far beyond such things as proficiency with weapons and explosives'. They were trained to fly 'even the biggest and [most] modern airliners' so they knew exactly what the pilots were doing, and 'couldn't be bluffed'. If a pilot needed to be killed, they would take control. They also practised exchanging gunfire in confined spaces, and learned not only how to defeat airport security checks but what local laws applied to them if they were captured.
The first hijacking planned by Haddad–the takeover of an Israeli El Al plane en route from Paris to Tel Aviv in July 1968–was a spectacular success. Forced to land in Algiers, the plane and its twenty-two Israeli passengers and crew were kept for forty days until Israel finally agreed to the terrorists' terms: the release of sixteen convicted Arab terrorists in return for the Israeli hostages (the non-Israelis had been returned to France at the start of the ordeal).
Other Palestinian terror groups such as Black September began to copy the PFLP's hijacking strategy. They mostly targeted Israeli and Western airlines like El Al, BOAC, Lufthansa, TWA, Pan Am and Swissair, and it seemed to many at the time as if the West's security forces were powerless to stop the hijackings. The one consolation for Israeli citizens was that, thanks to the tight security at Ben-Gurion, no plane flying direct from Israel had ever been skyjacked. That did not, of course, prevent terrorists joining the plane during a stopover en route to or away from a non-Israeli airport: just such a tactic had been used in the Sabena hijacking of 1972 when four Black September guerillas got on the Paris-to-Tel Aviv flight after a stop in Rome.
- "This book is an enthralling, minute-by-minute retelling of the hijack and the dramatic resucue using new sources and material."—Max Hastings, author of Inferno
- "Totally thrilling, totally poignant. Bringing the greatest special forces operation of modern times blazingly to life, David's book, full of new revelations, written with the excitement of an action movie, the authority of a historian, is great drama, superb storytelling--and yet tells us much about the Middle East today."—Simon Sebag Monteifiore, author of Jerusalem
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2015
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown and Company