Even as the nonreligious commandos acknowledged the obvious Divine intervention in the Entebbe rescue 40 years ago, no one embarked on the mission believing they could rely on the Hand of Heaven, that their very blunders would turn into miracles. Why, then, did they go ahead with this wild scheme that had little chance of success? 

Forty years ago, Israel sent some of its best soldiers out on a crazy, daring mission whose predicted success was dubious at best. As the media focuses attention on the 40th anniversary of the famous Entebbe rescue (on America’s bicentennial — July 4, 1976), let us look at it from a different angle. 

The rescue of 102 hostages held in Uganda by terrorist hijackers could easily have been a disaster instead of the stunning feat it was. In terms of military logistics, the chances of success were actually slim, yet the overall situation called for taking that risk. Most of the hostages were Jewish and Israeli, and all the prestige of the Jewish state was at stake. 

Many of us are old enough to remember Operation Thunderbolt, as it was called by the military men who conceived the plan, and the sensation it caused all over the world. A band of breakaway terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine teamed up with German allies from the far-left Baader-Meinhof Gang. The group took over an Air France passenger jet, and after releasing some non-Jewish passengers, took the rest captive and hijacked the plane to Uganda, whose troops were in cahoots with the terrorists. 

When the terrorists threatened to kill the 105 hostage Jews, Israeli transport planes carried 100 commandos over 2,500 miles to Uganda and stormed Entebbe Airport (the old terminal, where the hostages were being held, was providentially built by an Israeli company several years before), and after a short and fierce battle with the Ugandan military forces guarding the site, they freed 102 of the captives and brought them safely to Israel (three were killed in the shoot-out). The leader of the commando mission, Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, was tragically killed in the battle, but on the whole, the rescue was a stunning victory. All the hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed, and in addition, 30 Soviet-built MiG-17s and MiG-21s of Uganda’s air force were destroyed on the ground. 

In 1979, when the US, under President Jimmy Carter, tried to emulate that improbable feat and rescue hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran, the operation was a dismal failure. Israel, meanwhile, was applauded for its courage and military prowess. 

And here we are, 40 years later. As we read about the story of the Entebbe rescue, we are stunned once again, not by the mission itself, but by the fears of then prime minister Rabin and many others in command positions in Israel’s army, who were well aware that the operation could have ended in a bloodbath. And their fears were well founded. Reading about the foul-ups that occurred at every stage of preparation is not for the fainthearted, yet testimonies of the those who fought in the battle affirm that some of those mistakes actually led to the mission’s amazing success. 

The obvious question is, why? Why, in fact, did Israel’s leaders decide to undertake such a complex and dangerous rescue attempt, although by every military parameter its chances of failure were so great? 

Let’s look at what the soldiers later told the press about the faulty groundwork leading up to the operation: “The practice exercise was unrealistic… To this day, I don’t understand how Mota Gur [IDF Chief of Staff at the time] decided we were ready for action.” 

Deputy Commander Muki Betzer had similar words: “The feeling among the soldiers wasn’t good. They hadn’t been given enough time to prepare for the operation.” 

If so, why did they set out at that point? 

One of their ploys was to drive up to the airport in a black Mercedes (shipped in the belly of the plane), just like the one used by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, so that the Ugandan soldiers guarding the airport would think their president had arrived and would offer no resistance. Yet as the commandos approached the terminal in the look-alike Mercedes accompanied by two Land Rovers, two Ugandan sentries, aware that Idi Amin had recently purchased a white Mercedes, ordered the vehicles to stop. The commandos then neutralized the sentries and quickly approached the terminal. 

The most fascinating part of the story, though, is how a mistake by one of the commandos brought about the mission’s surprising success. This soldier didn’t see his commander immediately upon landing, and he decided to run forward, assuming that the commanding officer had already gone ahead. He was mistaken; the officer was still in the rear. The impetuous soldier was first to rush at the nearest entrance to the terminal, and a gunfight immediately broke out between him and the German terrorist who was guarding that entrance. The terrorist was killed. Meanwhile, two other terrorists guarding two other entrances were distracted by the gunfire, and during those seconds that their eyes were turned toward their comrade, they didn’t notice the rest of the soldiers coming toward them, and they were shot down easily. 

A soldier recounted another astounding detail: 

“A fourth hijacker was hiding behind a pillar, and he aimed his gun at Amos Goren. A fraction of a second sooner, Goren shot at him. Later on, when the terrorist’s gun was examined, it turned out that he had already pulled the trigger. Amos’s bullet had hit the barrel of his rifle exactly at the split second that the terrorist fired, preventing the terrorist’s bullet from emerging.” 

The soldier himself summed up that incident by saying, “Even the most talented director in the world couldn’t have planned it better.” 

Of course, we know Who staged that soldier’s narrow escape from death better than any director in this world could have done, although Amos himself doesn’t refer to Him explicitly. But former chief of staff Dan Shomron, who planned and lead the operation, spoke a little more openly in an interview he gave to an Israeli paper ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the rescue: 

“Around midnight between July 3 and 4, 1976, the first Hercules [military transport plane] landed, close behind a British freight plane that glided over the runway and showed the way for the other three Hercules planes. I was in the first Hercules. I could hear the British plane contacting the control tower, and I could see it on the radar. But we were in a cloud — we couldn’t see a thing. And all of a sudden, there was a hole in the cloud. I could see the plane. I could see the lit-up runways. And suddenly I felt that Someone Up There wanted to help us, that it was going to succeed.” 

Another pilot said in an interview, “G-d was working overtime that night.” That was the best he could do to express how he felt about the Divine intervention that was so evident throughout that rescue mission. 

Miracles notwithstanding, the question still remains: Why did Israel undertake this mission impossible in the first place? 

True, they saw such obvious Divine intervention that even the nonreligious commandos acknowledged it as such. But they didn’t embark on the mission with the belief that they would be aided by the Hand of Heaven all the way, and that their very blunders would turn into miracles. What, then were the men in charge — Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, and Chief of Staff Mota Gur — relying on when they decided to go ahead with this wild scheme? 

The only explanation is that Someone Up There pushed them to go ahead despite the odds of disaster. And why? Perhaps it was because of a scene that was taking place all over the Jewish world from the moment the news of the hijacking broke. Everywhere, Jews were gathering for prayer and Tehillim around the clock. I remember the Motzaei Shabbos before the rescue, how the sounds of prayer rang out from every neighborhood shul all over Jerusalem. The entire Jewish nation was immersed in heartfelt prayer for our captive brothers and sisters. 

And those prayers were answered — in a Divine show that gave kavod to the Jewish People and let the world know that miracles still happen.