At Large

Entebbe Celebrated

35 years ago this week, Israel claimed one of the biggest triumphs in its war on terror. Much has changed.

By 7.11.11

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Thirty-five years ago last week, Israeli commandos flew into the heart of Africa to the old terminal building at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. In a lighting operation, they freed 103 hostages. 248 passengers and 12 crewmembers had been hijacked a week earlier aboard Air France Flight 139 en route from Athens to Paris. The hijackers were German and Arab -- this was a collaboration between Baader-Meinhof and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist PLO faction that is now part of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA).

Once in control of the plane, the terrorists refueled with help from Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government and diverted the flight to Idi Amin’s bloodthirsty dictatorship. The PLO terrorists gradually released most passengers, retaining only those with Israeli passports or Jewish surnames -- no "we’re anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic" pretensions here -- plus the Air France crew of Captain Michel Bacos, who refused to abandon any of his charges.

The hijackers demanded the release of jailed Palestinian terrorists in an assortment of Israeli and European jails and threatened to start murdering the hostages if their demands went unmet. With the passengers captive in the middle of a seemingly inaccessible African tyranny, there was no reason to suppose anyone, the Israelis included, would have any choice but to cave in.

Instead, only hours before the deadline, Israeli commandos flew the 2,500 miles to Uganda in four C-130 Hercules military transport planes, taking the terrorists and their Ugandan enablers by surprise. The terminal building holding the hostages was stormed and all but four were safely spirited away. It was the stuff of movies (and three were duly produced in quick succession). Israel basked, perhaps for the last time, in international acclaim and sympathy for resolutely fighting terrorism.

Much has changed in 35 years. Once determined never to negotiate with terrorists (even to redeem Israeli captives), Israel has, in recent years, unilaterally ceded for nothing what it would not have previously yielded even for hostages’ lives. And still the rockets fall and the bombings and kidnappings continue with no foreseeable end in sight.

Terrorism has also changed, creating a more hostile and panicked international environment. It has evolved from spectacular hijackings to generalized massacres, from hostage taking to suicide bombing. A daring commando operation -- the elimination of Osama, for example -- can at best be but one successful skirmish in a prolonged war.

Changes on the ground also present new difficulties. Extrication of captives can be even harder closer to home. In 1994, Israeli serviceman Nachshon Wachsman, kidnapped by Hamas in 1994 and held near Jerusalem, was killed before Israeli commandos could rescue him. Recently, another Hamas-kidnapped Israeli servicemen, Gilad Shalit, entered the sixth year of his captivity in Gaza. The Israelis have not been able to free him.

Moral relativism today enables those seeking to persuade large segments of world publics that the democratic West is the greatest misfortune to befall the earth. If the West may not judge another society’s acts, than justifications for those acts must be found and validated -- which is simply judgment of another type, unacknowledged, the product of moral relativism.

Whereas American journalists never thought twice to don US military uniforms during a time of conflict, their successors today seriously ponder even the propriety of wearing American lapel-pins. Objectivity was once prized as a precondition of sound judgment. Today it is invoked for the purpose of precluding it.

Meanwhile, Western heroism and sacrifice is played down, even in popular culture. It took Hollywood about five months to produce a film on Entebbe. It took it five years to produce United 93. It did not take Hollywood until 1946 to produce its first World War Two film.

Perhaps a film about the elimination of Osama will come sooner.

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.