Recent terror attacks in Belgium, Turkey and elsewhere have led to a rising sense of fear and insecurity in many places, a feeling all too familiar to Israelis. Israel’s history has, as two new books by military historians remind us, been entwined with the struggle against terrorism.
One of these titles, Saul David’s “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Special Forces Mission” has special meaning for me. In the summer of 1976, my family traveled to Israel as a sort of healing visit following the death of my Jerusalem-born grandfather the previous year. The evening before we departed the country, we learned that an Air France flight from Lod Airport had been hijacked. My father’s brother, as well as his girlfriend and her son, were on that plane.
The Paris-bound aircraft had made a stop in Athens, where, taking advantage of lax security, two Palestinian members of a group that had splintered from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two German radicals boarded the plane and commandeered it once airborne. After refueling in Libya, they brought the plane to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where Idi Amin offered his own troops to support the hijacking effort.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government considered both diplomatic and military paths to free the hostages (my uncle’s family was freed during two separate waves of releases, which left only Israelis and several Orthodox Jews in the hands of the captors). Finally, Israeli commandos made a stealth landing and stormed the airport, freeing 102 of the 106 remaining hostages. David’s book assembles a large number of voices to create a comprehensive picture of this extraordinary sequence of events. Although extensive use of recreated dialogue in historical books is something of a pet peeve for me, it functions well here to supply an immediacy to the detailed narrative. And David’s practice of cutting frequently between what was happening on the plane or in the airport with what was happening behind the scenes in Jerusalem contributes to the drama.
The former hostages’ recollections reveal many things, including a complicated relationship with their captors. When the hostages went through two selection processes, thoughts of World War II were inevitable, made more palpable by the presence of Holocaust survivors among the hostages and Germans among the captors. The German leader of the hijackers became defensive, insisting that they were acting against Israel and not against Jews.
Though the Entebbe raid has been extensively chronicled in film and books, a dimension I learned about only upon reading David’s book is the retaliation that took place after the Israelis’ departure. Upon learning that the Israeli military had been permitted to use Kenya as a base to collect initial intelligence, land and refuel, Amin ordered the killing of hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda, and eventually arranged for the assassination of Kenya’s minister of agriculture, Bruce McKenzie.
The book reminds us how the use of terror has changed over time — in the early 1970s there often were several hijackings globally within a single month. Also, the hijackings of the 1970s tended to be in pursuit of goals other than wholesale slaughter. In exchange for their hostages, the Entebbe hijackers were seeking both money and the release of prisoners held in multiple countries.
In “The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism,” Samuel Katz looks at the history of Israel’s efforts in a subsequent era, the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2008, when suicide bombing became an important part of the terror campaign. This new methodology exacted a great price from Israel and demanded a new strategy to confront it.
Although he discusses other institutions, Katz focuses largely on the specialized Yamas units within the Israeli Border Police whose importance grew during this difficult period. These units are composed of both Jews and, especially, non-Jews who, through a combination of appearance, background knowledge and mastery of Arabic, have been able to work undercover and foil terror efforts in hot spots in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.
Most Israelis were unaware of these secret units or their effectiveness during the period of the Second Intifada, as their success was measured in the number of terrorist activities that did not take place. The units had a secondary impact, as awareness within terror cells that they were being infiltrated generated a fear that likely resulted in a reduction in the number of incidents.
As Israel confronts a new wave of violence, it is educational to reflect on these evolving challenges from the perspective of history.
“Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Special Forces Mission” by Saul David (446 pages, Little, Brown)
“The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism” by Samuel Katz (432 pages, Berkley)
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.