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The Forgotten Hero of Entebbe
Dan Shomron: The Lead Actor
By Tali Lipkin-Shakhak, Ma'ariv, "Saturday Supplement" magazine, p. 16-19; 16 June 2006
translated from Hebrew with comments and minor editing by Historama.com




For the whole seven and a half hours of the flight to Entebbe I heard the voice which asked me: "Are you sure? Are you sure?"
Dan Shomron
His character in the Hollywood movie on the rescue of hostages in Entebbe [in Uganda] was portrayed by Charles Bronson.

But the commander of "Operation Yonathan", the former Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, says that he never felt comfortable with the adulation.

Thirty years after he recollects how he convinced the Defense Minister to do the impossible. He tells about the Mossad agent who staged a forced landing in Uganda. And reveals that the original name of the operation was supposed to be "Wave of Ash".

He avoids dealing with the reasons for the death of [unit commander] Yoni Netanyahu: "there's no point talking these days about who fired where".



At the beginning of next month, with the completion of 30 years to the date of operation "Thunderball", whose name was subsequently changed to "Operation Yonathan", the retired Chief of Staff, Lieut.-Gen. Dan Shomron, is supposed to return to Entebbe. Shomron, then a Brigadier General - the chief infantry and paratrooper officer - the planner of the operation and he who stood at its head, is supposed to return to the terminal in Entebbe with additional senior people who were involved in the rescue operation. The journey is a television project initiated by Yehoram Gaon [a famous Israeli singer and entertainer], who portrayed Yoni Netanyahu in one of the movies that was made following this most inspiring mission to rescue the hostages, and the production company Castina. Thirty years have passed, and reality and falsehood, facts and myths continue to get mixed up one in the other.

Thirty years have passed and the emotional baggage still mostly encumbers upon the souls who operated then, during the week which stretched from Sunday 27 June 1976, when two Germans and two Palestinians hijacked an Air France plane on flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, to the operation which brought in four Hercules planes from a distance of 3800 kilometers the forces which liberated about a hundred Israeli and Jewish captives. They mostly burden the people who participated then, in order to preserve facts or to change them, to elevate heroes or to cause others to be forgotten. They return and arise over and over leading up to the anniversary, and especially this year, in spite of the great time that has passed.
The first plan was to lead the strike force in a refuelling tanker.
The black Mercedes of the fighters of 'Sayeret Matkal'.

In a Tel-Avivian cafe - towards which he had difficulty finding his way, this man who led 30 years before a complex array of forces under the cover of darkness into enemy territory ("Central Tel Aviv is not really my place") - we meet as the baggage of emotions warm up the engines for the next take-off, for the approaching 30-year commemoration. You're joining the flight to Entebbe, I ask Dan Shomron - already 68 years old, white hair thrown on his forelock, a symbol of his image which was immortalized in movies which were made after the operation.

"We'll fly, we'll see the place. After all I was only there in the darkness. I never saw the area in the light of day, and that definitely intrigues me", he replies, as always with a thin smile, a little dry, most cautious to wander without stepping on the scattered landmines of egos in this field which they call Operation Entebbe.



"The computer at first pulled out the name 'Wave of Ash', and I said that this isn't a suitable name for an operation like this. We ran the computer again and again until we got to 'Thunder Ball' ["ball of thunder"]. I said: this is a suitable name, and that's how the name was chosen". Not many days will pass before unconquerable emotion pressure will be brought to bear to change the name of the mission to "Operation Yonathan", after the name of Lieutenant-Colonel Yoni Netanyahu [brother of Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister], commander of 'Sayeret Matkat' [the special force unit directly responsible to the General Staff] which was in the strike force. It was not just a semantic change but also the beginning of a fundamental development of many layers and currents in the battle which has not finished since, on the facts and on the glory.

Photo: 'Entebbe: Top Secret' by Ben Caspit, Ma'ariv; 7 July 2006, p. 5
Yonathan Netanyahu, commander of the 'Sayeret Matkal', with pipe.


A MOMENT BEFORE THE CAPITULATION
Then, as the government headed by Yitzhak Rabin - with Shimon Peres as the Defense Minister and [Mordechai] 'Motta' Gur as the Chief of Staff - debated if to respond to the demands of the hijackers and to capitulate to terrorism, Shomron didn't think about his place in history. He began, while still on exercises in the Sinai, to get his staff to prepare a rescue operation. Today he steers away from the interest in the question of who did what, to whom exactly is credit due. He refuses even to reconstruct with me the reasons for the death of Yoni Netanyahu and to touch upon the allegation - which already provoked a long and profound war of versions - according to which, against the directives of the mission commander Shomron, Yoni's men opened fire at the time that they were driving in the black Mercedes (which looked like the car of the Ugandan ruler Idi Amin) on a guard who had turned his gun on them and demanded identification at the entrance to the terminal, and sparked thus a gun battle which led to the death of the Sayeret's commander and aroused the senses of the kidnappers in the hall.

"There's no point speaking today about who fired where", says Shomron.
[Shomron alludes to a long-standing feud between the family of Yoni Netanyahu and his deputy Mookie Betzer. The latter alleges, among other things, that in the operation Yoni's men fired prematurely on a suspicious Ugandan soldier who demanded to see ID papers, spoiling the element of surprise which ultimately led to Netanyahu's own death. Netanyahu's family and other Sayeret Matkal members disagree.]

"The politics of the decision-making is the interesting matter. Rabin asked at the government meeting for an operational plan to be presented, the Chief of Staff said that there was no operational plan, and the government decided to submit [to the kidnappers' demands]. I had the opportunity to speak about this with Rabin many times later on. He explained that this wasn't an attempt to draw time, but rather a true recognition that if there if no way to rescue the hostages - if we don't have a good operational response - he's not prepared to let them be killed one by one over there. In this matter he had a fundamental decision".

Photo: Herzog, p. 336
Evacuating a wounded child in Ma'alot, where three PLO terrorists held 85 hostages in a school house; May 1974
A fundamental decision and one completely not simple. The hijacking of the Air France plane and the demands of the hijackers to release Palestinian prisoners came during a difficult period for the war on terror, which operated then on the system of hostage-taking. The soul of the Israeli defense services was scarred and from the terror attack on the city of Ma'alot two years before, which ended with 27 casualties, and from the seizure by terrorists of the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv, which took a heavy toll. The question of capitulation to terrorism against the price of standing up to it became clearer.



"We were busy in those days in attempts to convince the world that one does not bow to terrorism. The idea of surrender was a signal to the world that we also can be made to capitulate, and until then we had never capitulated. Including at Ma'alot with 27 killed. And beyond the international ramifications, there was our own national aspect: there was there [carried out by the hijackers] a 'selection' [between Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis; a reference to the Holocaust], they left there in the terminal only the Jews and threatened to kill them one by one. Not Israelis. Jews. It's unfathomable that now that there is the Israel Defense Forces, that we have a long arm, that we'll sit on the side as they kill Jews just because they are Jews".


In this separation of the Jews there was also a benefit. The others were released on the third day of the hijacking, were returned to Paris and underwent there an inquiry by Israeli agents to gather intelligence in preparation for an operation. "They were quite confused and had difficulty giving information of any worth. Suddenly a young man approached the Israeli investigator and told him that he was a lieutenant-colonel in the French Army and said: 'I know what you are looking for. I'll tell you everything that I can'. He drew him the terminal and that was the best intelligence that we had on the terminal. He also tried to tell us what he saw outside, but it was minimal".

The information that the French hostage gave was highly valuable. Added to it were photographs taken by a Mossad agent who, on Wednesday of that nerve-wracking week, staged a forced landing with a light plane at the Ugandan airport in order to photograph the area. These pictures were received by Dan Shomron and his men very much at the last minute, almost by chance.

"When we were already on the plane before take-off to Sharm e-Sheikh, there appeared a car with a driver with a case of documents in his hands, asking where is 'Khaka' [the head of the Mossad then, Yitzhak 'Khaka' Khofi). Khaka's in a government meeting in Jerusalem, we tell him, and he starts to go back in the car. My intelligence officer, a most alert young man, Amnon Biran, jumps on him and really tears out of his hands the material. 'That's not for you, it's for Khaka', the man shouts, and we tell him: 'It's precisely for us'. We climbed back up on the plane, opened the envelope and there there were good photos of the area".

Details of the terminal were also in the hands of 'Solel Boneh', the [Israeli company] which constructed the old building of the terminal in the days of fruitful cooperation between Israel and Uganda. These, like the recollections of Israeli fighters, among them the deputy commander of 'Sayeret Matkal' Mookie Betzer, who trained Ugandan soldiers during the golden period of the relations, succeeded in constructing a fairly good intelligence basis for the planning of the operation. Not bad, just not good enough, because the first operation on which they planned was unrealistic, attests Dan Shomron.

Photo: 'Entebbe: Top Secret' by Ben Caspit, Ma'ariv; 7 July 2006, p. 5
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin addresses reporters during the crisis.
"On Wednesday it was clear that there was a real option for going with an operation. I flew up and didn't receive any instructions. They updated me that there was a certain program to parachute 12 fighters into Lake Victoria and from there the fighters would get onto dinghies, reach the terminal, enter and kill the terrorists, and then we'd see what would happen. I look at the intelligence and don't understand this. There are two points with no answers: the one is the idea to sneak in through the swamps - indeed if someone gets spotted there's a lot of time to manage killing all the hostages, and then there are these 12 stuck there. The second issue is the question of evacuation. How will an evacuation be done while Idi Amin is not cooperating with us and there are Ugandan soldiers all around the terminal? It looked to me like a dud of a program, that I don't even know who did it. It was later made known to me something interesting: this program was not accepted by the Prime Minister. He called it the 'Bay of Pigs Program', and the Chief of Staff also didn't think she was good. But here enters politics: who will be the one to say that we don't have a military program and that therefore we're giving in? The Prime Minister or the Chief of Staff? Therefore they drew time.


"That's how we get to the situation that on Thursday afternoon, the ultimatum has expired but there is no operation planned. The Israeli government delivered a message on her willingness to negotiate, and the ultimatum was postponed to Sunday at 10 o'clock because of some conference of African leaders in Mauritius which Idi Amin wanted to participate in. In this space of time, Defense Minister Shimon Peres pressed on the Chief of Staff, his deputy and on the Staff officers who he sat with to come with a program". Photo: 'Momento: The Heroic Mission' by Menachem Rahat, Ma'ariv; 7 July 2006, p. 5
Idi Amin


TERRORISTS WITH A FINGER ON THE TRIGGER
With soft light-blue eyes and a tone appropriately soft, Dan Shomron, the paratrooper born in Kibbutz Ashdot-Ya'akov, decided to run with a program of his own. If they want they will eat; if they don't want they won't eat. Students of that generation always knew that deeds are best established in the field.

"I get into the program and my directive is that we need to prepare a realistic program that needs to be ready for execution in a very short period of time. Therefore we began with a working premise that there is a room or small hall in which are the hostages, and all around them the terrorists with a finger on the trigger. We built on there being four 'Hercules' [transport planes] with which we would arrive with our forces, with the purpose being to get close to the terminal and to be the first to pull the trigger. The element of surprise is the first point. We need to create mental surprise insofar that even if they see something, they won't interpret it as an attack. The element of surprise will give us the time to arrive and to begin the operation".

The preparation was assembled from the smallest details of complex logistics, medical forces (led by Colonel Dr. Ephraim Sneh [son of Moshe Sneh, once the leader of the Communist Party; a current member of Knesset and former government minister]) and communications forces, airborne forward command corps, and maintenance support. But from the sea of details people remember most the black Mercedes, a perfect imitation of Idi Amin's car. The beginnings of the Mercedes were actually in a tanker. A refueling tanker at which, reasoned Dan Shomron, they won't hurry to fire from fear of starting a fire. The plan was to paint it in the colors of the Ugandan Army and to place into it the strike force. "But Mookie Betzer, who was familiar with them because he trained there, and on whom I relied a lot in general, said that if we take a black Mercedes with the presidential flags of Idi Amin, no Ugandan soldier will dare to fire. Since I feared that we don't have time to prepare a tanker, I decided that the Mercedes would be the tool".

On the paper which Dan Shomron brought to our meeting this week are listed points to emphasize. Next to the element of "mental surprise" is written "the evacuation".

"We have to evacuate on our own the hostages and the attacking force. Incumbent upon us is the seizure of the old and new terminals, which is a great distance, and we need to see how to do this. The problem is how to arrive and to be the first to pull the trigger. I debated over which unit is suitable for this. Indeed 'Sayeret Matkal' is composed of the best people, but their work practice is one of preparations for weeks and months and less one of actions at a pace as quick as this, where there isn't all the information and one needs to improvise. But Mookie Betzer worked on this already a full week since the hijacking, and I said that I was ready to take them on a mission because I trust Mookie Betzer. I also assigned the force of Matan (Vilna'i, then the commander of the 35th Paratrooper Brigade) to seize the new terminal and to secure the runways because all it takes is a volley of gunfire on a plane to prevent it from taking off. I attached an escorting protective force to it, under the command of Shaul Mofaz [former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister; now the Transport Minister] who was then a major, and for him we also brought for the first time a light armoured carrier with strong fire-power because the distances were so great. An additional force of 'Golani' [infantry brigade force], under the command of the brigade commander Uri Sagie, served as a reserve for all branches and for the evacuation of the hostages".

Photo: Ziv and Gelber, p. 354
At a press conference after the Entebbe mission: Shomron (center), Gur (left) and Peres on the right.
On Thursday, at four in the afternoon, the head of the Operations Directorate, Major-General Yekutiel Adam [a subsequent deputy Chief of Staff, killed in Lebanon], called and asked if there was a program. Shomron answered in the affirmative. "Come at six to present it before the Defense Minister", said 'Kuti' to Shomron. "I didn't make a [formal] presentation - not to the Chief of Staff and not to anyone. I went directly to Peres. I confirmed that on the night between Saturday and Sunday we carry out the operation. After I present the plan, Peres asks every one of those present: what chance do you give to this program? How many casualties do you think there will be? Do you recommend the execution of this plan? Most of them didn't want to answer. 'Kuti' gave it a 50% chance. The commander of the Air Force, Benny Peled, proposed parachuting a full brigade, and I replied that until the first paratrooper lands in the country all the hostages will be killed.


"When Peres turned to 'Motta' [the Chief of Staff], he replied to him: 'I'll answer you privately' ["in a meeting of four eyes"], and I knew that he was very scared, with the memory of the terror attack on Ma'alot. I understand him. Peres saw that they were not altogether with him and he wanted support, so he asked that I present again and say what I think. Three times in this deliberation, on Thursday, I presented and explained why the plan was feasible. In the end I said: if we land the first plane in the manner that I believe we can - under the cover of a British transport plane which will enter after us - I give the plan a hundred percent chance of success. He asked how many casualties there would be and I said that inasmuch as there would be shooting there, there could possibly be three-four-five killed. I didn't err".

How old were you then?
I was 38.

Do you understand the burden of responsibility that you took upon yourself?
"Miki Bar-Zohar, who wrote just now a biography on Peres, told me: 'this operation was only because of you'. Obviously this is going too far in my opinion, but it is correct that there was an issue of timing and I was there at the right moment. I knew that what was available and what was prepared was all that there would be. Do you know how many times 'Motta' asked me if I'm sure? On the flight of seven and a half hours to Entebbe I heard all the time that voice which asked me: 'Are you sure? Are you positive?', but I really wanted that this mission would be carried out and I believed that I gave to every question a reasonable answer. Not of a hundred percent assurance, but an answer that enables the execution".


After the deliberation on Thursday before evening, the path was open to move ahead with the forces, to gather them, to shut their mouths so that the false impression of willingness to negotiate wouldn't be disrupted, to bring the program before the whole government for approval. At Dan Shomron's request it was made clear that he is the commander of the operation and it was decided that he would choose the participating units.

Photo: Ziv and Gelber, p. 352
Air Force crew of one of the Hercules planes.
"I immediately begin to issue orders to the forces, with the cover story for this concentration of forces being a mission in Lebanon. We had one day to complete the preparations and I asked the whole General Staff to participate and support us. I must say that in this program there were things which were not settled to the end, which we closed up during the course of the preparations. We also set out with the Hercules planes on Saturday to Sharm during the time that the government was still meeting, before we received the approval to proceed. When we reached Ofira there still wasn't an approval, but we had to arrive in time in order to be close to the British plane and land quietly on the runway, and so I arranged with 'Froika' (Brigadier-General Ephraim Furer, the military secretary to the Prime Minister) that we will set out to Entebbe and that we have four to five hours flight time to the point of no return so that if the government does not approve the operation we'll be able to return back. I admit that a decision like that would have saddened me very much. But after a few minutes 'Froika' gave me the go-ahead for this arrangement and I understood from this that the Prime Minister was basically inclined towards approving the operation".


HE DIDN'T FORGET 'GOLANI'
On the seam between the 3rd and 4th of July 1976, landed the first Hercules plane close to the British transport plane which slid on the landing strip, and signaled the path to the other three Hercules. "I'm in the first Hercules, hearing the British plane contact the control tower, see him on the radar, but we're in a cloud. We don't see anything. And suddenly, with a hole in the cloud, I see the plane, I see the runways lit up and I feel suddenly like someone from above wants to help us. It will succeed".

On the ground the planes discharged their forces, the tools, the equipment with which to return the hostages home. Fifty-eight minutes after the operation began, at the end of a short gun battle, they carry four dead with them (Dora Bloch, who was admitted to a hospital, was murdered on Idi Amin's orders a few days later) and treat one seriously wounded person and return at morning on the planes back home.

Looking back, this operation entered the pages of history. Movies, books When it took place, did you already know that you are making history?
"I thought that the mission would succeed and that it would also be part of our heritage. Therefore I also took a force of 'Golani'. So that they would be participants. That's heritage. It was clear to me from the beginning that this is an extraordinary mission and it was clear to me that it would succeed. I gave a final briefing in Sharm and said: 'we're going out 4,000 kilometers, there's no unit or force that can help us. We're alone, but we're the strongest force in the field. If someone is afraid, he may leave'. There was no one like that".

You took a rather large personal risk.
"If I didn't want to, if I wouldn't have dictated the pace and the processes, this wouldn't have been carried out. I knew that I had to press on. This was like almost going out on the edge from my personal point of view, because there's personal responsibility here for how much I may go to get a whole nation embroiled. Therefore I had some concerns as to whether I was going too far in my desire to carry out a mission. I didn't send out others, I was on the first plane which landed there, but I considered whether I was exaggerating when all those around me weren't enthusiastic and said that the program was brilliant but the risk too great. James Bond, they said. Even 'Motta'. But I believed and I was sure that this is correct, and that therefore it's upon me to present this even if it's not comfortable for me to take risks. I'm not the character of a gambler and I would not have proposed or pressed forward if I didn't believe in this program".



"They said the plan was brilliant, but the risks were great". The rescued hostages in Israel.
From the point of view of Chief of Staff, would you have been prepared to accept a situation in which an officer of a rank similar to yours then would form a decision-making process which ran across you similar to what you did?

"'Motta' didn't think that I went over him. In fact without 'Motta's' approval it wouldn't have been carried out. And we have to place here Shimon Peres, who pressed for a mission. I saw the correct connection between Peres and Rabin, inspite of the fact that they were really [political] rivals. Peres saw the political side, the relations with countries around the world, and from his point of view it was intolerable to capitulate. But he didn't understand the risks. He was also prepared to recommend the program of the 12 men parachuting into Lake Victoria because he wanted to carry out a mission.


"'Motta' was much more skeptical because he had the responsibility and he had foreknowledge. But he was in a difficult situation when he could present an operational program to the government or to the Prime Minister. Rabin really lay into them, because in the government meeting Peres spoke against surrender and Rabin told him that he agreed with every word but that the Chief of Staff had nothing to present. Don't think that this is a trifling position for a Chief of Staff. As a Chief of Staff I was not in a similar situation but I concede that this is not a comfortable position for a Chief of Staff. The combination of my planning and the decision by 'Motta' ensured that there would be an operation".

And afterwards such universal adulation, the movies. You turned into a kind of star.
"With that I really felt uncomfortable. I also felt some kind of envy from within the military and it was not comfortable for me. Around the world, until today, they look at me like something from a different world, a super super-hero, something not natural. I don't like that feeling of being an advertisement. I was then a young man and in one of the places where I spoke, someone asked if I came in the capacity of a general or as a model. But if you ask", he permits himself a small outburst of humor, "I like in particular the movie in which Charles Bronson portrayed me, more than the character done by Aric Lavie [a famous Israeli singer and entertainer; actually bears a relatively close resemblance to Shomron]. After all it looks funny to me".



In the end it's impossible to avoid asking the most banal of questions: what is your strongest memory?
"When the hostages board the evacuation plane, are helped up, each one checking his family that everyone is present. That was a strong moment that I can't forget".


Preferred over Aric Lavie. Bronson as Dan Shomron.