The final part of our dramatic serialisation of the raid on Entebbe Airport in 1976
Previously, Part 1 and Part 2
THE STORY SO FAR . . . On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane carrying 248 passengers was hijacked en route to Paris from Tel Aviv, Israel and diverted to Entebbe. With just a few hours to the expiry of a deadline after which the hijackers would begin killing the hostages, an Israeli rescue mission stormed Entebbe Airport on the night of July 3. Within 90 minutes they had killed all the hijackers and rescued the hostages. They had also lost their commander, writes JOE NAM
The plane went quiet. Matan Vilnai, the head of the paratrooper contingent in the raid, went over to the hostages’ plane.
In The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu he recalls: “I saw Yoni’s body lying in the plane, wrapped in one of those awful aluminum blankets the doctors use. I saw the hostages completely stunned, shadows of men. They were very depressed. And what hit me then was a kind of feeling that was, for an armyman like myself, totally illogical: that if Yoni was dead, then the whole thing was not worth it.”
In Israel, it was Gur that broke the news of Netanyahu’s death to defence minister Shimon Peres.
He took the news hard, reportedly making the following entry in his diary: “At four in the morning, Motta Gur came into my office, and I could tell he was very upset. ‘Shimon, Yoni’s gone, a bullet hit him in the heart…’ This is the first time this whole crazy week, that I cannot hold back the tears.”
Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the 30th anniversary of the Entebbe Rescue recalled how he heard of his elder brother’s death.
“Like millions around the world, I received news of the operation from news flashes. I was then finishing up my studies at MIT in Boston. My first reaction was jubilation, and then a question. I called my brother Iddo and asked him if he had heard from Yoni. There was no doubt in my mind what unit led the operation and that Yoni commanded it.
“Iddo told me he had not heard from him and that he would get back to me. But he did not. And as the hours passed, I knew that Yoni had been killed at Entebbe. I can’t explain why I knew this, since Yoni had participated in so many operations, in so many battles, and I never had this feeling. But now I did, and when Iddo called, I already knew what he would soon tell me.”
A building left pockmarked by the attack on Entebbe Airport
A bitter-sweet legacy
News about the rescue spread all over the world like a wild fire. It was midmorning when the C-130 Hercules transport planes touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Men, women and children emerged from it and rushed into the outstretched arms of their relatives and friends, tears flowing freely.
Two days later, Netanyahu was buried with military honours at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery near Jerusalem. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral. Prior to this, Netanyahu was virtually unknown to the Israeli public because of the secret nature of his work.
Now, overnight, he became a national hero and forever the stunning mission at Entebbe would be tinged with a sense of tragedy on his account. His story so captured the world’s imagination that often, it is forgotten that he was not the only victim of the events at Entebbe.
For the families of Cohen, Borochovitch Mimouni and Bloch, there were no honours and monuments; only questions and a desire to make meaning of the events that had cost them their loved ones, innocent bystanders in a complex conflict that they never chose to be part of.
Mimouni, a French Jew, at 19 was the youngest of the hostages. He could have left with the non-Jewish passengers as he carried a French passport. He, however, chose to remain and was shot during the rescue operation.
Borochovitch too is believed to have died in the crossfire, while Cohen was injured and died after an unsuccessful surgery.
Bloch might have survived had she not choked on some food necessitating her hospitalisation at Mulago Hospital in Kampala that Friday. When the commandos arrived, she was still in hospital. The morning after the rescue of the other hostages, she was dragged from her hospital bed and shot dead reportedly on the orders of President Idi Amin.
Henry Kyemba, who was health minister at the time, in his book A State of Blood relates: “Patients, staff and visitors crowded by the doors of the wards to see what was happening. Horrified, they watched as the two men dragged her, still screaming, through the casualty department and out of the main hospital door. All who were watching knew that Mrs. Bloch was going to her execution.”
Henry Kyemba writes what happened to Dorah Bloch in his book
Bloch’s remains were exhumed from a shallow grave in a sugar plantation on the Kampala-Jinja highway, by her family in 1979, after the fall of Amin, and flown out of Uganda for a decent burial.
Thirty-nine years on, the Raid on Entebbe is still a deeply emotive issue for both those who lost their loved ones and those who survived.
As Captain Bacos, the pilot of the hijacked Air France plane said in a 2012 interview with The Jewish Chronicle online: “(After the rescue) I felt as if I had been given a new lease of life, as if I had been born again. If anything bad happens at work or with the family, well, you really have got to put it into perspective.”
The forgotten dead
By Eetta Prince-Gibson
Officers of the Uganda Army at a funeral ceremony for soldiers killed in the attack
Mention the name Entebbe to any Israeli and they will tell you the story of Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, the heroic paratrooper and older brother of the current prime minister who died commanding the daring raid to free the 105 Israeli hostages hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, in July of 1976.
Popular myth has always held that save one Israeli woman, 74-year-old Dora Bloch, who was murdered in a hospital by Idi Amin’s troops — every single other Israeli was spared thanks to the sacrifice of 30-year-old Netanyahu and the expertise of his elite Sayeret Matkel commando forces.
Within a year of the operation, two high-budget films and a made-for-TV movie were produced that featured stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Finch, and, in one, a dashing Richard Dreyfuss as Yoni Netanyahu.
The promos for the films focus on the heroism of the soldiers, particularly Netanyahu.
But for more than 35 years, three Israeli families have remembered the events of Entebbe not as a shining moment of national unity, but as a personal tragedy. That’s because their family members — Jean-Jacques Mimouni, Pasco Cohen, Ida Borochovitch — also died in Entebbe.
In a newly released documentary, To Live and Die in Entebbe, filmmaker Eyal Boers tells the story of Entebbe’s other victims and tries to explain why they have been forgotten by history.
He focuses especially on what happened to 19-year-old Mimouni during the seven days of the hijacking, how he died in the raid, and why his family was never told the truth about his death.
Captain Michel Bacos, the pilot of the ill-fated plane and some of the passengers who survived
“The Entebbe myth is a perfect one, made up of smarts, daring, self-sacrifice, dedication to the value of life and loyalty,” Boers, 37, told me as he sipped tea in a popular Tel Aviv coffee shop late last month.
“This mission wasn’t about revenge or aggression. It was pure and it represented the best national qualities that we can be proud of.” But this mix of legitimate pride, horror, and desire for a glorious national narrative left no room for those whose death was less than glorious.
“All nations,” as Boers noted, “need myths. And often, when they tell their myths, they leave out the parts that are uncomfortable or sad.”
Boers, who previously directed the documentary Classmates of Anne Frank, came upon the story of Entebbe by chance. He and Yonatan Khayat, a French-Tunisian-Israeli now living in Montreal, had been friends since their college days in Tel Aviv.
Khayat once mentioned that his uncle, Jean-Jacques Mimouni, had died in Entebbe.
“I was surprised, because I didn’t know that anyone besides Netanyahu had died there. And then he told me that the family never found out how he died,” Boers recalled.
Together, beginning four years ago, Khayat and Boers set out to find the answers to the questions that have haunted Khayat and his family for decades.
The Mimouni family had come to Israel from Paris only four years before the Entebbe hijacking. Jean-Jacques’s father, Robert, was a staunch Zionist who had served in the French resistance during World War II and then in the French police force.
One of Mimouni’s older sisters — Khayat’s mother — remained in Paris when the family immigrated. Mimouni was on the Air France flight to Paris in order to see his nephew, Yonatan Khayat, then only two months old, for the first time.
At 9.00am on June 27, 1976, along with 227 other passengers, Jean-Jaques Mimouni boarded Air France flight 139 from Ben Gurion Airport to Charles De Gaulle, with a stopover in Greece.
After take-off from Athens, the plane was hijacked by four Palestinian and German terrorists.
After landing in Benghazi to refuel, they then flew on to the warm welcome of Ugandan despot Idi Amin in Entebbe. Soon afterwards, the hijackers freed the French crew and non-Jewish passengers, while retaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages.
Back home in Israel, the families of the hostages were unable to sleep. But in the early hours of July 4, Mimouni’s father, Robert, woke the family: He heard about the operation over the radio, and they rushed to Ben Gurion airport to meet the victorious returning planes.
At that very moment, a military jeep was on its way to the Mimouni home, apparently to inform the family about what had happened to their son.
Arriving at the airport, surrounded by joyful pandemonium, the Mimouni family was taken aside by military officials. They were told that their son had died of an asthma attack.
Robert Mimouni insisted on seeing his son’s body, which was being held in a room at the airport. The body was punctured with bullet holes, but no one ever offered them an explanation. Mimouni demanded to know the truth, but the family was quickly whisked away by government officials.
Over the years, Robert Mimouni tried to piece together the story, unsuccessfully trying to reach soldiers or witnesses.
Family members recall that he even tried to make sketches of what might have happened, based on his own knowledge as a resistance fighter and policeman. But the government and the army stonewalled him, according to Boers, and he passed away in 2011.
An Israeli commander addresses the press at the end of the mission
The Cohen, Borochovitch, and Bloch families had been together in Entebbe so they knew how their loved ones died during the raid: by stray Israeli bullets, and in the case of Dora Bloch, murdered in the hospital. Still, none had ever spoken publicly about the events.
And the other hostages and their loved ones, were invited to a national ceremony to celebrate the victory at Entebbe.
“This was Israel’s most glorious moment,” Boers said.
“The celebrations are filmed on TV. And with almost unbelievable insensitivity, the families of the dead have been invited, too, as if they would join the celebration and forget their losses.”
So, perhaps the most important aspect of To Live and Die in Entebbe is that Boers was able to get some family members of these forgotten victims to articulate their experiences and their loss. The Borochovitch family left Israel several years after the raid, and Boers was unable to track them down for the time.
But one of Mimouni’s five sisters agreed to participate in the film. And together with Khayat, Boers interviews other hostages, including members of Pasco Cohen’s family.
Though they were reluctant at first, the Cohen family agreed to meet with Mimouni’s mother, now very elderly, and tell her what they remembered. In Entebbe, the hostages referred to Mimouni as “the kid,” Cohen’s widow, now a middle-aged woman, recalls in the film.
She says that Mimouni provoked the terrorists by arguing with them and at least once was severely beaten with a rifle butt. She remembers that he tried to help people, handing out water and offering support and a kind word whenever he could.
Mimouni held French citizenship, and when the terrorists separated the Israelis from everyone else on the first day of the kidnapping, he could have saved himself.
But he insisted on staying with the Israelis.
“I named the movie, To Live and Die in Entebbe,” Boers explained, “because Mimouni seems to have discovered his identity — his life as a Jew and an Israeli — in Entebbe. For him, that week was a time of belonging.”
According to the documentary, he was apparently killed because he did not stay down when the Israeli commandos rushed the terminal. The commandos had orders to shoot anyone standing, to protect themselves and the hostages.
In the film, Amir Ofer, one of the first Israeli soldiers to burst into the terminal, and the only one interviewed on camera, says, “I would’ve shot him, too.” In his meeting with Mimouni’s mother and Khayat, Kobi Cohen, a child when he was hijacked and his father was killed, says that he has made peace with the events.
“My family suffered, but the mission was right. Otherwise, more people would have died.” Khayat nods in agreement — but cannot accept that Mimouni’s family was never told the truth by the Israeli government or the army.
“Robert Mimouni was strong,” Boers told me. “If the state had only acknowledged the truth, he would have understood. But Israel never gave him an answer and never gave him legitimacy to mourn. He died a broken man.”
From a historical perspective, Boers observed, Israel desperately needed a heroic myth. “We needed Entebbe to overcome the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. And there was no place for stories about friendly fire or collateral damage,” he said.
“And it was easier in those days for officials to lie — or at least not to give full information to the public. Media and information were slower, and the public trusted its officials.”
Boers did extensive research for the film, which is full of fascinating details, including information about the role of the Kenyan government in enabling the Israeli planes to refuel. Most moving is his interview with Amos Eran, then-director-general of the offices of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin, Eran reveals, had deep doubts about the mission.
Expecting severe losses, Rabin had set a calculus of collateral deaths: If more than 25 of the hostages died, he would resign. Fewer than 25 would be considered a success. “When only three were killed in the raid, it was cause for national ecstasy,” Boers said.
Boers compared the Entebbe story as Israelis tell it to themselves to the stories that the Dutch tell themselves about Anne Frank, the topic of his previous film.
“The Dutch focus on the fact that they hid Anne Frank, that they protected her. They don’t talk about the Dutchman who turned her in. And they don’t talk about how they allowed 75 percent of the Dutch Jewish population to die in the Holocaust.”
Yet Boers denies that he set out to be a mythbuster.
“I was born in Jerusalem and my family moved away. I spent my teen years in Australia. I did not have to return to Israel to serve in the IDF — but I did, in part because I, too, was inspired by the story of Yonatan Netanyahu,” he said.
“Entebbe was a glorious mission. But it would not have been any less glorious if the family of Jean-Jacques Mimouni had been told the truth, or if we remember the dead along with the heroes. I hope that now Israel is mature enough to temper the myth with honesty.”
(This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture)
Also related to this article
Entebbe Raid series: Part 1
Entebbe Raid series: Part 2
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Entebbe Raid series: Part 3