Previously, on Entebbe Raid series . . .
And now, in Part 2, Col. Moshe Betser, a veteran of Operation Jonathan, speaks for the first time to a Ugandan journalist about that night
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. A few minutes into their raid, the Israelis run into trouble, writes JOE NAM
Legendary Israeli commando Moshe Muki Betser was second in command to Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu on the assault team that night.
He and and the Netanyahu brothers — Iddo and Benjamin — all Sayeret Matkal veterans — have argued in public forums about where to apportion blame for the unexpected early firefight at Entebbe and its tragic consequences.
In May 2014, 38 years after the Entebbe Rescue, Betser stood waiting to welcome me into his office in northern Israel, with nothing about his appearance to suggest who he is — one of Israel’s best warriors of all time.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, we sat down to talk about Entebbe.
“It is unfortunate that Uganda had such a bad leader at that time; we never wanted to hurt any Ugandan. Personally, it pained me that I had to fight the soldiers I helped train,” said Betser, who helped train Ugandan paratroopers in the early 1970s.
“I first visited Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in 1970 and I liked what I saw in Uganda very much. So, when I returned to Israel, I asked that I be posted to Africa and to serve in Uganda in particular.
“I was then sent to be a military instructor. Uganda had very good diplomatic ties with Israel in those days. I trained paratroopers, fighter pilots and tank drivers at a base in Jinja.”
He recalled the events of July 4, 1976.
“When we landed at Entebbe, I was immediately hit by the familiar scent of Uganda and I knew then that we would be successful. We drove disguised as Idi Amin’s convoy for nearly a kilometre, undetected all this time. Then close to the main building where the hostages were held, the soldiers on guard challenged us to step forward and identify ourselves. This was a standard drill in the Uganda Army and I knew this because I had instructed the force.
“I told Yoni not to shoot the soldiers outright, to pause for a short while, but he went on and shot the soldiers with his silenced gun.
“One of them did not die immediately and reached for his gun; this was when one of our commandos shot him with an AK-47, breaking our cover. After this, Yoni ordered us to storm the terminal where the hostages were being held.”
What other Sayeret said
In 1994, Col. Moshe Betser visited the Old Airport, where he had last been on the dramatic night of July 4, 1976
In the afterword to The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, Bukhris, the youngest soldier in the force, recalls the moment the Israelis saw the Ugandan guards.
“When I saw those two guards waiting for us, like the guards that Yoni had placed in the rehearsal, I knew that this operation would succeed.”
“We were sitting in the Jeep,” recalls another commando, Amir. “We saw it as if in a movie... the Mercedes was advancing, and at a certain point we were approaching the terminal... we saw a Ugandan soldier to the right and another one to the left. The runway lights were on either side... and we were driving in the middle. This was about 200 metres from the building.
“The guard on the left disappeared from view. Suddenly the one from the right came towards us. He approached the Mercedes and made a threatening movement with his weapon. He cocked his rifle, it was obvious to me that the guard had to be taken out.”
The guard shouted something before moving into shooting position.
“If the guard had fired first, the whole operation might have sunk,” explains Amitsur, the man who was driving the Mercedes.
He says Netanyahu told him to slow down like they were going to identify themselves. Two members of the unit were at the ready with their silenced pistols. When the Ugandan soldier who was aiming his rifle at them was only a few feet away, they both fired.
Loud shots quickly followed. Some reports say the shots came from the Ugandan guards, others say the firing came from the Jeeps while others say they came from the Mercedes.
The only thing that is for sure is that after these initial shots, the commandos in the Land Rovers let loose on the Ugandan guards. With the benefit of surprise lost, stealth gave way to speed, and as the cars came to a halt in front of the control tower, Netanyahu ordered his men to get out of the car and run to the terminal.
Meanwhile, as the other three Israeli planes approached the runway, officials in the control tower switched off the runway lights. The planes, however, landed safely, guided by the beacon lights the rescue force had earlier placed on the runway.
When the shooting started, one of terrorists outside ran into the terminal building in a panic, announcing to the other terrorists that Ugandan soldiers had gone berserk and were shooting randomly. He appeared not to have realised that Israeli commandos had arrived.
Netanyahu goes down
During his 1994 visit, Betser also met President Yoweri Museveni
As the Israelis ran up to the building’s entrance, Netanyahu fell down. Someone shouted that he had been hit, but his team kept running as he had ordered that the wounded were not to be attended to until the hostages were free.
While his men fought their way into the building, Netanyahu lay outside on the ground bleeding heavily. Inside the building, the commandos took out the terrorists one by one.
By the end of the fighting, official records say, all seven terrorists and 20 members of the Uganda Army lay dead. As the hostages were quickly ushered out of the building, Netanyahu was placed on a stretcher and moved by Jeep to the evacuation plane. He had been hit in his arm and chest, with the Kalashnikov bullet entering through the front of the chest and exiting from the back.
On the plane, doctors tried to resuscitate him to no avail. He was pronounced dead. For the most part, though, the mission had been a success.
Only 90 minutes after they had first touched down, the last of the Israeli planes was airborne again and Uganda’s Russian-built MiG fighter jets lay on the tarmac, destroyed.
A Ugandan perspective
Capt. Baka was at the airport that night
A few civilians and members of the Uganda Police Force on duty at the airport had, during the fighting, dashed into hiding. Capt. Isaac Bakka of the Uganda Air Force was in the hangar at the Old Airport when the fighting broke out.
I asked him about reports that Ugandan soldiers at the airport fled to Entebbe town half-naked, abandoning their guns and their uniforms when the fighting started.
“That is absolute nonsense,” he said.
“First of all, the Israelis were targeting the Palestinians and not us. It is only because the attack was on Ugandan territory that our soldiers got involved. Judging from the fact that we were taken by surprise and that we were facing one of the best armies in the world, I think Uganda’s military reaction was satisfactory.
“Remember, the commander of the attacking force was killed; it is not a simple thing to take out an Israeli colonel. Personally, I also think the number of Israeli casualties among the attack force was underreported.”
He added: “By the way, a Ugandan captain at the airport restrained his men from taking down the plane carrying hostages with a rocket propelled grenade as it took off from Entebbe as he quickly realised that killing all the civilian hostages would have provoked an extreme reaction from Israel. That captain, like myself, was an Israeli-trained paratrooper, so we knew the Israelis fairly well.”
Bakka said two Ugandan MiG17s took off from Gulu Air Base to intercept the Israelis in the air after they had left but they were three minutes too late to catch them before they crossed into Kenyan airspace.
“We realised only afterwards that the Kenyans had connived with the Israelis,” he said.
A close shave
When the Israelis left, Uganda's MiG jets lay in ruins
Having left Entebbe in one piece, the departing Israelis, now safely airborne, ironically had a close call with disaster as Colonel Ephraim Sneh recalls in an interview published in the Jewish Journal in 2001.
As the giant plane made its way out of Uganda’s sky, one of the hostages beckoned Sneh, the head of the medical team. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m sitting on something military.”
She then handed something to Sneh. It was a grenade.
Sneh recalls that it was a type of grenade that the Israeli Defence Force did not regularly use because of its volatility.
“The commandos took it specially for the Entebbe operation because it is very small... So they could carry more of them,” he recalls.
Sneh suspects it fell off Netanyahu’s stretcher as he was being rushed to the plane for medical attention and a hundred hostages had probably trodden on it after this. “And this heavy lady was sitting on it. If it had gone off, that would have been the end of all of us.”
Half an hour after leaving Entebbe, the Israeli planes landed in Kenya which had allowed them to refuel there on their way back.
In Nairobi, some of the injured hostages were treated by Israeli doctors. In spite of the injuries, the atmosphere on the plane carrying the commandos was one of euphoria. There was a lot of chatter, with the soldiers reliving the events at Entebbe.
Back in Israel in the office of the chief of staff, Motta Gur, bottles of champagne were being popped. Netanyahu’s men knew that he had been hurt in the fighting, but did not know of his death yet. And then someone broke the news.
To be continued . . .
UNLIKELY PORTRAIT OF A WARRIOR
“Your coffee is getting cold,” Betser reminded me. I had forgotten about the coffee; so entranced was I by what he was telling me.
A relative of Israel’s legendary General Moshe Dayan, Betser is highly respected as one of Israel’s greatest modern-day warriors alongside Moshe Dayan, Rafael Eitan and Ariel Sharon.
Betser’s pioneering grandparents, along with Moshe Dayan’s father developed and lived on modern Israel’s first cooperative farm in 1922 in the Jezreel Valley, where Betser was born.
Life was hard and Betser grew up toughened by the three values that ruled the settlements: settling the land, defending the land and remaining stoic in the face of adversity. This early life prepared him for what lay ahead: a 25-year career in the Israeli special forces.
Betser was a natural choice for the Entebbe mission since he had helped train Idi Amin’s forces. The Entebbe mission was not the last time he was to visit Uganda.
“I came to Uganda again in 1994,” he said.
“The President’s brother, Caleb (Salim Saleh), arranged the visit. I had asked to visit the old terminal building at the airport where we were last on the night of July 4 1976, one more time, but Caleb gave me more than I had asked, as I even visited the President at his country home.”
Betser reached for a book from the shelf saying: “Most of the questions you would have wanted to ask me are already answered in there.”
The book titled Secret Soldier - The True Life Story of Israel’s Greatest Commando was co-authored with Robert Rosenberg who says it is “not only the story of a secret soldier. It is the story of a secret dove, for whom peace, not combat, was the purpose of his military service”.
Today, Betser is involved in training selected Israeli youth in leadership skills in a programme that he runs in collaboration with the State of Israel.
Also related to this story
Entebbe Raid series: Part 1
EDITOR’S NOTE: Were you at Entebbe Airport on the night of July 4, 1976? Please contact us on 0772 956 017 or firstname.lastname@example.org