Special: Entebbe’s open wound
Tensions remain between Netanyahu family, whose memory of their beloved son Yoni has reached almost mythical proportions, and fellow commando unit members, who continue to cast aspersions on his functioning during rescue mission. Senior unit members: First problem was that Yoni missed much of the planning stage
Part 2 of series: Thirty years after the Entebbe rescue mission, the wound has not healed. Questions linger about late Sayeret Matkal (IDF’s elite commando unit) commander Yoni Netanyahu’s role in operation. Even today, tensions remain between the Netanyahu family, whose memory of their beloved son has reached almost mythical proportions, and unit members, who continue to cast aspersions on Netanyahu’s functioning during the raid.
In a conversation with Ynet, Muki Betzer, responsible for seizing the terminal, and Alik Ron, who served as a company commander in the reserves, delicately address this issue. They tell their version of those historical events but add a caveat. “We are an intimate unit,” they caution.
According to senior unit members, the first problem was that Netanyahu missed much of the planning stage. He only returned from a training exercise in the Sinai on Thursday, two days before the mission began.
As soon as Netanyahu had finished meeting the team in Ramat Gan, Betzer updated him on the detailed plan. For example, the cover story was that they were going to destroy a terrorist base in Lebanon. Netanyahu gave the order to begin training.
The 32 team members were set to reach the terminal in a Mercedes and two Land Rovers. Betzer commanded the 15 fighters who were going to break into the terminal, while Netanyahu’s squad was to secure the tarmac from the direction of the control tower.
With only two days to go, the unit had little time to train. Meanwhile, in addition to his other responsibilities, Netanyahu needed to locate a black Mercedes without arousing any suspicions.
“Once again, we turned to the Mossad,” Betzer relates. “There was a guy there named Uri Tauber. He went to the car dealer who had ties to the Mossad and got a Mercedes from there. But they only had a white Mercedes. So we were forced to simply stand there and paint it. We needed to get organized quickly and cut some corners. The soldiers didn’t feel good about it. They were used to spending much more time preparing for a mission.”
Mercedes used in rescue mission (Photo: Shaul Golan)
The recent Ma’alot tragedy weighing heavily on his mind, Chief of Staff Motta Gur solemnly approved the operation. “He kept repeating that no one should open fire before Muki Betzer’s group, that there should be no firing before that, unless they started shooting at us,” Betzer recalls. “He told Yoni: ‘I was personally wounded during the reprisal attacks in the fifties in Gaza. They shot at me from the roof. You must ensure that the tarmac is secure. So don’t open fire from the tower.’” The team got the go-ahead, and they took off on Saturday afternoon.
Failure in the field: Did Yoni shoot too soon?
The landing went as planned. Nine fighters, wearing the striped uniform of the Ugandan army, sat in the Mercedes. Betzer led the charge. “We knew that there would be contact in another two, three minutes. All eyes were glued on one place: one of the terminal’s entrances. I checked that all weapons were drawn and that the safety catches were located. I got the okay, and we were off.”
Freed hostages arrive in Israel (Photo: Yaakov Saar, GPO)
The next few minutes changed everything. “We observed two Ugandan soldiers, standing and talking to each other,” Betzer recounts. “Then one of them left, and the second one saw us. He lifted his weapon, aimed, and yelled ‘Advance’. Yoni was alarmed and said to one of the officers: ‘Cover me.’ I told Yoni: ‘Ignore it. It’s just an exercise.’ I knew this because of my background in Uganda. When I lived there, two soldiers guarded my house. They both knew me, but nevertheless, when I would arrive, they would lift their weapons and shout ‘Advance’.
“I repeated: ‘Yoni, ignore it. It’s just an exercise.’ Yoni hesitated for a second, and then he said to Amitzur: ‘Break right; they’re coming close to us.’ It was all a matter of a tenth of a second. And then he and Giora Zussman shot at that Ugandan, contrary to the plan. The Ugandan was wounded and got up. Someone from the Land Rover realized what was happening and opened fire loudly with a Kalashnikov. That was the most terrifying moment of the mission; it was apparent to all of us that the surprise element was suddenly gone. There was a real danger that the Ma’alot tragedy would repeat itself. Everyone understood that a disaster could occur.”
Shots were immediately fired from every direction.
“There was complete chaos,” Ron reports. “I understood that we’re getting out of the vehicle, which wasn’t the plan. We had to get to the control tower with the vehicle, but then a large unit ran under the control tower and started shooting. I ran next to Yoni and suddenly realized that he was wounded. I recall that I told David Hassin to take good care of him. And then I ran inside to Muki to tell him that Yoni was wounded. There, meanwhile, the battle had almost ended. I went back outside and again wild firing came from the control tower. I said to myself: ‘Alik, you’re going to be kidnapped.’”
Despite the exchange of fire, Betzer’s squad managed to enter the terminal and free the hostages. The kidnappers, who had not envisioned the possibility that Israeli forces would attempt to rescue the hostages, assumed that the shots from outside were the result of Ugandan army infighting. Thus, the Israelis were able to surprise and kill the terrorists.
However, the mission was not a complete success. As Yoni Netanyahu lay dying in his friends’ arms outside, three hostages were killed inside the terminal, either by the kidnappers or in the crossfire: Ida Borovitch, Jean Jacques Mimouni and Pascal Cohen. In addition, Dora Bloch, an elderly hostage who had been hospitalized several days before the raid, was subsequently shot on Idi Amin’s orders, and paratrooper Sorin Herschko was critically injured during the assault and remained a quadriplegic.
'I want to visit Entebbe'
“The father questioned me; it was not pleasant.”
Notwithstanding the daring rescue, questions about Yoni’s death still haunt the unit.
“After the investigation, Motta called a few of us,” Betzer notes. “He was very angry and said: ‘It was his own fault that Yoni Netanyahu was killed.’”
“I visited the Netanyahu family during the Shloshim (mourning period)”, Ron adds. “They wouldn’t accept the possibility that Yoni was the one who erred. I felt like they were being manipulative. At a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I said: ‘It was bad luck. I was very close to that bad luck, but it struck Yoni.’”
“I told the father: ‘The legendary mission is named after Yoni, who has become almost a myth himself,’” Betzer concludes. “I suggested that he leave it alone and not touch it, but he wasn’t satisfied.” As far as the family is concerned, the wound is still wide open."
In the coming weeks, Betzer and Ron, together with many of their fellow Entebbe Campaign fighters, are traveling back in time to that infamous airport. Ron has not been to Entebbe in thirty years. “They say there are three stages of memory,” he muses. “When a person is young, he remembers everything clearly. As he gets older, the events are far in the past, and his memory is hazy. The most dangerous stage is when one begins to remember things that never happened, and this is the problematic stage. I want to visit Entebbe to see what the place looks like in contrast to the mental image that is engraved in my head.”