"We are very proud of you," then-defense minister Shimon Peres can be heard telling the elite Sayeret Matkal fighters after they rescued the kidnapped passengers of the Air France flight, during the IDF's Operation Entebbe. Peres' sentiment, along with several other exchanges between then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Paratroopers commander Matan Livnai, and the fighters, passngers and crew members aboard the plane, can be heard on a recently discovered audio recording that was released on Thursday by the Defense Ministry, on the one-year anniversary of Peres' death.
The audio recordings from the operation were discovered as part of the digitization efforts currently being carried out by the Ministry of Defense. At the beginning of the recording, apparently when Peres and Rabin passed among the families of the kidnapped soldiers on their way to the plane, people can be heard thanking them. "They said they would do everything to save them. It's unbelievable what they did," said a relative of one of the hostages.
'You have changed Israel's perception and character'
Following the operation's conclusion, Peres and Rabin spoke with the Sayeret Matkal fighters who freed the kidnapped passengers. Then-Paratroops commander (and future IDF chief of staff) Matan Vilnai also spoke with them, telling Peres, "It worked out just as we wanted, there were no changes. Everything's fine. The main concern was the touching down of the wheels of the plane. I was on the first plane. The field was lit. We entered the landing without a problem."
Both Peres and Rabin thanked the fighters for their service. "I do not want to speak at length," Rabin told them. "The IDF has a long tradition, and your units also have a tradition of unusual operations. I think that this operation, in some ways, went above and beyond what had previously been customary. Not only did you save people, but you have changed Israel's perception and character. And for that you deserve praise."
Peres then added, "I also want two or three sentences. You left a very worried country, and you return to a very proud country, and that is really thanks to you. You took a greater risk than you might realize. We will conduct an inquiry, but for the time being welcome back, go rest."
'We awaited instructions from "our boys"'
Speaking on tape, one of the released prisoners explained that once he realized what was going on, he took cover and waited for the IDF to come rescue them.
"We heard the shots but didn't understand what was happening, so I grabbed the girls, lay down on the ground and awaited instructions from 'our boys.'"
Another one of the released passengers, named Ron Davidson, spoke with Peres about the kidnapped Israelis' behavior. "I have to say, Sir, that the all Israelis behaved with dignity and while helping one another in an exemplary manner." Peres asked him, "Did you understand what was happening? That the IDF had come? Or not?" Davidson replied, "I understood it, but I don't know if everyone understood."
Aryeh Grotzky, who was also saved in the attack, can be heard recalling the events the events that took place once the IDF soldiers made a move to overtake the plane from the terrorists. "There were a lot of shots. The whole thing took 12 minutes. The vast majority (of those kidnapped—ed) managed to reach two corners, a bathroom and another corner that was quite hidden. The two Germans guarded us. The Germans shared shifts, there was a German man and a German woman, in addition to two other young men who had commandeered the plane. After that, there was a group that arrived from Kampala (Uganda's capital), including a very tall and brutal man."
Ada Zorowitz, then 16, told Defense Minister Peres that she was happy to be at home. When asked by Peres if she knew the IDF had come to release them, Zerovitz replied: "At first we did not, until we saw them. When they blew up the dynamite, we initially thought it was the terrorists, because they had told us that there's dynamite all around."
The crew decided to stay and care for the passengers
After commandeering the aircraft, the terrorists—whose aim was to free several dozen Palestinian terrorists in exchange for their prisoners—allowed the crew of the Air France flight to leave. Most of the crew members, however, chose to stay with the captives.
"Thank you very much for your behavior," Peres told the Air France crew. "How did they treat you? I understand that the crew of the plane was held in the room of the ladies or what?" A crew member then replies that they were together with the passengers in Uganda's Entebbe terminal, and that he believed there were between seven and nine kidnappers. Rabin then said, "The passengers appreciate very much the way you took care of them, under these very difficult conditions, and we appreciate it very much."
Yoni Netanyahu died, but almost all the hostages were rescued
During Operation Entebbe, which was also called Operation Yonathan, after the death of Sayeret Matkal commander, Yoni Netanyahu, the IDF prepared to rescue 105 Jews and Israelis who were held hostage by their kidnappers, Palestinian and German terrorists. After stopping on their way to Paris, 56 additional passengers, including the Palestinian terrorists and two German members of a radical leftist organization, boarded the plane. The 246 passengers were then held at gunpoint, as the plane was directed to land in Entebbe's airport.
The kidnappers set up an ultimatum demanding the release of more than 50 convicted terrorists, most of them held in Israel. Later, the terrorists released the non-Jewish passengers. Most of the crew chose to stay with the hostages.
The Israeli government announced that it was accepting the conditions of the kidnappers and began negotiations with the French and with Ugandan ruler Idi Amin (who cooperated with the terrorists). At the same time, the defense establishment was planning a rescue operation.
On July 3, 1976, even before the plan was approved at a Security Cabinet meeting, four Hercules planes took off from the airport in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh, carrying about 200 fighters.
When they arrived at the airport in Entebbe about seven hours later, a raid force headed by Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, composed mainly of the Sayeret Matkal soldiers, headed toward the terminal where the captives were held. Yoni was killed in battle, in addition to three passengers. A fourth passenger, who was taken to the hospital after landing in Entebbe, was later executed at the behest of Idi Amin.