Monday, July 19, 2010

Entebbe Revisited

Israel’s 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe, Uganda, was so remarkable that one of its most important aspects has been largely overlooked—that despite the success of the raid, it exposed shortcomings within special-forces units of that era, particularly Israel’s. Entebbe is a prime example of how daring, initiative and high quality manpower can overcome potentially fatal flaws in training and operational planning. Exposure of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) difficulties was largely due to an otherwise unfortunate feud between Muki Betzer, the deputy commander of the Sayeret Matkal (“the unit”) commandos at Entebbe, and the family of the slain unit’s leader, Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu. Betzer, who’s autobiography[1] is subtitled “Israel’s greatest commando” gives a version of the famous raid that enhances his own role at the expense of Netanyahu’s. Not surprisingly, this displeased Netanyahu’s family, which has pushed back with their own accounts of the operation.[2] The result is fascinating and instructive.

Although trusted comrades in arms, Netanyahu and Betzer were men of very different backgrounds and politics. Betzer is a rough-hewn son of the Israeli kibbutz/moshav movement, which has provided the cadre of many of Israel’s best military units. He is related to the family of the late General and Labor Party Minister, Moshe Dayan. Netanyahu, American-born and Harvard-educated, was the eldest brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who would become Israel’s Prime Minister in the 1990s and is again today.

Whatever Betzer’s motives, in his book, in documentaries, and for anyone that will listen, he provides an account of Entebbe at least partially at odds with popular conceptions, one that sheds light on the problems faced by nations dealing with hostage-taking terrorists.

Sayeret Matkal and the Background to Entebbe

Sayeret means scouts in Hebrew. Sayeret Matkal is the reconnaissance/commando unit attached directly to the Israeli general staff. Founded in the late 1950s, and made up of the cream of Israel’s soldiers, the unit was intended for non-conventional combat, and considered so valuable that it did not fight in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Much of the unit’s activities remain secret to this day, but many daring and even extraordinary operations are well known.

Sayeret Matkal commandos pulled off one of the first successful airline hijack rescues in 1972 when, disguised as airplane mechanics, they stormed a Sabena airlines plane at Lod airport.[3] Neither Betzer nor Netanyahu took part in the Sabena rescue, but they did participate together in other operations. A few months after the Lod rescue, both took part in operations in Lebanon resulting in the capture of high ranking Syrian officers, who were held in exchange for captured Israeli pilots. In April 1973, as part of Israel’s revenge campaign for the Munich massacre, both men took part in Operation Spring of Youth in which seaborne IDF commando units struck in downtown Beirut, where they assassinated three high ranking PLO terrorists. Ehud Barak, the unit’s commander, who carried out the raid in a dress,[4] originally excluded Netanyahu, then his deputy, from the mission. Netanyahu successfully finagled his way onto a team led by Betzer, where he fought as an ordinary soldier. This sort of ad hoc attachment was not uncommon within Sayeret Matkal because of the unit’s great internal cohesion.

The unit did not escape heavy fighting in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In fact, due to the IDF’s chronic shortage of infantry during the war—due to its infatuation with armor after the 1967 campaign—Sayeret Matkal functioned as ordinary infantry in several important battles, and took commensurate casualties. Betzer served under Netanyahu at the Battle of Nafak Camp, where Netanyahu commanded a detachment that destroyed an elite Syrian commando force in a classic battle of attack and maneuver. Netanyahu’s already sterling reputation for personal bravery and aggressiveness reached a pinnacle after this fight and several other operations during the 1973 war. Betzer also served admirably.

While giving members of the unit plenty of combat experience, the 1973 campaign also wore it down. Sayeret Matkal was in active combat/reconnaissance operations until the June 1974 disengagement with Syria. In the meantime, Netanyahu, being groomed for higher command, was transferred to the Armor Corps and given a tank battalion.

The time between October 1973 and Entebbe was not a particularly good time for Israel or Sayeret Maktal. After the Yom Kippur War, Lebanon based PLO terror teams assailed Israel’s northern border. Terrorists raided the town of Kiryat Shmoneh on April 11, 1974, taking hostages. Infantry units got into a firefight with the terrorists before Sayeret Matkal could reach the scene. The terrorists murdered 18 hostages before they died.

On May 15, 1974 Palestinian terrorists took 103 hostages at a high school in the town of Maalot. Local infantry sealed off the area, but didn’t engage the terrorists. A Sayeret Matkal detachment including Betzer conducted the rescue operation. It was a disaster. A sniper failed to kill his target. A team led by Betzer was driven off by grenades, and another team took a wrong turn in the school building delaying their assault. Twenty-two students died in the rescue attempt and almost all were injured.

After the Maalot tragedy, the Israeli government decided to establish a professional domestic hostage rescue unit under the auspices of the border police, mimicking BGS-9 the German Bundesgrendschutz hostage rescue team, created in the wake of the Munich massacre. But until the border police unit[5] could become operational (and even after)[6] Sayeret Matkal remained Israel’s primary hostage rescue outfit.

In March 1975 the unit was involved in yet another unsuccessful rescue attempt at the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv that resulted in the deaths of 11 hostages and the rescue unit commander—a highly regarded senior paratroop officer, though not technically in Sayeret Matkal.

In the summer of 1975 Netanyahu assumed command of Sayeret Matkal. He asked Betzer (who had come off active duty and had been serving as a reserve officer) to rejoin the unit, as a senior member of his staff.[7] In the year leading up to Entebbe, Betzer claims he tried to rationalize the unit’s mission and standardize its procedures to avoid setbacks like Maalot.


Operation Thunderbolt (or Thunderball)[8]

On Sunday June 27, 1976 a mixed group of terrorists associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Baader-Meinhoff gang, hijacked an Air France Airbus as it took off from Athens to Paris. Many of the passengers were Israelis and/or Jews. At the time of the hijacking, Betzer was the Sayeret Matkal duty officer. Netanyahu and his deputy were away on a training mission. Betzer alerted a detachment for possible action at Ben Gurion airport, but the hijacked plane landed in Libya. After refueling, the plane took off again, this time landing early on the morning of June 28, in Entebbe, Uganda, 2,500 miles from Tel Aviv.
Betzer joined a hastily assembled planning staff under the command of Ehud Barak (then deputy chief of intelligence), to examine Israel’s options. The terrorists had clearly gone to Uganda to frustrate an IDF rescue operation.

The paucity intelligence, and particularly the role, if any, Uganda’s government was playing in the crisis limited alternatives. Initial planning focused on parachuting or infiltrating naval or Sayeret Maktal commandos into Entebbe, where they would effect a rescue and then surrender to Ugandan authorities.

Eventually, through a series of hostage releases, it became clear that Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was in cahoots with the terrorists. The terrorists only retained Israeli and Jewish hostages, which brought up terrible connotations, but also freed Israel to act. The releases also provided valuable intelligence about the location of the hostages and their captors.

Infiltrating a force and surrendering to Amin was no longer an option. Somehow the Israelis would have to get to Entebbe and take on the terrorists and Amin’s troops. It was the Israeli air force that solved that problem, by offering to fly up to a battalion of Israeli troops to Uganda on American-made C-130 transports, and simply landing the force, under cover of darkness, at the airport. This was the key concept that facilitated the rescue, and it was the air force, not the army, that came up with it.

Barak’s planners accepted the air force proposal, worked out the details and sought government approval for the mission. The rescue force was eventually cut down to about 200 men in four transports. Betzer, based on his brief experience as a military trainer in Uganda in late 1960s, proposed transporting the initial rescue force to the target, the airport’s Old Terminal building, in a large black Mercedes sedan, escorted by a pair of Landrovers, mimicking a Ugandan general’s convoy.[9] As a further deception, the rescuers would wear Arab-style camouflage uniforms.

Once the basic plan was in place, Netanyahu returned to take command of the Sayeret Matkal rescue detachment and begin rehearsals. The Israelis had only two days to practice and prepare.

Following closely behind a regularly scheduled British cargo jet, the first Israeli C-130 touched down at Entebbe just after midnight, July 4, 1976. As the plane taxied in a platoon of paratroopers dropped off putting out portable runway lights and securing the immediate area. The Sayeret Matkal rescue detachment drove the Mercedes and Rovers off the plane, heading for the Old Terminal a few hundred meters distant. Betzer and Netanyahu rode together in the Mercedes. Betzer was to lead the first rescue team and ordered his men set their weapons, mostly AK-47s[10], to semi-auto mode for the rescue.

Halfway there the Israelis ran into a Ugandan guard post. Two Ugandans approached the Israelis with weapons raised, shouting for them to halt. Betzer urged Netanyahu to ignore the Ugandans and keep going. Based on his experience in Uganda, he believed that the soldiers were just putting on a show. Netanyahu, unwilling to chance it, pulled out a suppressed .22 Berretta and with another soldier shot at the Ugandans. One Ugandan fell, and the other fled. After the Mercedes passed the fallen Ugandan, he got up, not critically injured by the small caliber pistol shot. One or more soldiers in the following Rovers gunned down the Ugandan with unsuppressed AK-47s.

The shooting threatened imminent disaster. The convoy began to draw fire from other Ugandan positions. The plan called the convoy to drive right up to the Old Terminal building. But with the Mercedes still 50 meters away, Netanyahu feared it had become a death trap. The convoy halted and the commandos charged the building on foot, although this deviated from the plan and training. A terrorist, seeing the onrushing soldiers, but confusing them for Amin’s troops, ran into the terminal building shouting that the Ugandans had gone crazy!

Betzer led the column. On the way he flipped his AK-47 to full auto and loosed nearly a full magazine toward a Ugandan position. Betzer reached the corner of the Old Terminal building, but instead of continuing to the entrance doors he stopped. For several critical seconds the Israeli assault column halted behind him, like a marching band suddenly brought up short by a drum major. Betzer prevaricated—he needed to change his magazine, the entrance doors were not exactly as intelligence predicted, the assault teams were disordered.

At this point, Netanyahu ran forward urging on the attack, leaving the lee of the building, and exposing himself to fire. Two men from the second team bypassed Betzer and rushed a doorway into the building. The first man in was Sergeant Major Amir Ofer. The room was well lit and the hostages were on the floor where they had been sleeping. Three terrorists were in the room with the hostages. One fired at Ofer but missed. Ofer killed the terrorist and ran into the room. Behind him came his team leader, Lieutenant Amnon Peled. Peled shot the two German Baader-Meinhoff terrorists in the center of the room. Betzer was in next, but the crisis had passed. Other commandos poured into the building, searching out and gunning down any terrorist or Ugandan unfortunate enough to encounter them.

In the main room a fourth terrorist entered. The Israelis killed him, ending the last direct threat to the hostages. During the shooting one female hostage was killed by Israeli fire, either a miss, or by a bullet that passed through a terrorist. The terrorists themselves shot one hostage. Betzer accidentally killed a third hostage when the man suddenly stood up.[11] Although several commandos carried loudspeakers to warn the hostages to stay down, in the confusion of the assault they forgot to use them. Meanwhile, shortly after Ofer went in, Netanyahu, still outside the building, was mortally wounded by a Ugandan bullet.

The rest of the operation proceeded like clockwork and without serious incident. The follow on forces secured the area, suppressed or drove off Ugandan forces, mopped up the terrorists and destroyed several Ugandan Air Force MIGs to prevent an aerial pursuit of the C-130s. Netanyahu was evacuated with the hostages on the first plane out, but died a short time later.

What Went Right and Wrong

In his autobiography, Betzer ends his account of Entebbe recounting a meeting of the commandos after the raid, in which they analyzed what went wrong, rather than celebrating its success. Betzer has spent much of the years since putting forth his case, which largely comes down to “Yoni should have listened to me.” In Betzer’s account, the raid succeeded in spite of Netanyahu, not because of him.

Not surprisingly the Netanyahu’s resent this approach. They have responded, in part, by intimating that Betzer’s aborted charge led to Netanyahu’s death by forcing the commando leader to separate from the assault column where he was exposed to deadly fire.
The dispute overemphasizes the importance of chief contestants, at the expense of the truth. The fact is, that while Sayeret Matkal (in 1976) was probably the world’s best and most experienced commando unit, it was not particularly good at hostage rescue. Sayeret Matkal had a lot on its plate in the 1970s besides hostage rescue—reconnaissance, raiding, covert assassination, conventional infantry combat, among other tasks. For a small unit it suffered significant losses (particularly in the Yom Kippur War), and its officers were in high demand for other command posts.

After the Maalot disaster, the hostage rescue mission was to go to the new specialized unit, Yaman. But it was a long time before Yaman became operational. In the meantime, despite Betzer’s claims that he tried to rationalize and standardize the hostage rescue mission, in tactics, armament and organization, Sayeret Matkal went into Entebbe much it did at Maalot. The only difference that cleaved success from failure was the element of surprise.

Instead of forming a clear specialist doctrine, equipment and teams for such missions, Betzer and Netanyahu created an ad hoc force, hand picking rescue teams based primarily on whether they knew and trusted the soldier’s fighting abilities. They did a good job in this (they selected the redoubtable Sergeant Major Ofer), but it would have been better had the men trained together on designated teams for just such missions. In such a circumstance, Betzer, the operational deputy commander, would not have led the first rescue team. Rather that team would likely have been led by an experienced senior NCO, specifically trained for the job.

Almost all the Israeli commandos carried AK-47s because they are reliable and the soldiers liked them. But AK-47s are generally unsuited to the hostage rescue mission. The German BGS and British SAS, around this same period, chose the MP-5 sub-machinegun as their standard close quarter weapon (as would many international forces.) Sub-machineguns have reduced recoil and flash, are accurate and handy in small enclosed spaces, fire ammunition that is less likely to create collateral damage to hostages, and are easily suppressed. Sayeret Matkal had easy access to Israel’s own excellent sub-machinegun (the Uzi) and had sufficient resources to have bought MP-5s if they desired. In the event few Uzis were carried by the Israelis, and even then often reluctantly.[12]

And perhaps because they lacked doctrinaire training, the commandos forgot to use their loudspeakers until after Betzer mistakenly shot a hostage, prematurely opened fire on the Ugandan guard, and became disordered in the final charge.

In the few years immediately after Entebbe, both the German BGS and the British SAS (at Mogadishu and the Iranian Embassy in London) unveiled the equipment and techniques which have since become relatively standard to the hostage rescue mission.[13] Of course, the Germans or British didn’t face the strategic and tactical difficulties that confronted the Israelis at Entebbe—by far the more difficult and complex mission. And neither the BGS nor SAS (at least in this period) were as operationally active in so many other areas as Sayeret Matkal. Still, had the Israelis managed to standardize and rationalize the rescue mission in like fashion, Entebbe might not have been such a close call.

In the final analysis, neither Netanyahu nor Bezter was instrumental in the mission’s success, and their mistakes, such as they were, did not affect the outcome. The IDF’s triumph was, more than anything, one of daring. Audacity can make right a host of mistakes along the way. This is real lesson of Entebbe.


[1] Betzer, Muki. Secret Soldier. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.
[2] See, Netanyahu, Iddo. Entebbe. Green Forest, Arkansas: Balfour Books, 2003, for a comprehensive account of the Netanyahu side of things.
[3] Neither Yonatan Netanyahu or Betzer took part in this operation, but Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak did, both of whom later became Israeli Prime Ministers. Later Barak commanded Sayeret Matkal and served as IDF Chief of Staff.
[4] The diminutive Barak and another commando were disguised as women to help infiltrate the heavily guarded PLO targets.
[5] Today known as Yaman.
[6] Sayeret Maktal continued to fight for this mission even after Yaman became operational, and often won the turf battle.
[7] Betzer was not, as often reported, Netanyahu’s deputy. Betzer served temporarily as Netanyahu’s operational deputy during the Entebbe operation, although his actual deputy was present during the operation too. A confusing state of affairs, but one with which the Israelis were evidently comfortable.
[8] Another amusing question is the actual name of the operation, which in various sources is “Thunderbolt” (64,900 Google hits) or Thunderball (1,730 Google hits) after Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel. Supposedly, whatever the correct title, an IDF computer generated the name at random. After Netanhayu’s death the raid was renamed in his honor and officially today is known as “Operation Jonathan.”
[9] The force consisted of 29 Sayeret Maktal men in the Mercedes and Landrovers who would mount the rescue at the Old Terminal, a 32 man support force from the unit in four BTR-152 APCs, 70 paratrooper commandos to secure the runway and the New Terminal, 50 Golani Brigade commandos to guard the planes and act as a reserve, a jeep borne command element, a 10 man medical team, and a 10 man refueling team. The paratrooper and Golani commandos were equivalent in training and capability to American rangers.
[10] The Israelis carried AK-47s because they liked them were the unit’s standard weapon. They were not carried for deception.
[11] Betzer claims other Israelis fired on the hostage too, but in interviews with Iddo Netanyahu, fellow commandos denied this.
[12] Had the assault teams carried suppressed Uzis as their primary weapons, the initial clash with the Ugandan guards would probably have gone unnoticed by the terrorists and Ugandan units, thus allowing the Israeli assault to proceed as planned.
[13] The British also developed the flash-bang grenade in this period, a weapon unavailable at Entebbe. IDF commandos carried conventional grenades during the mission.

3 comments:

  1. I love the depth of this article. Are you going to publish anything else, please?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Destination is merely a byproduct of the journey. Cheap Flights to Entebbe

    ReplyDelete