Commando recalls drama of Entebbe rescue

(L-R): Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson, Sassy Reuven, Marlyne Freedman and Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center. (Yvette Critchfield)

It was perhaps the most daring hostage rescue mission ever attempted: a middle-of-the-night raid on a Ugandan airport terminal to retrieve more than 100 hostages. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Israel Defense Force’s historic raid on Entebbe, officially known as Operation Thunderbolt. On Jan. 24, veteran IDF paratrooper Sassy Reuven spoke at Congregation Young Israel about his part in the counter-terrorism mission.

On June 27, 1976, four hijackers commandeered Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris, rerouting it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The plane was carrying 248 passengers.

The hijackers, who’d been joined by three more colleagues, released the non-Jewish passengers after several days. They held the remaining 106 hostages captive inside the old terminal at Entebbe Airport, demanding the release of 40 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The terrorists also sought the release of 13 prisoners held in four other countries in exchange for those aboard the doomed flight.

On July 4, 1976, the IDF launched its mission to free the captives. Reuven was just 21 years old and the second person to jump from the number one Hercules C-130 airplane as the team descended upon the airport below.

“The government of Israel anticipated 15 killed and 50 injured,” he said. “There were 212 soldiers from several units. Among them, there were psychologists, doctors, paramedics, there were psychiatrists … there were refueling equipment specialists, there were pilots, co-pilots, there were also navigators, loading engineers, and army intelligence personnel.”

Israel lost only one soldier in the operation: Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was shot by a Ugandan sentry.

“He was the commander of the unit that stormed the old terminal,” Reuven said. “I did not know him, he was not in my unit. … Yoni was the only [soldier] who was killed over there, unfortunately, the finest soldier in the Israeli army.”

Among the hostages was Sanford Freedman, brother of Marlyne Freedman, former senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Marlyne spoke to attendees about Sanford’s experiences.

Sanford, his wife and 7-year-old stepson were aboard the airplane, which stopped in Benghazi, Libya, to refuel on the path toward Entebbe. They were seated near the terrorists’ cache of explosives.

Sanford told Marlyne that when the airplane landed in Benghazi, they were denied fuel. But when the terrorists threatened to detonate their explosives, fuel was provided and the flight continued on to Entebbe.

“I know it changed my life,” she said. “It made me more aware of my surroundings. It made me much more aware of security.”

Over the course of several days that Sanford was held, Marlyne said, she came to realize that meeting the demands of the terrorists would mean certain death for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. “It made me realize that Israel could not give up those prisoners because if they did, it would be suicide for Israel,” she said. “I felt my brother had to die because Israel had to live.”

Sanford survived; three hostages were killed during the rescue, along with all of the hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers. Malcolm McGregor, a Green Valley retiree, had worked inside Entebbe Airport years before the historic event. He was a weather forecaster for the British government, working inside the old control tower between roughly 1961 and 1965. He remembered regularly going through the transit lounge for meals.

“In those days, there was virtually no security,” McGregor said. “The windows to the bottom of the control tower would open, they were like French windows. There were some African constables around, but there wasn’t really any security.”

Robyn Schwager, legacy officer at the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, had met one of the hostages several years ago. She was curious to learn more details about how the mission was carried out.

Schwager had been a staff member on a Birthright Israel trip, where IDF soldiers had served as security personnel and tour guides. She saw firsthand the determination the IDF soldiers had, which she also saw in Reuven.

“It’s just such an honor for them to serve in the military in Israel and that’s something that I’m not familiar with here in the states, although now I see great pride in it,” Schwager said. “They look forward to it, it’s something that they want to do, and to be able to go on this mission, is what they have worked hard for and it’s their honor to be able to put their lives on the line for others. I just find that absolutely amazing.”

Attendees and organizers of the talk said that Reuven’s efforts might be interpreted as heroic, but that neither Reuven nor Jewish law would describe his work in this way.

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson organized the event with the Weintraub Israel Center.

“Heroism exists,” he said. “It exists within people. It exists within world events. Sassy Reuven did not present himself as a hero, but he clearly was and I don’t think anyone has a doubt that he was.”

Jewish teachings say that rather than seeing oneself or another as heroic, individuals should instead look for an inner sense of accomplishment.

“Ethics of our Fathers says that there are three great crowns that we can bestow on people, but the greatest crown is the Crown of the Good Name,” Ceitlin said. “The good name, something that you’ve done, something that you’re proud of, is the greatest thing you could ever achieve. It’s that inner feeling that you know that you’ve accomplished something great and amazing that helped save actual lives. I’m sure [Reuven] feels that the Keser Shem Tov, the Crown of the Good Name, is with him.”

Michael Miklofsky is a freelance writer living in Oro Valley with his wife and three daughters. He also is a Realtor® with Realty Executives Tucson Elite and director of marketing for The Shoe House, Inc.