Entebbe A Defining Moment in the War on Terrorism: The Jonathan Netanyahu Story
by Iddo Netanyahu
(Noble, OK: Balfour Books, 2003) pp. 218 plus afterword.

Reviewed by Wyndham E. Whynot, Ph.D., Professor, Department of History & Political Science, Livingstone College

On July 4, 1976, Israeli forces conducted one of the most successful military operations in the nation’s history, to rescue civilian hostages held by terrorists at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. This long-distance raid is viewed as one of the important successes of anti-terrorist operations during the 1970s, and provided an example that other nations could adopt in future in anti-terrorist operations. Several books, feature films, and documentaries have dramatized or examined Operation Thunderbolt, each of which, according to the author, fail to adequately cover the raid.

The author, Iddo Netanyahu, a former reserve member of the Sayeret Matkal, the commando unit that stormed the Entebbe terminal, argues that the depictions in movies and other books fail to tell the “true story,” primarily due to the secrecy surrounding the unit involved. (p. 8) He is the younger brother of both Jonathan (Yoni), the commander of the forces that assaulted the terminal and the only Israeli soldier to die during the raid, and Benjamin, the current prime minister of Israel.

Initially providing a basic overview of the overall events, from the hijacking of the aircraft to the return of the hostages and military forces to Israel, the book then turns to a more in-depth look at the political and military events that occurred prior to the government’s approval of the raid. Interspersed throughout the book are a few sections that examine parts of Yoni’s military career, his philosophy, and the “myth” surrounding his death.

Historically, Israel’s state policy towards terrorists has been not to negotiate with them; however, Netanyahu notes that Israel has negotiated, and in this case did agree to negotiate, as a means of securing the release of the hostages, and as a way to stall for time in order to consider possible military options. The lack of significant available intelligence about Entebbe nearly prevented government approval of the operation. Eventually, according to the author, Yoni and other officers presented a plan that, while risky, was acceptable to the government.

On the military side, the author clearly illustrates the military infighting and chaos during the preparations for the raid, as the demands of various Israeli forces to be part of the raid and the problems surrounding the acquisition of equipment. In addition to discussing the final plan, the author takes up an alternative plan that received serious consideration, which involved staging the insertion from Lake Victoria by dropping forces and rafts on the lake, as well as discussing the possibility that Israeli forces, while escorting hostages, might have to fight their way overland to a bordering country.

In discussing the raid, Netanyahu provides a picture of the chaos that occurred during the assault, noting that various commandos missed their assigned tasks while others were able to overcome the mistakes. Most significantly, he discusses his brother’s death. Movies about the operation often present Yoni as being killed close to the end of the raid, and as being shot by someone in the air traffic control tower. However, Netanyahu notes the claims of various participants that Yoni was shot and mortally wounded prior to Israeli forces entering the terminal, and that he was shot by forces on the ground. (p. 169, 204)

Although generally a well-written work, this book lacks both an index and bibliography. Furthermore, in this reviewer’s opinion, the author’s attempt to synthesize biographical and historical accounts falls short in the execution. At several points in the text, Netanyahu abruptly flashes back and forth between descriptions of the operation and some aspect of Yoni’s life or philosophy. Additionally, Netanyahu’s discussions surrounding the actual assault are somewhat confusing due to the simultaneous narration of multiple actions of the assault teams. Still, the inclusion of several maps and diagrams in the work make it easier to understand how the assault was carried out.

Although the raid on Entebbe was successful, Netanyahu notes that the commandos admitted afterward that they had not carried out the raid completely as designed, but that in the chaos mistakes were made and assignments missed.The book’s most important primary sources are a series of oral interviews conducted by Netanyahu’s brother and father, as well as the author himself, with various raid participants. Some government records and publications are included, as are Yoni’s own writings and the author’s personal recollections. While a rousing story that many might enjoy, this book is more suited to persons interested in Israeli history, military raids, or the history of anti-terrorism, rather than the general public.