I left for Uganda as an Israeli soldier, I returned as a Jewish soldier

Rami Sherman belongs to a small group of warriors who rescued the Jewish and israeli hostages in Entebbe. A mission  that is considered the most daring rescue operation ever. 

By Gideon

I had the opportunity to hear the IDF’s Major Rami Sherman (retired) tells the story of the rescue operation to free the Jewish and Israeli hostages that were held at gunpoint in Entebbe, Uganda in July 1976, in an event organized by the Boca Parliament. The auditorium was packed with about 300 people. It was a rare event when a well-known real-life story is told, yet the audience was captivated, listening carefully to every word.

Rami Sherman grew up on kibbutz Lehavot Habashan in the north of Israel and was educated by the kibbutz movement educational system. During his army service, he served in the IDF’s elite unit Sayeret Matkal from which he was honorably discharged with the rank of Major. In 1976, during the “Entebbe Operation”, Rami served as Yoni Netanyahu’s Operations Officer.

Rami Sherman is a humble person with a good sense of humor. He was one of the few officers who planned the operation. The rescue mission took place more than forty years ago. Many of the hostages, the people who took part in the planning, and the rescuers passed away since then. Rami chose to tell the story now, to preserve it for future generations before it is too late.

When describing the rescue mission, Rami hardly speaks about himself. He mostly talks about what others did during this difficult week that started when  the Air France plane was hijacked, and ended when the passengers returned home.

The rescue operation was triggered after an Air France flight with 248 passengers enroute from Tel Aviv to Paris, carrying mainly Jewish and Israeli passengers, was hijacked on June 27, 1976. Over a two-day period, 148 non-Israeli hostages were released. A daring nighttime rescue mission for the remaining hostages was carried out by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos. In all, 102 hostages were rescued. The death toll included all the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers, one Israeli soldier and three of the hostages.

Beyond the amazing release of the hostages, the operation had a profound effect on Israelis, Jews, and Israel’s enemies:

The rescue operation took place only three years after the Yom Kippur War, when the moral in Israel was low and the confidence of Israelis in the army was shuttered. The success of the operation changed all that overnight. The moral in Israel and the confidence that the IDF is capable, willing, and ready to protect its citizens skyrocketed.

Jews all around the world received a boost of confidence, knowing that when everything else fails, they can still count on Israel to come to their rescue, no matter how far that is.

It was also a strong message to Israel’s enemies, warning them that there is no hiding place far enough where Israel cannot get to them.  

In his speech Rami explains that initially the Israeli government took the position that France was responsible for negotiating with the terrorists since it was a French plane. The Israeli government did not do anything to explore the possibility of a military operation. Israel’s government attitude had changed only after the non-Jewish passengers were released and an ultimatum was made by the terrorists, who stated that they’ll begin executing the Jewish hostages unless Israel will give in to their demands. The Israeli government began exploring the possibility of a military operation.

Mordechai Gur, the IDF’s chief of staff, objected to the operation saying that it is too risky and will end in a disaster. Shimon Peres, the Defense Minister, supported a military operation. Itzhak Rabin, the Prime Minster, was cautious, he decided to negotiate with the terrorists and at the same time authorized the planning of a military operation. The decison to authorize the rescue mission was delayed until the last moment when the soldiers were already on the planes on their way to Uganda.

Initially the air force stated that it couldn’t land at night, but later said that it could. The Israeli Air Force  demonstrated it in a night landing excersize in Sharm El Sheikh, which was an Israeli territory at the time. The night landing almost ended in a crash, but proved that it was possible.

Rami said that from the moment the airplane was hijacked, the officers in the unit were on their feet assessing different options. They didn’t sleep for almost five days before the operation began.

However, from the moment they were told to prepare a military option, they had only 48 hours to plan and prepare for the rescue mission. When the order was given, the general feeling in the unit was that they were not ready, but that they’ll do it if ordered.  

Their biggest challenge was finding a way to get close to the terrorists and the hostages without being detected. After discussing different options, some of them bordering insanity, they decided that their best option was to drive a black Mercedes to fool the Ugandan soldiers to think that their leader was visiting, but they knew that the chance of pulling it off was low. To their surprise, the plan worked and they reached the old terminal where the hostages were held without being noticed.

Israel’s success in the raid humiliated then-Ugandan President Idi Amin. The late dictator responded to his humiliation by murdering one of the hostages, Dora Bloch, an old Israeli woman, who was taken to an Ugandan hospital prior to the rescue operation and remained  in Uganda at the conclusion of the rescue operation. An Ugandan physician and two nurses who tried to protect the Israeli woman were murdered. Two hundred and fifty Kenyans, living in Uganda, were also murdered, because Kenya supported Israel.

In one of the rare comments that he made about himself, Rami said that he grew up in kibbutz in a socialist society where religion was not practiced. Growing up, he felt very much an Israeli, but did not feel Jewish. He was sent on a suicide mission by the Israeli government to free Jewish and Israeli hostages 4,000 kilometers away from Israel. On this mission, there were so many things that could have gone wrong. Each one of them would have been a disaster leading to the death of hundreds of people, civilians and IDF soldiers alike. Events, which he can only explain as miracles. The rescue mission had a profound effect on him.  He summarized it in one sentence:

“I left for Uganda as an Israeli soldier and returned as a Jewish soldier. It took me forty years to realize that.”

Rami described how a Mossad warrior flew a plane from Kenya to Entebbe, pretending to have mechanical problems. He circled the airport several time while taking pictures of the Old terminal where the hostages were held. He was denied permission to land, but did it anyway. While on the ground he made an attempt to get to the old terminal, but denied access. He returned to Kenya, where the films were loaded on an Elal plane that immediately flew back to Israel to get the films developped.

In response to a question from the audience, Rami confirmed that a woman, a Mossad agent under cover, was able to get to the hostages. She visited them three times on the day before the rescue operation. The information that she transmitted to Israel was priceless. The details that the Mossad agents provided were essential to the success of the plan.

Rami gives credit to a lot of people. He credits Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister at the time, for having the guts to approve the operation. To the Air France crew, mostly the Captain Michel Bacos, for insisting on staying with the Jewish hostages after all the non-Jewish passengers were leased.

He credits the IDF pilots for their skills and ability to land their planes in a complete darkness  at a time when night navigation instrumentation was very limited.

To prevent detection by radars of hostile neighboring Arab countries, the IDF pilots flew their Hercules transport aircrafts only 30 meters above the red Sea most of the way. At that altitude, there was a constant turbulence. Any error would have caused the planes to crush into the water.

When the pilots made their turn toward Uganda and flew over land, they had to climb high so they could cross over the 5,000-meter-high mountains, where they found themselves flying in a tropical storm for about three hours. They exited the storm only one hour before they reached Entebbe. Despite all the difficulties, the pilots were able to maintain their schedule, landing only one minute late. On the way back, when the planes landed in Nairobi, Kenya for refueling, the planes had only seven minutes of fuel remaining in their fuel tanks.

Rami describes how difficult the long flight was for the soldiers:

It was not the ideal situation for soldiers who were about to enter a combat zone. The Hercules was very crowded. There were no toilets on the plane. The only food they had was sandwiches and water they brought with them from home. Many soldiers vomited as a result of the difficult flying conditions and because of fear, which rami said no one discussed but they all felt.      

Rami credits Kenya’s agriculture minister, Bruce Mackenzie, who was highly involved in the secret deal to assist Israel. Without his help, Rami said, the entire operation was not possible. Bruce MacKenzie is said to have persuaded the Kenyan president of the time, Jomo Kenyatta, to allow the Mossad to gather intelligence before the operation and permit the Israeli Air force access to Kenya’s International Airport.

Kenya allowed the Israeli military transport planes, carrying the hostages and soldiers, to land and refuel in Kenya. It also provided a base for Mossad agents to gather intelligence on the Entebbe old terminal prior to the operation. Those wounded in the operation were also treated in Nairobi before being flown back home to Israel.

In retaliation, Uganda’s President Idi Amin, who collaborated with the terrorists, ordered his agents to assassinate MacKenzie. He was killed on May 24, 1978, following the explosion of a time bomb attached to his aircraft while traveling back to Nairobi from Uganda. In his honor, former Mossad head Meir Amit had a forest planted in Israel.

Rami describes how he drove Yoni Netanyahu back to the Hercules for medical treatment when Yoni was injured, and then returned back to the rescue operation. Yoni was still alive when the medical team began the ememrgency procedure, but he died shortly after that.

Rami credited many of the people who operated behind the scene to make the operation successful, but he does not feel that what he and his friends did deserves a special credit. This was their job and they did what was expected of them.

After the speech, one of the hostages who was released by Rami and his teammates, and now resides in South Florida shared his experience.

He said:

“On the way back, in the Hercules, I did not feel joy. I was sad. Yoni Netanyahu’s body was laying on the floor of the plane next to me. Yoni was covered with an aluminum foil blanket. I thought about the people who risked their lives to save us, about Yoni, who did not know us, yet gave his life to save ours.