‘Operation Thunderbolt’: The mission that catapulted Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career

By: | Published: January 19, 2018 5:38 PM

A massive military blitzkrieg -- perhaps among the greatest by the Israeli Army -- saw the rescue of 100 Jewish hostages kidnapped from an Air France flight that was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda.

benjamin netanyahu, operation entebbe, operation thunderbolt, yonatan netanyahuIn a dramatic military blitzkrieg, a team of Israeli Special Forces personnel attacked the airport in a daring and ingenious raid, named Operation Thunderbolt, and freed the hostages.

While the much-publicised bonhomie between Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s maiden visit to India is being seen as a sign of renewed vigour in relations between the two countries, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Israel in July last year – the first ever by an Indian PM – had set the tone for it. Away from the hype that surrounded the deals and investments that the reciprocity was expected to usher in, Modi recalled the sacrifice of the Israeli PM’s elder brother Yonatan in his speech, immediately making a personal connection with the leadership and the country’s common folk.

Diplomatic overtures aside, “Operation Thunderbolt” is seen as a mission that catapulted Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career to new heights. A massive military blitzkrieg — perhaps among the greatest by the Israeli Army that saw the rescue of 100 Jewish hostages kidnapped from an Air France flight that was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda. The Prime Minister’s elder brother Yonatan or ‘Yoni’ as he is fondly remembered, led that raid as Commander of the crack Sayeret Matkal unit.

What was ‘Operation Thunderbolt’?

On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel, heading for Paris with a stopover in Athens, carrying 228 passengers of Israeli, French and various other nationalities. Security at the Lod airport was famously tight — but in Athens, where security was lax, four hijackers boarded the Airbus carrying large black bags that held guns and hand grenades, took over the plane and forced the pilot to divert to Entebbe Airport, on the shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda.

In a dramatic military blitzkrieg six days later, a team of Israeli Special Forces personnel attacked the airport in a daring and ingenious raid, named Operation Thunderbolt, and freed the hostages.

What is Benjamin Netanyahu’s link to Operation Thunderbolt?

His first and foremost connection to the military operation was his elder brother Yonatan, the leader of the rescue operation. In the early hours of July 4, 30-year-old Yoni, who had been newly installed as the head of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, led a raid to rescue more than 100 Israeli hostages held at Entebbe, Uganda. As Israel celebrated the success of the successful rescue operation, Yoni had been killed in the action.

His younger brother Benjamin, whose political career received a major boost post the mission and his elder brother’s death, was also a member of Sayeret Matkal, or “the Unit,” which performed the raid. He did not actively take part in the raid, in keeping with the policy that two brothers not be risked in a single operation.

How did Benjamin Netanyahu benefit from Yoni’s sacrifice?

It has been widely believed that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career received a major boost post his brother’s supreme sacrifice. Netanyahu has since been elected as Prime Minister of Israel four times and is in line to become the longest-serving PM of the country.

Yoni is regarded a hero for carrying out what was termed as the most audacious rescue operation of the generation. Despite his own involvement in several missions for Israel — including taking a bullet on his shoulder during one of them –, it is his brother’s courage and his sacrifice that many still associate him with.

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