Bibi: My Story by Benjamin Netanyahu
In 1972 I served as an officer in Sayeret Matkal,1 an elite special forces unit of the Israeli army. Late one night my team and I returned to the Unit from an exercise near the Dead Sea. The base was practically empty.
“They’ve all gone to the airport,” the lone remaining guard said. “There’s been a plane hijacking. The hijackers landed the plane in Israel and they’re going to kill all the passengers.”
We quickly joined the rest of the Unit at Lod Airport near Tel Aviv, a ten-minute drive from our base. Earlier that day four Palestinian terrorists, two men and two women, had hijacked a Sabena airliner bound for Israel from Belgium. Landing at the airport, the terrorists demanded that Israel release 315 jailed terrorists who would be flown on the hijacked plane to an Arab country. If Israel didn’t comply, they would blow up the plane with ninety-four passengers and crew on board.
The plane was wheeled to a corner of the airfield where, unseen by the terrorists, soldiers from the Unit punctured its tires.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan started negotiating terms. This was meant to give the Unit time to improvise a rescue operation. But how do you storm a hijacked aircraft? Despite the rash of hijacking attempts worldwide at the time (326 in a four-year period between 1968 and 1972),2 no one had tried anything like this before. In an airport hangar we practiced storming an identical aircraft. We learned that it had a surprising number of entrances and that the emergency doors on the wings could be opened by striking them from the outside.
We practiced using low-caliber Beretta pistols and were told to hide them in our boots. The weapons we normally used, Kalashnikov assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns, were too big to conceal and their firepower would endanger the passengers.
Dayan told the terrorists that Israel yielded to their demands. It would release the jailed terrorists and send mechanics to prepare the plane for a flight to an Arab country of their choice. The plan was simple and ingenious: Sixteen of the Unit’s soldiers would be dressed in white mechanic’s overalls. We would pretend that we had come to prepare the plane for takeoff while assuming our positions at the various entry points to the aircraft. We would then storm the entrances, kill the terrorists and free the hostages.
Each entrance had a Unit team commander responsible for breaking into the plane. As a senior team commander, I was assigned to storm through a wing entrance with two of my men.
During the preparations, my older brother, Yoni, approached me. Like me, he was an officer in Sayeret Matkal, but he had also fought in the Six-Day War as a paratroop officer and had taken part in other battles. Three years my senior, he was a proven warrior under fire, and he outranked me.
“I’m going too,” he said. “I have more combat experience than anyone in the Unit.”
True, I thought, but irrelevant. Standing orders in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and common sense dictated that two brothers should not participate in the same high-risk operation, especially when it involved such a small number of fighters in extremely close quarters.
“You can’t go,” I said, “because I’m already going!”
“Then I’ll take your place,” he said.
“You can’t replace me. These are my soldiers.”
“So we’ll both go,” he insisted.
“Yoni,” I shot back in despair, “what are you saying? What if something happens to both of us? Think of Father and Mother.”
Then he said something I will never forget.
“Bibi,” he said, emphasizing each word, “my life is my own and my death is my own.”
I was stunned. Nine years earlier, as a seventeen-year-old, Yoni had written to a friend: “Death does not frighten me. I don’t fear it because I attribute little value to a life without a purpose. And if I should have to sacrifice my life to attain its goal, I will do so willingly.”3 Even though I would read this letter only after Yoni’s death, I sensed that same iron determination during those moments in the airport.
Regaining my composure, I pushed back.
“I’m not leaving and you’re not going!” I said.
Deadlocked, we went to the Unit’s commander, Ehud Barak. He sided with me. I rejoined my men to prepare for the assault.
An IDF film clip from the staging area in the airport shows Yoni pacing back and forth, frowning, a young lion caged. While he waited in the staging area with Moshe Dayan, Transportation Minister Shimon Peres, and others, we sixteen “mechanics” boarded a baggage train and made our way to the hijacked plane. We stopped about one hundred meters away at a checkpoint manned by Red Cross personnel. It had been agreed that the Red Cross would conduct body checks to assure the terrorists that the mechanics were unarmed. This was a trick Dayan had prepared, along with several buses brought in full view of the plane and packed with the terrorists’ supposedly released comrades.
As the hijackers watched from the cockpit and the plane’s front door, a Red Cross official frisked us. Feeling the weapon in my boot, he whispered “Mon Dieu” (“My God”), but he did not alert the terrorists. Contrary to later descriptions, I did not pull out the pistol from my boot, but merely responded “Dieu est grand” (“God is great”) in my elementary French.
We were let through.
My men and I climbed onto our wing. We waited for Barak—who stood on the tarmac below—to blow a whistle, our signal to storm the aircraft. My wing members included my able soldier Arik Gerstel and a Unit veteran who was an air marshal.
Air marshals had expert training in handguns and planes, so we incorporated as many of these specially trained Unit veterans as we could find in the airport into the storming party. One of them was the Unit veteran Mordechai Rachamim, who had courageously thwarted a terrorist attack in 1969 against an El Al plane at Zurich International Airport.4
Just as we were set to storm into the cabin, the air marshal attached to my team tapped me on the shoulder.
“Bibi,” he said, “tell Ehud to stop the operation.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem,” he explained. “I flew in from London. The plane was packed and I couldn’t get to the toilet. As soon as I landed in the airport, you guys picked me up and I never had a chance to go.”
“You have to go now?” I asked.
“Now,” he answered emphatically.
“Big or small?” I asked.
“Big,” he said.
I jumped off the wing and explained the situation to Barak. He held off blowing the whistle; the veteran went under the fuselage to relieve himself and then resumed his position on the wing.
Barak blew the whistle. We struck the door from the outside. It bounced outward. A terrorist in the aisle opposite our entrance fired several shots at us and ran toward the front of the plane. He was cut down by one of our men coming in from the other wing. Another terrorist in the front of the plane was killed by Rachamim as he stormed the cockpit.
One of the bullets fired at us hit the forehead of a young woman sitting next to the door. She slumped forward dead. I rushed past her and searched for the two female terrorists.
“Here’s one of them!” shouted a passenger, pointing to a woman sitting in one of the seats. I yanked at her hair, only to have her wig come off. Grabbing her by her real hair, I pulled her to her feet.
“Where are the charges?” I shouted, fearing they would be detonated and blow up the plane. Seeing this, Marco Ashkenazi, another Unit veteran and air marshal, ran toward us shouting, “Bibi, let me deal with her!”
Before I could stop him, Marco slapped the woman’s face with his pistol, releasing a single shot in the process.
The bullet tore through the woman and lodged itself in my left arm. It felt like I’d been hit with a sledgehammer.
The whole operation took less than two minutes. The two male terrorists were killed, the two women captured. The only civilian casualties were the young woman killed next to me and a passenger who rushed toward my fellow officer Uzi Dayan, the defense minister’s nephew and a team commander in the Unit, who had rushed in from another entrance. Taking the passenger for a terrorist, Uzi shot him several times in the stomach. Thankfully, he survived. The only other casualty was me. I was taken off the plane and laid out on the tarmac. A medic gave me a shot of morphine to ease the pain. I saw Yoni running toward me from a distance, a look of terrible anxiety on his face. As he approached he saw that I was alive and fully conscious. Standing over me, he took in the red splatter of blood on the white sleeve of my mechanic’s overalls.
A big grin spread on his face.
“See, Bibi,” he said. “I told you not to go.”
I was lucky. The bullet hit neither nerve nor bone. Once the doctors took it out, all that was left was a scar. I resumed my service as a team commander in the Unit and was released from military service a year later.
Four years after the Sabena rescue, on July 4, 1976, the American Bicentennial, my brother Yoni, by then a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Unit, led his men to rescue hostages from another hijacked aircraft. This time Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked an Air France plane bound from Tel Aviv to Paris after they boarded it in a stopover in Athens. They diverted the plane to Entebbe, Uganda, in the heart of Africa. Having learned their lesson from Sabena, the terrorists were certain they were now beyond Israel’s reach.
They were wrong.
Landing in the dead of night at Entebbe Airport, Yoni’s force killed the terrorists and the Ugandan troops aiding them, destroyed the MiG fighter jets that could give chase to the force’s return flight to Israel and liberated 102 hostages. A few of the Unit’s storming party sustained slight wounds. One brave soldier, Surin Hershko, was wounded in the neck, leaving him paralyzed for life. Two Israeli civilians, Jean-Jacques Maimoni and Ida Borochovitch, were killed in the crossfire. A third, Pasco Cohen, was seriously wounded and later died from his wounds. Dora Bloch, an elderly woman taken to hospital before the raid, was murdered the next day by orders of Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin. The only military fatality in the mission was Yoni, who fell while leading his men in storming the terrorists. In his honor the Rabin government officially renamed the historic raid “Operation Jonathan.”
The raid on Entebbe would become perhaps the most celebrated rescue mission in modern times. Drew Middleton, the military analyst at the New York Times, described it as an “operation with no precedent in military history.”5 The paper ran an editorial the day after Entebbe titled “A Legend Is Born.” And indeed, that is what the raid on Entebbe would become. Yoni, too, instantly emerged from anonymity to fame. In military circles he was already known as an outstanding commander, a person of exceptional intelligence and dedication to Israel, a decorated soldier who put himself in the line of fire again and again. Moshe Dayan wrote in his autobiography six months before Yoni fell: “I do not know how many young men there are like Yoni. But I am convinced that there are enough to ensure that Israel can meet the grim tests which face her in the future.”6
Yoni was my extraordinary older brother, and for my younger brother Iddo and me he was our North Star, guiding us through life’s labyrinthine paths and serving as a model to be emulated. In so many crossroads in my life, I benefited from his advice and support. Yet his influence on me was even deeper than that. Israel’s very existence was continuously challenged. I felt that as long as Yoni was alive, he would rise to great heights and help secure its future.
When the news reached me that Yoni had died in Entebbe, I felt as if my life had ended. I was certain I would never recover. To understand why I felt this way I will share with you the events in my life that led me to that point. Then I will tell you how Yoni’s sacrifice and example helped me overcome inconsolable grief, thrust me into a public battle against terrorism, and led me to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Asked in a 2011 television interview how I wished to be remembered, I answered simply: “That I helped secure the life of the Jewish state and its future.”7
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|Epub, PDF||October 20, 2022|