‘Operation Thunderbolt’ rekindles Israeli hostages rescue drama in Entebbe

Forty years ago, Kenya’s relationship with Israel was a secret affair. Palestinians had tried to shoot down an El Al plane at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

All five were arrested by Kenyan authorities and swiftly handed over to Israel and jailed. But this wasn’t common knowledge then.

Forty years ago, the current President’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was the CEO of the country. He had Anglophile Charles Njonjo serving as the first attorney general.

It is at this elderly statesman’s house in Muthaiga that the deal to allow the Israelis access to airspace and refuelling rights, following the Entebbe raid codenamed Operation Thunderbolt, was reached.

The meeting between Mr Njonjo and Mossad agents, included head of General Service Unit Ben Gethi, commissioner of police Benard Hinga and former Cabinet minister Bruce McKenzie concluded with an affirmative response to the Israeli request without informing the then President Kenyatta.

The book by the same name by Saul David, is written in a futuristic, television-like plot complete with time and location for each scene.

Operation Thunderbolt opens with detailed descriptions of the 228 passengers, military men, diplomats, and new details on terrorists involved.

The book blends first-rate reportage with the keen eye of the British military historian, as it lays the scene for the much-written-about raid. It is perhaps the most definitive text yet.

The man who led the crusade for the military option from the start, died this in September.

The late Defence minister Shimon Peres, and later ninth president of Israel, insisted there was no negotiating with terrorists.

And for good reason, this became the bedrock upon which counter-terrorism teams sprang up all over the world. First seen in Germany, and then the US Delta Force, modelled in part on Britain’s SAS.

Operation Thunderbolt’s intensely gripping nature means you feel the gritting tension from the sweltering old terminal in Entebbe to the government offices in Israel and static of diplomatic lines and cables between the world’s major capitals.

In this book Mr Njonjo admits Kenya’s involvement in the 1976 Entebbe raid breaking the silence that Kenya held on the matter.

Besides bombing Idi Amin’s MiG collection at the military airfield, Israel’s ambassador to the US at the time, Samcha Dinitz talked Kissinger into setting up the US navy at the Kenyan coast and flight patrols into the country’s major international airport to discourage any reprisal attacks from Amin’s government following his humiliation for collaborating with the Palestinian terrorists led by Waddie Haddad.

The downside of the raid and the book as the story unfolds, is the death of unit commander Yonatan Netanyahu leading the operation. He was one of IDF’s finest.

A day after the Entebbe raid, he became a household name in Israel and gained global recognition in the rescue of the mainly Jewish hostages of the captured Air France flight.

Yoni as was affectionately known, was brother to third-term Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, only prime minister after David Ben-Gurion to achieve such a feat.

The younger Netanyahu marked his brother’s 40th death anniversary, also commemorating the raid with a visit to Uganda earlier this year before a state visit in the country. None of the details in this book were mentioned.

This historical page-turner is not for the faint-hearted. Grab it from a book shop near you for a look back at Kenya’s rise to the big boys table, and relevance which it has maintained to date.