Magazine article The Spectator

'Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport', by Saul David - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport', by Saul David - Review

Article excerpt

Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport Saul David

Hodder & Stoughton, pp.464, £20, ISBN: 9781444762518

Operation Thunderbolt was, Saul David contends in this gripping book, 'the most audacious special forces operation in history'. In June 1976 Air France Flight 139, travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, was hijacked above the Gulf of Corinth by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from the Revolutionary Cells, a violent leftist organisation connected to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Eventually landing in Uganda at Entebbe airport, the crew and passengers were guarded by Idi Amin's troops while the president attempted to take credit for promoting negotiations. The demands were the release of 40 pro-Palestinian militants imprisoned in five countries, within 48 hours.

Forty years ago, when an average of three planes were hijacked worldwide every month, there was no international policy of non-negotiation with terrorists and few expected Israel to raid Entebbe airport to rescue the hostages. The flight was under French jurisdiction. Israel was thousands of miles away. The Israeli Defense Forces had never previously launched an operation outside the Middle East, and had neither sufficient time nor information to do so then. Yet even many of the younger Israeli hostages were opposed to negotiation on principle. What everyone appreciated, however, was that any rescue operation would require absolute precision, as well as great courage and conviction.

This book feels a little like a military operation too. Neatly marshalled into the eight days of the action, the narrative shifts between the sweltering heat of Entebbe airport, frosty cabinet meetings in Jerusalem and tense moments at various altitudes in international airspace. As the hours tick down towards the threatened bloody dénouement, tension mounts and the atmosphere thickens until the book itself feels appropriately claustrophobic.

Having interviewed people from all sides of the story, hostage, rescuer, politician, journalist and even (former) terrorist, David ensures that there is always space for the touching human detail. There was a 'moment of farce' in the hijacked plane, for instance, when some of the hostages felt compelled to draw the only female hijacker's attention to the fact that two of her blouse buttons had come undone, presenting a view of her 'rather feminine brassiere'. …

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