The Need for Recognition: A Movie Review 16.04.13
Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut (יום העצמאות), Independence Day commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 which, as I wrote yesterday, then fell on the 15th of May, but is celebrated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th of Iyar. Unlike yesterday’s films that I reviewed, which were strictly about Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron – yesterday) and eschewed politics, this film, Live or Die in Entebbe, briefly deals with politics and the celebration of one of the outstanding military accomplishments of the Israeli Defence Forces, the rescue of 102 hostages (88 Israelis) captured and held by terrorists in Entebbe after an Air France airliner was hijacked. It is a coincidence of history that this widely recognized unprecedented heroic rescue took place on 4 July 1976, the 200th anniversary of America’s Independence Day. However, Live or Die in Entebbe skirts over the heroic elements of the mission in the first few minutes in a summary form and then deals with its core subject matter, the civilians who died in the rescue attempt and the effort to acknowledge and recognize their sacrifice.
But first the heroic parts of the story. In addition to the book, Ninety Minutes in Entebbe by William Stevenson, the following films have been made about the heroic political and military aspects of this episode:
Victory at Entebbe (1976 – 119 min.) directed by Marvin J. Chomsky
Raid on Entebbe (1977 – 145 min.) directed by Irwin Kershner (Golden Globe winner)
Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan Operation) (1977) Menahem Golan
(nominated for an academy award as best foreign film)
Operation Thunderbolt: Entebbe (2000) Eyal Sher
Entebbe Hostage Rescue: Operation Thunderbolt (2011) National Geographic
Rescue at Entebbe: An Interview with the Chief Pilot (2012)
We now add Live or Die in Entebbe to the list.
Victory at Entebbe had a high powered list of actors, including Anthony Hopkins (Yitzhak Rabin), Burt Lancaster (Shimon Peres), Kirk Douglas (Hershel Vilnofsky) and Elizabeth Taylor (Edra Vilnofsky) who recriminate the Israeli government for not negotiating, for their daughter Chava is on the plane, Richard Dreyfus (Yoni Netanyahu, the leader of the 29-man assault team), Helen Hayes (Etta Grossman-Wise, a passenger on the plane who distracts an Israeli ex IDF officer from trying to tackle the hijackers), and others. It seemed as if every Hollywood star was keen on being involved in portraying such a heroic event. The movie was shot, edited and ready for showing in five months and tried to portray the story from four angles, the hijacking itself, the process of political decision-making, the military perspective and the plight of the hostages.
A superior film, Raid on Entebbe, did not have as stellar a cast, but top actors nonetheless – Peter Finch as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Horst Buchholtz as Wilfred Böse, the German terrorist, John Saxon as Major General Benny Peled, then commander of the Israeli air force, Jack Warden as Lt. General Mordechai (Motta) Gur, the IDF Chief of Staff, Charles Bronson as Brigadier General Shomron who was in overall charge of the total ground operation, and Robert Loggia as Yigal Allon. From the cast list it is clear that this film paid far closer attention to the military planning and execution, slighted the politics and virtually ignored the perspective of the victims.
Operation Thinderbolt, in contrast, was not a re-enactment but a documentary interspersing news footage with interviews of many of the key players such as Janet Almog (a hijacked passenger), Michel Bacos (the Air France pilot), Ehud Barak (then in the planning team for the operation), Moshe (Muki) Betzer who was responsible for integrating the intelligence information with a detailed plan and led one of the assault teams, David Kimche (Deputy Chief of the Mossad at the time), Tricia Martel (hostage), Benjamin Netanyahu, Benjamin Peled and Shimon Peres.
The core elements of the story are very straightforward. On 27 June 1976, an Air France passenger jet, Flight 139, an Airbus A300 flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with a stop in Athens, was boarded by two West German terrorists, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann as well as two Palestinian members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine along with 54 additional passengers. The terrorists hijacked the plane just after it took off, forced it to land in Benghazi, Libya for refuelling (where a passenger escaped by pretending to be having a miscarriage) and ended up at Entebbe Airport in Uganda where the hijackers were joined by three other PFLP members and were protected by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, and his guards. The passengers were divided into two groups, Israelis and others. The others were released, including Jews who were not Israeli citizens. Air France sent a plane to bring them back to France. The captain, Michel Bacos, refused to leave his passengers and his crew followed his example and opted to stay behind with the captive Israelis. Of the original manifest of 248 passengers, 94 remained behind (the Air France manifest showed that 92 carried Israeli passports) along with 12 Air France crew members. The hijackers demanded an exchange of the Israeli hostages for 40 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons on terrorist charges and 13 detained in Kenya.
At the time, Yitzhak Rabin had been Prime Minister for two years and was determined never to negotiate or compromise with terrorists. While foreign diplomats negotiated with the terrorists on behalf of Israel, mainly the Americans, an Israeli retired IDF officer, Baruch "Burka" Bar-Lev who had known Idi Amin for years, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate directly with Amin. During this time, the Israeli government immediately began planning a rescue effort for the deadline originally given by the hijackers was only five days away. Henry Kissinger, then Foreign Minister of the USA, subsequently criticized Israel in a private conversation with Israeli Ambassador Dinitz for using American equipment in the raid. Later, Jimmy Carter would try to imitate the Entebbe operation in Operation Eagle Claw to free the 52 American hostages in Iran on 24 April 1980, but it was a complete humiliating fiasco which was aborted halfway through. In turning back, a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft and eight servicemen were killed in the fire which destroyed both aircraft.
Israel had already decided to negotiate with the hijackers and release the prisoners, but only if a military rescue operation proved unfeasible. What they did get with American, Egyptian and Amin’s help, was an extension of the deadline until 4 July. Because an Israeli firm (Solel Boneh) had actually built the old terminal where the hostages were held, Israel had detailed plans and quickly, virtually overnight, built a mock-up of the old terminal where the hostages were held. Further, Mossad agents interviewed passengers who had been released, particularly one French Jew who had served in the French military and provided a detailed account of how many terrorists there were, the weapons they carried, where they were positioned, and how many of Idi Amin’s troops were seconded to guard the old terminal (100).
Special forces were selected for the attack, now codenamed Operation Thunderbolt, and one of the army officers came up with the plan to land the planes sent for the rescue under cover of darkness and then send a Mercedes limousine painted black, which they borrowed from an Israeli, accompanied by two jeeps. The three vehicles would role out of the back of the Hercules cargo plane and drive to the old terminal where the hostages were being held as if they held Idi Amin himself. One small team would head to rescue the hostages while another team took care of the 100 Ugandan soldiers (45 were actually killed). Troops led by Shaul Mofaz from the other planes would blow up Idi Amin’s air force (fifteen Soviet-built MiG-17s (3) and (12) MiG 21s) and surround the airport to prevent Amin sending in a counterforce. There was a plan B. If the operation failed and the troops became trapped, Israel would send in troops to overthrow Idi Amin.
The idea was very imaginative, but very high risk on a number of levels, both because of what the Israelis knew and what they did not know. The four Hercules aircraft, first of all, had to fly very low to remain undetected by radar on the way down for 2500 miles. Low meant flying at 100 feet and sometimes as low as 35 feet. That required exceptional skills, especially by the lead pilot, Lt. Col. Joshua Shani. Second, at that level, the four Hercules aircraft sent could not help but constantly hit air pockets. Most of the 300 or so troops on board the four aircraft became air sick repeatedly on the way down and were in the worst condition to act as a fighting force. Further, the planes did not have enough fuel to fly back. The Israeli government had to get Kenya’s cooperation to allow the planes to land in Nairobi for refuelling – which they received at the last minute with the help of the Jewish owner of the Block hotel chain in Kenya, which included the famous Norfolk Hotel – the hotel that was bombed on 31 December 1980 in revenge with 13 killed and 87 wounded. Kenyans had paid a price earlier when Amin killed hundreds of them living in Uganda after the raid as revenge against Kenyatta for helping the Israelis. Finally, the lead plane had to land at night with the runway dark until lights could be strung to guide the following three planes in to land. Two other Boeing 707s followed, one equipped as a flying hospital to treat wounded soldiers and civilians which landed in Nairobi and one with General Yekutiel Adam who would be in charge of Plan B if it was necessary.
Secondly, many things could go wrong. And they did. Israelis did not know that Amin had just switched to driving a white rather than a black Mercedes. Secondly, the surprise was not as great as intended. One Ugandan guard fired at the jeep and an Israeli soldier had to take him out with a silencer, but the element of complete surprise had been lost. The constant vomiting and the speed of disembarkation had disoriented the soldiers and made them unsteady so that they were unable to follow their routines exactly as they had practiced them. Nevertheless, the rescue team reached the terminal, but not before one of the Ugandan soldiers shot and killed the commando leader, Yonatan Netanyahu, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s older brother.
This is one item that virtually anyone who has heard of the Entebbe raid knows as well as the fact that Idi Amin afterwards had 75-year old Dora Bloch, an Israeli captive who had earlier been rushed to Mulago hospital in Kampala because of a piece of meat stuck in her throat, dragged out of her hospital bed, beaten, murdered and her body thrown into a swamp. A number of Ugandan doctors and nurses who tried to protect Dora Bloch from the soldiers were also killed.
But that was later. The hostages still had to be rescued. Once inside the terminal, one soldier was instructed to order everyone to remain lying on the ground. However, he was hardly able to speak after the quick run to the terminal, shooting guards on the way. He quickly shot the terrorists in the room guarding the hostages and in the process he and others in his small troop of four, killed three civilians and wounded ten others by friendly fire. All three had been near the terrorists. One was 20-year-old Jean-Jacques Maimoni, a French citizen who had wanted to immigrate to Israel but whose grandfather feared putting him in harms way if he was conscripted into the IDF. Maimoni, who is seen only in photographs, is the central attention of the film. For in Paris, Jean Jacques was to meet his two month old nephew, Jonathan Khayat, who thirty five years later would make this film with the help of his friend, Eyal Boers who directed the movie. Jonathan Khayat works as an Associate Director, Recruitment and Admissions, of the MBA Program in the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University. By all accounts, his uncle, Jean Jacques was remembered by the other passengers because he went out of his way to help others, one time being hit hard by a terrorist for standing up on behalf of another hostage. Further, he had a French passport and could have possibly left with the other non-Israeli Jews but evidently chose not to.
In the film we learn how precisely he was shot, why and how his great uncle had been first told that he died of an asthma attack, what the effects of suppression had been on the family, how his aunt and uncle in seeing the body knew he had been shot by Israeli soldiers, and what the effect of non-acknowledgement and non-recognition had been on the family.
Live or Die in Entebbe also interviewed the son of Pasco Cohen, 52, the manager of an Israeli medical insurance fund, who was travelling with his wife and children, and raised the upper part of his body off the floor to check on the safety of his son, Shai. His daughter, Tzipi, who was 8 years old at the time, always celebrated their rescue and never held anything against the IDF for killing her father by friendly fire. Jonathan Khayat had also tried to interview family members of a third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch, a Russian Jew who had recently emigrated to Israel, who was also killed by Israeli gunfire. However, her family had emigrated from Israel and Khayat was unable to find where they had gone.
In the earlier documentary, a hostage had testified that Wilfried Böse had insisted that he was not anti-semitic but just anti-Zionist. Further, another hostage had testified that when he entered the old terminal in response to all the shooting, he could have opened fire on all the hostages lying on the ground but chose not to. When he opened fire at the commandoes, he was immediately shot by Israeli soldiers. The commandoes then burst open the door where the hostages said the remaining three terrorists were and killed them.
Though the film focuses on giving recognition to the civilian victims who are oft forgotten and put in the background to help enhance a myth, the documentary also gives recognition to the other five Israeli commandos who were wounded, particularly Soron Herschko who was shot in the spine by one of Amin’s soldiers. He too was interviewed in the film and Khayat told us in the Q&A after the film that in spite of being a quadriplegic, Herschko told him that he has never regretted for a moment going on the mission.
In turning a heroic tale into one of memory and recognition, in acknowledging that three of the captives were killed by friendly fire, the heroic story is not impoverished in the least but given greater depth and breadth. Further, the laws of war demand that civilians not deliberately be put in harms way; this law applies to your own civilians as much as the civilians on the other side. Four civilians were killed (Bloch by Idi Amin much later), and ten others were wounded; seven terrorists were killed – a high ratio. But almost a hundred civilians were rescued. Yitzhak Rabin said in advance that if 25 were killed, he would consider the rescue mission a failure and would resign as Prime Minister. He did not have to face that vow.
One last point! None of the films on the Israeli Entebbe raid adequately put the film in a longer range political context. It is no surprise that the memorial aspect and the more balanced perspective are now surfacing in a way that does not detract from the heroism. There is also the perspective of the past. One is Africa. The humiliation of the 1976 raid encouraged Amin to try to recover his status by military adventurism towards Tanzania that led to disaster and the eventual overthrow of the Amin regime in 1979. At the UN, most counties were in awe of what Israel had accomplished even if they were otherwise critical of Israel. The Westerm countries were generally very supportive. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, however, revealed his true colours and criticized the raid as "a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state." Israel itself had been through a period of deep self-doubt since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Entebbe raid changed the spirit of Israel overnight. Further, the role of Anwar Sadat in trying to free the hostages is not well known and Sadat would bring a new shock and a radical change in the relationship of Israel and the largest Arab state.
I will turn to the latter issue in my review of another film from the Toronto Jewish Film Festival tomorrow. Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace focused on the Sadat visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David Accords and Peace Agreement. The film is being shown late this afternoon at the Sheppard Centre on north Yonge St. and I will review it tomorrow morning.