by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
There was a moment in the 20th century that signaled the point at which a people who had gone through the slaughter of the Holocaust without much resistance became a valiant, determined people who fought for their place in the world. The newborn State of Israel had promised to champion every Jewish person no matter where they lived. On July 3, 1976, Israel proved to the whole world that they could keep that promise.
It was a military operation that stunned the world with its daring. Three days earlier on June 27, Palestinian and German terrorists had stormed the cockpit of an Air France airliner bound for Paris from Tel Aviv and hijacked the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. The 248 passengers were held hostage in an old airport building. Jewish hostages were then separated from the others, and the terrorists threatened to execute them if their demands weren’t met by July 1.
Israel, trying to balance international respect with censure if they attempted a dangerous rescue, decided to negotiate instead. When the hijackers moved the deadline from July 1 to July 4, it gave Israel the time to plan a military rescue. Overnight, Operation Thunderbolt was put in place. Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Muki Betser headed a unit of 100 Israeli special forces commandos. Hercules transport planes took off on an 8-hour covert flight bound for Entebbe, at some points flying only 35–100 feet (10–30 m) above ground to avoid radar detection.
Late at night on July 3, the planes landed at Entebbe, and within 90 minutes, the commandos had rescued the hostages and were back in the air bound for Israel. Three of the hostages were killed as well as the hijackers and soldiers involved in the hostage-taking. Yonatan Netanyahu was also killed, and in his honor, the operation was renamed Operation Yonatan.
When news of the rescue was made public, Israel garnered international respect for the operation’s extraordinary scope and execution.
With Israel’s inception as a state in 1948, the focus of its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was on bringing home the exiles, and—in particular—rescuing the one million Jews suffering persecution throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Israel’s compassion and resolve were on display with several remarkable rescues.
Operation Magic Carpet (also called Operation On Wings of Eagles) was a secret operation to rescue Jews from persecution in Yemen. The Islamic government of Yemen had been hostile to their ancient Jewish community since the early 20th century. In 1948, forcible conversions, murder and rioting made it dangerous for Yemeni Jews to remain there. By 1950, Israel had ferried more than 50,000 Yemeni Jews to safety on 380 flights courtesy of Alaska Airlines. Just one year later, Israel launched a secret and successful mission to airlift 120,000 Jews from Iraq.
Between 1984 and 1991, three airlift operations coordinated by the Mossad (Israeli secret service) and the Israel Defense Forces began the transfer of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from deplorable refugee camps in Sudan. The continuing effort to rescue Jews from Ethiopia, a nation embroiled at the time in a violent civil war with famine and rampant persecution, culminated in the largest airlift operation in history: Operation Solomon, when 14,500 people were airlifted to Israel within 36 hours.
In April and May 2020, Israel was called upon for a different kind of rescue operation. During the COVID-19 pandemic when nations around the world were closing their borders to travelers, about 10,000 Israelis were stranded in foreign countries. With borders closed, flights jam-packed with people desperate to get home and fares reaching outrageous levels, Israel did not abandon its own. Calling for the implementation of a national emergency plan, then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz arranged the extraction of thousands of Israeli travelers.
Over 1,000 young Israelis were stranded in Peru when it closed its borders. They had been doing their post-military travel—many in remote regions of the Amazon rainforest and unaware there was a pandemic. Israel was reportedly one of the few nations that made herculean efforts to bring its citizens home. With borders already closed, the Israel Foreign Ministry made special arrangements with the Peruvian government to allow Israeli planes to land at the airport near Lima, then sent four rescue flights paid for by El Al and other business donors to transport the passengers free of charge. El Al made 45 flights all over the world to rescue Israelis.
The Israel Foreign Ministry also called on two other Israeli airlines, Israir and Arkia, to help in the extraction of Israelis from Croatia, Italy, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Slovenia, Georgia and Moldova. In a demonstration of Israeli goodwill, citizens from these countries who found themselves stranded in Israel were ferried back to their home nations on planes flying there to pick up Israeli passengers.
Twenty-six Israelis, stranded in Morocco for six weeks, were rescued through a secret operation spearheaded by former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. Because Israeli planes are barred from landing in this Muslim country, finding a way to get the people out was no easy task. In secret negotiations with the Moroccan government, Israel began to implement the plan, though their efforts were fraught with complications. At long last, the Israeli travelers were flown home on a private charter jet.
Jewish News Syndicate reported the words of one Israeli passenger rescued from Peru that expressed the thoughts of most Israeli travelers during this crisis: “There is no country that extracts its civilians like [Israel]…Europeans who saw what the State of Israel did for us were simply in shock.” It demonstrated once again that Israel can—and will—rescue its citizens no matter where they are in the world.
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