Sarah Davidson remembers looking up from the floor of the old terminal at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, where she was trying to shield her youngest son from the gunfire, and thinking she was going to die.
But, instead of the all-too-familiar faces of her captors, she "saw a soldier. Dark face. He was small, with a big gun. And he was talking very slowly. Not excited at all. And he said in Hebrew, 'Comrades, we came to take you home.' "
Ten years later, Davidson broke down as she told the story. "I can hardly describe to you the feeling at that time. Until now, I can't describe it."
Former hostage Ilan Hartuv recalls the last few seconds of Wilfried Boese's life, when the West German terrorist, knowing he and his companions were under attack, burst into the room where his mostly Jewish prisoners were held and leveled his submachine gun at them.
But instead of firing, Boese touched his forehead--recalling, Hartuv is convinced, the words of a hostage, a death camp survivor, who had told the avowed leftist hours earlier that he was no different from his Nazi ancestors. Finally, the hijacker told his hostages to move back. Then he turned to face the hail of Israeli gunfire that killed him.
Those were among the memories here Wednesday as Israel commemorated the 10th anniversary of what one official called "a glorious moment in our history"--the daring Entebbe commando raid on the night of July 3-4, 1976, to free the last 98 hostages of hijacked Air France Flight 139.
For Michel Cajot, a French Jewish hostage, Entebbe marked one of those too-rare moments of moral certainty, a time "when you think your fight is really justified--where the good guys are on one side and the bad guys are on the other."
"Now," he said, "the bad guys ain't quite so bad and the good guys ain't quite so good." But Entebbe was different--"like the old cowboy movies. That was a real 'High Noon' type of operation."
It was an operation, according to a government recapitulation, that "instantly captured worldwide attention and support, boosted Israeli morale still sagging three years after the Yom Kippur War and proved that countries need not automatically yield to international terrorism."
Books, Three Movies
The Entebbe rescue was subsequently featured in numerous books and three motion pictures. And its 10th anniversary was a time for reflection and a boost to national pride.
The Air France flight, with 246 passengers on board, had been hijacked on June 27, 1976, while en route from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens. Two West German and two Palestinian gunmen took it over and ordered it to Uganda. Joined by three accomplices at Entebbe Airport and supported by the troops of then-President Idi Amin, the hijackers demanded freedom for 53 jailed terrorists and a $5-million ransom.
During a week of high tension, the hijackers separated out their Israeli hostages, releasing most of the others. Three West Bank Arabs were also held. Finally, as the Jerusalem government pretended to negotiate the demands, elite Israeli troops were flown seven hours over a circuitous route to Entebbe Airport. In a meticulously planned nighttime operation, they took precisely 51 minutes to free the hostages and put them aboard a rescue plane back to Israel.
All Terrorists Killed
Three hostages, all seven terrorists and as many as 40 Ugandan troops died in the assault, as well as Yonatan Netanyahu, who led the commandos into the Entebbe terminal. A fourth hostage, 75-year old Dora Bloch, had been moved to a Kampala hospital before the raid and was later murdered on Amin's orders.
"It has shown all the human quality of our army and all the military quality of our people," commented Prime Minister Shimon Peres during a commemorative reception at the president's residence Wednesday. As defense minister at the time, Peres had overseen the Entebbe operation, and the reception was the first in a daylong series of special events here tied to the anniversary.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who as prime minister in 1976 formally proposed the rescue operation for Cabinet approval, said it showed that "without national unity, it's very difficult to take any" tough decision.
The Israeli army's education department marked the anniversary with special background papers for commanders to use in briefing their troops about Entebbe. The papers described the operation as "an example of detailed planning, thorough execution and decisiveness in not giving in to violent blackmail as long as the military option exists."
A Worldwide Effort
Israeli missions abroad were requested to plan their own celebrations as part of an international public relations effort. There were special publicity efforts aimed at the United States, which began its Bicentennial celebrations at about the same time that the last Israeli rescue plane took off from Entebbe 10 years ago.
In an oblique reference to the damage that Israel has suffered in American public opinion due to the Jonathan Jay Pollard spy affair, one official commented, "Certainly you can understand that in such a period, everything that we can do that would be seen as cooperation and common goals between us and the United States would serve positively."
Israeli officials differed in their assessments of Entebbe's impact on the war against terrorism.
Peres called it "a turning point" in the struggle, but others, including President Chaim Herzog, said the intervening years have been a disappointment.
Defending Raid at U.N.
"It should have been a watershed, but it wasn't," said Herzog, who as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations at the time had to defend the raid before the world body.
"The Western countries, above all, were pusillanimous and weak, and their reaction was such as to encourage additional terrorism," Herzog commented Wednesday in a special Israel radio broadcast.
However, Herzog and others said they hoped that recent U.S. military, economic and diplomatic steps against Libya marked a new stage in the fight against terrorism.
While the politicians talked mostly about Entebbe's broader impact, former hostages such as Sarah Davidson, Michel Cajot and Ilan Hartuv spoke about how the experience changed their lives, sometimes in unexpected ways.
All talked about how the first news of some new hostage crisis, whether involving the Achille Lauro cruise liner or American diplomats in Iran, triggers a flood of memories and pain.
'You Know How They Feel'
"It comes back like a movie, and the scenes come to you either by night, in a dream, or by day when you think about it," said Davidson. "And you feel much more close to the hostages, no matter who they are, because you know exactly how they feel."
As a result of her experience, Davidson added: "I love life much more than before. And I try to do my best whenever I can not to delay things--just to do it."
Cajot said Entebbe "reinforced my relationship with my eldest son," who was with him on the hijacked flight. "But it hurt my relationship with my second son. He wasn't there, and he was jealous."
Hartuv carries a special scar from Entebbe. Dora Bloch, the woman left behind and later murdered, was his mother.
A Graveside Service
Among Wednesday's special commemorative events here was a service at the grave of the Entebbe commando leader, Lt. Col. Netanyahu, who is honored as an Israeli hero. Many Israeli boys born during the last decade are named "Yonatan" in his memory, and his surname is well known in the United States, where his brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, is Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.
By contrast, the twisted man with the warm smile who was pushed into the president's reception in his wheelchair Wednesday is virtually unknown except to the hostages. Hershko Surin, then an army sergeant, was paralyzed at Entebbe by a Ugandan police bullet that struck his spinal cord.
"Netanyahu went into glory," commented one hostage Wednesday. "But the price paid by Hershko is higher."
It Was Worth It
Surin said it was worth it.
That was also the Entebbe anniversary message of Israeli philosopher David Hartman.
Entebbe was a reminder to a people that they need not only be buffeted by history--they can influence history, Hartman said. It is an idea bound up with the notion of Israel and the "new Jew."
"Many times we get so involved with the daily struggle that we forget what we have achieved," said Hartman. "Entebbe is a heroic reminder that what we did is important--the establishment of this new reality. That's the message of the 10th year, that it's worth it."