Operation Entebbe; Elite IDF Commander Sassy Reuven Remembers the Greatest Hostage Rescue

By

Ruth Judah

This is the 40th year since the miraculous raid on Entebbe so Rabbi Mayer Greene invited a San Fernando resident, Retired Elite IDF Commander Sassy Reuven, to speak at the January 13th Menachem Institute event. These lectures are held every few months and present interesting and powerful panels and speakers. Reuven has been sharing his memories of the event at select Jewish centers across the country. He accepted the invitation, acknowledging the coincidence of speaking at Chabad of Tarzana as this was his first shul when he arrived in America many years before. Rabbi Mordechai Einbinder introduced Sassy to the audience and it was a warm reunion.

More than 150 people showed up to hear Reuven’s first hand memories of the legend of Entebbe which took place back in 1976. Reuven mesmerized the audience and talked about this anniversary being a poignant reminder of the power and independence that has been Israel’s through the years. Most people of a certain age remember where they were when the events of Entebbe unfolded. For the younger generations, the story is found in history books. For Reuven, it was a transforming time in his life.

These were the years that Reuven served in the IDF’s elite Red Beret Paratrooper unit and he participated in several covert operations until he was accidentally shot and severely wounded by friendly fire while preparing for a mission, after Entebbe.

Reuven talked through the story of Operation Thunderbolt. This was the July 4th, 1976 secret counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by the Israel Defense Force in response to the hijacking of an Air France plane with 248 passengers, as it departed from Tel Aviv Airport. The anti-Israeli terrorists received support from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and finally landed in Uganda.

 

At Entebbe airport, Uganda, the hostages were moved from the aircraft to an airport building and the hijackers separated the Israelis from 148 non-Israeli hostages who were released. The remaining Jewish passengers, including children, and the 12-member Air France crew, were left in a dire situation.

Mossad provided information to the IDF who spent a week planning a creative and brave 90 minute rescue, which ultimately secured the release of 102 hostages. Reuven was one of the soldiers assigned to secure other parts of the airport. He remembered that he was ultimately the second last soldier to board the plane, and so the second to disembark in Entebbe; last on, first off.

Five Israeli commandos were ultimately wounded and tragically, the unit commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were also killed.

Reuven acknowledged that Israel executed the daring plan without approval or knowledge of the United Nations or any other country. They knew they had a short window to make the rescue and acted with stealth and creativity, not considering political repercussion, but focused on the military and security needs of their civilians. Events are handled so differently today.

Reuven delivered a passionate lecture and talked about G-d’s involvement in the rescue mission. He said that when we rise up to G-d’s hands, here we find the miraculous aspect. Reuven maintains strong opinions about the importance of keeping enemies as enemies. Reuven never went back to military work, but instead turned to his second love, engineering, and stayed out of politics.

After the lecture, one of the attendees stood up and said her husband’s mother had been one of the hostages and her husband was one of the children who had been rescued. Reuven said he had seen a photo of the hostages with the lady and her child. This was a Los Angeles family, but they had not met Reuven beforehand, so it was an emotional reunion which connected the past with the present.