On July 27 1976, an Air France Airbus A300, flight 139, flying out of Athens and carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew ended up at Entebbe airport in Uganda instead of its intended destination of Paris. The plane had been hijacked by pro-Palestinian terrorists and its captain, Michel Bacos, found himself facing a moral dilemma of life and death proportions.
Now aged 92, Bacos recounts his story vividly. One thing particularly stands out in his mind. It was the moment when the two Palestinian and two Germans hijackers divided the hostages into two groups — Israeli nationals and Jews to one side, non-Jews to the other.
It was at this moment that one holocaust survivor amongst the hostages showed her concentration camp number tattooed on her arm and said to one of the German hijackers, “your handling of us is identical to that of the Nazis”. He responded that he was not a Nazi but an idealist against imperialist Israel leading an expansionist war against her neighbors.
“I knew precisely what fascism was all about and what separation meant. I wasn’t going to leave my passengers to their fate, even though I was told I could leave. Not for a moment”, Bacos said.
“While I was being held hostage, I called the crew together and said: “We have to remain with the passengers until the end — that is our duty”. Every member of my crew agreed with me no matter what. It had to do with basic values of decency and human behaviour. It was, put simply, the right thing to do.”
He recalls, “I remember when one of the German terrorists said to me: ‘If any army from any country tries to save you, you can rest assured that we will hear them first and we will kill every last one of you’.”
The 100 hostages were heavily guarded under difficult circumstances for a long week. Many suffered from diarrhea and vomiting and the 75-year-old Jewess Dora Bloch, whose father was the co-founder of the Israeli city of Rishon LeZion, was hospitalized in Kampala after collapsing. The day after the liberation of the hostages by the Israeli commando force she was murdered in her hospital bed by the Ugandan army.
“It was 11.30 pm when I heard machine gun fire. When the fighting broke out he could have shot us. Twenty seconds later he was dead, shot by Israeli commandos”, said Bacos.
Although there were three fatalities among the hostages, Operation Jonathan – named after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s older brother, the only IDF force killed in the raid – is considered to be the most successful and most daring rescue ever carried out.