While Americans were celebrating the Union’s bicentennial on July 4, 1976, about 140 Israeli commandos were undertaking one of the most daring missions in the history of the Israel Defense Forces: Operation Thunderbolt, a counterterrorist hostage-rescue assignment at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
A week earlier, an Air France plane on its way from Tel Aviv had been hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two members of the German Revolutionary CZ Cell. The plane was flown to Libya and then to Uganda, where the hijackers and more terrorists held the Israeli and Jewish passengers and the 12-member flight crew hostage at the airport.
After unsuccessful negotiations, the Israeli government decided to send 140 commandos on a 2,500-mile journey to carry out a nighttime rescue operation. It was successful — the Israelis freed 106 hostages in 90 minutes. Four hostages were killed, and so were all of the terrorists. Four Israeli commandos were wounded and one, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, died.
Sasson “Sassy” Reuven of Beersheba was there. At 7:30 p.m. on February 2 at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake, he will tell his firsthand account of that legendary operation nearly 40 years ago. His presentation is sponsored by Eternal Flame, a project of Valley Chabad and the George & Martha Rich Foundation.
In the summer of 1976, Mr. Reuven was nearing the end of his three-year service in the elite Red Beret unit of the Paratroop Brigade. He had participated in many counter-terrorism missions. “I was the luckiest man in my unit because I was very close to Lt. Col. Nehemiah Tamari, and he took me on every mission our unit was assigned,” he said.
On July 1, his unit was in the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. Around 10 at night, he was sought out by Lt. Col. Tamari’s secretary.
“She said, ‘He wants you to be ready for a battle,’” he recalled. “I got ready, and about an hour or two later someone picked me up in a jeep and we went to a certain bunker in the Golan Heights. I was the first to arrive. I had no idea what was happening, but I was very excited. Several more soldiers arrived, and we awaited orders as we tried to sleep on the concrete floor. At 2 a.m., a civilian bus picked us up and took us to an army base close to Petach Tikva.”
As they waited for further instructions, a friend relayed a rumor that they were going to Entebbe to rescue the hostages, but Mr. Reuven dismissed that as impossible. Finally, that Friday afternoon, the 28 paratroopers gathered under the shade of eucalyptus trees. Lt. Col. Tamari sent 13 of them home despite their eagerness to participate in whatever would come next.
The remaining 15 paratroopers soon learned that the rumor about Entebbe was true. At around 2 in the afternoon, several crews were briefed by Col. Matan Vilnai, who would lead them. “There were maps of Africa behind him, and he was smiling. He said, ‘Guys, it looks like we are going to bring the hostages back from Entebbe.’”
Their advance role was to clear and secure the airport and its runways before more units arrived.
“I was still very skeptical that it would really happen,” Mr. Reuven said. “But we left the following morning, July 3.”
Mr. Reuven was among the first to jump out of the first Hercules C-130 aircraft, which landed in Entebbe seven minutes before three additional transport planes. Today, when he talks about that tense time to audiences around the world, he often is asked if he was afraid or excited.
“You don’t feel excitement or fear,” he said. “You are in a different state of mind. You have a target, a mission you have to complete, and your senses are working overtime. Yet it was not just another mission. It was something from above. It was the first mission I ever thought was a very high responsibility — even from God — not to protect Jews but to rescue Jewish hostages.
“I felt very privileged to be there, and very eager. I prayed that things would go the right way.”
What happened next, the heart of his adventure, is a story he reserves for live audiences.
He emphasizes that he was not particularly religious at the time, “and if I had the faith then that I have right now, I would have the same feeling of my senses working overtime, but I would leave some of it to God and focus my concentration on specific tasks. That makes it easier.”
All the soldiers and their commanders perceived a divine hand in the mission and its outcome, he said. The army had estimated a much higher number of casualties, whether or not the risky operation succeeded in freeing hostages.
“God was right there with us,” Mr. Reuven said. “It was not possible without help from above. As one of the generals stated, God worked overtime that night.”
Mr. Reuven completed his military service in November, only to return four months later as part of a special infantry reserve unit. He was shot in the leg and spent several years enduring surgeries and rehabilitation. During this time he not only studied civil engineering at Ben-Gurion University but also began to experience a spiritual awakening that he feels was brought on by his brush with death and by the death of a cousin in the Israel Navy Seals (Shayetet 13).
Mr. Reuven went on to complete his studies at Brooklyn Polytechnic. In 1985 he became El-Al cargo security director at Los Angeles International Airport, where he met his wife, Susan. The couple married in 1987 and has three children, now 27, 23, and 15.
After working as a construction development executive in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Mr. Reuven established his own construction company, AMD Development, in Calabasas, California. He is an active member of the Chabad House there.
With the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt approaching, Mr. Reuven is in much demand as a speaker. He already has told his story to audiences in Australia, Canada, and Panama, and this year he is invited to Denmark and England, among other places.
Advance tickets for his talk at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake cost $18 and are available at Eternalflame.org/Entebbe or by phone at (201) 476-0157. Tickets will be $20 at the door.