The passing this September 2020 of Dr. Jossy Faktor in Israel brings back memories of his role in the famed Entebbe Raid of 1976
By David E. Kaplan
The announcement of the passing of a former South African doctor in Israel, brought back memories of one of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in history.
Many, who were around in 1976, will recall where they were on July 3 when the story on the Entebbe Raid broke. I was then a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in in the small town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would interview for The Jerusalem Post a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor who participated in the raid that would later be made into a number of Hollywood movies.
A gynaecologist and obstetrician who died from lymphoma on September 17, 2020 in Herzliya Pituach, Faktor was drawn into the crisis that began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang boarded the plane during a stopover in Athens, Greece and diverted the aircraft, ‘Flight 139’ to Entebbe, Uganda. There, the hijackers were joined by three more terrorists who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking.
If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.
Shades of the Shoah
The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for literally devouring his enemies.
It was said that his palace fridge had been a ‘Who’s Who’ in Ugandan politics. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move.
No options were risk free.
The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision of Israel’s leaders.
They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter!
Shades of the Shoah coloured the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.
It also knew what it had to do.
It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was Dr. Jossy Faktor who at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.
“No Going Back”
When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their good friends from their South African youth movement ‘Habonim’ days, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of their front door to report for duty, that he was about to enter the history books.
The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynaecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”
The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”
Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.
“We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons. Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.”
The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing.
“When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”
The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” said Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”
Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty as we were to bring the hostages and wounded back.” Some of the unusual equipment they took along, revealed Faktor, “were empty milk cans. We expected some of our surprised passengers to be sick on the return flight and so had to provide a suitable alternative to pretty airhostesses going around with paper bags.”
The other three planes carried the ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.
In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.
Faktor’’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”
Describing the mood on the return flight to Israel, Faktor recalled:
“While there was jubilation, the passengers also appeared in a state of shock. This was expected. They had been captive for a week and then unexpectedly rescued in a shootout, where they could so easy have lost their lives. Three of the hostages did. Compounding their trauma had been the constant fear of execution if the demands of their captors were not met. So while there was the obvious feeling of elation, it was also mixed with sorrow at the loss of life.”
The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” said Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”
Following the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today:
“We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”
The Entebbe raid continues to be a source of pride for the Israeli public, with so many lives shaped by the experience. Dubbed ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ by the Israeli military operatives who planned and carried it out, it was retroactively renamed ‘Operation Yonatan’, honoring Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the only soldier to lose his life in the raid. His brother Benyamin Netanyahu stands today as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.
Shimon Peres, who served as Defense Minister during the Entebbe raid went on to become Prime Minister and President of the State of Israel.
Overall Commander of the rescue operation, Dan Shomron, became Israel’s 13th Chief of Staff, while Ephraim Sneh, who headed the medical team on the mission, would later serve as a Minister of Health.
Ugandan President Idi Amin, humiliated by the surprise raid and believing Kenya colluded with Israel in its planning, vented his rage by massacring hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda. However, after the raid on Entebbe, his regime began to crumble and two years later was forced into exile settling in the only country that would take him, Saudi Arabia. He died in Jeddah in August 2003.
Dr. Jossy Faktor would serve for twelve years in the IAF, attaining the rank of Surgeon General before returning to private practice.
To whatever lives each of the participants on the Entebbe Raid would henceforth pursue, they will for eternity be honoured for the special role they played in the greatest rescue operation of all time.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs