By Deborah Danan/JNS.org
Forty years have passed and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog’s memories of Operation Entebbe (also referred to as Operation Yonatan or Operation Thunderbolt) run the gamut. Perhaps it’s from something as innocuous as chewing a piece of gum or the pain of witnessing his friend, Yoni Netanyahu—the hero after whom the successful military counter-terrorism hostage rescue mission is named—die.
Almog recalls sitting on the plane en-route from Ben Gurion Airport to save the hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, alongside his subordinates, the IDF special forces unit he commanded, and a Mercedes limousine that had been sprayed black to look like the one that former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin traveled in. The plan was to fake Amin’s return to Entebbe from a diplomatic trip in order to infiltrate the airport terminals and free the 106 people being held hostage there. But there was one problem: The airborne limo was leaking gas.
“So we blocked the hole with chewing gum,” Almog said.
Almog describes the July 4, 1976, hostage-rescue mission as being a “one-of-a-kind military operation.”
“The mission showed the commitment, determination, and dedication of the State of Israel for any Jew, anywhere in the world, whose life is in danger. This is what has characterized the Jewish people all through their history—that we are all responsible for one another,” he said.
Almog took that lesson from Entebbe and turned it into his lifelong calling. Partnering with Jewish National Fund (JNF), in 2003, Almog established Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, a sprawling rehabilitative village for people with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Aleh Negev is home to 220 residents and provides services to 12,000 outpatients annually. The 25-acre village empowers people with severe disabilities—who may have otherwise spent their lives confined in institutions or hospitals—to interact with the outside world and live with dignity.
Almog calls Aleh Negev a “social Entebbe.”
“The severely disabled, the elderly, the weakest members of our society—they are also the hostages of our society,” he said. “Entebbe is a moral imperative for the Jewish people, and an example for how to fulfill our social obligations and not just our military duties.”
Almog fathered his own “hostage of society,” Eran, who was born with brain damage. Shortly after Aleh Negev was founded, his son died at age 23. Following Eran’s death, the village was renamed Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran in his memory.
“He wore diapers, never once said the word ‘abba’ (father), and yet he was the greatest teacher in my life,” Almog said.
In April 2016, Almog was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his contributions to society. The prize, Almog said at the ceremony, belongs to Eran for giving him the chance to change the lives of society’s weakest members for the better.
Sorin Hershko is another hero of the Entebbe operation. Severely wounded during the mission, Hershko was left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Yet he never gave up.
“It’s true there are many things I can no longer do, but there are many more that I can and I choose to concentrate on those,” he said.
In Hershko’s view, Entebbe taught the world the lesson to never give up in the face of evil.
“We gave a model example to the world that you can fight terrorism and beat it and you don’t need to surrender,” he said, adding that the daring operation completely changed the way the world viewed the tiny Jewish state.
But even though Hershko maintains that the IDF is a far better army today than it was in 1976, he is doubtful that a similar operation would be successful now.
“We had the element of surprise that is missing from today’s world,” he said. “No one expected us to get there. The terrorists in Entebbe thought they were in a hotel, that nothing could touch them.”
En route to Entebbe, Hershko settled down before the action to catch some sleep, using the roof of the Mercedes as a makeshift bed. He remembers leaning over and seeing the operation’s commander, Yoni Netanyahu, looking jarringly relaxed while reading an English-language book.
“I was stunned by his sense of calm,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe he could just sit back and read a book while the atmosphere was so tense. He was an impressive and extraordinary personality.”
Like Almog, Hershko took his experiences from Entebbe and melded them into his life’s purpose. In the mid-1990s, Hershko joined the team that founded Lotem-Making Nature Accessible, a non-profit with the mission of making nature and trails accessible for 30,000 Israeli adults and children with physical and mental disabilities.
A JNF partner organization, Lotem provides a host of nature activities, accessible hikes, and outdoor workshops that afford participants the chance to experience nature’s rehabilitative powers.
“I wanted to give a better quality of life to children in the same situation as me. So many of them can’t do something simple, like going out and getting to know nature,” he said.
When asked if he has a message for the world, Hershko is modestly dismissive.
“I don’t feel big enough to give messages to the world or even to Israel,” he said. “I can’t tell other people how to live their lives. I can only say that in retrospect, I think I chose the best way for me to get over my own challenges. Today, I am very proud of the choices I made and I have tremendous satisfaction from what I do.”