July 4, 1976, 30 years ago, was a moment of great anxiety. German and Arab terrorists had seized an Air France plane and diverted it to Entebbe, in Uganda. There they separated the Jewish hostages and held them at gunpoint, while releasing the others. Their demand was that Israel should free Palestinian terrorists who had been captured, tried and sentenced to prison. Idi Amin, then the unstable dictator of Uganda, drove to the airport in his armored Mercedes. A sinister smile on his podgy face, he made his hostility to the hostages plain — in the past he had often come out with praise of Hitler. Just when the fate of these unfortunates seemed certain, suddenly, out of the blue sky, came the news that a team of Israeli commandoes had flown in, seized the airport, shot every single one of the terrorists, and flown the hostages home. The day’s anxiety switched into jubilation. That was a day when wrong was righted, something as rare as it is unforgettable.
A few years later, researching a book, I attended the trial in Cologne of three SS men, the so-called Paris Gestapo, each one of them playing his part in the mass-murder of Jews in France. In the seat next to me was a friendly man. His name was Michel Goldberg, and he was at the trial because his father, a Frenchman, had been deported and murdered at Auschwitz, and he wanted to see justice done. More than that, staggeringly, Michel had been on the flight hijacked to Entebbe. Because Michel spoke German, he was made the interpreter with the terrorists. He described to me how one of these nazified German terrorists, a woman, was actually shouting at him when he heard orders to throw himself on the ground, the Israeli commandoes burst in and bullets went over his head to cut the female terrorist down. Namesake, published in 1982, is Michel’s poignant autobiography.
And now, once again, terrorists have seized someone Jewish and are demanding the release of prisoners who have been brought to justice. Once again, Israeli forces are poised to free their man; they have the strength to do so, they may have the intelligence too, and Gaza is a great deal closer than Entebbe. The days are passing, and military measures are beginning to look like a posture. Nothing seems changed down those 30 years, except the resolve that went into the Entebbe rescue, and which now has a question mark over it.