Historian Saul David Discusses Israel’s Famous Entebbe Operation And How He Tracked Down A German Fugitive
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David wrote the book ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ and served as the historical consultant for ‘7 Days in Entebbe.’

In the summer of 1976, the Israeli Defense Forces pulled off one of the most daring, brazen and jaw-dropping military feats of all time. Flying more than 2,000 miles, an elite group of soldiers rescued over 100 hostages (most of them Jews) after they’d been flown to Entebbe, Uganda, by a terrorist group comprised of both German and Palestinian radicals.

For a week, they’d been forced to live in a stifling, filthy, and cramped terminal building at Entebbe’s airport while Israel and other nations — but mainly Israel — tried to find a reasonable solution to the situation that wouldn’t result in the release of even more terrorists. To make matters worse, the dictator of Uganda at the time, Idi Amin, was colluding with the Palestinian and German fanatics who, at one point, separated many of the Jewish passengers from the non-Jewish ones, an act chillingly reminiscent of the Holocaust.

Codenamed "Operation Thunderbolt," the inspirational rescue shocked the world in the best way possible. While there were hostage and soldier casualties (most notably Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu), the event was a testament to the idea of the tough and resilient Jew who would no longer take persecution and murder of his own brothers and sisters lightly. It also inspired three film adaptations that very year, featuring actors like Anthony Hopkins, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Bronson and James Woods. One was even nominated for Best Foreign film at the Academy Awards.

This week, a fourth movie on the event makes its theatrical debut in the U.S., “7 Days in Entebbe.” Directed by “Narcos” alum José Padilha, this is the first major Hollywood take on the well-known mission in a more subtle approach to the subject matter, which is sure to draw comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

The movie (out March 16) is partly based on a 2015 nonfiction account, “Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History,” by British historian Saul David, who is also the historical consultant on the film. Despite his name, David is actually not Jewish. He is Armenian on his father’s side (original surname: Davidian), and his first name was that of his mother’s close friend. So, why would a gentile want to write about such a Jewish-centric topic? We rang him up in England to get an answer as well as hear about how the book came together, and what he thinks of the movie.

New York Blueprint: What, as a non-Jew, drew you to such a heavily Jewish subject?

Saul David: [It was] two things, actually. It was the drama of the subject. Generally, most of my books have been on more traditional military subjects and, of course, there’s a military element to this, but there’s a whole lot more as well. It’s the first subject I’ve actually lived through that I’ve written about, too. Although I was quite young at the time, I was only 10 when it took place, I did remember it. I was one of those strange 10-year-olds who was actually keeping an eye on the news and I was completely fascinated and slightly alarmed at what might happen. Of course, we all woke up on Sunday [July 4, 1976] after the rescue had taken place and the news was [that] the seemingly impossible had been pulled off.

The drama of the event, an event that I actually lived through, always fascinated me. And like with a lot of potential subjects, you do a little bit of digging into it and what I realized was missing in this story is that although it had been heavily covered at the time as you would expect, by both the press and a certain number of accounts and films, it had never really been properly investigated in the way that I would look at it from a historian’s point of view, which is you need a lapse of time and you need the opportunity for people no longer to be in their posts, so they’re more likely to talk to you about what happened. You also need the release of documents and that’s why, generally speaking, for a proper historical account to be written, you need a 20-year gap minimum.

All those things were in place and to be truthful, I was actually looking for a slight change of direction in my writing too from these kind of broad, military type books that I’ve been writing of wars or campaigns to something more tightly focused like this. That was the thinking behind it and, of course, with pretty much any project, when you start working on it, more and more things begin to be revealed. It was a very satisfying project in that sense.

Courtesy of Saul David

NYB: I’m very glad that you brought up the fact that you lived through it because that was my next question. What other recollections do you have on it?

SD: Like pretty much everyone else in the western world in particular, I was very concerned that it was not gonna end well. We knew that the threat had been made, that the hostages were gonna be killed if Israel didn’t do what they were asking. In fact, it wasn’t just Israel, of course, there were four countries involved. It seemed, the way the demands were being explained on the news, that if all the demands weren’t met, then they were gonna start killing hostages, so there was a real danger that that was gonna be the denouement and the clock was ticking.

I just remember feeling, like a lot of people did that week, very on edge as to the likely outcome and, of course, as I say, that Sunday morning, [there] was a tremendous outpouring of joy, at least in the western world. We now know that in some of the other African countries and, going back to the Cold War, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was great anger at what Israel had done. But certainly in the western world, there was a great outpouring of joy and Britain shared in that joy.

NYB: Can you talk a little bit about the researching process? Where did you start and how long it took to track down people for interviews and documents?

SD: Like most research projects, you’re basically rolling a snowball down a hill and it’s gradually increasing in size. What tends to happen is that when you track down one person, that person tends to put you in touch with other people. But the real trick with this project was actually gaining the trust of the key people. I really wanted to flesh out the story of the terrorists in particular because I felt that in the previous accounts, we didn’t really know who they were and what their motivations were. They seemed like very two-dimensional characters, so one of the key discoveries really — for me — was finding a comrade of the German terrorists who, of course, lost their lives at Entebbe, so they weren’t going to be able to talk.

But finding one of their key associates who was a founding member of the actual organization they were part of, the Revolutionary Cells, was a real coup actually because he’s still on the run from German justice. He’s in semi-hiding in Nicaragua and I actually interviewed him on Skype. I managed to get his email address and contacted him and said, ‘I’d really like to talk to you because I don’t think we really know anything about the motivation [behind the terrorists].’ And certainly, Brigitte Kuhlmann, who’s played by Rosamund Pike in the film, has been, in most of the books, portrayed as a really nasty bit of work. And I said, ‘If that’s the case, fine, but if you could tell me a little bit about her, I might be able to set the record straight to a certain extent.’ This bait was enough for him to respond and contact me.

Interesting enough, after I’d interviewed him a couple of times and then tried to contact him again because I knew the film people were anxious to talk to him, he clammed up completely. Maybe he thought there was a danger that he was just putting too much publicity out there about himself and that, of course, might have consequences. There’s been no word from him since. Even when the book was finished, I sent him the extracts to make sure he was happy with what I’d written, but I never heard back from him.

The other tricky thing [about my research] was getting inside the Israeli Special Forces community. The Unit, the Sayeret Matkal, which carried out the raid is very similar to [the British] SAS [Special Air Service]. You’d have the same problem [in Britain] if you were trying to speak to even relatively recent members. The trick I find is that once you got one or two people on the inside to vouch for you, then doors begin to open up and that’s pretty much what happened in that case. And then there was the hunt for the documents; there are always more documents than you think.

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NYB: What parts of the hijacking or operation took you by surprise during your research?

SD: Well, I’d heard hints that there’d been a secret deal done between Kenya and Israel to make the raid possible. The previous books had mentioned a possible secret deal, but there’d never been any evidence, 1, and 2, there’d never been an explanation of what the deal was. Everybody knows that the Israelis destroyed Idi Amin’s planes and there was some suggestion that this was some kind of quid pro quo, but there was no proof of that until I tracked an interview with a man called Charles Njonjo, who was attorney general of Kenya at that time, a very significant politician. Although we think of attorney generals as a kind main law man in a country, in reality, in Kenya at that time, he was, in effect, the overall head of security. And so, a very influential man.

He was able to tell me exactly what had happened in the secret meeting with the Mossad and [Ehud Barak]. That was a real eye-opener because not only was the deal confirmed for the first time, but he also told me the terms of that deal, which is that in return for refueling the planes, the Israelis were asked not only to destroy Idi Amin’s air force, but actually, if they had the chance, to assassinate Amin himself. And that has never come out before, so you do get these moments during a research process where you just think ‘Wow!’ I thought ‘Am I really hearing this straight?’ When the book came out, it was front page news in Kenya, dealing with that specific issue.

NYB: What was the most challenging part or parts about writing this book as well as trying to make it unique from the other books on the subject?

SD: I think dealing with the whole Yoni Netanyahu controversy was very challenging. It was challenging because I was faced with a lot of obstruction, I felt. I won’t go into too much detail about that, but clearly, given the fact that his brother is the current Prime Minister of Israel, there were a lot of vested interests in what I would see as the more accurate version of events never coming to light and even a number of the actual soldiers who knew what happened and knew what errors had been made have been effectively silenced. It’s been made quite clear to them that if the story’s told, it’s Yoni a hero or nothing.  Now, in no way would I traduce Yoni’s character, but what I will say is that he did make a fatal error on the approach to the terminal building against the advice of his very experienced deputy who I interviewed.

That had been effectively airbrushed from history, the error, and the reason is it was important for the Netanyahu family to build up the heroism of their brother as much as possible for reasons of personal pride and he had had a very successful career up to that point. But there’s another element in this and I think the Israeli state had a vested interest in portraying the operation as perfectly-planned and brilliantly executed and this story of errors and near disaster doesn’t go down so well when you’re trying to show the world that you’ve got very effective security forces and intelligence services [and] if you mess with them, [there will be] consequences. That’s the message they wanted to send and I understand that, but my job as a historian is to try and get close to the truth and I didn’t feel the truth about the story had been properly told.

It was a challenge because I felt quite conflicted in writing, even as explicitly as I did, about the story because the key person in the story is not able to set the record straight from his point of view. But I looked at enough sources and spoke to enough people to get what I think is close to what really happened.

NYB: Did you visit Israel or Uganda to get a picture of what these events looked like as they unfolded?

SD: I did, I always think it’s important. It was a problem with Uganda, or Entebbe as it is today [because] the terminal building is no longer there. You’ve still got the control tower, but you can’t really get a sense of what the building was like. I was very fortunate, on that subject, to track down [after the book was first published] an American called Ben Fallon who gave me a lot of information about the terminal building. The reason he knew is because he had been working in the terminal building just prior to the operation, but then went back to the terminal building after the operation took place and he told me a lot about the conditions of the terminal building. And he also had photographs … the first photographs ever seen of the entry point [of] where the soldiers actually went in and you can see the bullet holes in the glass and the door. It’s unusual to get information after a book’s being published because what’s different about this story is that it’s still current in the sense that a lot of people are still alive, so I remember a lot of people contacting me even after the book was published with extra information.

NYB: Having immersed yourself in this historical event, what were your thoughts on the movie and its accuracy?

SD: [laughs] Conflicted is the truth of the matter. I’m the historical consultant of the movie, so in some ways, I bear some responsibility. But, you know, all you can really do as a consultant is give your advice, you don’t have artistic control. They bought the rights to the book, but that allows them to use it or not as the case may be. While they do take some liberties with the truth in the film, as any film would, they do, at the same time, stay remarkably faithful to some aspects of the story. For example, the dealings between the politicians is very true to life back in Israel and that’s a key element of the film. And the other really important bit that I felt was important to get across is the fact that terrorists had the opportunity to start killing hostages because they know a rescue is in place and they choose not to do so. I felt that was a very important bit of the story because it underlines the fact that the mission did come very close to disaster and it did need a certain amount of luck at the end for them to be able to pull it off. They do include that in the film and I do think that that’s quite important.

In some ways, there was a conflict of interests. I want truth all the way — or as close to the truth as possible — [while] filmmakers need it to be dramatically palatable and sometimes those two things are in conflict. But I will give [director] José Padilha credit for actually personally going to speak to a lot of the same people I spoke to and some people I didn’t speak to, actually, and really try and get into the minds of the terrorists, the hostages, and also the Israeli soldiers and politicians. I think he really did a thorough job in that sense. The end result of all of this is that actually, he’s produced what I consider to be a very nuanced film. It may not be to everyone’s tastes because it doesn’t have the simple ‘goodies-baddies’ narrative that most films frankly include. In that way, it’s quite a brave film to have [been] made. In the main, I think it’s amazing how accurate elements of the film are, but of course, there are some liberties taken … In many ways, a historical consultant is a bit of a problem to filmmakers [laughs] because you’re basically telling them what they can’t do rather than what they can do.

NYB: Did you get to visit the set at all?

SD: I did get to visit the set in London and watch some of the scenes that were happening back in Israel, so it was the Prime Minister in his house. It was fascinating. Of course, not a lot happened, as I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of waiting around. I work in a lot of documentaries and you’ve got a crew of maybe two or three and you can imagine what a film set’s like. It’s a totally different ballgame and it is quite an eye-opener to be there. It was a great privilege. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen some of the filming of the actual terminal building, which they did in Malta, but that wasn’t possible.

NYB: What Jewish subject, if any, would be you be interested in writing about for a future book?

SD: I did a documentary on the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, which I didn’t know much about and that was quite an eye-opener. But whether I’d actually write a whole book about something like that, I’m not sure. I don’t know. I loved working the subject, I’ve made a lot of good contacts in Israel. I’ve been out there and speaking in universities there about counter terrorism, so I wouldn’t rule it out, but there’s nothing immediately on the horizon. It’s quite serendipitous at how these ideas come about, you often bounce from one idea to the next. There was a brief moment where I was thinking of doing more counter terrorism. This is the daddy of all of counter terrorism operations, but it spawned a thousand offspring and two of them were the first counter terrorist operations launched by the British and Americans in 1980, so I was very close to writing a book about Operation Eagle Claw and Nimrod, which were the attempts to rescue the hostages respectively in Iran and Britain. That didn’t come about, but you can see when you’re on one project and then you find out a bit of information about something else, that sometimes moves you on to the next one.



7 Days in Entebbe

Operation Thunderbolt


Saul David

Idi Amin

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