Dan Shomron: Commander of Entebbe rescue

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The Independent Online

It is ironic that Dan Shomron had to die to win the wider recognition he deserved as the commander of the epic 1976 Entebbe rescue of more than 100 Israelis and French Jews who had been seized by Palestinian and German gunmen on an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. His four Hercules transport planes flew 2,500 miles through the night, surprised the hijackers at the Ugandan airport and spirited the passengers home with the loss of Lt-Col Yonatan Netanyahu, chief of the crack Sayeret Matkal commandos, and four hostages.

The operation demonstrated the range of Israel's military capability, shown again five years later when the Israeli air force destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor, and ended the Arabs' use of airliner hijacking as a weapon against the Jewish state.

Shimon Peres, who was Defence Minister at the time, said after Shomron's death: "Everybody said that this operation was a fantasy that could not be implemented, but Shomron insisted that the IDF's reach was long and that it could be done. He was extremely opinionated and strong-willed."

Peres, a civilian who had never donned a uniform in anger, was pressing for a rescue almost from the beginning, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a former chief of the general staff, was caution personified. He refused to authorise the mission until the military presented a detailed plan.

Shomron, who had fought with distinction in every one of Israel's wars since 1956, was one of the generals who brought him round. Matan Vilna'i, Shomron's deputy, testified: "Dan Shomron stood behind the Entebbe raid, including the entire planning and the detailed idea of how to free the hostages. He believed in the operation and convinced Yitzhak Rabin to give him the green light."

The hijackers seized the plane, carrying 248 passengers and a crew of 12, soon after it had taken off from an intermediate stop in Athens. They ordered the pilots to fly first to Libya, then to Entebbe, where they demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held by Israel, and 13 other radicals imprisoned in Kenya, France, Switzerland and West Germany. They freed the non-Jewish hostages, but threatened to kill the remaining 105 if their demands were not met.

The first commandos, led by Yonatan Netanyahu, sped from their Hercules in a black limousine, designed to deceive the airport's Ugandan guards and make them think that President Idi Amin was returning home from abroad. A Ugandan sniper shot the colonel, the older brother of the future Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, before the limousine reached the terminal. The hostages were rescued after a brief gun battle. All the hijackers were killed.

Within days a media campaign, orchestrated by the Netanyahu family, blurred the distinction between Shomron, the operation's commander, and Netanyahu, commander of the strike force. The dead colonel became the hero of Entebbe and the operation was named after him. The phlegmatic Shomron did not challenge the myth. As Amir Oren, a military commentator, wrote in Ha'aretz, "elbowing was never his forte." He was embarrassed by the fact that Charles Bronson played him in a Hollywood version of the events, Raid on Entebbe.

Dan Shomron was born on Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'acov in the Jordan valley in 1937. He fought as a young paratrooper in the 1956 Suez War. In the Six-Day War, 11 years later, he commanded the first jeep to reach the Suez Canal, a mission for which he was decorated. After that he switched to tanks and commanded a brigade in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Anwar Sadat, he supervised the evacuation of Israeli settlements from the Sinai Peninsula.

Shomron was appointed Chief of Staff in 1987, serving through the difficult years of the first Palestinian intifada until 1991. It was a different kind of warfare against civilians armed with stones. Rabin, Defence Minister in a national-unity government, was reported to have ordered his troops to "break bones." In contrast, Shomron argued that the intifada could not be put down by military means alone.

Last year he headed an inquiry into the failings of the 2006 Lebanon war, which he criticised for lacking direction.

Eric Silver

Dan Shomron, military commander: born Ashdot Ya'acov, Palestine 5 August 1937; married (two children); died Tel Aviv 26 February 2008.