Shai Gross vividly recalls those terrifying moments as a 6-year-old hostage, crouching beneath his mother's dress to hide from armed hijackers who commandeered an Air France jetliner to Africa.
A week later, Gross and his parents were among the 102 passengers rescued in a legendary Israeli commando raid at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, on July 4, 1976. Three hostages and an Israeli soldier were killed in the raid.His story is one of the dramatic accounts told Tuesday night at a reunion of the more than 100 soldiers and former hostages involved in Israel's bold rescue of the civilian captives.
The gathering at a seaside hotel was called to launch a college scholarship fund-raising drive in memory of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the mission commander killed at age 30 in the raid.
"I couldn't even cry," said Gross, 20, now an air force technician, referring to his memories of the eight days he spent at gunpoint. "I didn't know what struck me. I had never before seen a grenade or a gun."
Yitzhak Rabin, who was then prime minister, compared the Entebbe crisis to current efforts to free captives in Lebanon.
"My policy has been that when you have a hostage situation, soldiers or civilians, if there's a military option, you use it. If not, then enter an exchange deal. For that you have to have the cards," Rabin said.
Despite U.S. pressures on Israel to free Arab prisoners for hostages, Israel has conditioned any deal on the release of three Israeli soldiers believed held captive by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon.
Rabin said planning and executing the Entebbe rescue mission was a nerve-wracking affair.
"I suffered more than a few stomach aches over that decision. So many options were proposed and ruled out," he said. In the raid, Israeli aircraft flew 2,400 miles to rescue the hostages and engaged Ugandan troops in battle.
The hijacked Air France flight, carrying 244 passengersand a crew of 12, had originated in Tel Aviv. It was commandeered by three terrorists after a stopover in Athens on June 27, 1976. The Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the hijacking.
The aircraft was first taken to Benghazi, Libya and then flown to Entebbe. Non-Israeli passengers were freed and hijackers demanded the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for the rest.
Gross remembers that within minutes of commandeering the plane, the hijackers, a German woman and two Arabs, took children to the front of the plane.
He recalled his fear at the thought of separation. "What would they do to me," he said. "My mother took me right away and hid me beneath her dress, under the seat. I sat there 2 1/2 hours, petrified."
He said the rescue was also frightening since hostages were unaware at the first that the shooting they suddenly heard in the terminal - to which they had been taken from the airplane - was by Israeli soldiers.
Once troops burst into the building, Gross said, "I remember my father grabbed a mattress and covered me with it. We were all sure we were going to be killed."
He said he had nightmares for months afterwards and shunned air travel. "I still don't like to tell these stories, never."
The Israeli rescue came within hours of the hijackers' deadline and lasted 53 minutes on the ground. It was planned in less than 40 hours, commanders said.
In an airport clash with Ugandan troops, the U.S.-born Netanyahu was shot and killed by a sniper in the control tower.
Another Israeli soldier was permanently paralyzed from the neck down by a gunshot wound sustained during a diversionary maneuver.
Three hostages and all the hijackers were killed as well as 20 Ugandan guards. A 75-year-old hostage, Dora Bloch, had been hospitalized and was not with the hostages at the time of the raid. She was later killed by Ugandan secret police.
Pilot Amnon Halivni, who flew the hostages home in a C-130 Hercules turboprop, recalled the furious airport battle. "Bullets flew everywhere. It was a pyrotechnics such as I've never seen," he said.
He said the pilots were concerned that all the hostages would not be able to board the aircraft for a quick take-off.
"We were worried some of them, children, would just run away frightened, and how would we ever know if we had all of them?" Halivni said.