Some 40 years ago, Jomo Kenyatta was woken up by a call from Ben Gethi, the General Service Unit Commandant. It was past 3am and this was an emergency call.
Gethi wanted to tell the president, who was out of Nairobi, that two Israeli planes were at the airport after rescuing Jewish hostages who had been held by Idi Amin at Entebbe airport.
It is a story that had never been told and is now contained in a new book.
As Gethi made his call, a senior Mossad official, Uri Lubrani – he later became an ambassador – stood by his side wondering what Kenyatta would say, after all, nobody had bothered to tell the president about Israeli’s secret mission to Uganda to rescue Jewish hostages held at the Entebbe airport following the July 1976 hijacking of Air France Flight 139.
After wincing at Kenyatta’s expletive-laden response, according to the new book Operation Thunderbolt, Gethi turned to Lubrani and said: “The President wants you out of Kenya in three hours. Can you do it?”
Gethi gazed at the Mossad official waiting for an answer.
“Yes, we can do it … tell him yes,” replied Lubrani.
How a small coterie within the Kenyatta government managed to hide from the commander-in-chief such a crucial mission is an indicator of how Kenya was being run in the last years of Kenyatta’s rule.
Even today, Kenya has never come clean about the role it played, instead opting for silence.
The new book by Saul David, a British academic military historian, enables us to have a look at the kitchen cabinet which was ruling the Kenyatta state, what they did and who they kept away from the truth.
The author notes that Vice-President Daniel arap Moi was one of the senior Kenyan officials who had no clue about the Israelis. While attending the Organisation of African Unity summit in Mauritius, Moi said that Kenya “had not been used as a base for aggression against Uganda” and even condemned “this naked Israeli aggression against one of our OAU member states”.
Moi was often used by the kitchen Cabinet to spread propaganda. A few months earlier, he was used by the intelligence agency to mislead the nation that assassinated Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki was alive in Zambia.
The narrative that emerged over the years was that Kenya received minimal warning from Israelis and offered very little help. It is false.
This new book indicates that Kenya played a very crucial role in the rescue and that only a few individuals were in the loop.
On Friday, July 2, 1976 at around 5 pm, Ehud Barak, Israeli Special Forces commando, arrived at Njonjo’s Muthaiga home in Nairobi, with his intelligence officers. Among those present, according to the book, was a legendary Mossad officer Mike Harari – the man who had once been sent to lead a squad of hitmen to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes killed by Palestinians during the 1972 Munich games. That was before he became intelligence adviser to Panamanian dictator Gen Manuel Antonio Noriega.
On the previous day, around the same time, Njonjo had hosted a meeting over dinner at his house. It discussed the possibility of Israeli military planes fuelling at the Embakasi airport.
Those who attended this meeting were Bernard Hinga, the Commissioner of Police, Ben Gethi, the GSU Commandant, and Bruce McKenzie, a former Kenyatta Cabinet minister identified by his mutton-chop whiskers. McKenzie was a Mossad agent, too, and a business associate of Mr Njonjo at Cooper Motors which held the franchise for British Leyland trucks and Volkswagen Beetles. He would later be killed by Idi Amin, although his wife, Christina, is quoted in the book as saying that this former Agriculture minister was not a spy “as such” but a “conduit for information flowing both ways”.
Regarded as the most influential white man in East Africa, it was McKenzie who is thought to have organised the meeting between the Mossad officials and Njonjo, Gethi and Hinga.
The book says McKenzie, who was living in Knowle Park Surrey, had flown to Nairobi to organise Kenya’s efforts.
Both Hinga and Gethi had always been grateful after they thwarted Palestinian terrorists from bringing down an Israeli airliner in Nairobi, a story I wrote here some months back. It was a favour that Kenya would have wanted to return by “getting even with Amin” as the book puts it.
President Kenyatta was sickly in 1976, perhaps no longer in control. In his book, Kenyatta’s Struggles, Duncan Ndegwa, a former Governor of the Central Bank, narrates the pains that Kenyatta was going through in his last years.
“Kenyatta’s memory loss was at times so severe that he could not recall his signature until a copy of the same was shown to him to jog his memory,” writes Ndegwa.
At other times, an ailing Kenyatta would be forced to go through painful torture during national days – the result of a bad case of gout. He would end his speech “sweating profusely with pain, and those of us near him sighed with relief”.
As such, the Njonjo axis thought that it was better that they keep him in the dark on the Israeli operation.
“That way, he could claim with complete sincerity that he had no foreknowledge of the arrival of Israeli planes,” says the author.
During this first meeting, attended by Ehud Barak, it was agreed that the planes would refuel in Nairobi, McKenzie would make a technical disappearance to Europe and Njonjo would go to a friend’s house in Nanyuki. According to the book, “they were planning to deny involvement”.
Before they left, they agreed on what to say to cover their backs.
“The agreed cover story for letting the Israeli planes land was that it was a last-minute humanitarian act to enable the sick and wounded to get hospital treatment,” says the author.
McKenzie was the first to fly out of Kenya and did not attend the second Muthaiga meeting. For about 40 years, details about this top secret Muthaiga meeting had never been revealed.
At the meeting Barak, who went on to be Prime Minister of Israel, outlined his request to Njonjo, who was negotiating for the Kenyan side. The Israelis wanted several things: “Option to refuel all our planes in Nairobi airport tomorrow night … we want to put up a Boeing 707 with medical facilities, but with El Al livery, on the ground at Nairobi; we can set up a field hospital, including an emergency room and an operating theatre … and lastly if anything goes wrong and the planes can’t take off from Entebbe, we want your help to arrange an overland evacuation of troops and hostages from Uganda”.
The book says that Njonjo glanced at Gethi and Hinga. They both nodded.
“I think we can help you,” said Njonjo. “We’ll cordon off a section of the airport for the 707 and other planes. I’ll inform the airport director that you are coming under the guise of El Al. When you know the planes are coming, make sure the El Al representative is in the control tower so there are no misunderstandings. The fewer the people who know about this the better.”
Njonjo’s worry was about OAU’s reaction. He said: “(The assistance) would not make us popular with the other members of the OAU who, as you know, have a strong anti-Israeli bias. When we are asked if we knew about your plans in advance, we’ll deny any knowledge. We’ll simply say that you asked permission to refuel at Nairobi at the last minute, which is why I have not even consulted my Cabinet colleagues”.
That was vintage Njonjo.
When asked whether Mzee Kenyatta had been informed, Njonjo said “no, we haven’t. He is not well and should not be bothered. That way he can say with complete honesty that he made no deal”.
Njonjo’s other worry was that if Idi Amin got to know “what we have done” he could organise a retaliatory attack.
It was Njonjo who suggested that Amin’s airforce be destroyed so that Amin would have a low chance of success.
“I think we can manage that,” Barak is quoted as telling Njonjo.
With that, the deal was made. If the Israelis managed to kill Amin, the better, according to the planners.
That Saturday, July 3, the first Boeing 707 arrived at the Nairobi airport disguised as an Israeli passenger jetliner. The time was 11.25 pm and it was directed to Bay 4 which was cordoned off by the GSU. This was the advance medical team. Danny Saadon, the El Al manager in Nairobi, was there to coordinate. Once the plane had landed, Njonjo decided to call President Kenyatta only offering an opinion that if the Israelis asked for permission to land, they should be allowed. He said he had spoken to McKenzie, Gethi and Hinga who shared a similar opinion. He never told Kenyatta about the Muthaiga meeting.
Kenyatta was categorical, according to the author quoting Njonjo: “If something goes wrong, I shall deny knowing anything about it. I am not saying they shouldn’t land. What I am saying is that officially I shall deny any knowledge of this and if it goes wrong you and the others will burn your fingers alone”.
Apart from the death of Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the rescue effort went on as planned. Eleven MiG fighters of the Uganda Air Force were destroyed and the hostages rescued.
Saadon, the El Al Nairobi manager, coordinated matters from JKIA. He approached the control tower where a senior air traffic controller was.
“There are a few El Al flights that are coming in that you won’t be expecting … they are to taxi to Bay 4 where I will arrange for them to be refuelled. They won’t stay long,” he told the startled official.
Saadon said he had the minister’s permission and was taken at his word.
Gethi had ordered his GSU men to provide security and immediately the planes landed, two of the most seriously injured, Yitzak David and Pasco Cohen, were rushed to Kenyatta Hospital.
That was the time Gethi called Kenyatta and told him that the planes had landed. That Gethi, Njonjo and Hinga managed to hide such crucial details from Kenyatta tells us how Kenya was being run in the last years of Kenyatta’s rule and the kind of power that Njonjo had.
When the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited both Kenya and Uganda as part of his country’s celebration of its heroic success in rescuing the detained Jewish hostages, these details about Kenya’s secret role never came out.
In 1978, McKenzie’s plane exploded over Ngong Hills after Amin’s soldiers planted a bomb inside a giraffe carving that he had received as a last-minute gift from Amin.