In 1976, an Air France airplane carrying 250 passengers to Paris from Tel Aviv was hijacked by terrorists. The Israeli mission to rescue them, known as Operation Entebbe or Operation Thunderbolt, is the latest historical event to be given the Hollywood treatment, in director José Padilha’s 7 Days in Entebbe, out March 16.
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War) star as German radicals Brigitte Kuhlmann and Wilfried Böse, who took over the plane during a planned stop in Athens, Greece, forcing its pilots to carry out a refueling stop in Libya before flying to Entebbe in central Uganda. Their aim was to use the capture of roughly 84 Israelis as a tool to negotiate with the Israeli government over issues concerning the Palestinian people. They predicted, accurately, that the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was outspoken in his anti-Israeli views, would be sympathetic to their cause.
But events did not pan out as the terrorists planned. Israel’s government, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, launched a secret mission to rescue the hostages without engaging in negotiation. The rescue mission was pulled off successfully, with all but four of the passengers surviving.
The movie, which has been met with mixed reviews, shines a light on an important event in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the details of which have been historically murky. As many such retellings do, it takes some liberties with history for dramatic effect. To sort the fact from the fiction, TIME spoke to the historian Saul David, whose account of the Entebbe raid, Operation Thunderbolt, was optioned by Focus Features and used as a guide for the movie.
Were Jews and non-Jews separated by the terrorists?
Although the movie suggests that the terrorists distinguished between Jews and non-Jews, this was not strictly the case. According to David, the division was actually between the Israeli passengers and a few visibly orthodox Jews.
“It’s long been trotted out that there was a deliberate policy to separate the Jews from the non-Jews, but that was frankly not true,” he says. “That there were a very high number of French Jews who were released and not kept is fact. I interviewed a couple of them and they said many Jews were released. It wasn’t about being Jewish — it was about being Israeli.”
Did a woman fake a pregnancy to get off the plane?
In 7 Days in Entebbe, a woman played by Andrea Deck pretends to be pregnant and having a miscarriage in order to get off the plane when it is diverted to Benghazi, Libya. This series of events is true: British-born Patricia Martel, who emigrated to Israel, really did fake a pregnancy and miscarriage to get released by the hijackers.
According to David, Martel, who has since passed away, was on her way to her mother’s funeral and was prepared to risk her life in order to make it. “It was very risky but she pulled it off,” he says.
Was the Israeli commando a real person?
No, actor Ben Schnetzer’s character, an Israeli commando who feels conflicted about carrying out the potentially lethal raid, is fictional. Also invented for the story is his dancer girlfriend, whose dramatic routine is used as a slightly strange tension-building device throughout the movie. But the commando is meant to serve a purpose for audiences. “He was really symbolizing the complication of the whole Israeli-Palestinian issue as we would see it through modern eyes,” says David.
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Did the Air France crew choose to stay with the passengers?
In the movie, the Air France crew is given the opportunity to leave the airport compound in Entebbe and return home, but they bravely decide to stay with the mainly Israeli hostages. In reality, that wasn’t exactly how events unfolded.
“The story of the crew has always been quite a controversial one,” says David. “When they were rescued and got back to France, they were welcomed with open arms like they were national heroes and the story was always that they made the decision to stay. But in reality, they were never given the choice. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have stayed if they had the choice, but they weren’t asked.”
Were the German terrorists reluctant to use violence?
Despite carrying out a terrorist plot, Pike’s and Brühl’s characters are portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light in 7 Days in Entebbe, and at times their reluctance to use violence to control the hostages causes tension between them and their Palestinian counterparts. It’s unclear whether the pair, particularly Brühl, really was as averse to violence as the movie suggests, because they didn’t make it out of the raid alive to tell their side of the story.
“They weren’t as ruthless and as dangerous as Baader-Meinhof, the affiliated terrorist organization,” says David. “But they weren’t far off it. It just appears in this case, when push came to shove at the end, they decided not to take people’s lives when they had the opportunity to do so. And we’ll never know for sure the reason why they did that.”
Did Kuhlmann leave the compound to phone her boyfriend?
No. At one point in the movie, Kuhlmann is seen leaving the compound and heading to the airport terminal to make a breathy phone call to her boyfriend, Gerd Schnepel. This entire scene is fictional, according to David. When he interviewed Schnepel for his book, the former terrorist told him that he did not know any details about the operation and did not hear from Kuhlmann again after she left Germany.
Is it true that the mission nearly failed?
Prior to the release of David’s book, Yonatan ‘Yoni’ Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother, had been perceived as the main hero of the intervention. But as the movie, and David’s book, make clear, many errors were made and the mission almost failed due to the older Netanyahu’s mistakes — particularly his decision to shoot at the Ugandan guards as the Israeli rescue team was approaching the building.
“The myth was that the mission was amazingly, brilliantly planned and perfectly executed with Yoni as the wonderful leader of the special forces,” says David. “But in fact, the mission almost failed and it almost certainly would have failed in terms of the loss of life if it hadn’t been for a humanity shown on the part of the terrorists.”
Did all the hostages who died in the raid die in the compound?
No. What’s not shown in the movie is the tragic death of dual Israeli-British citizen Dora Bloch, the fourth victim of the event. When Bloch choked on a meat bone a day and a half before the raid, the terrorists allowed her to go to hospital in Kampala to have it removed from her throat.
Bloch recovered quickly, but the minister of health in Ugandan leader Idi Amin’s government was sympathetic towards her and thought she’d be safer in hospital than in the airport compound so allowed her to stay there. However, when the raid was pulled off successfully and Amin realized what had happened, he sent his secret police to murder her.