How the world took sides in Uganda vs Israel face-off

Sunday July 19 2020

Wreckages of war planes destroyed during an

Wreckages of war planes destroyed during an Israeli operation on Entebbe airport in 1976 at Aero beach, Entebbe. PHOTO |, File  

By Henry Lubega

A few days after the Entebbe raid, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and prime minister of Mauritius at the time, sent an official complaint to the UN Security Council. Piero Vinci, the president of the Security Council, received the letter.

“The Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the OAU in Mauritius received information concerning the invasion of Uganda by Israeli commandos and had decided to request the Security Council to meet urgently to consider that wanton act of aggression against a member state of the United Nations,” the letter dated July 6, 1976, read in part.

Leading the African crusade was Moulaye El Hassen, the Mauritanian representative to the UN and chairman of the African Group for the month of July.

But before the OAU letter was received, Israel’s representative to the UN Chaim Herzog had presented another to Mr Vinci. The Israeli letter was part of the statement made by then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin about the raid.

“The decision to undertake the operation had been taken by the government of Israel on its sole responsibility and it was an achievement in the struggle against terrorism,” the Israeli letter said.

Ugandan president Idi Amin had asked for Israel to be condemned for the raid on Entebbe.


“The Israel invasion had been well-planned with the full co-operation of some other countries, including Kenya and the Western powers. Uganda requests that Israel be condemned in the strongest possible terms for its aggression,” Amin’s letter to the Security Council read in part.

The Council invited 13 countries with no voting rights to take part in the discussion. They included Cameroon, Guinea, India, Cuba, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Qatar, Israel, the Federal Republic of Germany, Mauritania, Yugoslavia and Mauritius.

Opening the meeting, then UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim said, “The case before the Council raises a number of complex issues because in this instance the response of one state to the results of an act of hijacking involved an action affecting another sovereign State.”

Uganda in its defence said its involvement in the hijacking saga came as an accident.
“Uganda got involved in the affair accidentally and purely on humanitarian considerations. The Council should unreservedly condemn in the strongest terms possible Israel’s aggression and demanded full compensation for the damage to life and property caused during the invasion,” Uganda demanded.

Israel’s Herzog told the Council that his country had to fill the void left by Uganda when it failed to protect foreign nationals on her territory. He said Israel was left with no alternative but to rescue the hostages and escort them to safety.

“Israel accepted full and sole responsibility for the action and that no other government was at any stage party to the planning or the execution of the operation.
Uganda had violated a basic tenet of international law and had violated the I970 Convention on the Suppression or Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, which had been ratified by both Israel and Uganda,” Herzog said.

The Tokyo Convention, which Uganda is a signatory to, says: “The Convention delineates the duties and responsibilities of the contracting state in which an aircraft lands after the commission of a crime on board, including its authority over and responsibilities to, any offenders that may be either disembarked within territory of that state or delivered to its authorities.”

Uganda had accused Kenya of helping Israel in the raid. But Charles Gatere Maina, Kenya’s representative to the UN, accused Uganda of playing politics by bringing Kenya into the matter.

“Unfortunately, in lodging its complaint Uganda deemed it fitting to drag Kenya into the affair. The Israeli aggression came as a complete surprise to Kenya, contrary to some baseless accusations that Kenya had had prior knowledge of it and had collaborated with Israel. Kenya was duty bound to allow the Israeli planes to land on purely humanitarian grounds and in accordance with international law,” Maina said.

Speaking on behalf of the Arab group member states, the Qatar representative said: “The implication of the Israeli action was that stronger countries could at any time land troops in smaller countries without a declaration of war and commit unpunished aggression.”

China, a permanent member of the Security Council, asked the Council to support OAU’s demands in condemning Israel for its aggressive atrocities against Uganda and echoed calls for Israel to compensate Uganda for all its losses.

Guinea said the destruction of Ugandan aircraft and airport were not measures of reprisal against the hijackers, but rather against the sovereignty of the State of Uganda.

Guyana, also an invited member to the Security Council, condemned the raid saying it was setting a dangerous precedent that “would seriously threaten the security of small states and leave their territorial integrity and sovereignty exposed to the caprices of emboldened states willing to employ the methods of bandits. Acceptance of such principle would send the international community down a slippery path to a situation in which might and power would reign supreme.”

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom asked the Council not to focus on what happed in Entebbe, but what needed to be done about plane hijacking. “The international community could take measures to prevent further acts of hijacking and to punish those responsible,” its representative urged.

Sweden, a non-voting member invited to the Council meeting, on the other hand said “the Israeli action involved an infringement of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda”. Although Sweden acknowledged Israel’s fault, it did not condemn the action.

At the Security Council meeting held on July 12, 1976, the United States acknowledge that Israel breached Uganda’s territorial integrity while rescuing the hostages.

But said there was a well-established right to use limited force for the protection of one’s own nationals from an imminent threat of injury or death in a situation where the state in whose territory they were located was unwilling or unable to protect them.

“The requirements of that right to protect nationals were clearly met in the Entebbe case,” the US said.

Despite the sour relationship between Uganda and Tanzania, the neighbours to the south took a united African stand to condemn Israel.

“The Israeli action had resulted in the loss of human life, which could have been avoided had the normal process of negotiations been left to take its course. The action did not only constitute a violation of the sovereignty of Uganda, but indeed an act of aggression against a member state of the United Nations,” Salim Ahmed Salim said while presenting Tanzania’s position.

He went on to introduce a draft resolution sponsored by Benin, Libyan and Tanzania. The draft, among other things, demanded the Security Council condemns “Israel’s flagrant violation of Uganda’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, demand that the government of Israel meet the just claims of the Government of Uganda for full compensation for the damage and destruction inflicted on Uganda; and request the secretary general to follow the implementation of the resolution.”

India faulted the Western countries that ignored Israel’s actions but were quick to blame the hijackers. “If the Security Council was to maintain international peace and security in terms of its responsibilities under the Charter, it should pronounce itself also on the Israeli attack. If it did not do so it might as well set in train a chain reaction whose repercussions might be even more tragic and far-reaching,” its representatives said.

At the 1943rd meeting on July 14, 1976, France whose plane had been hijacked and some of its nationals held hostage, insisted that the Entebbe raid was justified.

“If there was a violation of the sovereignty of Uganda its purpose was not to infringe on the territorial integrity or the independence of that country, but exclusively to save endangered human lives,” it said.

While most countries took sides in the debate, it was only Italy that remained neutral and called for a non-political mediator other than the Security Council.

“African delegations have upheld the unconditional inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a member state, rejecting any attempt to tone down the condemnation of the Israeli raid. On the other hand, Israel and other delegations have upheld the right of a government to use appropriate means, including use of force, to protect the lives of its endangered nationals in the territory of another state when the latter had proven unable to ensure such protection,” Italy said.

“There seemed to be little ground for agreement on this point, Council is a political body, not an appropriate forum to settle such a delicate question. The problem, at least, might be referred to the International Law Commission in order to lay the groundwork for the adoption of a universally accepted doctrine on the matter.”

As the Council concluded its deliberations on the two draft resolutions all the parties decided not to push for a vote on the any of the resolutions.

According to The New York Times of July 14, 1976, “Neither resolution is expected to win approval. The African measure faces an American veto, and the British- American text appeared headed for less than the nine-vote majority needed for adoption.”