At 11pm on Sunday July 3, 1976, a special forces unit of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) —Sayeret Matkal—slipped into the country on a clinical mission; to rescue the 102 Israel nationals held by pro-Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe airport.
Ninety minutes later, the hostages had been rescued, the hijackers killed and more than two dozen Ugandan soldiers killed. Only three hostages died, as did Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the Sayeret Matkal unit.
Forty years later, the younger Netanyahu, Binyamin [Benjamin] touched down at airport where his brother was killed to mark the twin anniversary.
Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara touched down at 1.40pm aboard an El Al Israel Airliner amid tight security managed by, among others, Mossad, the country’s agency in charge of operations and counterterrorism; Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF. Security was tight, but not interruptive to other guests.
The half-day visit to Uganda was part of his tour of Africa intended to bolster economic and diplomatic ties between Israel and the continent, also included visits to neighbouring Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. It was also the first visit by a sitting prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in more than two decades.
Operation Thunderbolt, or the raid on Entebbe, in Netanyahu’s words, represents to the core the Jewish life-cherishing principles which have given Israel its strength and power.
“I am moved standing here as the prime minister of Israel, in this place that brought endless pride to our soldiers, to the IDF and to our nation. I am moved standing here, in the place where IDF soldiers liberated the hostages in the heart of Africa, thousands of kilometres from Israel, with the commanders and soldiers who took part in the operation,” he said in Hebrew.
Before Mr Netanyahu spoke, an Israeli band played a sombre tune as he, President Museveni and the rest of the guests stood in silence while one of the sons of the former hostages, now a trooper in the IDF Artillery Corps, lit the torch.
On the side were two Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircrafts that were used during the night operation.
Netanyahu first gave a speech in Hebrew and later gave an address in English. He drew direct correlation between the raid and the ongoing global struggle with extremist violence.
Accompanying him was an IDF delegation headed by Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Yair Golan, and surviving members of the unit that took part in the operation; relatives of commanders who have since passed away. The surviving hostages were represented Mr Akiva Laske.
Mr Netanyahu was also accompanied by a delegation of 80 businessmen selected by the Israel Export Institute, although no business deals were signed.
Museveni’s rub-it-in-their face speech
Mr Netanyahu’s articulately delivered and well measured speech was followed by a rub-it-in their face address by President Museveni which included comments that undoubtedly left the guests puzzled.
The comments on the Uganda-Palestine bond, killing of innocent people, and fighting using uncivilised methods, they all seemed like slip of a tongue but were absorbed quietly nonetheless.
An Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, likened him to US presidential frontrunner Donald Trump—who is known for the wild and rub-it-in-their-face remarks.
President Museveni, using both biblical and political narratives, briefly turned the moment into a history class on Uganda-Palestine-Israel relations. It was a bit odd, and for a moment one assumed that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was present.
“I also thank prime minister Netanyahu for turning this sad story of 40 years ago, into yet another instrument of bonding the holy land (Israel-Palestine) with the heartland of Uganda in particular and Africa in general,” he said in the opening remarks.
“I say that this is yet another bond between Africa and (Israel-Palestine), because there were earlier bonding events. The story of Joseph and Moses (between 1886 and 1446 BC); and the story of Baby Jesus being hidden in Egypt around the year 4 BC (in the Gospel of Mathew); the persecution of Prophet Mohammed in the year 622AD from Arabia to Ethiopia; the famous visit of the Queen of Sheba (in the Book of 1 Kings.) and the raid on Entebbe.”
He only forgot to mention that former Palestinian prime minister and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the late Yasser Arafat, was best man at the wedding of president Amin and Sarah Kyolaba in Kampala, coincidentally in July 1975.
Being a revolutionary leader when Arafat died in 2004, President Museveni sent a condolence message to the Palestinian people.
But then it became clear it was not slip of the tongue. Commenting on the rivalry between the two countries he also said, “We in Uganda cannot accept the bigotry that either of you do not belong to that area.”
“When I meet my friends the Arabs, or the Iranians, this is what I tell them.”
He then regaled the guests with an anecdote of a meeting he had with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose name he could not remember – and rejected the Iranian leader’s assertions that the Jews came from Europe, and not the Middle East.
Israel was right to attack Uganda. President Museveni then decried Amin’s actions of, in the first place, accepting the pro-Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Paris bound Air France airliner demanding the release of dozens of prisoners around the world, to land at Entebbe.
“It is actually Israel and the Western countries that had supported Idi Amin. Therefore, Amin’s hobnobbing with the terrorists was a crime in itself. Fortunately, his illiterate Army had no discipline to deploy properly.”
He added, otherwise it could have been impossible for the lightly armed rescue force to successfully extract the hostages. Amin was wrong to keep the hostages and the Israelis were right to use the incapacity of that army to rescue the innocent hostages.
While the United Nations has been mostly silent on Israeli’s offensives in the Gaza strip—a small self-governing Palestinian territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, that borders Egypt on the southwest and Israel on the east, the international community has repeatedly condemned the country’s attacks which sometimes have claimed several innocent lives.
President Museveni also launched some comments that liberation movements don’t use terrorism, that people can’t be freedom fighters and murder innocent people.
After his speech, and the singing of national anthems for the two countries, the two leaders then laid wreaths at the point where the elder Netanyahu was killed.
While President Museveni’s comments left many—both guests and locals seemingly bewildered, a senior government official told Sunday Monitor after the event that, they were both measured and calculated.
“Uganda cannot allow itself or be seen to be taking sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict,” the official, who asked not to be named, said.
“Where there is wrong, it has to be condemned and where there is right, it has to be praised. Nearly the rest of the Western world has taken sides with Israel, which I don’t think Africa should do. What the world needs to do is to push for a lasting solution to the conflict between the two.”
New chapter in Israel-Africa relations?
The last prime minister to visit the African continent was Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s.
The country has had troubled relations with the continent, especially in the aftermath of its militaristic confrontations with neighbouring Egypt both in 1967 and 1973 respectively, which led to her alienation.
The country also was among the few that supported apartheid South Africa while it was condemned internationally.
But Mr Netanyahu underscored the fact of his visit, saying it marked a new chapter. “Israel is coming to Africa, and Africa is coming to Israel,” he said.
Statistics from the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce indicate that Israel’s annual exports to Africa stood at $1 billion (Shs3.3 trillion) in 2015. Israel’s exports mainly included communications equipment, agriculture and medicine.
The illegal asylum seekers question
Last year, Israel immigration authorities indicate there are about 2,000 Sudanese and 42,000 Eritrean asylum seekers living in Israel. But another 5,803 asylum seekers were forced out the previous year to their countries of origin, and 1,093 were absorbed into the third countries—Uganda, among others.
Israeli newspapers have since last year been reporting about a secret arrangement between Tel Aviv and selected African countries, notably Uganda and Rwanda, to receive thousands of these immigrants being pushed out.
The deportation of the illegal asylum seekers last year was delayed pending “verification” of six clauses that were likely to spark an international uproar if the refugees are forcefully removed from Israel in contradiction of refugee statutes.
The clauses include: “That no war or riots were taking place in Uganda and Rwanda; that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued no opinion that refugees were not to be sent to these states, and that there was no danger in these states to the life or liberty of a Sudanese or Eritrean on the basis of race, religion, nationality or belonging to a social or political group.”
Mr Netanyahu, however, when asked at State House he neither denied nor confirmed a deal with Uganda. “They don’t seek asylum in Israel, they seek jobs in Israel. Asylum seekers are something else,” he said.
For President Museveni, who has been seeking close ties with new partners the February general election that put him on a near crash course with many of his tradition allies outside Africa, the senior official said, “Netanyahu’s visit is one that counted.”
For Netanyahu, in his own words, it was more of “an emotional privilege.”