ENTEBBE, Uganda — Forty years after Israeli commandos stormed the airport here in a daring secret mission to rescue more than 100 hostages, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touched down in the East African nation Monday for a special ceremony to commemorate the event.
It was the first visit of an Israeli premier to Uganda since the incident, and Netanyahu has a particularly strong connection to what happened in Entebbe on July 4, 1976: His older brother Yonatan, known as “Yoni,” was the rescue unit’s commander and the only Israeli soldier to be killed during the operation.
The Israeli prime minister will also visit Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia over the next four days as part of a diplomatic and economic effort to strengthen Israel’s multilateral ties in Africa.
“Right here, I am standing in the place where my brother, Yoni, was killed, when he led the commando soldiers to release the hostages,” the Israeli prime minister said, addressing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
“There are few like him in history, and Entebbe is always with me. It is deep in my heart,” said Netanyahu, who has said that his brother’s death was the catalyst that led him into politics and to eventually seek to become prime minister.
“Forty years ago, Israeli commandos landed here in the dark of night to fight against a cruel dictator who worked with terrorists,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Ugandan despot Idi Amin Dada. “But today we came in the daylight, and we were welcomed by a leader who works to fight terrorism.”
Museveni said that Amin had been wrong to keep the hostages and help the terrorists and that Israel was right to use its capacity to rescue the innocents.
“I salute the memory of those who died in that operation in the cascade of actions by the different actors,” he said.
The Ugandans unveiled a memorial at the site where Yoni Netanyahu and three of the hostages — Ida Borochovitch, Pasco Cohen and Jean-Jacques Maimoni – were killed. Another hostage, Dora Bloch, a dual Israeli-British citizen who had been hospitalized during the crisis in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was ordered killed by Amin.
Relatives of the victims were among the official delegation. They said returning to the spot where their family members were held captive and killed would help to heal the old wounds.
“I think it will help us to see the place where he was killed,” said Marlene Moskowitz, the older sister of Jean-Jacques Maimoni.
It was a terrorist attack that shocked the world in 1976. A routine Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, with a stopover in Athens, was diverted to Entebbe by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells, a spin-off of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a German radical left-wing group.
The 12-member French crew and 248 passengers were a variety of nationalities. Most of the non-Israelis were released, but more than 100 people, most of them Israelis, were held.
After a week of deliberations over what to do about an impossible hostage situation thousands of miles away, the Israeli government, headed by Yitzhak Rabin, made the decision to send four Hercules jets packed with about 200 Israeli commandos, medical crews, refueling gear and even a Mercedes painted black to resemble one used by the Ugandan leader.
“We took a big chance,” said Joshua “Shiki” Shani, the lead pilot on the raid, who also took part in Monday’s ceremony. “The operation was built on our Israeli chutzpah. It was something that no one had done before, and we knew that it would be a total surprise. You can’t do an operation like that unless it is a total surprise.”
Shani said that although there might have been an element of luck involved, the soldiers who took part in the raid were “very brave” and “were the best trained soldiers that Israel had. They worked on improvisation. You can only do that if you are very skilled.”
Still, Shani said, he did tell a journalist after the operation that “God had been working overtime that night.”
Asked if he believes Israel could carry out a similar operation today, Shani said that while the world had changed a lot and is in general more selfish, those who serve in Israel’s elite commando units are just as motivated as their counterparts in 1976.
“The problem now is that we don’t have the element of surprise,” he said.