Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Yoweri Museveni at Entebbe International Airport on the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid. INDEPENDENT / JIMMY SIYA
“Exactly forty years ago, our forces took part in a historic mission to rescue hostages. The forces landed in the dead of night in a country ruled by a dictator who aids terrorists. Now here I am, I have landed in daylight in a friendly country with a friendly president who fights terrorists”.
Those were the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he gave a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the raid on Entebbe International Airport on July 4, 1976 by highly trained Israeli forces to rescue Israeli hostages captured by radical Palestinian group Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Netanyahu and his wife Sarah, were received by President Yoweri Museveni at around 2:30 pm at a highly guarded event at the old section of the airport. Other dignitaries that attended include the Vice President Edward Sekandi, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.
The attack on Entebbe by Israeli security forcesis firmly etched in military folklore and has inspired a host of documentaries, books and movies and equally generates a lot of enthusiasm among intelligence gatherers across the world.
Netanyahu described the daring event as a “watershed moment” in the history of the people of Israel. He said clarity and courage were key in fighting terrorism in this day and age. He also looked forward to strengthening economic ties between Israel and Africa. “You need clarity to distinguish good from evil and courage to confront evil.” Netanyahu revealed that the spirit of Entebbe had instilled in Israelis to fight terrorism and its sponsors.
He said Israel would always be ready to defend itself against enemies. “No one came to our rescue. It changed the way our nation works. Since then Israel has always risen to defend its interests.”
President Museveni hailed the occasion as a moment of bonding between Israel and Uganda and also between Uganda and Palestine. However some Israelis in the audience seemed to be uneasy when Museveni kept mentioning Palestine.
While addressing terrorism, Museveni said many people tend to confuse freedom fighting and terrorism. “Freedom fighters do not target non-combatants. Targeting those combatants marks the boundary even when the cause is justified. It is only cowards and criminals who can attack innocent people”. He told the audience that before the Israeli rescued their countrymen and women, he had been fighting Idi Amin for six years.
Museveni also told the visiting Israelis that Arabs and Israelis should not bicker over who the rightful settlers of Middle East are since they all come from the same place.
Museveni also waded into the controversial issue of a two state solution between Israel and Palestine saying the only way peace can be achieved between the two countries is if they exist side by side with clear borders.
He said Ugandans can benefit from Israel’s rapid technological advancement adding that Israel-Uganda relations should be hinged on investment, trade, tourism, technological cooperation.
After an Air France plane from Tel Aviv headed to Paris, carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew was hijacked by a combination of radical groups from Palestine and Germanyon June 27, 1976, it threw Israeli and its allies into untold fear and paranoia on how they could rescue the hostages without incident. The plane was flown to Entebbe Airport, and the hostages placed in a derelict building, with the support of Idi Amin Dada, the then president of Uganda.
The event to remember the mission is not just laden with historical significance for Netanyahu but with sentimental attachment too. Netanyahu’s elder brother, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, a member of the Israeli forces, was killed in the operation.
Netanyahu was inspired by his brother’s bravery to launch a political careerthat has seen him become Prime Minister twice, from 1996-1999 and from 2009 to date.
In his one day visit to Uganda before he left for Kenya, Netanyahu held talks with Museveni, and other regional leaders like President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Edgar Lungu of Zambia, Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Celebration or mourning?
Some Ugandans like Gen. Moses Ali, 1st Deputy Prime Minister thoughhave questioned the rationale of celebrating the feat, saying Ugandans should be mourning the dead soldiers that were killed during the operation. Ali’s thoughts are shared by a number of Ugandans who felt the attack was an affront on Uganda’s sovereignty. Ali was also the Minister of Finance at the time the raid happened.
Magode Ikuya, a former member of FRONASA with Museveni wonders what “sovereignty means to people like Ali”.He says Ugandans did not have sovereignty at that time because the Amin regime had trampled on it.
“Idi Amin took away the sovereignty of Ugandans, he had turned Uganda into a killing ground, there was no freedom,” Ikuya says.
He adds that there was euphoria because Ugandans were not free.
“People were interested in how the regime would be weakened. The population did not have any sovereignty, we were just objects”.
“When the raid took place, it dented Amin’s confidence because he had created an aura of himself as a great military man, he was humiliated.”
Ikuya says it is the danger of dealing with politics that is not clear.
“Some African regimes talk about nationalism when they are actually doing things that are anti-nationalism. When a population sides with other criminals, it is because they have been denied something. So we can say we had a group of murderers and bandits who were hit by a superior group of bandits, as Ugandans we had reason to celebrate.”
Ikuya told The Independent that the anniversary of the Israel raid should, however, not be a national occasion because the event did not grant Uganda victory to celebrate.