Entebbe and a Sad Fourth of July
It was on July 4, 1976 that Yonatan Netanyahu was killed while rescuing hostages in Uganda. I did not know it then, but the bold Israeli mission would serve as a sharp turning point in my own personal history.
The Entebbe raid, as Operation Thunderbolt came to be called, not only had the entire world in awe of Israeli daring; it caused me to put the Israeli officer I met while he was visiting New York that summer on a pedestal. Exactly one year later, I was on a plane to the Jewish state with fantasies of raising lots of gorgeous babies who would grow into super-heroes whom I and everybody else would view with amazement, if not worship.
Ironically, the news of the Hollywood-like commando raid upstaged the bicentennial celebrations in the United States. Indeed, it was as though the extravagant fireworks set off in honor of America’s 200th birthday were sharing the limelight with Israel, the state that had been in existence for a mere 28 years.
The Entebbe story began exactly a week before that, on June 27, when an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via a stopover in Greece was hijacked just after takeoff from Athens by four terrorists, two Palestinian and two German. The hijackers diverted the flight, with more than 300 passengers and 12 crew members on board, to Benghazi, Libya, and then to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where they were joined by members of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s military forces.
The hostages were taken into an area of the terminal, where the Jews were separated from the others — a process reminiscent of Nazi “selection.” The hijackers demanded $5 million and the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian terrorists, the bulk of whom were being held in Israeli jails. If their demands were not met, they said, they would begin killing hostages on July 1.
On June 30, the hijackers released 48 non-Israeli, non-Jewish hostages.
When the rescue team landed at Entebbe Airport at 11 pm on July 3, they were met by a black Mercedes and Land Rovers, which they had organized to mimic the vehicles of Amin and his entourage. But because the Ugandan president had recently bought a white car, guards at the checkpoint ordered the commandos to halt. The fighters had no choice, then, but to shoot the sentries and race to the terminal, where they entered shouting into megaphones in Hebrew and English that they were IDF soldiers.
In the ensuing gun battle with the hijackers, all of whom were killed, three hostages also lost their lives. As the commandos began loading the rescued captives on to the planes, Ugandan soldiers shot at them, wounding some and killing Yoni Netanyahu, the commander of the unit and older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who, 20 years later, would become the prime minister of Israel.
The Entebbe raid was not only a superhuman feat; it set a bar that no country, including Israel, has managed to reach, let alone outdo, since then. Three years later, when 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days at the US Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionaries, the administration in Washington, under President Jimmy Carter, was so bent on finding a peaceful solution to the “crisis,” that, by the time it gave the green light to launch a rescue operation, the mission failed miserably.
In Israel today, too, the ability or will to execute such missions, rather than negotiate with and capitulate to terrorists’ demands, has diminished considerably. The gorgeous babies I ended up raising in Jerusalem — though heroic, to be sure — were born into a very different cultural climate from the one that had magnetized me and so many others hungry to live in a place that honors its flag, moral compass and courage.
As it developed at the speed of light, Israel could not immunize itself from other, less desirable characteristics and fashions of the West. It is thus that the Israelis I raised were taught by teachers and television that peace is a goal, rather than a byproduct of victory. They were encouraged to see “both sides” of war and terrorism, and to examine their part in anti-Zionist enmity and global antisemitic assault. They were persuaded that saving the life of a single Israeli soldier, even if doing so could and would lead to the subsequent slaughter of scores of others, should take precedence over “indiscriminate collective punishment.”
While watching the bursts of light in the sky above the Manhattan apartment where my parents had taken me to celebrate America’s bicentennial, I did not realize that Yoni Netanyahu — a name I had not heard until that day — would change my life. Nor could I have imagined that 40 years later his brother would be marking the occasion with a ceremony at the airport in Uganda, as part of a “returning to Africa” trip, in the midst of a Palestinian terror war on innocent Israelis on our streets and inside our homes.
Relative to how low the United States under President Barack Obama has sunk, Israel still does its citizenry and the Jewish people proud. But on this Fourth of July, fireworks are far from in order.
Ruthie Blum is the managing editor of The Algemeiner.