ENTEBBE AIRPORT, Uganda — Israel’s 1976 operation to rescue over 100 hostages from terrorist hijackers in Entebbe proved to the world that Jews were “powerless no more,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Monday, speaking at the Ugandan airfield where his brother Yonatan was killed during the legendary raid 40 years ago.
Netanyahu kicked off a tour of four African countries with the ceremony that marked one of Israel’s greatest successes in counter-terrorism and one of the most impressive rescue operations ever conducted.
The raid on Entebbe, the prime minister said, “was a watershed moment for my people.”
During the Holocaust, he noted, Jews “were murdered by the millions, stateless. The State of Israel has changed that. It was perhaps in Entebbe where this transformation was seen by the world. We were powerless no more.”
In the summer of 1976, a group of German and Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, demanding the release of dozens of prisoners around the world. In the days that followed, the terrorists released the majority of the hostages, save for the Israelis and some Jewish passengers whom they kept under armed guard in the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, with permission from the country’s dictator Idi Amin.
In a daring nighttime raid, a group of Israeli commandos flew into the airfield and successfully rescued almost all of the hostages. Three passengers died during the operation, as did Yoni Netanyahu, the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, which played a central role in the operation.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who spoke after Netanyahu on Monday, decried Amin’s actions and said Israel was right to have carried out the rescue operation.
Amin’s “hobnobbing with the terrorists was a crime in itself,” Museveni said.
Standing in the same airfield where Yonatan died, Netanyahu spoke of the bravery shown by his brother,who charged to the head of the force that landed in the airport to attack the terrorists.
“Entebbe is always with me, in my thoughts, my consciousness and deep in my heart,” the prime minister said.
The ceremony was attended by members of Knesset, representatives from the IDF’s ground forces and air force, some of the soldiers who fought in Entebbe along with their families, and some surviving hostages and their families.
The son of one of the hostages, now a soldier in the IDF Artillery Corps, lit a memorial torch at the start of the ceremony, filling the area with the smell of fire and smoke.
Addressing the crowd, Netanyahu said he was “moved” to be standing on the ground where IDF troops freed the hostages thousands of kilometers from Israeli soil and thanked those soldiers who took part in the raid.
“Every one of you,” Netanyahu continued, “the soldiers and pilots, whether here or not — you didn’t know whether you would come home. You came to rescue, but you knew that if something went wrong there was no certainty that someone would come to rescue you.”
Turning to the families of the hostages, the prime minister commiserated with those “whose loved ones were killed in or after the operation,” and said that just as they experienced “terrible pain,” so did he upon learning that his brother had been killed.
But despite the terrible price, Netanayhu counted the operation as a success, one that boosted Israel’s reputation in the world.
‘We must condemn all acts of terrorism, regardless of where they are committed’
Netanyahu drew a direct line between that attack and the ongoing global struggle with extremist violence.
In order to defeat terrorism, he said, the world needs two things: “Clarity to distinguish good from evil, and courage to fight back against terrorism. We must condemn all acts of terrorism, regardless of where they are committed.”
Following the speeches, Netanyahu laid a wreath at the airport in memory of his brother and the other people who died in the raid.
During his trip, Netanyahu will visit four African nations — Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia — in order to encourage better business and diplomatic ties between Israel and the continent, making him the first Israeli prime minister to travel there in decades.
In his speech at Entebbe, Netanyahu called Africa a “continent on the rise” and said he was proud to visit.
“Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel,” he said, repeating a slogan he coined when he announced this trip several months ago.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is an extremely moving day for me,” he said, returning to the subject of the Entebbe raid. “Terrorism suffered a stinging defeat.”
That operation, Netanyahu thundered, was proof that “good can triumph over evil.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.