The spirit of Entebbe

Israel’s incredibly daring operation to free Jewish hostages held by murderous terrorists at the Entebbe airport in Uganda took place forty years ago today, as we celebrated the bicentennial Independence Day. It was a great day for freedom all the way around. Suffice it to say that the spirit of Israel’s Operation Thunderbolt holds much in common with our Independence Day.

Almost unbelievably, Prime Minister Netanyahu–the brother of the rakishly handsome Israeli officer who died leading the operation on the ground–celebrated the anniversary of the operation today as the honored guest of Uganda’s current president. (Operation Thunderbolt is now referred to as Operation Jonathan. The site honoring Jonathan Netanyahu’s memory recounts the raid on Entebbe that he led.)

Video of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks is below; the text of his remarks is posted here. The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren has a good report on the event.

If I understand correctly, and I’m not sure that I do, Netanyahu spoke the following remarks in Hebrew, the translation of which is provided at the link above. I thought our readers might be interested in the remarks as translated by the Office of the Prime Minister in addition to the remarks spoken in English on the video:

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 kilometers from Israel, with the commanders and soldiers who took part in the operation. I am moved standing here with the relatives of Jean-Jacques Mimouni, Ida Boruhovitch, Pasco Cohen and Dora Bloch, who lost their lives at Entebbe. I am moved standing here in this place, right in the place where my brother Yoni, commander of the Special Forces unit, was killed while leading the force that stormed the old terminal, overcame the terrorists and freed the hostages.

Here, where the old terminal stood, our brethren were held hostage by cruel terrorists, and this is where our soldiers came to rescue them in a brilliant mission that is almost unparalleled in history. Entebbe is always with me, in my thoughts, in my consciousness and deep in my heart.

The hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe touched a raw nerve with the people of Israel. Thirty-one years after the Holocaust, Jews again had to undergo a separation of Jews and non-Jews by those who wanted to kill us. The terrorists freed the hostages of other nationalities, but they condemned the Jews to the terror of death.

Essential intelligence was provided by members of the Mossad, and the determination of the commanders, the soldiers and the pilots helped convince the Government of Israel to act. Each of you, soldiers and pilots who flew to Entebbe, those who are here and those who are not, members of the Air Force, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, the Paratroopers, the Golani Brigade and the Medical Corps, each of you flew here without knowing if you would come home. You came to rescue, but you knew that in the event there was a problem, there would be no one to rescue you. And despite this, each of you fought to be on the planes because you understood the importance of the mission.

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin deserves tremendous respect for the leadership he showed when making the fateful decision to embark on the operation. Senior partners who approved the operation and its execution include Minister of Defense Shimon Peres, Chief of General Staff Motta Gur, Air Force Commander Benny Peled, Commander of the Infantry and Paratroopers Branch Dan Shomron, who commanded the entire operation, Commander of the Paratroopers Matan Vilnai, Commander of the Golani Brigade Uri Sagi and Commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, my brother Yoni.

The General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, its commanders and its soldiers were tasked with the mission of killing the terrorists, incapacitating Idi Amin’s soldiers, grounding the MiGs and releasing the hostages. In less than an hour, our soldiers were back on their planes, but this time with the hostages, on their way home.

I wish to pay my respects to the Captain of the hijacked plane, Michel Bacos, who is in France. He and his crew stayed with the hostages out of an amazing sense of responsibility. For the families of the hostages killed during the operation and directly afterwards, the price was unbearable. The same is true for my family and for me. When Yoni died, our world was destroyed.

Not a day goes by that I do not think what might have been. If only I had not refused the unit commander, the late Uzi Yairi, who asked me to go to officers’ school. If only I had not consulted that Saturday with my older brother, who had just returned from Harvard and told me, “What’s the problem? Tell Uzi Yairi that I’ll take your place.” And then maybe Yoni wouldn’t have come to the unit, and then maybe he would not have died here at Entebbe. In any event, a short while after Yoni joined the unit, I also joined the officers’ course and we served together as commanders in the Special Forces unit.

Grief struck us, my family and the families of the hostages, as it strikes many families in Israel today, during these times of great cruelty. And despite this, the power of life sweeps us forward, and it brings us to times of hope and joy. However, the scars always remain, and they are not limited to bereavement. For 40 years, Paratrooper Surin Hershko has lived with the results of his serious injury. Surin told me more than once that if he had to do it all over again, even knowing the price, he would not hesitate for a moment. Surin Hershko represents the best, the most beautiful and noble parts of our people.

At Entebbe, justice overcame evil, and for this simple reason, the operation has earned the sympathy of the world and its praise. Operation Jonathan at Entebbe has become the symbol of standing strongly against terror. It set the rule that when the location of the hostages is known – action should be taken to rescue them. It improved Israel’s standing in the world and struck a deadly blow against terrorism. The battle against terrorism continues today. Terror threatens all countries and all continents, and we must stand against it united in spirit, a united front, in the spirit of Entebbe. This is the only way we will beat it.

Dear soldiers who fought in Entebbe, you were privileged to take part in an operation that will remain engraved in the history of our people for generations, and which is burned into the heart of everyone who wants peace. Those who follow in your footsteps, IDF soldiers from the same units that participated in the operation, are here today. As Prime Minister, I can tell you they carry the same spirit with them in their overt and covert missions, those close to home and those far away.

On behalf of the people and State of Israel, I salute you all.

Another reason to celebrate today.