Netanyahu starts landmark Africa trip with Entebbe operation ceremony
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Uganda on Monday for a rare tour of sub-Saharan Africa, seeking new trade partners and marking the 40th anniversary of a hostage rescue in which his brother died.
Speaking in Entebbe, close to the site of the 1976 airport raid in which over 100 hostages were released, Netanyahu said the visit was “deeply moving” and symbolized the changing relationship between Israel and Africa.
“Exactly 40 years ago Israeli soldiers carried out the historic mission in Entebbe,” Netanyahu said.
“Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists, today we landed in broad daylight to be welcomed by a president who fights terrorism.”
“Entebbe is always with me. In my thoughts, in my mind, and deep in my heart,” the prime minister said.
“The hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe touched a nerve for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu continued. “Thirty-one years after the Holocaust, another a selection process took place in which Jews were separated from non-Jews by those who seek to kill us. The terrorists freed people of other nations and condemned the Jews to death.
He went on to say that “for the families of the hostages who were killed, the cost was terrible, as it was for me and my family. When Yoni was killed, our world collapsed.”
Speaking of the government’s decision to green-light the operation, Netanyahu said “The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin deserves great appreciation for the leadership he has shown by making the fateful decision to go on the operation. Others who were central in approving the operation and executing it were defense minister Shimon Peres, IDF chief of staff Motta Gur, Air Force commander Benny Peled, the commander of the Infantry and Paratroopers Branch Dan Shomron, who was also commanded over the operation, and the Sayeret Matkal commander, my brother Yoni.”
He said his visit signaled “dramatic changes in the relationship between Africa and Israel: Africa is a continent on the rise. After many decades I can say Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel.”
In a statement just before his departure for the four-day tour, Netanyahu called the first visit by an Israeli premier to the region in decades “historic”.
The trip comes as Israel launches a $13-million aid package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African countries, said Netanyahu’s office.
Israel would also provide African states with training in “domestic security” and health, it said.
Beyond diplomacy and trade, the trip also has deep personal meaning for Netanyahu.
His brother Yonatan was killed in July 1976 as he led a commando raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to free passengers aboard an Air France plane hijacked by two Palestinians and two Germans.
“I learned from my brother that you need two things to defeat the terrorists: clarity and courage,” Netanyahu said.
Speaking during a commemoration event close to the old terminal building, Netanyahu said the fight against terrorism continued.
“When terrorism succeeds in one place it spreads to other places, and when terrorism is defeated anywhere it is weakened everywhere. This is why Entebbe… was a victory for all humanity,” he said.
Netanyahu said the Entebbe raid was “a watershed moment” for Israel when the country learned to stand up for itself.
“It was the most daring rescue mission of all time. We were powerless no more, we would do whatever it takes,” he said.
Netanyahu was given a gun salute on arrival and then proceeded to the 40th anniversary commemoration ceremony at the old airport terminal.
He is scheduled take part in an anti-terrorism summit alongside leaders from Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia, before heading to Nairobi later on Monday.
Israel’s dealings with Africa currently constitutes only two percent of its foreign trade, leaving plenty of room for growth.
Demand is rising for its defence expertise and products.
But it also sees African countries as potential allies, particularly at the United Nations and other international bodies, where it is regularly condemned over its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Some African countries are keen to obtain Israeli agricultural and water technology, which the country has been promoting, say officials. Netanyahu’s trip follows years of efforts to improve ties.
After Uganda, Netanyahu will travel on to Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda, but he is also meeting other African leaders at a summit in Uganda.
“Coming on a journey like this is also very important from diplomatic, economic and security perspectives and I am pleased that Israel is going back to Africa in a big way,” Netanyahu said in a statement, adding: “We are opening Africa to Israel again.”
The Arab-Israeli conflict drove a wedge between African countries and the Jewish state in the 1960s.
Following wars between Israel and its neighbors in 1967 and 1973, north African nations led by Egypt put pressure on sub-Saharan African states to cut ties with Israel, which many did.
Relations were not helped by Israel’s friendship with the apartheid regime in South Africa before it fell in 1994.
In an interview with Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper ahead of his visit, Netanyahu said his visit was an attempt to thaw relations.
“I’m very open about it, that’s true,” Netanyahu said, according to the paper.