The first time I saw the infamous old terminal at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda was in 2008, during a flight layover on my way to Rwanda. I was with my mother who nearly had a panic attack when she looked out at the bullet-pocked building while the plane was inching closer to the new terminal. Her panic stemmed from memories of the Israeli raid on the Entebbe Airport on July 4th, 1976.
Luckily, she was not one of the people captured by pro-Palestinian terrorists. Instead, she was completing her year abroad program at Tel Aviv University and had been invited along with other American expats by the American Ambassador to spend the day celebrating the 200th anniversary of US independence. Because of a mutual friend and colleague (of his), she had become friends with the now famous Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, brother of the current Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Whenever Yoni was at the university, he took a brotherly, warm, and kindhearted interest in my mother. The day before, she was informed that she would not be able to celebrate American independence with their friend, a fellow soldier. As she was accustomed, no questions were asked. On July 4th, later in the day, her friend returned and informed her that their friend — and his mentor — was killed in Entebbe. Yoni died freeing 102 (out of 106) hostages, and he is now considered a hero in Israel. While our plane was taxiing past the old terminal, my mother’s face was filled with sorrow as she remembered her old friend.
Despite the family connection, the Raid on Entebbe continues to fascinate me because it remains the most unique interaction between Israel and sub-Saharan Africa. Israel went into Idi Amin’s apocalyptic Uganda to rescue Jewish travellers and the Air France staff who refused to leave their Jewish passengers from a horrible hijacking. The success of the rescue operation had far–reaching consequences to Amin, Uganda, and the region. I am not alone in being fascinated in both the operation and its following ramifications. One of my Rwandan fathers had several videos and documentaries of the operation on his iPad. To him, the success of the raid proves the righteousness of the Jews, and how his nation should develop closer relations with Israel.
I was extremely excited after reading of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned travels to Uganda for the 40th anniversary of the Operation. The death of Yoni greatly affected his younger brother’s life. Bibi idealised his older brother, and after his death, he established an international conference on terrorism that led the way to his political career. The two most pressing questions in my mind during the lead up to the Entebbe commemoration was first: How would Bibi react when seeing the grounds where his brother died? How do these memories affect and shape the Prime Minister’s desired relationship between Israel and Uganda? There have been several news articles answering the first question. We will truly only know the answer to the second as the negotiated economic, agricultural, and military deals between the two nations are carried out.
On July 4, 2016, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Bibi Netanyahu commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe Raid. On social media, the experience was fascinating as this seemed to be the beginning of a new phase of relations between Israel and Africa. Some interesting quotes came about during the speeches. One of the most important was Museveni’s acknowledgement of Israel’s right to conduct the raid. This comment’s significance must be appropriately put into context. Uganda, as well as many other African nations, hold strong beliefs of national sovereignty, which should never be violated by a foreign power. While there has been attention to this very important statement, I am encountering questions of something else Museveni stated during his speech. Several times, Museveni commented on Africa’s relationship to the Palestinians rather than Israel. One social media post had a picture of Netanyahu seemingly laughing at Museveni’s continual usage of the word ‘Palestine’.
Was Museveni trying to show his support of the Palestinian cause for statehood? I highly doubt it. To provide some validity to my claim, let us examine two of his quotes. The first is: “The sad event, 40 years ago, turned into another bond linking Palestine to Africa.” The second quote is: “I said this is yet another bond between Africa and Palestine because there were earlier bonding events.” Both of these quotes do not seem related to Palestine, but instead to Israel. It was Israelis and Jews who were the victims, not the Palestinians who conducted the Entebbe terrorist hijacking. And it is Israel that Uganda is trying to develop deeper bonds with rather than with the Palestinians. The closest comment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was his willingness to help be an arbiter of peace between the two parties. But this begs the question, why did he say Palestine rather than Israel?
The reasons behind Museveni’s name choice are currently being examined by people who are not researchers of the African Great Lakes. While I never claim to be an expert, I have spent years trying to better understand the region with particular focus on trying to recognise the mindsets of political leaders. This is not the first time Museveni has made these types of mistakes during his speeches, and it will not be his last time. Many researchers on Uganda and the broader region are aware of Museveni being 71 years old. Like his counterpart in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe (who is 92), Museveni is struggling with being an effective leader in his old age. This is best seen as he oftentimes presents conflicting domestic public policies, and sometimes even falls asleep during conferences and meetings. Perhaps Bibi responded correctly by just laughing off the name mix-up. He is well aware of Uganda’s desire to develop closer ties with Israel, and Museveni’s senior mind will not change that. For Bibi, Uganda and the Entebbe airport will always hold a grim place within himself as the place he lost his beloved brother. I know this is true for my Mother.