Forty years have passed since the rescue of Jewish hostages was carried out by IDF soldiers at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. A number of events were held recently to mark the occasion, and to remember all that happened in the hijacking of the Air France plane, the separation of the Jewish hostages from the others and the ultimate rescue of the hostages in an astonishing operation by IDF troops. With a heavy heart, the victims of this hijacking and rescue operation were also remembered and commemorated. In total, 4 of the hostages were killed as well as the IDF commander of the operation, Lt. Col. Yonni Netanyahu. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose this opportunity to visit Entebbe for the first time, to personally witness the place where his older brother was killed.
Operation Thunderbolt was renamed Operation Yonatan to commemorate its fallen commander. With the luxury of hindsight to look back on this operation, the legacy that Operation Yonatan has left for Israel and its security establishment can be assessed. This rescue mission was undoubtedly one of the most daring and audacious missions of its type during its day, and even since then. It has been the subject of numerous books, movies and military case studies, such has been the level of interest into the operation. Besides the audacity and sheer chutzpa involved in pulling off this operation, the tiny details that were taken into consideration and the very short period of time within which all the preparations were made, have served to elevate the mission to legendary status.
The ramifications of this operation in Israel, and in the Jewish world in general, have been profound. The operation has elevated Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, to be afforded greater respect and recognition by lay people and peers in a way that other secret service organisations do not enjoy. Because much of the work undertaken by secret service organisations, particularly the Mossad, is secret by its nature and is seldom made public, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness and the successes of the organisation. Operation Yonatan was a visible sign of success, not only for the IDF, but indeed for the Israeli secret service. It was, after all, the Mossad who were responsible for much of the intelligence-gathering, and who were integrally involved in every step of the operation. It was one of the few visible successes that the Mossad would be happy to be publicly associated with, and which served to demonstrate its amazing capabilities. This operation (along with a few others), has given the Mossad the status of a legend in the secret service world. Israel’s enemies know that they should be on their guard to expect the unexpected. They have learned from this that very little is beyond the Mossad’s capabilities. Not only does the Mossad have the ability to carry out these types of operations, it also has the audacity and fearlessness to do so. That legend continues to the current day. Frequently, when crazy and improbable “accidents” occur that impair the work being done by Israel’s enemies, the Mossad is the first organisation suspected of involvement. Despite the automatic suspicion of the Mossad and the close monitoring of its operations, it is extremely seldom that hard evidence can be brought to confirm involvement of Mossad agents in an operation. Rather than causing the Mossad to operate with impunity or carelessness, it gives the Mossad the impetus to carry out more and greater operations in the protection of the State of Israel and Jews around the world.
The fact that Operation Yonatan rescued both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews has also left its mark. There is no other country around the world, whose secret service operates to protect the citizens of countries that are not its own. And yet, this is the hallmark of the Mossad, as borne out by Operation Yonatan, when it comes to the protection of Jews who are not citizens of Israel. The reason that the hostages were separated in Entebbe as they were, had nothing to do with them being citizens of Israel. Instead, they were separated on the basis of whether they were Jewish or not. Exactly as was the case during the Shoah. Clearly, the Israelis were automatically included in the group of Jews, but they were not alone. When Operation Yonatan was carried out, it was carried out in the name of all the Jews in the group, whether they were Israeli or not. This was further evidence from the government of Israel, and from the instruments of the government, that the country stands ready to help Jews from all corners of the earth. This was cemented into law when the Law of Return was enacted to allow Jews to claim immediate citizenship of the State of Israel, and has been demonstrated in numerous rescue missions of Jews when they were considered to be in danger. Operation Yonatan was another significant sign of this commitment.
Little has changed over the past 40 years in terms of the threat that confronts Jews, no matter where they happen to be in the world. We have seen Jews establish a level of comfort in their host countries, only to come under threat again. The latest wave of violence in Europe, and in France in particular, has certainly been directed against Jews. It is with pride and confidence that the State of Israel reaches out to these Jews to offer them protection in their homes, but also to offer them a home with greater protection. And we have seen these Jews take up on this in their droves. This is, amongst other things, the legend of Operation Yonatan. Wherever Jews are in the world, the Jewish state will protect them.
Perhaps the greatest legacy left by Operation Yonatan comes in a much more personal form. The death of Yonni Netanyahu left a scar on his family, and left a profound mark on a 27 year-old MIT student. This student was Benjamin Netanyahu, younger brother of Yonni. In his own words, the death of his older brother, “changed my life and steered it to its current course”. It is tough to judge to what extent the death of Yonni really spurred Benjamin to achieve what he has achieved over the years. It is possible that he would have risen to be prime minister of Israel and one of the most influential leaders on earth, even without the push that he received from Yonni’s death. But we know about what he has managed to do in rising to be one of the best known and most influential people, and the influence that he has exerted over the years. And we know that much of this has been with Yonni in mind. The visit to Entebbe by the prime minister was not only in his capacity as prime minister, but was intensely personal as he mourned at the location where his older brother and hero met his death. One could not help wondering what Yonni would be thinking as he looked down on the scene from his seat in heaven.
As we look at the events at Entebbe with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, the legacy is probably stronger now than it was in the euphoric days that followed the operation. The strong message sent out by the Israeli government regarding its commitment to protect Jews around the world, and the message sent out by the IDF and the Mossad regarding their ability to do so, are louder and clearer than before. And the personal impact left on one young student who went on to be one of the world’s most recognisable personalities is unquestionable. If the same set of circumstances presented themselves again, I have no doubt that the response would be no different. This ultimately proves the greatness of the operation.