July 4 marked the 40th anniversary of Israel’s daring rescue of hijacked airline passengers captive to Palestinian and German terrorists in cahoots with Uganda’s monstrous dictator Idi Amin. (Charles Bronson starred in one film dramatization.) Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose commando brother died in the raid, has been in Uganda and Kenya this week commemorating the rescue, thanking Kenya for its help, and receiving praise from Uganda’s current president for Israel’s defiance of Amin.
Although then only age 11, I vividly recall the raid, news of which was broadcast during America’s Bicentennial celebration. Walter Cronkite offered all day televised coverage of our nation’s 200th birthday, interspersed by scenes of weeping Israeli relatives of the hostages grieved by their plight. Part of that day I spent with an elderly neighbor woman who was born in the 1890s and often expressed unfortunate views about various people groups. “The Jews are such emotional people!” she exclaimed during one segment from Israel. But it was a day and time justifying emotion.
The captive Air France flight from Paris to Tel Aviv was rerouted by its captors to Libya first for refueling, where Muammar Gaddafi was happy to oblige, and then on to Uganda, ruled by its own vicious madman. Amin, a polygamist with ultimately dozens of children who professed to be Muslim in mostly Christian Uganda, had seized power by military coup in 1971, aligning Uganda with Gaddafi and the Soviet bloc. Communist East Germany, renowned for its unique brand of Teutonic sadism, helped refine Amin’s security services, which may have killed hundreds of thousands of Ugandans.
Absent his mass murders, mutilations and tortures, possibly accompanied by cannibalism, Amin was entertainingly charismatic and comic, adorned with a multitude of medals on flamboyant uniforms, and claiming for himself soaring titles, including field marshal, lord of all beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea, and King of Scotland. The last title later became the name of a popular Hollywood film about him, portrayed superbly with all appropriate madness by Forest Whitaker. Spoofs of Amin appeared in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live. In his clownish megalomania and penchant for theatrics Amin closely resembled his patron Gaddafi, to whom he fled after his 1979 overthrow by neighboring Tanzania. He later settled in Saudi Arabia where he lived sumptuously thanks to the Saudi royal family, dying in Riyadh in 2003, having been refused return to Uganda, where his enormous atrocities remain unforgotten.
During his visits by Mercedes limo to the hostages at the Entebbe Airport, Amin feigned to act as their concerned protector, even as he lectured them about oppressing Palestinians. Revealingly and unsurprisingly, the hijackers freed the non-Jewish hostages, leaving 83 Jews, including Holocaust survivors, plus 20 others who refused to leave, including the French flight crew. Israel pretended to negotiate the release of imprisoned terrorists demanded by the hijackers while plotting the raid. The airport was designed by Israelis, who helpfully offered their government the architectural plans.
Key to any Israeli rescue operation was neighboring Kenya, under largely pro-Western and mostly pro-Israeli Jomo Kenyatta, the elderly independence leader converted as a young man to Christianity by Scottish missionaries. Israeli planes after flying beneath radar level down the Red Sea and over the Indian Ocean needed a refueling stop. Kenya had perfunctorily joined in African solidarity with Egypt against Israel during the 1973 war. But relations had recovered, and Kenya was glad to undermine Amin.
Kenyatta’s only white cabinet minister was South African born Bruce Mackenzie, a WWII veteran of the North Africa campaign who later settled in then colonial Kenya, where colonials were encouraged to stay after independence. Mackenzie helped negotiate Kenya’s covert collaboration with the Israeli raid, which would include refueling at a Kenyan airport and medical care for liberated hostages. McKenzie also reportedly loaned his plane to Israeli intelligence for a surveillance flight over Uganda. Never one to forget a slight, Amin two years later killed McKenzie by installing a bomb on his plane after he visited Uganda.
The Israeli raid, which included commandos dressed in Ugandan uniforms arriving in a black Mercedes aiming to resemble Amin’s (whose new car was actually white), successfully rescued all but three hostages, who were killed during the assault. Ugandan secret police would later murder an elderly Jewish British woman who had earlier been hospitalized, along with her Ugandan medical personnel. Israeli commandos killed dozens of Amin’s soldiers, with all seven of the hostage takers. They also destroyed, for their own protection and as a favor to Kenya, much of Amin’s Soviet supplied air force, which helped dissuade Amin from going to war against Kenya in reprisal.
Amin took revenge by killing hundreds of Kenyans in Uganda, plus Ugandan airport and security personnel whom he blamed for the raid’s success, although he had himself confidently rejected their warnings. Kenya tried awkwardly and unsuccessfully to keep quiet its aid for Israel, which would be unpopular in much of the world, including the United Nations, where Secretary General Kurt Waldheim cited the violation of Ugandan sovereignty. Amin was at the time chairman of the Organization for African Unity. Kenya requested and received some USA military help for potential defense against Amin.
In greeting Netanyahu this week, Kenya’s current president, son of Jomo Kenyatta, recalled his father’s help for Israel’s Entebbe raid as a case of “right over wrong” that should be “a source of incredible encouragement and hope to a world increasingly standing together” against terrorism.
Entebbe is also a reminder of the need for constant vigilance and audacity by lawful and democratic nations against terrorists and tyrants, embodied by Amin, Gaddafi, and the hijackers they supported at Entebbe. The commemoration and spirit of July 4 should always include Entebbe.