Attending a memorial marking 40 years since Israel's legendary hostage rescue in Entebbe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he was "excited" to visit a site "that has brought endless pride to our fighters, the IDF and our people."
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"I am very excited to stand here at the site where IDF fighters rescued hostages in the heart of Africa," Netanyahu said, on a first visit to Uganda as prime minister, as part of a five nation African tour.
"The airplane hijacking touched an open nerve of the Israeli people, how 31 years after the Holocaust Jews were once again undergoing selection by those who sought our demise," Netanyahu said, referring to how the hijackers had divided up the passengers, separating Israelis and other Jews from the others at the terminal.
"The campaign against terrorism continues to this very day. Grief continues to cruelly engulf many families in Israel even today," Netanyahu said.
Referring to the personal price his own family paid, with his brother Yoni, a special commando officer, killed in the raid, Netanyahu said for "families of the hostages whose loved ones were killed, the price was terrible, the same for my family, and for me, as well."
"When Yoni was killed our world was destroyed. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what would have happened 'if.'"
In Uganda, Netanyahu meets with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. Netanyahu also visits Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia on his five-day trip, and returns to Israel on Friday.
En route to Uganda, Netanyahu posted a video to his Facebook page, praising the importance of his "historic visit" to Africa. "All of Africa is excited and I am also excited," he said.
The prime minister said that leaders of seven African nations will attend a summit with him and Israeli business leaders. "They are coming especially to open Africa up to Israel," Netanyahu said in the video.
The IDF delegation at Entebbe is headed by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, and includes representatives of units that took part in the 1976 rescue. Some of the soldiers involved in the raid were also there, in addition to relatives of commanders who have since passed away.
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was careful to invite a range of those who participated in the operation, including a number of officers who later became political rivals of Netanyahu.
Eisenkot has said told the army that part of what made the operation special was the quality of those who participated in it, including three soldiers who later became IDF chiefs of staff: Dan Shomron, Shaul Mofaz and Gabi Ashkenazi; seven other participants became major generals.
The IDF has reverted to using the mission’s original name, Operation Thunderbolt. It was later renamed Operation Yonatan, after Yoni Netanyahu – the prime minister’s brother – who commanded the operation at Entebbe but died during the raid.
The military delegation will be flying out in an air force plane, an hour before Netanyahu departs on an El Al plane. The IDF delegation will spend only five hours at Entebbe before returning and will not leave the airport – some 11 hours of flying time, which is over twice the time they will be on the ground for the actual ceremony.
After the event, Netanyahu and his civilian delegation are scheduled to travel to the nearby presidential palace. However, an offer to visit the capital, Kampala, was declined due to time constraints.
In Uganda, Netanyahu will meet with the presidents of Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia, as well as the prime minister of Ethiopia and foreign minister of Tanzania.
Netanyahu will spend the first two nights in Nairobi, and the next two in Addis Ababa. On Tuesday, he is set to visit the mausoleum of the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, where he will be accompanied by Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo’s son and the current Kenyan president.
Netanyahu will also meet Kenyan students who are set to study in Israel, and will also meet local evangelical Christians who are supporters of Israel.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu is set to meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and visit a memorial site for the victims of the Rwandan genocide.
He is set to visit Ethiopia on Thursday, where he will meet the president and prime minister, and give a speech in parliament.
Some 80 Israeli businessmen are accompanying Netanyahu on the trip, in order to “create business connections with African countries and companies,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. They will hold business seminars in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Israeli government approved a 50-million-shekel ($13 million) plan last week for strengthening economic links and cooperation with African nations.
The PMO went out of its way to describe the visit as “historic,” but Netanyahu’s absence from Israel for five days has a political aspect, too.
The cabinet was originally supposed to approve Yisrael Katz – the transportation, and intelligence and atomic energy minister – as acting prime minister during Netanyahu’s absence. However, after Katz mentioned the fact in an article that appeared in Haaretz over the weekend, the idea was dropped and Katz’s Likud rival, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, will serve as acting prime minister instead.