Operation Benjamin: Netanyahu, Give Entebbe a Rest

The prime minister’s megalomaniac, gratuitous showcase journey to Entebbe next month contributes nothing to Israeli security.

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Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 Entebbe operation.
Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 Entebbe operation. Credit: IDF Spokesperson

As next month starts, so will the 40th anniversary celebrations commemorating “Operation Thunderbolt,” in which Israel rescued the hostages kidnapped from an Air France flight that was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda.

The mission, one of the great coups of the Israeli army, was approved by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. The commander of the mission was top commando officer Dan Shomron. The meticulous, superb planning under chief of staff Mordechai “Motta” Gur and his deputy Yekutiel Adam was carried out by a long list of commanders from the ground and air forces, and military intelligence. Among them stood out officers from the elite commando forces of Sayeret Matkal, including the unit’s former commander, Ehud Barak and Muki Betser, who was also tasked with leading the rescue force.

Together with the commandos, forces from the paratroopers and Golani Brigade landed at Entebbe to provide crucial guidance, security and cover, and a separate Sayeret team destroyed 11 Ugandan army MiG fighter jets parked on the ground.

During the planning stage of the mission, the Sayeret commander, Yoni Netanyahu, was on a mission in Sinai, and joined at a later stage to approve the plans. He was a last-moment appointment to the Entebbe command, after the officer tapped for the job, Barak, was recast to coordinate and supervise the critical stage of refueling the Israeli jets in Nairobi, Kenya.

When the Israeli forces landed at Entebbe Airport, en route to the terminal and ignoring the beseeching of his deputy, Yoni Netanyahu made a bad management and operational mistake, which led live fire to begin prematurely and set off a chain reaction. The uproar that ensued ruined the surprise element and led the break-in by Israeli forces to deviate from the original plan. Success under these circumstances was a matter of luck. It could easily have led to a repeat of the Ma’alot massacre two years earlier (May 1974).

An Israeli police officer clears the way for the hostages returned to Israel after their ordeal in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976.Credit: Moshe Milner, GPO

But the luck was not unmixed. In the exchanges of gunfire at the terminal, one paratrooper was badly injured and three hostages were killed. A fourth hostage, who had fallen ill, was murdered the following day at the hospital to which she had been evacuated before the rescue mission. And the fifth casualty was Yoni Netanyahu. He was hit by a barrage of gunfire from the control tower. After his death, the mission’s name was changed from Operation Thunderbolt to Operation Yonatan.

Yoni Netanyahu’s part in the mission and his functioning during it do not detract one iota from his heroism, nor from the grief felt since then by his family and loved ones. But the image and death have served to consistently shadow the part of the real commanders and planners of the mission. Worse, the rewriting of history is being augmented by a public injustice: Throughout the term of Yoni’s brother as premier, Yoni’s image is being recast as a national Israeli casualty. It is an example of bad taste toward all the fallen soldiers in Israel and their families.

Yoni Netanyahu’s blood is not redder. At least military bereavement is supposed to remain egalitarian and democratic.

In the last six years, the memorial day for Entebbe has been marked by a widely-covered pilgrimage by the prime minister and his wife to his brother’s grave on Mt. Herzl. A photographer from the Government Press Office commemorates them dressed in black, somberly laying a bouquet. The following day the picture is featured on the front page of Israel Hayom and other media outlets.

Elsewhere in the world, symbolic ceremonies of the sort are based on exactly the opposite significance – they commemorate the unknown soldier, not the known celebrity one.

This persisting distortion is about to reach new heights with the prime minister’s megalomaniac, gratuitous showcase journey to Entebbe, which is being forced on the Defense Ministry and Israel Air Force, which contributes nothing to Israeli security or to resolving the burning problems preoccupying the people of Israel. It is also a waste of millions of shekels. Its entire purpose is to make political and personal gains for Benjamin Netanyahu, who never did cavil at externalizing the family’s sorrow, and is now exploiting the nation’s resources and army to return to Entebbe as the vanquisher of terrorism, in the stead of his deceased brother: Operation Benjamin.

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