The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

September 2006

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Forgotten Liberators
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Memorial to Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, Hero of Entebbe, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Thirty Years to Operation Jonathan in Entebbe
They were stronger than lions.
The bow of Jonathan turned not back.

-- Benjamin Netanyahu

Remarks before the Knesset.

The year is 1945. The place is the displaced persons camp in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. One of those displaced persons is a one-year old baby boy, a Jewish child named Joshua. Thirty-one years later this same Joshua, Major Joshua (Shiki) Shani, flies the lead plane of the Israeli air force to Entebbe to rescue Jewish hostages. Some of these hostages were survivors of the death camps. All the hostages were forced to undergo a ?selection? by German and Arab terrorists. Jews were separated from non-Jews, and after being singled out were sent to Uganda, marked for death.

The rescue operation at Entebbe is significant first because it symbolizes the profound transformation of the condition of the Jewish people in the intervening thirty one years since Bergen-Belsen. The Jews were no longer helpless in the face of their enemies? murderous designs. They had a savior in the form of the State of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces.

The rescue at Entebbe is significant for a second reason, not as widely known. Last year, the President of Uganda invited me and my family to unveil a memorial to the hostages murdered at Entebbe and to Yoni. The scene at Entebbe, in which the Ugandan army presented an honor guard accompanied by a military band, was unusual. After all, it is not every day that a country honors representatives of a foreign nation which invaded it and killed dozens of its soldiers. It was then that I understood, as later confirmed to me by the Ugandan President and others who rebelled with him against Idi Amin, that the events that took place at Entebbe were a turning point after which Amin's murderous dictatorial rule began to collapse.

The rescue at Entebbe was significant therefore not only because of the hostages who were freed, but also because of the millions of Ugandans who were liberated from the indescribable horrors of a savage regime.

Entebbe is significant for still a third reason, of universal import: the decisive blow this operation struck against international terrorism. The Entebbe operation remains the quintessential symbol of how a free nation must act in the face of terrorism: the refusal to capitulate to the terrorist's demands and the willingness to fight back. These values must always guide us.

With thirty years of hindsight, it is possible to assess accurately the contribution of all those involved in the operation. Credit must first go to the government that unanimously authorized the operation, and particularly to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who bore responsibility for one of the most difficult decisions ever made by a Prime Minister of Israel. It is important to note as well the critical, if not decisive, contribution of the Defense Minister at the time, Shimon Peres, who in the course of the preparations for the mission internalized the sense of confidence shared by the operation's commanders and soldiers, and conveyed that confidence to the other members of the government. And it is also important to note the contribution of the opposition leader at the time, Menachem Begin, who strengthened the government's hand by assuring Prime Minister Rabin: I'm with you, whatever happens, I'm with you.

Today, with the perspective I have gained over the years, I can say that the government's and prime minister's decision were no simple matter, and the fact that the operation succeeded does not in any way diminish the tremendous risk, both national and personal, that the Prime Minister and government took upon themselves. And we must commend the Chief of Staff at the time, Motta Gur, as well as Chief of Operations Kuti Adam, who was also among the military leaders pressing for action, Benny Peled, the commander of the air force, Shuki Shani, Amnon Halivni, and the other pilots who were ready to fly into unfamiliar territory and land in total darkness - that was the assumption, and that is a risk that only a few pilots would be willing to take. I do not know whether there is another army or another air force that would be willing to accept such a mission.

These risks were also borne by the commanders and soldiers, headed by Dan Shomron, Matan Vilnai, commander of the Paratroopers, and the commanders of Golani who faced the prospect of fighting the Ugandan Army, since no one knew how the operation would develop or whether the lead force of "The Unit", Sayeret Matkal, would succeed in its mission or not. There was a real possibility that they would have to confront a large Ugandan force from nearby Kampala, a force much larger than the one Israel had sent to Entebbe. They therefore faced the possibility of repelling the Ugandan army, which required no small measure of daring.

Among the soldiers on the mission was Surin Hershko, who was wounded in an isolated clash in the staircase of the new terminal. He was shot in the spine, and for thirty years has borne his injury with a courage that amazes all those who know him.

The entire nation salutes the 60 soldiers and commanders of Sayeret Matkal, among them our Knesset colleague, then captain, Shaul Mofaz. They landed at Entebbe Airport, proceeded to the old terminal, eliminated the Ugandan guards, fought off the Ugandan soldiers, killed the terrorists, freed the hostages and destroyed the MiG jets that might have pursued and shot down Israel's Hercules planes.

Like the entire nation of Israel, like millions around the world, I received news of the operation from newsflashes. I was then finishing up my studies at MIT in Boston. My first reaction was jubilation, and then a question. I called my brother Iddo and asked him if he had heared from Yoni. There was no doubt in my mind that the ?unit? would lead the operation and that Yoni would command it. Iddo told me he had not heard from him and that he would get back to me. But he did not. And as the hours passed, I knew that Yoni had been killed at Entebbe.

I can't explain why I knew this, since Yoni had participated in so many operations, in so many battles, and I never had this feeling. But now I did, and when Iddo called, I already knew what he would soon tell me.

This was not the most difficult moment in my life. It was the second most difficult moment, because the only thing that was going through my mind at the time was how I could get to my parents. My father was then a Professor at Cornell University, a seven-hour car ride from Boston, and I wanted to reach him and my mother before they heard the news from anyone else. And I did.

For my family and for the families of Jean-Jacques Maimoni, Pasco Cohen, Ida Borochovitch and Dora Bloch, an elderly woman who was brutally murdered the following day in a hospital in Kampala, Entebbe is a wound that never heals. With time it closes, but it never heals.

I will take with me to my last days what I experienced from my earliest ones: the imprint of Yoni's fortitude and courage, his belief in the justice of our cause, his steadfastness in the face of adversity, and above all, his humor and humanity.

The death of a brother cut down in his prime is traumatic in every way; it changed my life and directed it to its present course. But the impact of a loss of a brother is a distant second to the greatest agony of all, the death of a son. Over the years, as I have visited agonizing parents who have lost their children in battle or to bouts of savage terrorism, I have grieved for them as I grieved for my parents. May these parents of Israel, who have borne the ultimate sacrifice, find comfort that in the story of Yoni and his brave colleagues in Entebbe there resonates the heroism of so many of Israel's fallen sons.