Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Uganda yesterday at the start of a four-country trip to East Africa, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit the continent in at least 30 years.
Mr Netanyahu, who was in the country for a day’s visit to commemorate the 40th anniversary of this mission often referred to as the ‘Raid on Entebbe’ in which his brother, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu, was shot dead by a Ugandan soldier, said it was not only an “emotional privilege” but also a new chapter in the Israel-Africa relations.
“This is a deeply moving day for me,” he said. “Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists. Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists.”
“Forty years ago, a group of Israeli commandos landed in the dead of the night in a country led by a brutal dictator on a rescue mission. Today, we land in the light of the day in a country led by friendly president,” he added.
An Israeli band played sombre tunes at the airport on the shore of Lake Victoria, to mark the anniversary of the Israeli rescue mission, during which three hostages were killed.
The Entebbe rescue is widely seen as one of Israel’s greatest military successes. It also was a monumental event for Netanyahu, as the death of his brother, Yonatan, pushed him into the public eye and on a track that would take him to the country’s highest office.
Mr Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife Sara Netanyahu and a group of about 100 military officials touched down at about 1:40pm at the old Entebbe airport; where 40 years ago on the same day, an elite squad commanded by his elder brother Yoni Netanyahu attacked on a rescue mission.
Yoni was the lone casualty in the group. The mission has since been christened “Operation Yonatan.”
Also accompanying him were the surviving members of the elite squad that raided Entebbe and select hostages who were rescued that day.
In his speech, Mr Netanyahu commended Uganda’s efforts in the fight against terrorism and vowed to contribute to these efforts, also promising to help other African countries.
“When terrorism succeeds in one place it thrives everywhere. When it is defeated somewhere it is defeated everywhere.”
He said the raid on Entebbe “delivered a devastating blow to the spirits of terrorism” and vowed that the fight will continue guided by two principles -clarity, to distinguish between good and evil and courage, to fight.
“We must condemn all acts of terrorism everywhere, whether in Paris, San Bernado, Orlando or Nairobi.”
He later met select African presidents, Zambia’s Edgar Lungu, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Malawi’s Peter Mutharika and the Ethiopian premier Hailemariam Desalegn.
He said the visit, the first by an Israeli premier on the continent in 30 years, marked a new page in relations saying that “Israel is coming to Africa, and Africa is coming to Israel”.
The celebration of the anniversary was attended by several government dignitaries, Ugandan military officials, select members of the Jewish community in the country and members of the Diplomatic Corp.
President Museveni used the moment to talk tough promising to double the efforts in the fight against terrorism but also set the record straight that he supports Israel living side by side and in harmony with her arch rival Palestine.
It was, however ,not clear why the President repeatedly referred to Palestine.
In his opening remarks using political and biblical facets, President Museveni dwelt a lot on the bond between Palestine and Uganda/ Africa which caused some discomfort among the visitors.
In the presence of his guest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his delegation and the top brass of the Ugandan government, Mr Museveni also advanced a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict saying Uganda’s view is guided by the Bible and cannot accept “bigotry” which holds that “either of you [Palestine or Israel] does not belong in that area.
“We hear the Jews came from Sarah and that the Arabs came from Hagar. I normally tell our Arab and Iranian friends that you are mentioned in the Bible. The Bible in Genesis says that Abraham the father of the Israelites came from Ur,” he said.
“We in Uganda cannot accept the bigotry that either of you do not belong to that area. When I meet the Arabs that is what I tell them.”
Seeking trade partners
Diplomatic relations between Israel and African countries date back to the 1960s, but ties with most nations in the continent were severed in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Relations were also not helped by Israel’s friendship with the apartheid regime in South Africa before its fall in 1994.
Before his East Africa visit, Netanyahu had told the cabinet that the trip was “part of a major effort on our part to return to Africa in a big way.
In Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Netanyahu is expected to separately meet the nations’ heads of state and security and economic leaders, and to speak before the Ethiopian Parliament.
The trip comes at a time when Israel is launching a $13m aid package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African countries, said Netanyahu’s office. Israel would also provide African states with training in “domestic security” and health, it added.
“With the visit of the prime minister, I believe that the relations of Kenya and Israel will be solidified and expanded,” Albert Attias, chairman of the Jewish community in Kenya, told Al Jazeera.
“This will give opportunities to the two countries expand their bilateral activities and add value to both Kenya and Israel,” the businessman added.
Netanyahu is accompanied by approximately 80 business leaders from more than 50 companies in order to forge commercial ties with African companies and countries.
President Museveni, drawing on both historical and biblical narratives said the two countries “rightfully” belong where they are.
The President also said Israel was right to invade Uganda to rescue its citizens because former President Idi Amin “ was hobnobbing with terrorists which was a crime in itself”.
Besides fighting terrorism, going forward, Mr Museveni called on Israel being an IT hub to collaborate with Uganda in investments, trade, tourism and technological transfer.
President Museveni called for more investments in trade, tourism and technological cooperation between Israel and Uganda, saying the two countries stand to benefit from the cooperation.
“Forty years from the sad events of 1976 should be turned into opportunity. Israeli companies should come and invest in Africa. Trade between Israel and Africa is potentially beneficial,” he said.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Daily monitor