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Remembering Entebbe
by Judy Lash Balint
July 3, 2001

Yes, we CAN do hasbara! That fact was proven tonight at the official state commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Operation Yonatan, the Entebbe rescue mission.

In a masterful, moving event that was both entertaining and educational, the state of Israel marked the passage of a quarter of a century since the dramatic rescue of 103 hostages at Entebbe, Uganda. If last night's event was translated and exported, Israel's image problems might be improved dramatically, and Jews the world over would begin to regain their pride in the Jewish state.

For the past week, the nation has focused on the unprecedented operation that took dozens of soldiers from Israel's elite brigades on a daring and dangerous mission to rescue Jews thousands of miles away.

The commander of the unit that undertook to carry out the plan was Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Yoni, who was thirty years old when he died, was the only soldier killed in the assault on the Ugandan airport.

The Netanyahu family home where Yoni, Bibi and Ido grew up is one block away from my apartment in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. The small square in front of the modest house where Prof. Benzion Netanyahu still lives is named for Yoni and Bibi's beige limo is a common sight there.

A few years after his death, the Netanyahu family published a book of Yoni's letters written over a 13-year period between 1963-1976. Entitled Self Portrait of a Hero, the letters paint a picture of a passionate Zionist as they chronicle Yoni's passage through the army and his participation as a paratrooper in two of the most crucial battles of the Six Day War.

Last week, a TV documentary focused on Yoni Netanyahu's career, featuring extensive photos, film clips and interviews with his brothers and former girlfriend. True to form, a columnist in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said the program "Seems more like a propaganda film," and opines "the Yoni that emerges from the film is not a flesh and blood character, but something closer to a modern day Bar Kochba."

Indeed, the old-fashioned Zionist values exemplified by Yoni and the Entebbe campaign put into sharp relief attempts by post Zionists who try to dominate the Israeli media and intellectual debate in the country.

Last night's event that took place at Jerusalem's Binyanei Hauma conference hall was attended by the nation's leading politicians; those who took part in the Entebbe operation-former hostages and their rescuers; and thousands of today's soldiers from Sayeret Matkal, Tzanchanim and Golani-the brigades who carried out the rescue 25 years ago.

On film, we watched as the political leaders of 1976 debated what to do about the Jewish hostages who had been sitting under Idi Amin's guard for days. The familiar faces of Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Navon and Shimon Peres flitted across the screen.

Interspersed with the film clips, the accomplished singing troupes of several army and air force divisions belted out some of the old rousing Israeli anthems.

President Moshe Katzav, truly a man of the people, with modest but dignified demeanor, on behalf of the state thanked those who had liberated the hostages. "We say to the terrorists of today: we did it then and we can do it now if we want."

There are several minutes of film of former hostages describing their ordeal. They tell of their disbelief that the IDF had sent their forces across the African continent to rescue them. In excruciating detail they calmly recount the selection procedure that separated the Jews and Israelis from the non-Jewish passengers on the Air France flight.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres rose to speak without notes, and chose to address himself to the assembled young soldiers who filled the hall. He urged them not to think of the Entebbe fighters as legendary heroes. "Each of you has the potential to do the same thing," he said. "You represent the best hope for the people."

Next on film was a short clip of an interview with a handsome middle aged civilian who was a pilot of one of the Hercules planes that left the Sirkin air force base for the seven hour trip to Entebbe. "We were so afraid of failure," he says, his dark eyes looking unflinchingly at the camera. "But on the way back, I felt like it was Pesach. I recalled the words of the Hagaddah: 'I and no angel: I and no messenger...brought you out of the land of Egypt.' Concluded the pilot who wore no kippa on his silver hair. "If they told me now, 25 years later to go on such a mission, I'd go without hesitation. Ayn Lanu Eretz Acheret-we have no other country," he said, in a theme that was to echo throughout the evening.

Film interviews with others involved in the rescue followed. Almost all those who played significant roles in Entebbe went on to illustrious military and political careers. We watched as Ehud Barak, Matan Vilnai, Dan Shomron and Ephraim Sneh spoke of their recollections twenty-five years on. Shomron, the overall planner of the operation told the former hostages: "We knew we were endangering you too. No one had any idea how many would fall. You were part of the campaign, you're part of the fight against terror."

Two of the paratroopers came on stage to read short statements in their own words about their feelings on the anniversary of the operation. One tall, balding man with a gray mustache said he was disappointed that his teenage son's classmates knew nothing about Operation Yonatan. "We're facing the same things today-they need more than virtual Zionism, " he said.

Benny, a younger man who was only 13 years old when he was taken hostage by the terrorists, told the audience in a trembling voice that he remembers every moment of the torment. "I was a kid who saw death in front of him."

Tzipi Cohen was only 8 years old when she witnessed her father Pasco, bleeding to death, as he was accidentally shot by Israeli soldiers in the confusion of the rescue. Pasco Cohen raised his head to look for his son when the shooting started. He was one of four Jewish hostages who perished in Uganda. His daughter ended her brief remarks by reiterating her gratitude to the IDF for saving all the hostages, despite her personal tragedy.

The final segment of the two hour program was entitled 'The Price.' Besides the loss of Yoni Netanyahu and the four hostages, one soldier, Surin Hershko, became a paraplegic as a result of the injuries he sustained at Entebbe. We watched on screen as Surin used his computer at home. He uses an elongated straw manipulated by his mouth to write on the keyboard. Hershko is completely paralyzed, but rolled to the front of the auditorium in his wheelchair to reminisce about the last time he ran or walked. "I remember what it was to be a fighter," he recalled.

After presenting Hershko with a special medal commemorating Entebbe, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered a speech that tied Israel's efforts to combat terror in the 1970s to today's struggle against the same enemy:

"In these confusing times, when there are those who question our capabilities or the justness of our cause, we return to those few hours when Israel stood up and in the face of the entire community of nations, waged a battle against violence and terrorism, proving that we can win.

These days, when we are in the midst of an ongoing battle against terrorism, violence and incitement, and when we are making a joint national effort to return to political negotiations without fire, we must rekindle the spirit of that operation. The secret of our strength lies in such spirit and faith, and if we learn how to renew it we will be able to meet all the challenges that still lie ahead."

The poignancy of the moment was overwhelming as rescuers and the rescued mounted the stage to join the young IDF choir members in singing Hatikva as the evening drew to a close.