If the pen is mightier than the sword, Yedioth Ahronoth proved it last June. On June 30, just before the 30-year anniversary of the IDF’s dramatic rescue of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, the daily Hebrew newspaper published an article debunking 20 years of myths surrounding that proud moment in Israeli history.
The story, written by journalist Ariella Ringel-Hoffman, also restored the reputation of one of Israel’s most renowned military heroes.
Ringel-Hoffman’s story, ‘The Unfinished Battle,’ included a statement from 15 former members of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s elite commando unit, who took part in the rescue of over 100 Israelis and Diaspora Jews being held by terrorists at Entebbe Airport on July 4, 1976.
The unit members issued the statement and agreed to be interviewed by Ringel-Hoffman because they were fed up with attacks on the credibility and conduct of their late commander, Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, who was the only Israeli soldier to perish during the operation.
The attacks on Yoni came from another raid participant, Muki Betser, who for 20 years claimed that he, not Yoni, planned the operation, and that Yoni’s actions during the rescue almost caused its failure, making him responsible for his own death as well as the deaths of three hostages.
In a recent interview with Ynetnews, one of Yoni’s younger brothers, radiologist and writer Iddo Netanyahu, discussed the importance of the unit members’ disclosure and Ringel-Hoffman’s article. He said of the unit’s statement, “The issue wasn’t just about criticizing something Muki Betser said. It was something more – they were coming out against the falsification of history.”
Yoni’s soldiers in Sayeret Matkal were silent in accordance with their unit’s tradition of keeping operations covert. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was an article in the June 16 issue of Haaretz, in which journalist Amir Oren wrote, “The painful truth, that Netanyahu’s commanders and friends at first tried to conceal, is that his contribution to the operation was marginal to negative.”
Ringel-Hoffman’s article included interviews with the other participants, who discredited Betser’s assertions about what took place. Ringel-Hoffman also dug into the IDF’s archives to find statements Betser wrote in an operational report immediately following Entebbe, which contradict what he has said in the years since.
Despite the article’s impact, Iddo and his family remain troubled by the Israeli media’s blind support for Betser prior to the publication of Ringel-Hoffman’s piece.
“Over the course of 20 years, the Israeli press had decided to accept Muki Betser’s accounts at face value, despite the fact that within an hour or less, any journalist can research previous statements he gave and realize that his versions of what happened do not tally with each other, and are so contradictory and illogical that they should not see the printed page,” he said.
“Yet the more outrageous his accounts, the more support they received in the Israeli press. Until recently, virtually the entire Israeli media stood behind him in his attacks on Yoni, including the most preeminent commentators. It’s a sad indication of the professionalism and principles of the Israeli press.
“All that changed because one journalist actually decided to ask the other men who were involved, and actually looked at the accounts Muki gave immediately after the operation, which contradict what he said later, and of course because Yedioth Ahronoth decided to carry the story.
“So, at least in Israel, it seems his gig is up. But the fact that it took 20 years indicates that ‘there’s something rotten in the State of Denmark.’”
Shortly after the Entebbe rescue, the Netanyahu family published a book of selected letters Yoni wrote to family and friends from the ages of 17 to 30. Known in Israel as ‘Yoni’s Letters’ and published in English as ‘Self-Portrait of a Hero: From the Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, 1963-1976’ in 1980, the book has kept Yoni’s name and beliefs alive for readers all over the world.
“Yoni’s name is what it is in no small part because of his book of letters,” said Iddo. “The book has never been out of print in Israel, and what emerges from his writings has a lot to do with why Yoni is remembered in such a way, beyond his achievements.”
However, Iddo said the book was also the impetus for the Israeli media’s backlash against his brother and support for Betser. “If Yoni had different beliefs, I don’t think all this would have happened,” he said. “In his letters, his views are clearly the opposite of those of the ‘post-Zionists.’
He is a firm believer in Zionism, and believes Israel is in the right and not the Arabs, seeing our struggle as a just one. And he says he would rather keep fighting as long as necessary, even his whole life, rather than be a wandering Jew. These ideas don’t fit with the so-called post-Zionist views espoused by a lot of Israeli journalists, who obviously do not feel someone like Yoni should be a role model.”
The Entebbe raid is considered one of the most daring military operations of the twentieth century. The Sayeret Matkal, along with members of the Israeli Air Force, Golani Brigade, and paratroopers, traveled 2,500 miles to Entebbe, where they rescued the Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish passengers of Air France Flight 139, hijacked on June 27, 1976 by Arab and German terrorists after a stopover in Athens.
The hijackers, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, diverted the plane to Benghazi, Libya for refueling and then to Entebbe. At the airport, they were met by other terrorists and welcomed by notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
The terrorists demanded the release of 53 comrades – imprisoned in Israel and several other countries – or they would begin killing hostages on July 1. Israel initially agreed to negotiate with the terrorists, and the deadline was extended to July 4.
The Jewish and non-Jewish hostages were separated and herded into the airport’s old terminal building, which was guarded by terrorists and Ugandan soldiers. The non-Jewish passengers were eventually freed, with the exception of Air France crew members who chose to stay with the remaining captives.
At around 11 p.m. Uganda time on July 3, Israeli forces landed at Entebbe in C-130 Hercules transport planes. Twenty-nine members of Sayeret Matkal approached the old terminal in a convoy designed to fool the Ugandan soldiers into thinking they were part of Amin’s entourage.
After killing two Ugandan troops who ordered them to stop, the unit soldiers stormed the old terminal and engaged the terrorists and other Ugandan soldiers, during which three hostages and Yoni were shot and later died.
All the terrorists and two dozen Ugandan troops were also killed. The paratroopers secured the new terminal building and airfields, while the Golani soldiers ushered the hostages to the aircraft. After Soviet-built MiG-17 fighter planes stationed at Entebbe were destroyed, the rescue party and hostages left Entebbe and landed in Nairobi, Kenya on their way to Israel to refuel and allow the injured to receive medical treatment.
Iddo has written three books on the rescue, including ‘Entebbe: A Defining Moment in the War on Terrorism – The Jonathan Netanyahu Story’ and ‘Yoni’s Last Battle: The Rescue at Entebbe, 1976.’ The third book, a compilation of interviews he conducted with sources for his other books, was published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth Press and is in its second printing.
One of the most crucial lessons from Entebbe, Iddo said, is that a country is obligated to protect its citizens regardless of world opinion. “The important question is: what decision should a sovereign country make when the lives of its people are at stake?” he said. “Israel should make its decisions primarily based on its people’s interests and not by how other governments might react.”
He recalled that although most Western nations, such as the US, Britain, and even France, praised Israel’s actions, most countries were not supportive. “There was harsh criticism of Israel throughout the non-Western world – from the Communist Bloc, from Uganda’s allies in Africa, from most of Asia – because of those countries’ political leanings,” said Iddo.
“But while the vast majority of governments came out against Israel, their populations obviously felt differently. It was a tremendous boost for the Jewish community in the Soviet Union; Natan Sharansky said he had a photo of Yoni in his jail cell. And there were many brave men in Uganda who were fighting Idi Amin and were inspired by the Entebbe rescue because it showed them this man could be defeated.”
In April 1979, Amin was overthrown by the Tanzanian army and Ugandan rebels and fled into exile, first in Libya and then Saudi Arabia. He died in Jeddah in August 2003. Earlier this year, American actor Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for portraying Amin in ‘The Last King of Scotland.’
When asked how he reacted to Amin’s death, Iddo focused on the dictator’s escape from punishment.
“The main issue is not his death, but his life,” he said. “This was a man who murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, and would throw torture victims out of the top floor of the Nile Mansions Hotel in Kampala or cast them into the water to be eaten by crocodiles. He was a bad man in all respects and he supported other bad people, so it’s no surprise that he was a friend of Arab terror organizations and of Yasser Arafat in particular.
“This man did not deserve to live a quiet, uneventful life after being deposed, so the big question is why he lived in comfort for so many years. The answer is that he was being sheltered by people who considered him a great hero. From their point of view, what he did was good – he assisted in threatening Jewish hostages with death. They would never have given him up to any court for justice.”
On July 3, Ynet and Ynetnews published a special article series, ‘Entebbe’s Open Wound,’ for which Betser was interviewed, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary. One story was an interview with the family of Jean-Jacques Maimoni, one of the three hostages who died during the rescue.
A fourth hostage, 75-year-old Dora Bloch, had been taken to a hospital in Kampala when she began choking on a piece of meat prior to the raid. After the rescue, Amin gave orders for Bloch to be executed; her remains were discovered on a sugar plantation three years later.
The Maimoni family told Ynet that the Israeli establishment has consistently focused only on memorializing Yoni, at the expense of the slain hostages’ families. “Obviously, the several hostages who were killed should be remembered, but it’s natural for people to focus on particular individuals,” said Iddo.
“That’s true of any historical event. For example, there were one million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust, but the only one I know of is Anne Frank. Since Yoni had such a leading role in the preparation and execution of the raid, and because of the power and contents of his published letters, it is natural that he’s the person the Israeli media and public remember most.”
The ‘Entebbe’s Open Wound’ series also included a story about a survey taken by the Shiluv research institute which claimed 30 percent of Israelis between 18 and 22 have never heard of Operation Jonathan, while 20 percent have heard of it but do not know it involved the rescue of Jewish hostages in Uganda. A third of the participants did not know the mission was posthumously named for Yoni.
However, Iddo said the survey, which polled 429 people, is not indicative of all Israeli youth. “In reality, Entebbe is a household word in Israel,” he said. “If you took a poll of American youth to see how many know who Thomas Jefferson was, I’m sure you’d find some who’d say he was a Civil War figure or something equally silly. It’s the same everywhere – some people are educated more, some less.”
In September, the mayor of Entebbe announced that the old terminal where the hostages were kept would be destroyed and replaced by a museum commemorating the rescue. Iddo said his family has not been consulted about museum plans or materials, but he hopes the facility will include information about the threat of international terrorism as a whole in addition to Operation Jonathan.