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Israel's Netanyahu in Uganda to start four-nation African tour

Published 04/07/2016

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his arrival at Entebbe airport, Uganda (AP)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his arrival at Entebbe airport, Uganda (AP)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has kicked off an historic four-nation tour of Africa in Uganda, saying his country's raid on the Entebbe airport 40 years ago, in which his brother was killed, "changed the course" of his life.

Speaking shortly after his arrival in Uganda, Mr Netanyahu praised Israel's commando raid on the airport which freed Israeli hostages from a hijacked plane.

"International terrorism suffered a stinging defeat," he said of the mission in July 1976.

The Entebbe rescue is a seminal event in Israeli history and is widely seen as one of the country's greatest military successes. It also was a monumental event for Mr 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.

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.

A relative of one of the Israeli hostages lit a memorial flame as Mr Netanyahu and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni stood in silence.

Mr Netanyahu travelled to Uganda with soldiers and pilots who were members of the rescue team.

"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."

Mr Netanyahu will also visit Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

"After many decades, I can say unequivocally Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel," he said. "All of our peoples will benefit greatly from our growing partnership."

Mr Museveni said his government opposes the "indiscriminate use of violence". He said Uganda's government supports a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

"The two of you belong to that area," Mr Museveni said, urging both sides to live "side by side in two states... in peace and with recognised borders."

Mr Netanyahu later attended a summit meeting of regional leaders focusing on security and the fight against Islamic extremists.

In addition to Mr Netanyahu and Mr Museveni, the meeting was attended by the leaders of Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia.

A communique at the end of the meeting said the leaders "emphasised the need for increased regional and international co-operation in all fields, including cyber security and information gathering to confront this scourge."

Entebbe International Airport is where Mr Netanyahu's brother, Yonatan, was struck by a bullet as he led Israeli commandos in a daring rescue mission to rescue hijacked Israeli passengers.

Four decades later, Uganda has good relations with Israel, which is courting allies to counter Palestine's rising influence at the United Nations. While in Uganda, Mr Netanyahu will also attend a security-themed summit of regional leaders, including those from Kenya and Tanzania, said Don Wanyama, a spokesman for Uganda's president.

Although the rescue mission breached Uganda's territorial integrity, then-Ugandan president Idi Amin, who had taken power by force and ruled as a dictator, had become an increasingly isolated figure and would soon be forced out of power with the help of Tanzanian forces.

Mr Museveni himself led one of several exile groups that waged a guerrilla war against Amin, who was accused of many human rights atrocities and who died in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

Still, some Ugandans say Mr Netanyahu's historic visit should be a moment to mourn the Ugandan victims of the operation. Moses Ali, Uganda's deputy prime minister who served as a government minister under Amin, told Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper that the rescue mission should not be celebrated by Ugandans.

"If you are siding with Israelis, then you can celebrate because it was their victory," he said. "If you are not, then you should be mourning our dead ones."

Israel wants African states to side with it at the UN, where the General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012. The Palestinians have used their upgraded status to launch a diplomatic offensive against Israel and its occupation of lands where the Palestinians hope to establish a future state.

"Israel has been on a mission to repair its image globally and more specifically within the UN where the Africa group has for decades now supported the Palestinian cause, and vote in general toward that end," said Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who runs a think tank called Fana Kwawote.

As a key US ally on regional security, especially in violence-prone Somalia, Uganda is an attractive ally for Israel as well, according to Mr Izama.

"Washington views the Museveni administration as a regional hegemon, a key to the security of the wider region. Uganda's involvement in counter-terrorism in Somalia... and its significant expenditure on security goods, including arms and technology, are another reason" for Mr Netanyahu's visit, he said.

Mr Netanyahu's African trip has generated some controversy at home, due to the large size of his delegation, as well as the personal nature of the visit.

In an editorial published on Monday, the Haaretz daily praised Mr Netanyahu for strengthening Israel's ties with Africa, but suggested that he was largely driven by his own emotional involvement.

"Despite the expected success of the diplomatic and economic contacts, it's hard to shake off the impression that the entire trip would not be taking place were it not for Netanyahu's desire to take advantage of his official position in order to conduct a ceremony in the old Entebbe airport," it wrote.

Mr Netanyahu will travel to Kenya later on Monday.

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