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Idi Amin's Israeli Connection

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Entebbe Airport image

A policeman clears the way for rescued Air France hostages returning from Entebbe Airport, on July 4, 1976. Image courtesy of Moshe Milner/GPO. Israel, 1976.

On June 27, 1976, an Air France jet carrying around two hundred and forty passengers, twelve crew members, and four hijackers took off from Athens Airport. Before it could reach its destination, in Paris, it suddenly veered south to Libya, where it refuelled and then headed toward the equator, finally landing at Entebbe, in the East African nation of Uganda. The passengers and crew were herded into a stuffy, mosquito-ridden airport building; three days later, most of those hostages who were not Israeli were released. In exchange for the freedom of the remaining hostages, the hijackers, who claimed to represent the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, demanded the release of fifty-three pro-Palestine militants from Israeli and European jails. On July 4th, nearly all the hostages were freed in an Israeli commando raid led by Jonathan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister. But Jonathan himself was killed during the rescue operation, by sniper fire from the airport control tower.

Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Uganda early next month to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the raid. It is likely to be an emotional occasion. Netanyahu was studying in the United States when he learned that his older brother had been killed in the raid, and has since said the news changed his life forever. He went on to write books about international terrorism, and his leadership has been characterized by a profound concern for Israel’s security.

One issue that probably won’t be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit is why the hijackers chose Entebbe. The short answer is that Idi Amin, Uganda’s erratic dictator at the time, was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a professed enemy of Israel. But there is a longer answer: Israel itself helped install Amin in power, creating a monster who turned on his former patrons.

Israel had had a special relationship with Uganda since the latter’s independence from Great Britain, in 1962. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, sought strategic partnerships with states on the edge of the Arab world, including Uganda, Kenya, Iran, and Turkey, to counter the hostile nations on Israel’s own borders. As part of what became known as the Peripheral Doctrine, Israel trained and equipped Uganda’s military and carried out construction, agriculture, and other development projects.

Just months after the Six-Day War, in 1967, Israel sold Uganda weapons worth seven million dollars. In 1969, Israel began funnelling weapons through Uganda into southern Sudan, where a ragtag rebel group known as the Anyanya had been fighting the Arab-dominated Sudanese government since the nineteen-fifties. Israel’s purpose was to distract the Sudanese Army so that it would not join forces with Egypt, which was mobilizing to retaliate for the capture of the Sinai Peninsula.

Uganda’s President at the time, Milton Obote, was a Pan-Africanist who envisioned a united Africa that would challenge the legacy of division and colonialism. Like most African leaders, he condemned Israeli aggression against Egypt and wanted to cut off support to the Anyanyas. But Amin, the Ugandan Army’s commander at the time, was a great admirer of Israel. He had briefly enrolled in a paratrooper course there (uncompleted), and was friendly with Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, Israel’s military attaché in Uganda; Amin’s numerous wives and children even socialized with Bar-Lev’s wife and children. Amin came from an area near the Sudanese border, so was well placed to insure that Israeli arms continued to flow to the Anyanya, against Obote’s wishes.

Obote’s Presidency had been fraught with tribal conflict. Increasingly unpopular at home, he announced a turn to the left at a political rally on December 18, 1969. His government would “fight relentlessly” against “ignorance, disease, colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid,” he declared. Private companies and freehold land would be nationalized. As Obote was leaving the stadium that evening, he was shot through the cheek by an unknown gunman. He survived, but was now aware that vultures hovered over his Presidency.

Obote soon began to suspect that Amin might be one of those vultures. During a trip to Cairo, according to the Israeli military historian Yehuda Ofer, Amin called Bar-Lev because he was worried that, when he returned, he would be arrested for the murder of an Obote ally. Bar-Lev was eager to help Amin, who was serving Israel’s interests in Sudan, and he advised the Ugandan commander to form a battalion within the Army to protect himself. The Israelis would train it. This unit, consisting of paratroopers, tanks, and armed jeeps, proved instrumental a few months later when, in January, 1971, Amin overthrew the regime while Obote was in Singapore for a meeting of the British Commonwealth.

The coup had taken Britain’s High Commissioner to Uganda, Richard Slater, by surprise, so the next morning he paid a visit to Colonel Bar-Lev, who happened to be sitting with Amin. Bar-Lev informed Slater that Amin had control of the entire Army. Officers sympathetic to Obote were out of action—some were dead, others had fled their barracks. The bullet-ridden cars of Cabinet ministers now stood abandoned on Kampala’s streets. The Israelis would continue to provide advice for weeks afterward, while the last traces of resistance to the coup were eliminated.

Arye Oded, who was in charge of Uganda in Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the time, denies that Bar-Lev had anything to do with Amin’s coup, but Bar-Lev himself told the Times, Slater, and the historian Ofer otherwise. Amin’s first diplomatic visit was to Israel, followed by Britain, where he dined with Queen Elizabeth. But relations with both countries soon soured, especially after Israel refused to sell Amin fighter planes with which he hoped to bomb Tanzania, where Obote was then raising a rebel army.

Amin turned to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who agreed to sell jets to the Ugandan, but only if the latter would break off ties with Israel. Amin promptly expelled all Israelis from the country, installed the Palestine Liberation Organization in the former Israeli Embassy, and commenced construction of a giant mosque in downtown Kampala. He then telephoned his foreign minister, an elegant barrister, fashion model, and tribal princess named Elizabeth Bagaya, and asked her to draft a cable to Prime Minister Golda Meir that read, “Pick up your knickers and go back to America where you came from!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Bagaya replied, “but you’re a head of state, and as such you cannot use such language.” Amin hung up on her, but the cable was never sent. Amin’s anger at the Israelis for denying him fighter jets could explain his sudden sympathy for the Arab cause and his willingness to allow the Air France hijackers to conduct hostage negotiations from Entebbe in 1976.

As is well known, Amin went on to brutalize his own people, hundreds of thousands of whom are said to have died in his paranoid purges. Amin was overthrown in 1979. Obote then returned, won a disputed election, and ruled until 1985, when he was toppled by one of his generals, who was in turn toppled the following year by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power thirty years later.

Early in Museveni’s tenure, Uganda once again became a pawn in the seemingly endless undeclared war between the Arab world and the West. In 1994, the Clinton Administration began funding Uganda and other countries to destabilize the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom it held partly responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993. Ugandan troops have also been deployed, at the West’s beckoning, in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. plows roughly seven hundred and fifty million dollars annually in developmental aid into Uganda, including a hundred and seventy million dollars in military aid. Meanwhile, the Ugandan leader has for years received a free pass when it comes to human-rights abuses. These include allegations of election rigging, torture, and the killing of opposition supporters. During the war in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Museveni’s army backed warlords responsible for crimes against humanity; during the northern Uganda war against Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, Museveni repeatedly sabotaged negotiations that might have spared his people a decade of war.

These abuses have met with only mild criticism from Western countries. Unlike Amin, Museveni knows better than to betray his patrons, and he remains a strong ally of the West and Israel. Although the Israelis have not had an Embassy in Uganda since Amin threw them out, in 1972, Museveni, his wife, and senior Ugandan politicians visit Israel frequently; Uganda usually votes with Israel at the United Nations, and Ugandan military officers receive training from Israelis. Israel also sells weapons to Uganda, and Netanyahu has visited at least once before, although not as Prime Minister. Recently, Israel began exporting its Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to Uganda under a “third country” arrangement. According to the BBC, this secretive program is rife with human-rights abuses; many of the Ugandan arrivals receive no assistance at all, and aren’t even registered with the U.N. Refugee Agency. It’s likely that the refugees, and more weapons sales, will be on the agenda when Netanyahu and Museveni meet. This visit will only further legitimize Museveni’s brutal regime, and continues a distressing tradition among Western leaders of mistaking abuse and repression for security.