Israeli PM Netanyahu remembers historic Entebbe raid 40 years later

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday paid tribute to the commandos who stormed an airport terminal in Uganda airport to free more than 100 hostages in what became known as the Raid on Entebbe, 40 years ago to the day.

Three hostages died in the operation along with one Israeli commando: Netanyahu's brother. Speaking to Fox News, the prime minister said it was "clearly the most difficult moment in my life. I've had quite a few, but nothing like this... Anguish. It's like having your skin filleted while you're still alive."

After arriving in Uganda, Netanyahu praised the raid. "International terrorism suffered a stinging defeat" from the mission in July 1976, he told reporters.

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 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 somber 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 Netanyahu and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stood in silence.

"It's often said that the worst thing you can do as a prime minister or as a commander in the army is to tell a family that they lost their son. But now I was telling my parents that they lost their son, my older brother," Netanyahu told Fox News. "My world collapsed."

He also said the same resolve from the raid was needed in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. "Definitely take more aggressive action against the Islamic State, and I have more detailed prescriptions which I share with our American allies and others."

Netanyahu traveled 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."

Uganda's Entebbe Airport is where Netanyahu's brother, Yonatan, was struck by a bullet as he led Israeli commandos in a daring rescue mission to rescue hijacked Israeli passengers. Israel's success in the raid humiliated then-Ugandan President Idi Amin.

Although the rescue mission breached Uganda's territorial integrity, 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. Museveni himself led one of several exile groups that waged a guerrilla war against Amin.

A lingering loathing of Amin, who was accused of many human rights atrocities and who died in Saudi Arabia in 2003, is one reason why many Ugandans today do not see the success of the Israeli raid -- in which many Ugandan soldiers were killed and military equipment destroyed -- as a disaster for Uganda. Yonatan Netanyahu was shot dead as he helped the Israeli hostages who had been held inside the airport terminal back onto the plane. His death made Yonatan an Israeli hero, and thrust Netanyahu toward public life.

His visit to Uganda starts his four-nation tour of Africa.

"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."

Museveni said his government opposes the "indiscriminate use of violence" as well as bigotry. He said Uganda's government supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

The one-day visit to Uganda is the start of Netanyahu's tour of Africa during which he will also visit Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Later on Monday Netanyahu will attend a summit of regional leaders focusing on security.

Some Ugandans say 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."

As a key U.S. ally on regional security, especially in violence-prone Somalia, Uganda is an attractive ally for Israel as well, according to Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who runs a think tank called Fana Kwawote.

"Israel has been on a mission to repair its image globally and more specifically within the U.N. where the Africa group has for decades now supported the Palestinian cause, and vote in general toward that end," Izama said.

"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 Netanyahu's visit, he added.

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 Monday, the Haaretz daily praised 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.

Fox News' Eric Shawn, Jonathan Wachtel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.