Wednesday 9th Jul 2003
In less than three decades Israel has gone from being a country that frees hostages to one that frees terrorists
This past week the 27th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt, the IDF's daring 1976 rescue of Jewish hostages held at Entebbe, Uganda, came and went virtually unnoticed, receiving little or no attention in the Israeli and international press.
No accounts were published of the tense days that followed the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of an airliner carrying dozens of Jews and Israelis, nor were interviews aired with any of those who participated in the heroic Israeli military raid, or those whom they freed. It was as if the entire affair had been forgotten, relegated to the history books, tucked away in a corner far from our daily and collective memory.
And yet at a time when the United States is pressuring Israel to make concessions to Palestinian terror, it is ever more crucial that we recall the anniversary of the Entebbe episode, because it offers us a potent, much-needed reminder of how terrorism should be fought.
It was Sunday, June 27, 1976, when armed gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, together with some German accomplices, hijacked Air France flight 139, diverting it first to Libya and then to dictator Idi Amin's Uganda.
With the world looking on, the terrorists separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers from the others, threatening to kill them all if their Palestinian comrades in Israeli jails were not quickly released.
Unlike today, however, the Israel of back then was not in the habit of yielding to terrorist blackmail. No international summits were convened at Aqaba, no road maps were drawn up and no negotiations with the terrorists were countenanced.
Instead Israel reacted as it should have - by launching a stunning military raid on July 4, 1976, freeing virtually all the captives and bringing the affair to a sudden and dramatic end.
The heroic rescue symbolized the State of Israel's unique role as the sovereign protector of Jews everywhere, and inspired a generation to believe that the Jewish people were intent on defending themselves, regardless of the consequences.
ENTEBBE WAS also a powerful symbol for the entire free world. It showed that with a little courage and determination, the scourge of international terror could be fought and even defeated.
Looking back, it is hard to believe how much has changed since then. In less than three decades Israel has gone from being a country that frees hostages to one that releases terrorists. Those who murder and maim Jewish children are no longer hunted down by the government of Israel. Instead they are hailed as "negotiating partners" and offered parts of the Land of Israel to place under their control.
Thus, for example, Israeli officials now meet regularly with Palestinian Minister for State Security Muhammad Dahlan despite his being linked to three attempted bombing attacks against Israeli schoolbuses since the start of the current intifada.
Last week Israel released Suleiman Abu Mutlak, deputy head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Gaza, arrested two months ago for his involvement in the November 20, 2000 Kfar Darom bus bombing that killed two Israelis and injured dozens of others.
Among Abu Mutlak's victims were three children from the Cohen family of Kfar Darom, each of whom lost a limb in the attack. Upon hearing the news of Abu Mutlak's release, Noga and Ofir Cohen responded incredulously, "Our children don't have legs, and they release him?" (Yediot Aharonot, July 4, 2003)
In times such as these Entebbe serves as an important reminder that Jewish lives were once considered precious enough to warrant risking international opprobrium over saving them in a distant land.
Now, by contrast, Israel refrains from taking the steps necessary to dismantle the Palestinian Authority's terrorist infrastructure next door for fear of how the US and others will react, effectively placing greater importance on international public opinion than on safeguarding the security of its own citizens.
Indeed, just last week Israel's chief of staff actually saw fit to declare "victory" even as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes concessions to the people responsible for killing 821 Israelis and injuring over 5,000 others during the past 33 months.
That hardly qualifies as a "win."
As Entebbe so clearly demonstrated, winning the war against terrorists comes not when one yields to them but when the terrorists themselves are forced to yield.
This is what prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was alluding to when he told the Knesset shortly after the successful raid that "The Israel Defense Forces have achieved one of their most exemplary victories from both the human-moral and the military-operational points of view, a remarkable manifestation of Jewish fraternity and Israeli valor."
In other words, Israel achieved its objectives while the terrorists were denied theirs. That, after all, is how terrorism should be fought.
It is essential that Israelis make an all-out effort not to forget the boldness and audacity that gave birth to the Entebbe operation. Now more than ever, it seems, our current leaders could use a strong dose of both.
The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office.
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