Thirty years ago on the night of July 3rd and morning of July 4th in 1976, Israeli commandos flew into the heart of Africa to the old terminal building at Uganda's Entebbe Airport and in a lighting operation freed 103 hostages.
Some 250 passengers had been hijacked a week earlier aboard Air France Flight 139 en route from Athens to Paris by the Marxist-Leninist PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Once in control of the plane, the terrorists diverted the flight to Idi Amin's bloodthirsty dictatorship, after refueling supplied by the already veteran terrorist regime of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. The terrorists gradually released most passengers, retaining only those with Israeli passports or Jewish surnames plus the Air France crew of Captain Michel Bacos, who refused to abandon any of his charges.
The German and Arabs hijackers – this was a comradely joint project of Baader-Meinhof and the PLO – demanded the release of jailed Palestinian terrorists in an assortment of Israeli and European jails and threatened to start murdering the hostages if their demands went unmet. With the passengers captive in the middle of a seemingly inaccessible African tyranny, there was no reason to suppose anyone, the Israelis included, would have any choice but to cave in.
Instead, only hours before the deadline, Israeli commandos flew the 2,500 miles to Uganda in four C-130 Hercules military transport planes, taking the terrorists and their Ugandan enablers entirely by surprise. The terminal building holding the hostages was stormed, seven of the ten terrorists were killed, along with about 40 Ugandan soldiers, and all but four hostages were safely spirited away. The Israelis neutralized Amin's air force to avoid a catastrophic pursuit by Ugandan pilots, eleven of their MIG jets being destroyed on the ground. All Israeli commandos returned alive but for their field commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu.
A United Nations Security Council debate had achieved little but it did at least provide a platform for a denunciation against the terrorists and their supporters by Israel's UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, while Israel basked perhaps for the last time in international acclaim and sympathy for resolutely fighting terrorism. No international police action had procured the hostages release and no one had been able to offer Israel more than tea and sympathy. As so often before, the Israelis had demonstrated that they relied on no one except themselves to fight for their own.
How much has changed in thirty years. Today Israel acts neither so boldly nor swiftly. A case in point is presently before our eyes – for months, Israel has been attacked on its own soil by hundred of rockets since unilaterally relinquishing Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. Part of what once fired Israeli determination never to deal with terrorists was the fear that doing so would cause their demands to escalate to the point of having to abandon strategic territory just to redeem Israeli captives. Today, Israel unilaterally cedes for nothing what it would not have yielded previously for hostages' lives – while enduring yet more rockets, bombings, fatalities and kidnappings.
Changes in Israeli behavior and, one suspects, morale reflect a different international environment. Today's world is one in which Western publics are so inured to the incidence of terrorism that increasingly, no single outrage is deemed worthy of decisive response. Worse, however, is the moral confusion that preceded it. In a remarkable borrowing from the dead ideology of Soviet communism, it is today possible to convince large segments of Western publics, five years into a war on Islamist terrorists, that the US really is motivated to occupy Iraq in order to seize its oil and that the West is the greatest misfortune to befall the earth.
Cultural relativism also plays its hand, ordaining automatic self-justification for terrorist acts, the more gruesome and larger, so the reasoning goes, the more cogent must be the justifications. This is but an adjunct of the widespread inability to call evil by its name. If one society may not judge another's acts, than justifications for those acts must be found and validated. Thus, the propensity to find real or contrived "root causes." With this intellectual corrosion follows the false standardization of evil, which becomes something to be seen everywhere but fought nowhere.
To be sure, much of these same Western publics deplore the nihilistic leveling of their own societies to the level of their assailants, but the mood is undeniably different. One index: can we really expect to see three films, or even one, on the elimination of master–terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? As it is, it took Hollywood five years to produce Flight 93. It did not take Hollywood's until 1946 to produce its first World War Two film. Whereas American journalists never thought twice to don US military uniforms in that conflict, their successors today seriously ponder the propriety of wearing American lapel-pins.
Films dealing with terrorism today are likely to celebrate less the success or importance of counter-terrorism than call it into question as moral issue. Instead of a Raid on Entebbe, we are more likely to get a Munich. Sophisticates might see this as tribute to our ability, once apparently lacking, to empathize across cultures and to rigorously examine ourselves. In fact, Raid on Entebbe is largely factual whereas Munich is largely factitious. The resultant tendentiousness is but one price we pay for the ravages of moral confusion. Redeeming clarity that can inspire and celebrate a counter-terrorist victory, in the manner the world once celebrated Entebbe, is needed before the West, Israel first, others later, face a real Munich.
Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA Center for Middle East Policy, a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and the author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (2004).
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