• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Remembering Yoni (1)


Last week Monday 4th of July, precisely a week to the day, a rather unusual ceremony took place at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived the country on the first leg of an East African official tour that includes Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. It is the first such visit by an Israeli premier in three decades.

The real purpose of the visit was not only to mend diplomatic fences but to canvass for business, trade and investments. It was also to mark the fortieth anniversary of what became known as the Entebbe Raid. Those of my gentle readers who are old enough to remember, would recall that forty years ago, precisely on July 4th 1976, Israeli commandos executed a daring mission to rescue 106 hostages, most of them Jews. A Tel Aviv bound Air France plane was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists, forcing it to land at Entebbe. My gentle readers would also recall that Uganda at the time was under the stranglehold of General Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship. It became evident that Amin was sympathetic to the terrorists who were threatening to kill all the hostages if their demands were not met within a week.

Tensions were rising all over Israel, as pressures were mounted on the government by friends and families of the hostages to do something — anything. Yitzhak Rabin, later himself to be felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1995, was prime minister at the time. He called an emergency meeting of his military and security advisers to look at possible options. A solemn decision was taken to send a crack team of commandos to rescue the hostages. A young Lieutenant Colonel, Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu, was chosen to lead this most sensitive of military operations. Barely 30, he was Commander of Sayeret Matkal, one of Israel’s most elite commando units. With a legendary reputation as one of the best paratroopers in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Yoni was recalled from his studies at Harvard, where he was completing a doctorate in philosophy and mathematics.

Created in 1957, Sayeret Matkal was modelled after the ferocious British Special Air Service (SAS), with which it shares the motto, “He who dares, wins”. Sayeret’s mandate includes intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism, rescue operations and special reconnaissance behind enemy lines. If the IDF has a formidable reputation as one of the world’s greatest fighting machines, the legendary Sayeret belongs among la-crème-de-la-crème. It has been involved in some of the most daring military operations in Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbours. Its pioneer commander was the legendary Meir Har-Zion, universally acclaimed Israel’s greatest military officer ever. This says much for a country that has produced consummate. Born in war, the state of Israel has produced more military heroes per square km than any other nation in history, barring the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.

It goes without saying that no lily-livered sissy could ever accidentally sleepwalk himself into the high command of Sayeret Matkal. Yoni Netanyahu stood at the end of a long line of heroic Jewish warrior-tribesmen. Born in New York on 13 March 1946 to Zila and Benzion Netanyahu. His father was a professor at Cornell University, with a respectable reputation as a scholar in Jewish Studies and as editor of the Encyclopaedia of Jewish Civilisation.

Yoni was a rather precocious child. At age 12, he once wandered alone into an orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. When he was asked, “Yoni, what are you doing here?” he replied, “My father is secular, but I am orthodox”. He would exhibit such independent-mindedness throughout his short life on earth.

When the family moved to America, he seemed not to have been particularly enamoured of what he described as “an empty, meaningless life”. He was happy to return to Israel in 1964 to do his obligatory national service in the army. He liked it so much that he decided to pursue a career in the IDF officer corps. In January 1966 he graduated top of his class at Israel’s military academy, decorated by none other than General Yitzhak Rabin himself. He was a veteran of some of Israel’s bloodiest wars. He saw active duty during the 1967 war, when he was also wounded. Joining Sayeret in the early seventies, he fought in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of 1973; receiving the Distinguished Service Medal for his battlefield exploits.

Much of what we know of his inner life during those years is revealed in the many letters he wrote home. These have been compiled into a book, The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu (New York & Jerusalem: Gefen, 2001). In March 1969, he wrote to his parents: “In another week I’ll be 23. On me, on us, the young men of Israel, rests the duty of keeping our country safe. This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early… I do not regret what I have done and what I’m about to do. I’m convinced that what I am doing is right. I believe in myself, in my country and in my future.”


At the eve of the Yom Kippur War in December 1973, he writes his brother Benjamin (b. 1952), with whom he was particularly close: “We’re preparing for war, and it’s hard to know what to expect…. But I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people…. As I don’t intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish state in the twentieth century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering…”


In August 1967, Yoni was married to the beautiful Tutti Goodman, but the childless marriage was to end in divorce in 1972. His companion at the time of his death was the winsome Bruria Shaked-Okon, to whom he was passionately devoted. Writing to her in 1974, lamenting that he had lost his “innocence and my blind faith in the eternity of love”.


In 1975 Yoni was elevated to the exalted position of Commander of Sayeret. The lot fell on him to lead the elite commando team to Entebbe on that fateful summer day in July 1976. Contrary to the fears and doubts that were expressed in some circles within the IDF, the mission turned out to be a success. The hostages, with the exception of three, were successfully airlifted to the safety of Israel. Yoni, unfortunately, did not make it. A marksman from up the airport tower aimed at his heart. Yoni was felled in a hail of bullets. According to one of his comrades in arms, “He went first, he fell first”. On the eve of the mission itself, he had confided to a close friend that he had a premonition that he “might not come back from this one”. On the gruelling 3,567 km night flight to Entebbe, his colleagues were rather alarmed after he fell asleep as soundly as a baby, asking to be woken up just before touchdown. He went around greeting his men, cheering them up and encouraging each one of them by name. As it turned out, it was his own way of saying adieu.


The return of the hostages was met with great rejoicing in Israel. But the nation was also in mourning. On 6 July 1976, Yoni was buried in a state funeral in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery. The officiating Rabbi would have solemnly intoned the Shema Yisrael, to the accompaniment of a loud horn – a staccato of gun salute. In his eulogy to the fallen hero, Defence Minister Shimon Peres declared: “A bullet had torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons, one of its most courageous warriors, one of its most promising commanders – the magnificent Yonatan Netanyahu”.


Today, Yoni remains one of the most heroic iconic figures in the nation of Israel. Films have been made and books have been written in his memory. A research institution has been established in his name to promote international conferences on terrorism. The writer Herman Wouk has summed Yoni’s life and legacy in these memorable words: “He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance; a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. On the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War, the unit he led was part of the force that held back a sea of Soviet tanks manned by Syrians, in a celebrated stand; and after Entebbe, “Yoni” became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with sombre reverence.”


Obadiah Mailafia