Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived in Uganda at the start of a four-country trip to East Africa, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit the continent in at least 30 years.
Arriving at Uganda’s Entebbe’s airport on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel’s raid to end a hostage crisis 40 years ago, in which his brother was killed, “changed the course” of his life.
The Entebbe rescue is widely seen as one of Israel’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.
“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.”
Netanyahu travelled to Uganda with soldiers and pilots who were members of the rescue team.
An Israeli band played sombre 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.
Aside from Uganda, Netanyahu is also scheduled to visit Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
In Uganda, Netanyahu will meet African leaders to discuss further cooperation and business opportunities, in a special summit to be attended by President Yoweri Museveni, as well as leaders from Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania.
On June 27, 1976, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by two Palestinian and two German hijackers.
Most passengers were released, except the Israelis. The Israelis were freed and airlifted to Israel in a July 4 raid by Israeli commandos. During the operation, Kenya allowed Israeli forces to use its airspace, refuel and treat injured hostages.
“I am not sure people in this country understand how deep is Israel’s appreciation of Kenya’s role in the 1976 Entebbe raid,” Yahel Vilan, the Israeli ambassador to Kenya, told Al Jazeera. “People of my generation and older remember it as if it happened yesterday.”
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Entebbe, said that besides the obvious symbolism of Netanyahu’s visit, diplomacy, business and security issues were high on the agenda.
“The Israeli prime minister has said words to the effect of being determined to get more friends in Africa, more allies on the continent,” Stratford said.
Seeking trade partners
Diplomatic relations between Israel and African countries date back to the 1960s, but ties with most nations in the continent were severed in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Relations were also not helped by Israel’s friendship with the apartheid regime in South Africa before its fall in 1994.
Before his East Africa visit, Netanyahu had told the cabinet that the trip was “part of a major effort on our part to return to Africa in a big way.
In Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Netanyahu is expected to separately meet the nations’ heads of state and security and economic leaders, and to speak before the Ethiopian Parliament.
The trip comes at a time when Israel is launching a $13m aid package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African countries, said Netanyahu’s office. Israel would also provide African states with training in “domestic security” and health, it added.
“With the visit of the prime minister, I believe that the relations of Kenya and Israel will be solidified and expanded,” Albert Attias, chairman of the Jewish community in Kenya, told Al Jazeera.
“This will give opportunities to the two countries expand their bilateral activities and add value to both Kenya and Israel,” the businessman added.
Netanyahu is accompanied by approximately 80 business leaders from more than 50 companies in order to forge commercial ties with African companies and countries.