Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Yoni Netanyahu (Yonatan; Jonathan)
Date of Birth: 13th March 1946, New York City, USA
Date of Death: 4th July 1976, Entebbe, Uganda
Claim to Fame: Distinguished IDF soldier
In 1976… Yoni Netanyahu was killed in action
Yoni Netanyahu was born to Revisionist Zionist parents in New York City. They also had two other sons: Iddo, a physician, and Benjamin, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu attended high school in Pennsylvania before drafting to the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade in 1964. He excelled in service and rose through the ranks to command a paratrooper company.
After completing his service and serving in both the Sinai and Golan in the Six-Day War, Netanyahu married. They relocated to the US where he enrolled at Harvard. Despite excelling in his philosophy and math classes and even making the Dean’s List, Yoni missed Israel. He also felt that his place was in service of his country, not in school. He transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but left his studies for the army in ’69.
Netanyahu was a gifted soldier, and by 1970, commanded a special forces team called Sayeret Matkal. His elite unit participated in several high-level operations, including Operation Spring of Youth. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, his unit battled and killed Syrian commandos in the Golan Heights. He also rescued a wounded soldier from behind enemy lines, for which he received the Medal of Distinguished Service.
In 1976, the IDF launched Operation Entebbe. A week earlier, two members of the PFLP-EO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations) hijacked a plane. Their objective was freeing 53 Palestinian and militant prisoners in Israel and four other countries. They also wanted to exhort $5,000,000 for the plane’s release.
Hijackers boarded Air France’s Tel Aviv-Paris flight during a routine pickup in Athens. After a refuelling stop in Libya, they rerouted the plane to Entebbe, Uganda, with support from Uganda’s dictator. The hijackers released the non-Israeli passengers; 94 Israelis and 12 crew remained captive under threat of death.
The Israeli government attempted political and diplomatic solutions; they also considered capitulating to the requests for money and prison release. Eventually, they carefully planned a rescue mission. It involved cargo planes, jets loaded with medical equipment, 29 special forces operatives, and a ground force of 100+ personnel.
Israel’s ground force landed in Entebbe. Disguised cars drove the team to the terminal hall where the hijackers held the hostages. Crossfire ensued: three hostages and a hijacker died. The remaining hijackers hid in a different hall; the Israeli hijackers killed them with hand grenades and live ammo.
The Israelis loaded the rescued hostages onto their aircraft, surrounded by intense fire from Ugandan soldiers. This brief but volatile exchange injured five commandos and killed Yoni Netanyahu. The soldiers loaded Yoni’s body onto a plane and brought him home.
At just 30 years old, Yoni Netanyahu was laid to rest on Mount Herzl. Defence Minister Shimon Peres eulogised him, saying: “a bullet had torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons, most courageous warriors, and most promising commanders – the magnificent Yonatan Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu’s family posthumously published his letters. They paint a picture of a sensitive, talented man who viewed service as both life’s greatest priority and highest honour. Yoni died young, but a hero: his legacy as a great warrior and patriot lives on to this day.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Herman Wouk wrote of Netanyahu: “He was a taciturn philosopher-soldier of terrific endurance; a hard-fibered, charismatic young leader, a magnificent fighting man. …and after Entebbe, “Yoni” became in Israel almost a symbol of the nation itself. Today his name is spoken there with sombre reverence.”
Previously: 1975: Uri Geller
Watch the story of Yoni’s death and Operation Entebbe below: