Operation Thunderbolt: 40 Years After and Israeli Neutralizization of Arab Influence in Black Africa

Published on 4th July 2016

On 4th July, 1976, at Entebbe Uganda, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Force, carried out what was arguably the most dramatic counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission of the 20th Century. This operation was code named ‘Operation Thunderbolt.’  It  was Commanded by Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu,  the sole Task Force Member  to lose his life. The Israeli commando force rescued Israeli passengers who were flying from Tel Aviv via Athens to Paris. In Athens the Air France jet had been hijacked by Palestinian fighters who diverted the plane to Entebbe Airport, Uganda via Benghazi, Libya. Uganda was then ruled by coup instigator Field Marshall Idi Amin, who had become a vocal supporter of Palestinian Statehood.  

Three years prior to this dramatic mission, African countries had resolved, through the Organization of African Unity (OAU), to sever diplomatic ties with Israel in response to diplomatic pressure from the Arab League, after the 1973 war between Arab states and Israel.  The Arab League pressured Black African countries into accepting the ‘moral equivalency’ between Israel’s occupation of Arab territories and South Africa’s despicable system of Apartheid.  

Whilst the Arab countries were content with using Black African countries as ‘mega-phones’ for the Arab League’s anti Israeli policy, Israel on the other hand strategically out maneuvered the Arab countries by demonstrating that Israeli cooperation delivered tangible outputs that made positive developmental impacts in Africa, in contrast to the rhetoric of anti-Imperialism and anti-Zionism orchestrated by the Arab League.

The African position at this time was most succinctly summed up by Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko who said in his address to the UN General Assembly in 1973, that when required to choose between a friend and a brother, Zaire would choose to support brothers, in this case the Arab countries.

When African countries adopted the anti-Israel OAU Resolution in 1973, they appealed to the Arab countries to offer them concessionary oil prices to compensate those (poor Sub-Saharan African countries) for the sharp increase in petroleum prices following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.  However, the oil rich Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait etc only made vague assurances about African-Arab solidarity. African leaders felt cheated by their ‘Arab brothers,’ because prior to 1973, Israel had offered practical help in irrigation, water resources management etc  and Israeli experts were implementing practical projects that were improving human development in most Black African countries, most of whom  were very poor.  On the contrary, Arab countries were largely concerned with using the OAU as a diplomatic Forum for issuing vitriolic denunciations of Israel’s ‘Zionist expansionist policies’.

African countries, noticed that instead of channeling resources to mitigate the adverse impact of increased petroleum prices on sub-Saharan African countries into the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Arab League established a rival institution, the Khartoum based Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA). This institution came to link disbursement of resources to diplomatic hostility to Tel Aviv. African countries that did not chant Anti Israeli rhetoric would not receive BADEA resources. In 1974, Black African leaders led by Zambia’s first President Kenneth Kaunda thwarted a bid by Arab League member Somalia to install a Somalian diplomat to become OAU Secretary-General.  Cameroon eventually provided a diplomat to head the OAU.  In 1977, Kaunda echoing Black Africa’s frustration with the Arab League, observed at the first Arab-African Summit held in Cairo, Egypt in 1977, that attendance of Heads of State of petroleum rich Arab countries was poor. Kaunda also scolded the Arab countries for pouring their surplus petro-dollars into sovereign wealth funds of Western Capitalist countries rather than in projects to boost agriculture production and food security in Africa, South of the Sahara.

In 1977, without informing Black African countries through the OAU, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem on a peacemaking mission. By 1979, Egypt had made peace with Israel under the Camp David Accords brokered by former US President Jimmy Carter. Black African leaders in the mid-1980s began to grumble that whereas they had sacrificed tangible Israeli developmental assistance in the framework of Afro-Arab solidarity, they had gained very little in return from the Arab League. President Mobutu complained that while Egypt had recognized Israeli, it was strange that Egypt’s diplomats vociferously opposed African countries that were favorably responding to Israel’s discreet diplomatic overtures. Mobutu criticized the Arab countries for practicing double standards in that whilst they (Arab states) conducted normal relations with the advanced Western countries that maintained diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, they pressured Black African countries against resuming ties with Israel at annual meetings of the OAU.     

In the teeth of Arab hostility and negative rhetoric, Mobutu announced re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Zaire (DRC) and Israel in 1985. Mobutu then alarmed the Arab countries by calling for the establishment of a League of Black African States (LENA) to work as a caucus within the OAU arguing that since the Arab countries had the Arab League, Black African states needed to have their own organization focusing exclusively on issues affecting Black Africa.

Other countries followed Zaire’s lead in re-establishing ties with Israel and in return Israel offered expertise in agriculture, food security and appropriate technology transfer etc. Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire etc followed Zaire’s lead, attracted to Israel’s pragmatic cooperation which offered practical dividends in contrast to Afro-Arab solidarity which revolved around anti Israeli resolutions in the OAU and the United Nations (UN). Today Israel has developed strong security partnerships with many Black African countries, particularly those facing terrorism threats in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions. Prime Minister Netanyahu aims to deepen and expand cooperation with Black African countries on his visit to the continent to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt.

By Dr. Njunga Michael Mulikita

Dr Mulikita is Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Dag Hammarskjöld Institute(DHIPS),  Copperbelt University(CBU), Zambia.

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