THIRTY YEARS AGO this week, on July 4, 1976, Israel carried out one of the most spectacular rescue missions in history -- the raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda that freed more than 100 Jewish hostages being held by Arab and German terrorists. A team of commandos led by Yonatan Netanyahu secretly flew more than 2,000 miles, landing at Entebbe in the dead of night and taking the terrorists and the Ugandan soldiers guarding the airfield by surprise. In a whirlwind attack, the Israelis killed the terrorists, rescued the hostages, and destroyed 11 of Uganda's Soviet-supplied MiG fighters to prevent pursuit. Then, just 58 minutes after they had touched down, they lifted off for the eight-hour flight home. The only rescuer to die in the operation was Netanyahu, whose heroism would become the stuff of Israeli legend.
It was an electrifying feat. "Once again, Israel's lightning-swift sword had cut down an enemy," reported Newsweek a few days later, "and its display of military precision, courage, and sheer chutzpa won the applause and admiration of most of the world." Israel's foes were once more reminded that while the Jewish state might be tiny, it was indomitable. Those who called for its destruction were wasting their breath, and any attack on its people would bring painful retaliation.
Does that Israel still exist?
Looking at the headlines from the Middle East, a Rip Van Winkle just waking from a slumber of nearly 30 years might suppose that Israel's mettle and resolve are as tenacious as ever. Last Sunday, Hamas gunmen from Gaza attacked a military outpost inside Israel, killing two Israeli troops, wounding several others, and capturing 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, the first Israeli soldier to be taken alive by Palestinians since 1994.
In response, Israel moved into the Gaza Strip, pounding government buildings, taking out bridges, and vowing not to leave without retrieving Shalit. Simultaneously, 64 members of Hamas were arrested, among them 23 Palestinian Authority legislators and a third of the Palestinian cabinet. Israel even sent warplanes to buzz the residence of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad , who harbors Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. "If you are in the terrorist business," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, "you can't be surprised if Israel acts against you."
But far from demonstrating that "Entebbe rules" still guide Israeli policy, the latest crisis merely proves what folly it was to abandon them.
Israel's operation in Gaza comes less than a year after its unilateral retreat last summer, when more than 8,000 Jews were expelled from the homes and communities some of them had lived in for decades. This, Israelis were told, would mean "disengagement" from their enemies -- the Palestinians would have all of Gaza to themselves and violence would be thwarted by the security fence separating them from Israel. "If this will be done, then everything will be changed," Ehud Olmert, a key architect of the plan, promised in a speech last June. Israel would be better off without Gaza than it ever was with it. But the surrender of Gaza didn't appease Hamas and Fatah. Instead, it convinced them that Israelis were weak, that terrorism worked -- and that more terrorism would work even better.
So more terrorism followed. "In just the past two weeks," I wrote last September, "a Palestinian knifed a Jewish student to death in Jerusalem's Old City, an Israeli policemen was stabbed in the throat by an Arab in Hebron, Kassam rockets were fired from Gaza into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a suicide bomber blew himself up in Beersheba's crowded bus station, a Katyusha missile launched from Lebanon exploded in the Israeli village of Margaliot, a firebomb was thrown at an Israeli vehicle on a highway outside Jerusalem, and a 14-year-old boy from Nablus was caught with three bombs."
In the months since then, the Palestinian war against Israel has continued without letup. All that changed was the frontline -- with the Jewish settlements and soldiers gone, it moved right up to the border, making it easier than ever for attacks to penetrate Israeli territory. The Gaza security fence has been no panacea. Sderot and other towns in southern Israel have been bombarded by hundreds of rockets fired over the fence. The gunmen who abducted Shalit and killed two of his comrades entered Israel by tunneling under the fence.
"We are tired of fighting," said Olmert last year, making the case for retreating from Gaza. "We are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."
But Israel will either defeat its enemies or be defeated by them; "disengaging" from them is not an option. In 1976, Israelis understood that in their bones. Thirty years later, do they still?
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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