Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)
In the context of relations between Israel and African countries that began to develop in the late 1950s, Uganda, which received independence in 1962, has a special place. Israel devoted great effort and resources to cultivating relations with this country, and its activity in Uganda during the 1960s was among its most wide-ranging in Africa. There was technical cooperation in agriculture, industry, and education, the main goal being to train a cadre of local people who would administer their nation. Public and private Israeli companies worked on paving roads, building airports, constructing housing, and developing water resources. There was also extensive cooperation in military areas. Hundreds of Ugandan students studied in Israel. The situation changed abruptly in March 1972 when President Idi Amin expelled all Israelis from Uganda and adopted a hostile stance.
Israel began its activities in many African countries before they became independent, and Uganda was one. In 1961, a year before its independence, this author was sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to get familiar with the East African region and to establish initial contacts with local leaders. The author was then also an associate researcher at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, then the only university in all of East Africa.
By that time, students and senior Ugandan officials had visited Israel. They included Yusuf Lule, the assistant rector of Makerere University, who in 1979 after the overthrow of Idi Amin was appointed president of Uganda. Lule was of great help to Israel in finding the remains of Dora Bloch, the hostage killed in the Entebbe affair, and bringing them to Israel for burial.
Back in 1960, however, Israel knew little of Uganda. Early that year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry received a telegram from the Trade Union of Austria stating that a Ugandan leader, Milton Obote, who was currently visiting them would like to come to Israel. They recommended a favorable response because they thought he would assume an important position in an independent Uganda. The Foreign Ministry assented, and this author was asked to accompany Obote during his stay in Israel.
He spent a week in the country, meeting with leading figures who discussed with him possible cooperation with Uganda in several fields. After he left for Sweden, the Foreign Ministry received a telegram from there stating that this individual was not really Obote but an impostor. In Israel, where Obote’s name, picture, and reputation were not previously known, the embarrassment was great.
The real Milton Obote came to Israel on 2 September 1962, about a month before Uganda’s independence, for consultations with the Israeli leadership. Later, when serving in the Israeli embassy in Uganda, this author met Obote, who was then prime minister, and told him about the episode with the impostor. Obote smiled and said he knew about it at the time, because the impostor was a member of his political party who assumed Obote’s name in an effort to see the world. He was tried and punished.
The whole incident reflected Israel’s lack of knowledge about Uganda and its leadership at that time.
Israeli Objectives in Uganda
The reasons for Israel’s interest in Uganda at the start of the 1960s were the same as for Africa in general. Israel wanted to break through the encirclement of hostile Arab countries and open a way to a nearby continent, and especially East Africa.1 Moreover, as the number of independent African countries steadily increased during that decade, Israel wanted to gain their support at the United Nations and in international conferences. Israel also had commercial, economic, and strategic interests in Africa, as well as a humanitarian goal of helping developing countries especially in training manpower.
Uganda’s special place, however, came not only from distant memories of the Uganda Plan to settle Jews there in the early twentieth century, but also from its strategic importance since it bordered an Arab country, Sudan, and was close to Israel. Uganda was also a link in a chain of African countries surrounding hostile Arab ones, mainly Sudan and Egypt.
Sudan was then the scene of a bloody civil war between the Arab-Muslim north and the Christian and animist, black-African south. Sudan had also openly participated in wars against the Jewish state. Large tribes such as the Acholi lived on both sides of the Ugandan-Sudanese border, and the Sudanese army sometimes invaded northern Uganda in pursuit of rebels, destroying villages and killing tribespeople. Along with this came the forceful Arabization and Islamization of the tribes in southern Sudan.
Uganda, 70 percent of whose population were (and still are) Christians, sympathized with the southern Sudanese Christians’ and animists’ struggle for equal rights and self-determination. Being militarily weaker than Sudan, however, Uganda could not help them in any significant way. It was in Israel’s interest that an independent entity should be established in southern Sudan that would tie up Sudanese and even Egyptian forces, which might come to Sudan’s assistance. The Nile waters, so important for Egypt, traverse Sudan.
In the 1960s, joint Israeli-Ugandan activity was also in the latter’s interest. Obote, Uganda’s first prime minister as an independent country, wanted Israeli assistance and during his tenure the relations expanded.
One of Obote’s political-economic goals in his initial years in office was to gradually free Uganda from dependency on Great Britain, which had ruled his country for some seventy years. Even after independence, Britain continued to wield much influence over Uganda’s economy, army, and administration. Hence, Obote welcomed the overtures from Israel, which had earned a reputation for rapid economic development and, even more so, military prowess. Because of Israel’s smallness, Obote did not fear that it would seek to curtail his government’s freedom of action.
Obote’s abovementioned visit to Israel in September 1962 included discussions of cooperation in the agricultural, military, and security fields. At Uganda’s independence celebrations on 2 October, Israel was represented by one of its senior officials, Labor Minister Yigal Allon, and announced the awarding of 150 scholarships to Ugandan students in agriculture, medicine, and so on. Israel was also one of the first countries to open an embassy in Uganda.
Israel made special efforts to forge ties with Uganda’s ruling class. This was augmented by Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s visit to Uganda in February 1963, during which she signed an agreement on technical cooperation. Thus, wide-ranging Israeli activity in Uganda began.
Israel in Uganda in the 1960s
In the civilian area, Mashav, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation, sent experts in the fields of agriculture, irrigation, medicine, and cooperative enterprises to Uganda. Minister Allon again visited Uganda in September 1963 to inaugurate the first course for youth leaders, which was taught by Israeli advisers. Hundreds of Ugandan students received training in Israel, some in medicine and engineering. In Uganda itself, Israelis gave on-the-spot courses in agriculture, cooperatives, and community development. At Uganda’s request, advisers from the Carmel Institute in Haifa were sent to organize courses for secretaries and office administrators.
In the economic sphere, Israeli companies such as Solel Boneh, Vered, Tahal, and Koor-Sahar were involved in constructing agricultural stations, public buildings, roads, and housing estates. Among the largest projects was the Kabale-Ntungamo road in a difficult, mountainous area in western Uganda at a cost of one million pounds sterling, which West Germany gave to Uganda as a grant. The project was carried out by Vered, which won the bid in 1966.
Also in that period, Solel Boneh began constructing a housing estate in the Bugolobi neighborhood in Kampala, a project that to this day is cited as an example of Israeli activity. Tahal began discussions on a project to develop water sources in the semi-arid Karamoja region in northern Uganda, where nomadic tribes fought over water and grazing areas. The Israeli firm Hiram-Ze’evi built roads and an airport in Arua, also in northern Uganda. Another Israeli firm, Makhteshim, constructed a pesticide factory, crucial for developing the country’s agriculture.
There was also a steady increase in Israeli-Ugandan trade, especially Israeli exports to Uganda.
In the defense sphere, developments in Israeli-Ugandan cooperation were much publicized in Israel and elsewhere. In the African continent, Israel had a larger military presence only in Ethiopia. It sent dozens of advisers to train Uganda’s infantry, parachutists, armored corps, and air force. Israelis trained the first Ugandan pilots on Fuga jets that were acquired in Israel.2 The first course for Ugandan infantry officers concluded in Israel in July 1963, and was followed by additional courses. A military attaché was stationed at the Israeli embassy in Kampala. Courses in the intelligence field were held both in Uganda and Israel.
The international and Arab media also reported that Israel was building its own air force in northern Uganda to enable attacking Sudan and Egypt if the need arose. Likewise, it was claimed that Israel was providing military equipment and advisers to the southern Sudanese underground, Anya Anya, via Uganda.3 These reports were among the reasons that Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and other Arab countries increased their own activity in Uganda. Egypt in particular tried, unsuccessfully at that time, to pressure Uganda not to cooperate militarily with Israel.
In the political realm, Obote generally, until the 1967 Six Day War, showed understanding for Israel’s position in the Middle East conflict. Uganda’s votes in the United Nations and in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) were balanced, like those of most African countries at that time. During 12-15 June 1966, Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol visited Uganda and met with Obote and other Ugandan leaders, discussing further cooperation in all areas. Obote expressed gratitude to Israel and said it “played an important role in helping Uganda.”4
After the Six Day War, Uganda’s votes in the United Nations and other international forums, as with most other African countries, began to turn against Israel. Obote’s relations with Israel chilled as he moved closer to the Arab countries. Nevertheless, Israeli-Ugandan cooperation continued in all areas, including military.
In 1966, Obote had staged a coup against Mutesa II, monarch of the large kingdom of Buganda and the first president of independent Uganda. Obote had decided to abolish Buganda, then the largest and most powerful of the kingdoms existing in federal Uganda, because it wanted to secede from the country. Mutesa fled to Britain, where he found refuge until his death in 1969. From that time, Obote’s regime became increasingly dictatorial.
The Amin Coup
On 25 January 1971, President Obote was overthrown by a military coup led by General Idi Amin. Several commentators and historians claimed Israel played a vital role in the revolt. Before analyzing the veracity of the charge, a few key points in Amin’s life and his relationship with Obote should be clarified.
Idi Amin was born in 1928 in the western Nile region of northwest Uganda, near the border with Sudan. His father was a Muslim from the small Kakwa tribe. While still a child he went with his mother to live in the kingdom of Buganda where he attended an elementary school, acquiring a basic education and a limited capacity to read and write English.
In 1946, Amin enlisted in the local army that was created by the British, where he stood out because of his strength and huge size. In 1961, when the British hastily established a local army officer corps, Amin received a commissioned rank. In 1965 he was sent to Israel for a paratrooper course; though he did not complete it, he received paratrooper wings because he was an important officer friendly to Israel. In 1966, it was Amin who headed the unit that attacked King Mutesa II’s palace in Buganda and carried out a bloodbath against members of the Ganda tribe who tried to defend the palace.
In the late 1960s, relations between Obote and Amin, who by then was chief of staff, deteriorated as Obote gave precedence for military positions to members of his Lango tribe over members of tribes from the western Nile where Amin came from. On 19 December 1969, when there was an attempt on Obote’s life, suspicion fell on Amin, who was removed from his position and given only a ceremonial role in the army.
On 11 January 1971, Obote went to Singapore to participate in the summit of the Commonwealth of Nations. Before leaving, he wrote a memorandum to Amin demanding explanations about costs that had been discovered in the army, and about police suspicions that Amin was involved in murdering a senior army officer whom Amin had seen as a rival. Although demoted to a ceremonial role, Amin still had many supporters and a considerable status in the military. He viewed Obote’s memorandum as a severe attack on his honor and a pretext by Obote to oust him from the army altogether.
On 25 January 1971, on the eve of Obote’s return from Singapore, Amin staged a military coup. Some, as mentioned, believed there was Israeli involvement. Indeed, as chief of staff Amin had had good relations with Israeli military officers and was considered a friend of Israel. As noted, he had taken a paratroopers’ course in Israel. Israelis gave him the name Hagai Ne’eman, which means “reliable helmsman” and is a Hebrew translation of the Swahili name Idi Amin.
Moreover, as a member of the Kakwa tribe located near the border with Sudan, Amin supported the southern Sudanese rebels with whom he had an ethnic affinity. He shared the Israelis’ interest in aiding the southern Sudanese rebellion, whereas Obote was more cautious and even requested that Israel stop all assistance to the southern Sudanese through Uganda.
The close cooperation between Amin and the Israelis, especially with the then head of the Israeli military mission, Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, along with Israel’s displeasure with Obote, led some to infer that Israel helped Amin in his coup. Obote himself publicly accused Israel of doing so.5 Historians and other commentators, however, deny such allegations and emphasize other factors involving developments within Uganda and the strained relationship between Obote and Amin. One such historian is Michael Lofchie.6
Israel, for its part, rejected Obote’s charge and said its military personnel in Uganda were solely advisers and had no connection to the coup. The author, at that time, dealt with Uganda in the Africa Section of the Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry made it clear to their representatives in Uganda, including Colonel Bar-Lev, that they were to engage only in instruction and avoid any activity that could be interpreted as interference in the dispute between Amin and Obote.
Indeed, the news of Amin’s coup caused great surprise in Israel. Conversations between this author and Bar-Lev indicated that he, too, was taken aback. The coup was carried out without prior planning when one evening several Ugandan military officers appeared at the gate of Amin’s house and he feared they would arrest him. Amin, who was popular among some of the military units stationed in Kampala, decided that Obote’s absence gave him the opportunity to overthrow the regime and save himself.
After the coup, Israel made clear that it would continue cooperating with Uganda and had no intention to interfere with its internal affairs.
Stages in Amin’s Relationship with Israel
Idi Amin’s assumption of power decisively influenced Israel’s standing in Uganda and to a certain extent in all of Africa. There were three main stages in Amin’s relationship with Israel.
Stage 1: “The Honeymoon” (January-February 1971)
This stage encompassed only January and February 1971 immediately after Amin’s coup. In the first days of his rule an improvement, compared to the last period of Obote, was noted in Ugandan-Israeli relations, with increased cooperation. Both sides had high expectations of each other. This was especially true in Israeli military circles, which had great hopes in light of the close ties the military delegation in Uganda had maintained with Amin. They believed that now was the time to expand Israel’s presence and achieve wider military and political goals.
These circles emphasized the benefits to Israel of widening the rebellion in southern Sudan. Amin supported the revolt and, unlike Obote, was willing to transfer aid to the rebels via Uganda. The Israelis also claimed that the success of the rebellion would be good for Uganda, making it more difficult for Sudan to provoke or harm it. If an independent southern Sudanese country emerged, it would be a buffer between Uganda and the Arab countries and Israel would be able to help develop broad areas of the Nile region. Moreover, Uganda and Ethiopia together would constitute an African barrier to exclusive Arab rule over the sources of the Nile.
Thus, Amin’s accession brought an increased Israeli military and economic presence along with technical cooperation. In visits, both before and after his coup, to the training camps that Israeli set up for the Ugandan air force and infantry, Amin would commend the Israeli advisers’ work, and then praise them in the Ugandan media.7 The number of Israeli military advisers ranged from fifty to seventy.
Visits to Israel by Ugandan leaders increased. Although by then relations with Israel had already deteriorated, Amin’s first visit to a foreign country after the coup was to Israel in July 1971. He arrived on an Israeli plane and was greeted by a delegation headed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and other representatives of their ministries. A joint statement issued at the end of the visit said Amin had discussed with Prime Minister Golda Meir and other ministers the expansion of cooperation in all areas relevant to Uganda’s needs.8
During the visit Amin also promised to change Uganda’s UN and OAU votes, which were pro-Arab at the end of Obote’s rule. He also undertook to establish a Ugandan embassy in Israel. This had not yet been done, even though Israel opened an embassy in Uganda immediately after its independence. Among other civilian projects to be launched in Uganda was a plan to develop water resources by the Israeli company Tahal in the semi-arid northern region of Karamoja, which, as noted, was broached in Obote’s time. Meeting with Israel’s ambassador in August 1971, Amin expressed appreciation for Israel’s readiness to help with this project and said he hoped the “desert of Karamoja would be as green as Jerusalem.”9
According to the London Times,10 Israel sold Amin tanks, Fuga jet planes, and assorted weapons then worth a million pounds sterling. The growth of Uganda’s army and general military expenditures throughout 1971 created a burden for its economy. The Times claimed Israeli influence on the Ugandan army was at its height and Israel had begun constructing an airport in northern Uganda, bordering Sudan, that was superior to the earlier-built airport in Arua. The Times article asked: “What is it needed for? Perhaps for the [Israeli] Phantoms to attack Egypt?” Similar reports appearing in the world press at the time caused concern in the Arab world, especially Egypt, and led it to seek ways to alienate Uganda from Israel.
In the economic sphere, too, more Israeli companies became involved in Uganda constructing housing and roads. Technical cooperation expanded, and more Ugandans were granted scholarships to study in various fields in Israel.
Stage 2: Signs of Deterioration (March 1971-February 1972)
Immediately following the coup, Amin had exaggerated expectations about the amount of military and financial assistance he could expect from Israel. Despite the increased Israeli involvement in all spheres in Uganda, Amin wanted much more. He made several requests that Israel rejected:
● Amin demanded that Israel recognize his regime as Britain has done. Israel responded negatively, explaining that it recognized countries and not their regimes, and that it had recognized Uganda immediately upon its independence.
● Amin asked for a loan from Israel of ten million pounds sterling, which Israel refused.
● Prime Minister Meir, explaining in an October 1972 speech to journalists in Tel Aviv why relations with Amin had deteriorated, revealed that in his visit to Israel in July 1971 he had asked for Phantom fighter jets. “‘Phantoms”‘ I asked him. ‘We buy them from the United States for our own use and not to sell. What do you need Phantoms for?’ He replied that he needed them to use against Tanzania. I did not agree. From here he went to London to obtain bombers to use against Tanzania and he did not get them.”11 Amin directed similar requests for expensive and sophisticated weaponry to Defense Minister Dayan, who also turned him down.12
● Amin also expected Israel to actively support him in both his internal struggles against Ugandan rivals and his external struggles mainly against Tanzania and Kenya, and was refused.
● Uganda owed Israel tens of millions of dollars for weaponry and for work carried out by private companies, and this put pressure on Amin. His requests to cancel the debt or ease the repayment schedule were turned down.
Amin began to look elsewhere for help, approaching Egypt and other Arab countries. These, having been concerned about Israel’s role in Uganda, worked together to induce Amin to eject Israel. In January 1972 Amin sent his Muslim education minister, Abu Baker Mayanja, to Cairo to request aid from President Anwar Sadat. The latter said that because of Egypt’s ongoing War of Attrition with Israel, he could not offer any substantial assistance and suggested approaching Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi. At the conclusion of Mayanja’s visit, he and Sadat issued a joint statement condemning Israel’s policies in the Middle East and supporting Egypt.
In response, the Israeli ambassador to Uganda, Daniel Laor, requested an immediate meeting with Amin and strongly protested the anti-Israeli statement. Amin said Mayanja had acted on his own initiative and there was no change in Uganda’s friendly relations with Israel. It turned out these words were to calm the Israelis. Israel was apprehensive of Amin’s next steps, and some even suggested starting to withdraw the military advisers.
Stage 3: Crisis (Mid-February to Late March 1972)
As Sadat suggested, Amin visited Libya and met with Qaddafi in February 1972. Arab sources say Qaddafi berated Amin for his relationship with the “Zionist entity” and promised him aid on condition that he would expel the Israelis from his country. In a joint statement issued in Tripoli on 13 February 1972, both presidents emphasized their desire to base their regimes on Islam and expressed support for the Arab struggle against “Zionism and imperialism,” for the liberation of the captured territories, and for “the right of return of the Palestinian people to their homes and their lands.”13
From this point Amin used various pretexts to justify anti-Israeli measures, and the relations declined rapidly. On 23 February, several days after Amin’s return from Tripoli, a large Libyan delegation arrived in Kampala as Qaddafi promised. At the conclusion of their visit, a joint communiqué stated that the two countries had agreed to wide-ranging cooperation in all areas.
On 29 February 1972, after the delegation had left, Amin invited Israeli ambassador Laor to a meeting in which he bitterly accused the Israeli military advisers of neglecting their assignments and trying to undermine him. Next, on 22 March, Uganda announced its decision not to renew the military agreements with Israel because the Israeli newspaper Davar, in an alleged attempt to damage Amin’s standing, had reported that Amin had canceled a visit to Egypt for fear of an internal coup against him. The announcement added that Amin had ordered all Israeli intelligence personnel to leave Uganda immediately.
Israel again denied any involvement in Ugandan affairs, expressed surprise that Amin had relied on a newspaper article as if it represented official policy, and announced the immediately removal of all the military advisers. Amin, however, showed no patience and the next day, 23 March, demanded that the military advisers leave Uganda immediately while repeating his accusations against them. On 27 March, Uganda canceled all its orders for military equipment from Israel and Amin called on all Israelis to leave his country. On 30 March, he ordered the Israel embassy closed and severed diplomatic relations with Israel, this time on the strange pretext that Israel was preparing a “secret army” of seven hundred men to overthrow him. By that time, 470 Israelis were left in Uganda including women and children. On 8 April, the last Israeli left the country.
In June 1972, hoping to enjoy the fruits of his steps against Israel, Amin visited nine Arab countries and began to behave as a devout Muslim. He made sure to publicize his visits to mosques and observance of Muslim holidays. That same year he made two pilgrimages to Mecca and met with Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal and other leaders of Muslim countries who came to Mecca. Faisal, in turn, visited Uganda in November 1972. He praised Amin’s measures against Israel and promised assistance in strengthening Islam in Uganda.
Right after Faisal’s visit, Saudi Arabia and Libya gave Amin a joint grant of $18 million, and the Saudis also gave him a loan of $15 million.14 Libya opened a commercial bank in Kampala and, according to the respected British bulletin Africa Confidential, promised Amin another $16 million through this bank for his personal use. Libya also gave Amin military equipment and personnel.15
Idi Amin completely changed course and aligned himself with Arab anti-Israeli propaganda. He also made anti-Semitic statements in the style of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In an interview with a BBC correspondent, he said the Jews were the cause of war and human suffering. They controlled the United States and other countries with their money. If the Uganda Plan for Jewish settlement had been carried out, Uganda would, like the Middle East, have become a war zone because of Jewish expansionism. Amin also tried to provoke Ugandan and other Christians by reiterating the charge that the Jews had murdered Jesus.16
The anti-Israeli incitement in the Ugandan media assumed an increasingly anti-Semitic character. On 4 August 1972, Amin expelled Indian and Pakistani immigrants from Uganda primarily in order to seize their assets. Amin publicly justified the measure by comparing these immigrants with Jews and calling them “brown Jews.”17
On 11 September 1972, Amin sent a telegram to UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim in which he applauded the massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich and said Germany was the most appropriate locale for this because it was where Hitler burned more than six million Jews. “It happened because Hitler and all of the German people knew that the Israelis are not a people who work for humanity and because of that they burned them alive and killed them with gas on the soil of Germany.” Amin called, as he had previously, to expel Israel from the United Nations and to send all the Israelis to Britain, which bore the guilt for creating the Jewish state.18 Copies of this telegram were sent to Yasser Arafat and Golda Meir.
Amin’s “Hitler telegram” elicited angry reactions in the world at large, including Africa. Some attributed it to Amin’s mental instability. In Israel, Foreign Minister Eban said Amin had removed himself from the human race by praising Hitler and the Holocaust. “The world,” he stated, “is compelled to denounce this telegram in the most unequivocal manner in order to demonstrate its disgust and should also take appropriate action.” His words were widely publicized in the international and African press.19
The Israeli daily Al Hamishmar declared under the headline “There Is No Place for Hitler in the UN”:
Even if the ruler of Uganda, Idi Amin, is mentally imbalanced, it is expected that the secretary-general of the UN, Dr. Kurt Waldheim, not return to business as usual concerning the telegram that he received from the deranged ruler of Uganda. In his message . . . Amin praised the annihilation of the Jews and justified the Nazi crematoria. We have no desire to evaluate the personality of this ephemeral ruler, but we have one expectation of the secretary-general of the UN: a nation whose ruler speaks in this tone in 1972 has no place in the UN! There is no place for Hitler and his enthusiasts in the UN! It is now up to the secretary-general of the UN to answer Amin succinctly: Get out of the United Nations.20
Waldheim did not, however, move in this direction. In his daily press conference, the UN spokesman said it was not the secretary-general’s practice to comment on telegrams sent him by heads of government. He added that the secretary-general condemned any form of racial discrimination and genocide.
Among the sharpest reactions was that of the United States, which denounced Amin and suspended a loan to Uganda of $10 million. The Department spokesman said, “We regret such declarations. Any expression of this kind about the Holocaust is deeply shocking and is totally incomprehensible when it is uttered by a national leader.”21 In Great Britain, both the ruling party and the opposition strongly condemned Amin’s words. In Germany, Chancellor Willy Brandt said he “saw in this telegram a sign of mental derangement.”22
These responses apparently did not influence Amin. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he expressed support for the Arabs and harshly condemned Israel. Then, in April 1975, Radio Uganda broadcast an interview with Amin in which he said Hitler was an outstanding leader and he planned to erect a monument in his memory in eastern Uganda, at a spot where there had been a World War I battle between British and German forces. Amin later retracted this decision when he was informed that Hitler also despised blacks.
Amin was not content with proclamations alone but also took action. In September 1972 he declared the black Jewish community of Uganda, known as the Abayudaya (Jews), to be illegal, meaning their recognition as a Jewish organization was canceled and their synagogues were closed.23 The PLO representative in Uganda was promoted to the status of ambassador and awarded the residence of the former Israeli ambassador in Kampala. The PLO established training camps for its members in Uganda, which included instructing Palestinian pilots in MIG jets.
Overall, Uganda became an important base for PLO activity against Israel. Early in 1976, a PLO group from Uganda was caught near the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, attempting to shoot down an Israeli plane with shoulder- held missiles. It was to the Entebbe airport in Uganda that PLO terrorists brought the Air France Airbus plane that they hijacked in June 1976. The hijackers received much help from PLO operatives in Uganda and from Amin. PLO members also served as Amin’s bodyguards.
Amin’s terror regime persecuted Christians, murdered hundreds of thousands of Ugandans belonging to tribes that opposed him, executed political and religious leaders who were suspect in his eyes, and expelled the Asians. The latter had been pioneers in trade and industry, and their removal was one of the main factors leading to the economy’s collapse. All this fostered growing opposition. Amin’s ruling base became increasingly narrow as he relied more and more on the Libyans, the PLO, and Muslim troops who were loyal to him.
The Israeli Entebbe raid that freed the hostages affected Amin’s image and intensified his internal predicament. Externally, the tension with neighboring Tanzania mounted. After Amin bombed several cities on the Ugandan-Tanzanian border, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere resolved to put an end to his rule. In April 1979, about forty thousand Tanzanian troops invaded Uganda and captured Kampala. Amin’s army disintegrated and posed no serious resistance. Amin himself fled with some family members to Libya and from there to Saudi Arabia, where he found refuge until his death in August 2003.
The break in Israeli-Ugandan relations lasted twenty-two years. Ties were renewed in July 1994 by President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power in a military coup in January 1986. At first Museveni was hostile toward the West and Israel, but in the 1990s, seeking to revive Uganda’s economy that was devastated under Amin’s rule, he gradually drew closer to the West and softened his attitude toward Israel.
This author, while serving as Israel’s ambassador to Kenya (1991-1995), visited Uganda several times and met with the president in attempts to renew relations. Museveni would say that as long as the Palestinians were “homeless” he would not renew ties with Israel. After the Oslo accords in 1993 his attitude improved markedly, and on 29 July 1994 this author signed with him in Kampala an agreement to resume diplomatic relations. Since then, political and economic interaction between the two countries has grown. Museveni has visited Israel several times, and Uganda is today considered one of the African countries friendly to Israel.
Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Israelis from Uganda shocked the Israeli government and public. This was the first severance of relations with an African country in the 1970s. Israel had already experienced hostile measures by Amin but did not expect relations to be cut off completely.
By that time, Amin was already known for his cruelty and massacres of his own citizens, especially Christians. Many African countries distanced themselves from him, and the OAU meeting scheduled for Kampala in 1971 was moved to Addis Ababa to the annoyance of Amin and his Arab supporters. Hence, Uganda’s break with Israel did not, at least directly, influence similar, subsequent measures by other African countries.
The difficult failure in Uganda sparked an impassioned public debate in Israel. Newspapers sharply criticized the “excessive involvement” in Uganda, including military and economic activity that did not take into account Uganda’s severe economic problems and deepened its debts. Indeed, Uganda then owed Israel $20 million and this was resolved only under Museveni. Some articles questioned whether Israel’s investments in Africa were justified to begin with. Although the government claimed the main reason for Amin turning against Israel was his hope to obtain financial and military assistance from the Arabs, there was much truth to the public criticism.
In 1982, after the peace treaty with Egypt and the Sinai evacuation, Israel began to return to Africa while applying the lessons of the collapse of its policy there in general and in Uganda specifically. Today, Israel has diplomatic relations with forty-one, or almost all black African countries. Israel’s policy is now far more circumspect, selective, and realistic, and is based on mutual interests without the enthusiasm of the 1960s.
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* This article was translated from Hebrew by Shalom Bronstein.
1. Ehud Avriel, “Some Minute Circumstances,” Jerusalem Quarterly, Winter 1980, 28.
2. Ha’aretz, 9 October 1964. [in Hebrew]
3. Africa Confidential, 24 December 1972, 3-4.
4. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel and Uganda (Jerusalem, 1972), 10.
5. Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence (Kampala: Fountain, 1992), 74.
6. Michael F. Lofchie, “The Uganda Coup: Clan Action by the Military,” Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1972): 19-35.
7. The People (Uganda), 9 December 1971.
8. Ha’aretz, 12 July 1971. [in Hebrew]
9. Embassy of Israel in Kampala to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, letter No. 1042, 23 September 1971, Israel National Archives. [in Hebrew]
10. 24 February 1972.
11. Davar, 15 October 1972. [in Hebrew]
12. Arye Oded, Uganda and Israel (Jerusalem: Israel-Africa Friendship Association, 2002), 72. [in Hebrew]
13. Uganda Argus, 14 February 1972.
14. Africa Research Bulletin (Economic Series), 14 July-15 August 1972, 2433.
15.Africa Confidential, 24 December 1972, 4.
16. Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, 25 July 1972.
17. Uganda Argus, 5, 6 August 1972,
18. Times, 13 September 1972.
19. E.g., Daily News (Tanzania), 17 September 1972.
20. 14 September 1972. [in Hebrew]
21. Davar, 15 September 1972. [in Hebrew]
22. International Herald Tribune, 19 September 1972.
23. Arye Oded, Judaism in Africa: The Abayudaya of Uganda (Jerusalem: Israel-Africa Friendship Association, 2003), 68-69. [in Hebrew]
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DR. ARYE ODED joined the Israeli Foreign Ministry 1958 and served in several countries including Uganda and Malawi and as ambassador to Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Lesotho, and the Seychelles. He is now senior lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies, and research fellow at the Truman Research Institute, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published many articles on Islam, the Middle East, Africa, and Israeli-African relations, and books on Kenya, Uganda, Islam in Africa, and Judaism in Africa.