KAMPALA, UGANDA - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Uganda on Monday, kicking off a four-country tour of East Africa. The trip is seen as a significant event for the region, which no Israeli leader had visited in 30 years.
However, the day was marred by controversy when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's repeatedly referred to Israel as Palestine during a speech.
The president was talking about Operation Entebbe, in which Israeli commandos rescued hostages from Uganda's Entebbe International Airport after an Air France flight was hijacked by Palestinian militants.
"The sad event, 40 years ago, turned into another bond linking Palestine to Africa," Museveni said. "I said this is yet another bond between Africa and Palestine because there were earlier bonding events."
Many Ugandans openly wondered on Twitter who could have written his speech, predicting that heads would roll for the mistake. Others called the mix-up "gafffetastic," while some wondered about Museveni's state of mind.
Israelis on Twitter also lashed out at the mix-up, calling the president's speech rambling and bizarre, and reporting that the Israeli radio broadcaster cut off the speech before it finished.
So far there has been no response from Netanyahu.
Ofwono Opondo, a spokesperson with the Ugandan government, quickly tweeted out a defense of the Israel/Palestine mix-up, saying, "The whole of that land was originally known as Palestine so Museveni's reference isn't wrong."
Palestinians claim the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip as land for a prospective future state.
Opposition to commemoration
During the June 1976 hijacking, the airplane was flown to Entebbe. Then-president of Uganda, Idi Amin, threw his support behind the hijackers. However the standoff came to an end on the night of July 4th, when Israeli commandos stormed the airport and rescued 102 hostages.
The operation ended with 45 Ugandan casualties and one Israeli casualty, the older brother of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The 40-year anniversary of the event was marked with reflections on the budding relationship between Israel and Uganda.
However, some Ugandans are appalled that the Ugandan government would commemorate the Entebbe raid. One Ugandan man, who did not wish to be identified, says he lost his uncle during the raid, and he doesn't understand why the breaching of sovereign borders is being remembered in a positive light.
"Today goes down as a sad day to these brave men who abandoned everything to serve their country. Netanyahu thinks his brother who died here is the only life that matters," he said. "It's betrayal. Ugandan soldiers stood up to defend the country's sovereignty from a foreign attack — it doesn't matter why they attacked — they breached our borders, our soldiers died in the line of duty. You can come here to celebrate the invasion and remember Netanyahu's brother? It's utter betrayal."
The Israeli prime minister will also be heading to Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia during his tour, in which he is expected to discuss issues of regional investment and security.