KAMPALA, Uganda, Aug. 19 (JTA) — African strongman Idi Amin, who died last week, was embraced and then reviled by Israel during his military career and his murderous eight-year reign at Uganda’s helm. Amin, the self-proclaimed “president for life” who ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, became an international pariah and declared that Hitler had been right to kill 6 million Jews. He also gave haven to the hijackers of a 1976 Air France flight bound for Tel Aviv, which prompted Israel’s famous rescue operation at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, humiliating Amin. Suffering from poor health for the past month, Amin died Saturday of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he had spent more than two decades in exile. He was believed to be 78 years old. Amin had a lust for power that prompted him first to align himself with Israel and then to abandon the Jewish state when it refused to provide the arms to satisfy his violent aspirations. Instead, he turned to Arab states, who were alone in embracing the African dictator — with the exception of the Soviet Union, which courted Amin for a time. Amin was once denounced by his Ugandan predecessor and former ally as “the greatest brute an African mother has ever brought to life.” Amin was born in northwestern Uganda, near the Sudanese border, and converted to Islam at age 15. In 1946, in his early twenties, he joined the King’s African Rifles, Britain’s colonial army, as an assistant cook. But his huge frame — he was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed more than 225 pounds — soon landed him on the battlefield. By the mid-1950s Amin was fighting alongside British soldiers in Kenya against the Mau Mau guerrillas, who opposed white rule. He rose quickly through the ranks, impressing his British superiors. When Uganda, a British protectorate, became independent in 1962, Amin, the country’s top-ranked African soldier, continued his upward climb. Milton Obote, Uganda’s first prime minister, was his ally and benefactor, promoting him to major a year later. In 1963 he served as a special trainee of the Israel Defense Forces, earning his paratrooper wings. Back then, Amin had not yet begun the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic salvos that later caught the attention of world Jewry. By the end of the 1960s, Amin had taken the reins of the military and police, becoming the top Ugandan general. Together, he and Obote redesigned Uganda’s governing and tribal politics through a lethal division of labor: The prime minister made the decisions; Amin enforced them. But Amin sought more power. In January 1971, he seized power from Obote. Initially, Ugandans celebrated the general’s coup — along with Israel, Britain and others, according to historical accounts. Israel sent technicians, military instructors and engineers to help Uganda, and other Israelis went to the country to do business. But bilateral relations soon soured. Amin had military ambitions against Tanzania, where Obote had fled. He asked Israel for money and jet fighters to wage war, but the Jewish state turned down his request. So Amin went to Libya, where Muammar Gadhafi promised him financial aid. As a sign of his new allegiance, Amin expelled 500 Israelis from Uganda and severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1972. “Arab victory in the war with Israel is inevitable and Prime Minister of Israel Mrs. Golda Meir’s only recourse is to tuck up her knickers and run away in the direction of New York and Washington,” he once said. Amin also praised Hitler for his “Final Solution” to the Jewish question. Along with verbal attacks against the Jewish state, Amin turned violent against Jews in his own country. Aside from Israelis, Uganda’s self-identified Jews — known as the Abayudaya — live in the country’s east. They are descendants of a group of converts who were swayed by an Old Testament-loving British missionary who conducted mass circumcisions in 1917. Amin shut down every synagogue in Uganda and beat and imprisoned observant Jews, demoralizing the community. Amin “was against our grandfathers and fathers because of the Jewish religion,” Samson Ben Sheva, 37, told JTA by phone from the city of Mbale. “He stopped the Jewish religion. These people had nowhere to pray from,” Ben Sheva said. “Secondly, his aim was to deal with one religion; that was Islam.” “People were scared,” Ben Sheva said. “Most of them changed to different religions, to Christianity and Islam.” According to Seth Ben Jonadaz, a high-school teacher, the community’s membership shrank during the Amin era from as many as 2,000 people to the current total of about 600. Yet Uganda’s Jews suffered only a fraction of the crimes of Amin’s regime, which murdered between 100,000 and 500,000 people, according to human rights organizations. Amin persecuted the Obote-supported Acholi and Lango tribes in northern Uganda, fueling racial strife. Almost all the tribes’ members who lived in Kampala fled to neighboring countries by the late 1970s to avoid being killed. Political opponents who did not flee were executed. The maxim of “obey Amin or face the consequences” put Israel in Amin’s crosshairs in late June and early July of 1976. Frustrated by Israel’s strength after its victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Amin supported a direct attack on its citizens. Seven terrorists who hijacked Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976 diverted the plane to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, keeping the Israeli and Jewish passengers as hostages but freeing the rest. That set the stage for a stunning July 4 military raid in which Israeli commandos landed at the airport, killed the hijackers, crushed Amin’s troops, destroyed eight Ugandan MIG aircraft and rescued 102 hostages. The raid took 90 minutes, and there was only one casualty among the soldiers: Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli prime minister. A humiliated Amin took revenge by ordering the killing of a 73-year-old Jewish woman named Dora Bloch, whom he found in a Kampala hospital. He also threatened to attack Israel if it failed to compensate him for the destruction of the aircraft and the money he spent on the hostages. Amin’s hubris, often perceived by the West as buffoonery, ultimately led to his downfall. In the late 1970s he launched a war against Tanzania, but Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles defeated Amin’s troops. He eventually was overthrown in 1979 and forced into exile. He spent almost all of his remaining years in Saudi Arabia, the only country to offer him permanent haven. In his absence, Uganda has become a relatively stable country, comparatively free of ethnic tensions. Israel and Uganda renewed diplomatic ties in 1994. Ties are now “very strong,” according to Gilad Millo, an official at the Israeli Embassy in Kenya, which serves Uganda. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visited Israel several months ago, meeting with top Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav. Meanwhile, the Entebbe Airport has been turned into a military airfield. A now-rotting Air France jet remains at the site — an eerie reminder of the days of Palestinian terrorist hijackings and Amin’s courtship of the anti-Israel crowd.
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Blake Lambert is a contributing writer to JTA.
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