Remembering a hero: The Yoni Netanyahu story

I must feel certain that not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived. I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say, ‘This is what I’ve done.’” – Yoni Netanyahu

What makes a person a hero? Is it something they’re born with? Is the term exclusive to comic books full of superpowers and capes – or is it something more?

On July 4, 1976, Israeli Special Forces successfully rescued more than 100 hostages held by Palestinian extremists at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells had hijacked an Air France flight eight days before. As a result of Operation Entebbe, all of the terrorists, as well as dozens of Ugandan soldiers, were killed. But only one Israeli soldier paid the ultimate price.

That man was Yoni Netanyahu, the mastermind behind the raid. At his funeral, Defense Minister Shimon Peres said, “A bullet had torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons, one of its most courageous warriors, one of its most promising commanders – the magnificent Yonatan Netanyahu.”

The last known photo of Yoni, taken shortly before his death leading Operation Entebbe.
The last known photo of Yoni, taken shortly before his death leading Operation Entebbe.

But for those who knew him best, Yoni Netanyahu’s acts of heroism was just a natural expression of a man who loved fiercely while consistently looking after the needs of those around him. He walked a difficult tightrope between his love for his family and his duty to his country. His internal struggle was clearly seen throughout his military career in the letters he wrote to his family.

This hero’s life and death are explored in The Film Sales Company documentary Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.

As the oldest of three boys born to Benzion and Cela Netanyahu, Yoni was unique from the start. He excelled in school and distanced himself from those around him in how hard he worked to succeed. As the oldest child, Yoni cared for his younger brothers while also being a leader to them.

“We truly were a band of brothers,” younger brother and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara at the grave of his late brother Yoni Netanyahu  who was kiled in Antebe Uganda on a resque mission (Photo: Moshe Milner GPO/Flash 90) ?? ????
Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara at the grave of his late brother Yoni Netanyahu who was kiled in Antebe Uganda on a resque mission (Photo: Moshe Milner GPO/Flash 90)

Yoni was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces as a teenager and quickly moved up the ranks, emerging as a leader in his unit. While in the military, Yoni began to experience the agonizing struggle of balancing civilian and soldier life.

In 1967, Yoni was wounded while commanding troops during the Six-Day War. After spending several months recovering from his injuries, Yoni married longtime girlfriend Tuti and the two moved to Boston, Mass., where Yoni briefly studied at Harvard University, before transferring back to his homeland and continuing his education at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. But war soon called him back to the front lines of combat, and he found himself commanding troops during the War of Attrition with Egypt.

“On me – on us, the young men of Israel – rests the duty of keeping our country safe,” Yoni said in a letter to his parents dated March 6, 1969. “This is a heavy responsibility, which matures us early. I do not regret what I have done and what I’m about to do. I’m convinced that what I am doing is right. I believe in myself, in my country, and in my future.”

That letter was sent shortly before Yoni joined Sayeret Matkal, a Special Forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1972, he was appointed as the group’s commander. The demands of his military endeavors weighed so heavily on his personal life that in 1972, he and his wife divorced.

Yoni continued to lead his Special Forces unit as the group battled in some of Israel’s most notable conflicts. He voiced his resolve to his brother Benjamin in a letter dated December 1973:

We’re preparing for war, and it’s hard to know what to expect. What I’m positive of is that there will be a next round, and others after that. But I would rather opt for living here in continual battle than for becoming part of the wandering Jewish people. Any compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t intend to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish State in the 20th century as a mere brief and transient episode in thousands of years of wandering. I intend to hold on here with all my might.

Tragically, Yoni lost his life in the rescue mission he led on July 4, 1976. A mission that was later renamed “Operation Yonatan” in his honor. But even in death, Yoni died as he lived: in front of those he led. The commander was the first to go into battle and the first to stand in front of those he led and loved.

Yoni Netanyahu was a hero, not merely because of the way that he died, but because of the way that he lived. Throughout his personal and military career, he devoted himself to his duty fully and completely. Although his military pursuits came at great personal cost, his life demonstrated the balance many soldiers experience in balancing love and duty. His heroism lives on in the lives of those he touched along the way.

Follow Me: The Netanyahu Story runs for 1 hour and 27 minutes. It was directed by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, May 9, 2017, and reposted with permission.

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Jonny Gamet serves as the youth pastor at Grace Baptist Fellowship in Greenville, S.C. He graduated from Bob Jones University with a B.S. in Radio Television Broadcasting and went on to complete a master's degree in Broadcast Management and a master's in Biblical Studies. He also currently serves as the sports information director at Bob Jones University. A self-proclaimed coffee and theology addict, he enjoys studying and writing about sports, religion and entertainment. He is a gifted writer and blogger, speaker and social media strategist. Most of all, he is a husband and a father to three beautiful children.