Not surprisingly, the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s controversial film Munich has prompted the reissue of updated and revised versions of three books on the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian members of Black September. It has also coincided with the publication of Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, a new account of this tragedy and its aftermath by Israeli writer Aaron Klein.
Written in the main by journalists, these four works vary greatly in extent of coverage and quality of analysis. Massacre in Munich was initially published in 1983 under the title The Quest for the Red Prince: Israel’s Relentless Manhunt for One of the World’s Deadliest Terrorists. Although updated with a brief and unilluminating epilogue, the book remains very disappointing. Written by Michael Bar-Zohar, a biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, and Eitan Haber, a former military reporter who served as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s chief of staff, this volume is rich in details about the subsequent Israeli hunt for the Palestinian assassins but offers very meager substantive analysis of either the causes of the 1972 massacre or the rationale for and efficacy of the Israeli response to it. Because the book does not contain footnotes and lacks a bibliography, the reader is left to wonder about the identity and veracity of the sources on which this account is based.
Vengeance, the book that inspired and informed Spielberg’s Munich, was originally published in 1984 by George Jonas, a Canadian author of fourteen books and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Sun-Times. The 2005 edition of Vengeance includes a foreword written by “Avner”, a pseudonym for the leader of the Israeli Mossad counterterrorist team that was set up after the killings of the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972. He subsequently served as the main source for the book and was depicted in the lead role in the film. Jonas also interviewed several unnamed sources in Germany, France, Israel and the United States.
In the introduction to the updated edition, Richard Ben Cramer notes that, when Vengeance was initially published in 1984, it was severely criticized for being a work of fiction. These charges were renewed after it became known that the book would serve as the main basis for Spielberg’s film. Yet, as Cramer points out, the case against Vengeance began to crumble with the admission by several Israeli officials that Israel had indeed deployed several hit teams in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s to assassinate members of Black September in revenge for the Munich attack. Unlike Massacre in Munich, Vengeance is well-annotated, contains a useful bibliography, and most important, raises very timely questions about the utility and morality of using force to counteract terror.
One Day in September, by British journalist and New York Times best-selling author Simon Reeve, is by far the most meticulously annotated and analytical account of the events of September 1972 and their aftermath. Based on extensive interviews with Israeli, Palestinian and German officials and an exhaustive review of official German documents, this volume, which initially appeared in 2000, has been updated with a new epilogue that examines links between the Munich massacre, the horrors of 9/11 and Israel’s policy of “targeted killing.”
Striking Back is the most recent addition to this literature. Written by Aaron Klein, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and currently Time magazine’s military and intelligence correspondent in Jerusalem, this account is based on the author’s interviews with more than 50 individuals, including former heads of the Mossad, Israeli military intelligence officers and high-ranking Palestinian officials. Klein also gained access to top-secret Israeli government documents, including the recently released Kopel Report — a document compiled by a three-person commission that was appointed by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir to evaluate the security arrangements at the Munich Olympics. The renewed interest in events involving Palestinian and Israeli terrorism that transpired over three decades ago is undoubtedly due to the timeliness of questions about the efficacy of terrorism and counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11 and America’s own war against terror. As Richard Ben Cramer thoughtfully points out in his introduction to Vengeance, Israel’s deadly response to the Munich massacre resonates to this day precisely because it raises several vexing questions:
Can a free society descend to murder to punish murder? Does fighting terrorism require terror? Does it inevitably put a nation’s defenders into the world of the terrorists ––
and onto their level? Israelis have been forced to confront these questions for decades – more often in the last ten years. And now, post 9/11, Americans are in the same soup: our own CIA has publicly gone into the business of “targeted killing.”
Read jointly, these four books illuminate the tragic drama of September 1972, provide an understanding of the motivations that prompted the Palestinians to resort to the terror against members of the Israeli Olympic team, examine the nature of the Israeli response, and analyze the implications of that response for the ongoing Israeli and current American wars against terrorism.
The Munich Olympics Massacre
In the early morning hours of September 5, 1972, eight armed members of Black September, a secret Palestinian commando group established a year earlier as an arm of Fatah, forced their way into two apartments that housed Israeli male athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich. In the ensuing confrontation, two of the Israelis were killed and nine were taken hostage. Two other Israeli athletes managed to escape.
The captors initially indicated a willingness to free the athletes in exchange for the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. They demanded that these prisoners be flown in three planes to a safe destination, whereupon the Israelis would be released. There is no consensus among the authors about the Israeli response to the proposed deal. According to Reeve and Klein, Prime Minister Golda Meir initially ordered Sayeret Matkal — an elite Israeli army commando unit then headed by Ehud Barak — to prepare to fly to Munich and assist the Germans in a hostage-rescue operation. The German government, however, turned down the Israeli offer of assistance. While Jonas claims that Meir adamantly rejected any proposed bargain, all others maintain that Meir was not averse to a solution, offered by an unnamed Arab embassy and allegedly approved by Chancellor Willy Brandt, whereby the Israeli hostages would be freed and replaced by German volunteers who would then be flown with the Palestinian kidnappers to an Arab country. As part of the proposed arrangement, two to three months later, Israel would discreetly free some 50 Palestinian prisoners. According to Reeve and Klein, this potential deal fell through because the Black September commandos in Munich were unable to communicate the terms of the bargain to their superiors in Tunis.
After several hours of futile negotiations, the captors demanded to be flown with their hostages in one plane to Cairo, and threatened to execute the captive athletes if Israel failed to release the 234 Palestinian prisoners. All authors agree that the Germans had no intention of permitting the commandos to leave the country with their hostages. Instead, the German authorities hastily concocted a plan to transfer the eight commandos and nine athletes in two helicopters to the Furstenfeldbruck military airfield on the outskirts of Munich, where two separate police units would be hiding in ambush. According to Klein, one squad consisting of thirteen officers masquerading as Lufthansa crew members was to ambush any of the Palestinians who would board and inspect the plane ostensibly ready for a flight to Cairo. The second squad of five sharpshooters was then expected to attack the remaining captors and free the hostages.
All authors unanimously agree that the Germans botched the rescue operation from beginning to end. Klein accuses the German authorities of unparalleled “amateurishness, negligence, miscalculation and mistakes,” and Reeve characterizes what transpired at Furstenfeldbruck as a “criminally shambolic failure.” By all accounts, the rescue operation was bound to fail once the first squad of German officers, fearing for their lives, decided to leave the plane that was to entrap the terrorists even before the helicopters were to land at the airfield. Misinformed about the actual number of Palestinian commandos, the Germans deployed only five snipers, none of whom had been trained as sharpshooters. Klein adds that the squad members were not protected by helmets or bulletproof vests, and that they were armed with weapons that lacked accuracy. As the doomed rescue plan unfolded, the German snipers opened fire on four of the Palestinians who had left the helicopters to inspect the Lufthansa plane. For the next 75 minutes, an exchange of fire ensued, during which one of the Palestinians lobbed a fragmentation grenade into the first helicopter, instantly killing four of the Israeli hostages. Shortly thereafter, another of the captors leaped into the second helicopter and killed the remaining five athletes with automatic fire. In addition to the nine Israelis, five of the Palestinians were killed, and the remaining three were captured and eventually released within a few weeks in exchange for the passengers and crew of a Lufthansa plane that was hijacked by Black September on a flight from Damascus to Frankfurt.
Palestinian Motivations and Enabling Circumstances
Speculation abounds regarding the reasons that prompted Black September to undertake the daring mission against the Israelis in Munich. Klein suggests that Yasser Arafat, the leader of Fatah and the founder of Black September, was determined to demonstrate in spectacular fashion the power of Palestinian commandos and to restore them to international prominence after their humiliating defeat and expulsion from Jordan in September 1970. Bar-Zohar and Haber agree, noting as well that it was imperative for Black September to humiliate Israel after Israeli commandos stormed a hijacked Sabena plane that landed at Lod on a flight from Brussels on May 8, 1972, killing two of the Black September hijackers and capturing two of their female accomplices. Klein notes that, following the debacle of the Sabena hijacking, the leaders of Black September “were determined to pull off an unprecedented, earth-shaking attack — a theater of terror that would burn itself into the world’s collective consciousness for generations.”
Reeve quotes Muhammed Massalha, the leader of the Munich mission, who noted that the Olympic Games offered the Palestinians a unique platform for publicizing their grievances to millions of television viewers around the globe. In a similar vein, Klein cites Salah Khalaf (also known as Abu Iyad), who in his book Stateless identified three objectives that Black September had sought to accomplish in Munich: “to present the existence of the Palestinian People to the whole world, whether they like it or not,” “to secure the release of 200 Palestinian fighters locked in Israeli jails,” and “to use the unprecedented number of media outlets in one city to display the Palestinian struggle — for better or worse!” In addition, Bar-Zohar, Haber and Reeve note that planning for the Munich operation was begun in early July 1972 in Rome, shortly after Abu Iyad and two of his Black September colleagues had learned that the International Olympics Committee refused to allow a Palestinian delegation to take part in the Games.
To his credit, Klein stands alone in identifying several factors that eventually enabled Black September to carry out the operation. He argues that, beginning with the Sabena hijacking in May 1972, Mossad and Israeli military intelligence failed to realize that Black September had changed its strategy as it shifted from targeting Arab (mainly Jordanian) officials to attacking Israelis. According to Klein, all of Israel’s vaunted civilian and military intelligence agencies ignored the possibility of an attack on Israel’s Olympic team, despite a significant increase in the number of reports circulating in August 1972 about a planned terrorist attack in Europe. Reminiscent of the words used by the American 9/11 Commission Report, Klein notes that Israel’s intelligence establishment “failed to connect any of the dots.”
In retrospect, the Munich tragedy might have been avoided had Israeli officials heeded the warnings of Shmuel Lalkin, the head of Israel’s Olympic delegation, who strongly opposed the decision to house the Israeli team in an easily accessible and hence vulnerable unit at street level in the Olympic Village. Klein notes that in its report the Kopel Commission found that while several Israeli officials had been given the opportunity to select the location of the team’s dormitories, they left the decision to their German hosts. The consequences proved fatal.
Israel responded in several ways to the Munich massacre. On September 8, 1972, two dozen Israeli fighter jets bombed eleven PLO bases in Lebanon and Syria, killing and wounding approximately 200 Palestinians. Klein notes that, while the attacks were ostensibly aimed at suspected terrorist bases in refugee camps, they in fact killed and wounded Palestinian civilians who had no connection either to Black September or the slaughter in Munich. A few days later, ground troops of the Israel Defense Forces raided terrorist bases in south Lebanon, killing 45 and destroying hundreds of homes.
Within days of the Munich killings, Zvi Zamir, the head of Mossad, who had personally witnessed the debacle at Furstenfeldbruck, and Major-General (ret.) Aharon Yariv, former head of Aman (Israeli military intelligence), drafted a plan calling on Israel’s secret services to track down and assassinate Black September chiefs and operatives believed to have been responsible for the killings of the Israeli athletes. According to Klein, the
Zamir-Yariv plan identified three major objectives: to punish those responsible for the spilling of Israeli blood in Munich, to prevent recurrence of terrorism against Israelis by eliminating operatives, and to deter others from joining or assisting terrorist organizations.
In a meeting with Zamir and Yariv on September 15, 1972, Prime Minister Meir approved their plan. The proposal stipulated that each assassination mission was to be approved by the prime minister, who would be acting on the advice from the head of Mossad and a special cabinet committee that would include the foreign and defense ministers. Before approving any proposed target, the prime minister was to be guided by two considerations: that innocent civilians would not be harmed and that the state’s strategic interests would not be negatively affected.
According to Bar-Zohar, Haber and Klein, Meir approved the plan with considerable apprehension for a variety of reasons. First, she was fully aware that what was being proposed marked a significant departure from past policies because, with very rare exceptions, Israel had ruled out targeted assassinations as a means of attaining political or security objectives. Second, she was concerned that Israel’s reputation would be damaged if any of its operatives were caught abroad or if it were ever disclosed that Israel was behind the killings. Despite these reservations, Meir agreed to the Zamir-Yariv plan. Several acts of terror by Black September before Munich and shortly thereafter convinced her that Palestinian commandos had declared an all-out war against the Jewish state that required a stern response.
Shortly thereafter, Meir appointed Yariv as her personal advisor on terrorism. According to Klein, Yariv redefined the jurisdictions of each civilian and military intelligence agency and initiated weekly meetings attended by the heads of these units. Israel’s own campaign of terror began in late October 1972 with the mailing of letter bombs that seriously injured PLO ambassadors and unofficial representatives in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Sweden and Germany. Klein notes that, while none of the targets had direct ties to Black September, they were in fact operatives gathering intelligence for that organization.
There is no consensus in the literature on the modus operandi of the Mossad as it carried out what Reeve identifies as “Operation Grapes of Wrath.” He claims that the assassinations of the architects of Palestinian terrorism were carried out by a special hit team of 15 elite agents operating out of a safe house in Paris. The other authors suggest that the killings were undertaken by several Mossad squads. All accounts agree that between October 1972 and June 1992, the Mossad assassinated more than a dozen operatives of the PLO, PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command) in attacks that took place in Rome, Paris, Nicosia, Beirut, Athens and Tarifa (Spain).
Israeli officials believed that, in order to accomplish its objectives, and especially to sustain a sense of permanent danger in the minds of potential Black September recruits, its own campaign of counterterror needed to be carried out in an extraordinarily spectacular fashion. That would explain why on December 8, 1972, the PLO’s representative in Paris, Muhammad Hamshari, was killed as he lifted a telephone, detonating a plastic explosive under his desk that was activated by a coded electronic signal. Likewise, on January 24, 1973, Abad al-Chir, the resident agent of Black September in Cyprus, was blown up as he activated a charge of high explosives placed under his hotel bedroom in Nicosia. Similarly, on January 21, 1979, a remote-controlled car bomb killed Ali Hassan Salameh, widely believed to be the mastermind behind the Munich plot, along with several bodyguards, as his car passed by a booby-trapped vehicle in Beirut.
Undoubtedly the most daring attack by Mossad, undertaken jointly with Sayeret Matkal and naval commandos, was a raid carried out in the heart of Beirut on April 9, 1973. Dubbed “Operation Springtime of Youth,” the assault resulted in the assassinations of Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar (Abu-Yussef), the second in command of Fatah; Kamal Adwan, a Fatah chief operations officer and commander of Black September in the occupied territories; and Kamal Nasser, chief spokesperson for Fatah. In addition, dozens of men died when the raiding commandos detonated a large explosive charge at the headquarters of the PDFLP (Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
An Assessment of Israeli Counterterrorism
In the epilogue to the first edition of Vengeance, George Jonas in essence claimed that it is impossible to assess the usefulness of counterterrorism, lamenting that “the utility of counterterrorism cannot be decided on the basis of what it solves or fails to solve.” He argued that “ultimately, both the morality and usefulness of resisting terror are contained in the uselessness and immorality of not resisting it.”
Not surprisingly, such an ambivalent judgment was not shared by the architects of Israel’s campaign against terror. Klein notes that by the end of the 1970s, “top-ranking Israeli intelligence officials were in near unanimous agreement that Israel’s post-Munich wave of retaliatory and preventive assassinations gravely affected terrorist organizations, causing some to fold and others to limp.” Lending further credence to such assessment, Bar-Zohar and Haber cite Aharon Yariv, who in a 1994 interview with the BBC admitted, “I was surprised by the fact that a military operation by our forces in Beirut airport and some assassinations in Europe, persuaded the PLO leaders to stop the terrorism abroad. This proves that we were right to use this method for a certain period.”
One should not accept Jonas’s argument nor Yariv’s boast, however. There are, in fact, explicit criteria by which to evaluate the efficacy of Israel’s counterterrorism strategy, namely, the stated objectives that the policy was intended to fulfill. Assessed by that standard, Israel’s response to the Munich tragedy must be judged as a failure for several reasons. While it is true that by the end of 1973, Yasser Arafat had disbanded Black September, it is very likely that Arafat’s decision was prompted not by fear of Israeli counterterrorism but by a cold political calculation that continued reliance on terrorism would foreclose new political opportunities for the Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As Benny Morris astutely noted, “The October War pushed the Palestinian problem to the top of the international agenda once again and opened up diplomatic opportunities for progress (Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, p. 383).” In a similar vein, Klein notes that, once the Palestinians had achieved a modicum of international recognition, most vividly symbolized by Arafat’s appearance before the UN General Assembly in November 1974, “there was no longer a need for international terrorism — and it could damage their image.”
It is also evident that “Operation Grapes of Wrath” failed to punish those who either planned or executed the Munich operation. For example, Wael Zwaiter, the official PLO representative in Italy, who was gunned down in the hallway of his Rome apartment building on October 16, 1972, had no connection to Munich and was apparently felled by mistake. Klein describes him as “a small fish in a pond of sharks,” a victim of Israeli vengeance. Likewise, both Jonas and Klein claim that Basil al-Kubaisi, who was killed in a Paris street on April 6, 1973, was not affiliated with Black September and had no hand in the Munich massacre. Klein also maintains that Ziad Mokhsi, who was killed on April 9, 1973, in Nicosia, had nothing to do with Munich.
Ironically, there is no incontrovertible evidence that the three Black September gunmen who participated in the Munich operation and were shortly thereafter freed from German jail were ever caught by the Mossad. While Reeve claims that Adnan al-Gashey was killed by an Israeli hit team in an unnamed Gulf state a few years after Munich, Klein argues that he died of heart failure in Dubai in the late 1970s. Likewise, while Reeve maintains that Mohammed Safady was also assassinated by Israeli agents, Klein concludes that Safady’s fate is ambiguous. Klein also states that Jamal al-Jishey was alive as late as 2000.
The Mossad counterterror campaign also incurred several high and unanticipated costs. Two of its top operatives were assassinated in Belgium and Germany, and several IDF soldiers were killed in the April 1973 raid on Beirut. Undoubtedly, the most embarrassing episode for Mossad occurred on July 21, 1973, when its agents killed Ahmed Bouchiki in the Norwegian resort town of Lillehammer. A Moroccan waiter, Bouchiki was tragically misidentified as Ali Hassan Salameh. Within hours of the killing, Norwegian authorities captured six of the Israeli operatives, five of whom were eventually found guilty by a Norwegian court and received jail terms ranging from one to six years. The blunder exposed the undercover infrastructure of the Mossad and caused a rupture in the heretofore friendly diplomatic relations between Oslo and Jerusalem. Reeve aptly describes this intelligence failure as “one of the greatest disasters in the history of Mossad.”
The most obvious shortcoming of “Operation Grapes of Wrath” was its unquestionable failure to either prevent or deter further terrorist actions against Israel either in Europe or on Israel’s own soil. While Black September went out of business in late 1973, other Palestinian commando groups stepped into the void, hitting Israeli targets unhindered by the Mossad. A few telling examples culled from a long list would suffice to make the point.
On April 11, 1974, Palestinian Fedayeen attacked a residential building in the Upper Galilee town of Qiryat Shmona, killing 18 and wounding 16. A few weeks later, 22 children were murdered when several PDFLP commandos took over a school in Maalot, also in Galilee. On January 25, 1976, three Palestinian commandos and two German terrorists tried to shoot down an El-Al jetliner with a SAM-7 at the Nairobi airport. And on June 27, 1976, two Palestinians and two Germans hijacked an Air France Airbus with 268 passengers en route from Lod to Paris, and commandeered it to the airport at Entebbe in Uganda. Each of the four volumes reviewed here contains mountains of additional evidence of terrorism against Israelis by Black September immediately after Munich, rendering meaningless the boast of Israeli intelligence officers that the Mossad assassination campaign hindered the ability of Palestinian commando groups “and deterred them from acting, forcing them to gradually abandon the idea of mega-attacks against Israeli targets abroad.”
The Legacy of Munich and Its Aftermath
The events that transpired during the 1972 Olympic Games and Israel’s response to them suggest several important lessons about terrorism and counterterrorism that remain relevant for decision makers more than three-and-a-half-decades later. The lessons are simple and straightforward, but the cost of ignoring them is very high indeed.
First, no matter what form they take, acts of terror do not occur in a political vacuum. The assault on the Israeli athletes in Munich did not happen by accident. Rather, it was conceived as a potentially useful means for a number of important political objectives. As Reeve correctly notes, there can be no doubt that “Munich helped to persuade the world that the Palestinian struggle needed to be taken seriously.” Second, Munich stands as a stark reminder that inevitable intelligence failures and gaps in security measures make it impossible to prevent carefully planned acts of terror. Third, the victims of terrorism and counterterrorism are invariably innocent and helpless civilian bystanders. We are reminded that, just as the Israeli Olympic athletes could not be reasonably held accountable for oppressing the Palestinian people, so the Palestinian victims of the Israeli bombing campaign immediately after the Munich massacre could not be held responsible for the blood that was shed by Black September. Fourth, the target of terrorist action finds it difficult to resist the temptation to respond with its own counterterror measures. The urge to respond in kind is likely to be impelled by the psychological need to seek vengeance and by a determination to prevent and deter future recurrence of terrorism.
Fifth, counterterrorism tends to be habit forming. As Reeve astutely notes, the targeted killing originally approved by Golda Meir in response to the Munich massacre eventually evolved from a tactic impelled by vengeance into a strategy of preemptive strikes against those suspected of planning terrorist actions. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the IDF has killed scores of suspected militants in so-called targeted attacks, usually missile strikes from drones or helicopters. The targets have included Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, as well as numerous others merely believed to be planning attacks against Israel.
Sixth, and most important, the Israeli response to the Munich tragedy makes it abundantly clear that counterterrorism based on targeted killing not only fails to deter future violence but is more likely to produce additional bloodshed. The truth of this proposition was borne out recently by two Israelis who were part of the Munich drama. In his introduction to the 2005 edition of Vengeance, the Mossad agent who led the hit team candidly admits that he was under no illusions “that we did anything to stop terrorism.” He notes that “an ‘eye for an eye’ may seem an appropriate response, but it is not a solution.” The same sentiment was echoed by Dan Alon, a former champion Israeli fencer and member of the Olympic team who survived the Munich horror. In a moving address at Yale University on March 23, 2006, Alon stated that the Israeli reprisal killings were a mistake because they invariably lead to “bloodshed and more bloodshed.” Referring to the Mossad campaign, Alon acknowledged that “at the beginning I was thinking, ‘Let’s kill them’.” However, he went on, “I’ve lived in Israel for the last 30 years, and they’re killing you and you’re killing them. You have to find other solutions” (The New York Times, March 23 , 2006).
That, in a nutshell, is the message that Steven Spielberg sought to convey in Munich. It remains a lesson yet to be absorbed by those who justify the American war against Iraq as an appropriate response to terrorism.