Israel Report

September 2002         

Lessons from the Munich Massacre

by George Jonas - September 5, 2002
Thirty years ago, on September 5, 1972, a group of men were sighted scaling a six-foot wire fence on Kuzoczinskidamm, about 50 yards from the sleeping quarters of Israel's athletes in Munich's Olympic village. The intruders were first noticed around 4 a.m., but it wasn't until half an hour later that one of them inserted a pass-key into the lock of the door leading to the vestibule of Apartment 1 at 31 Connollystrasse.

For the next 25 minutes the eight fedayeen ("men of sacrifice," as they called themselves), battled the Israeli athletes inside 31 Connollystrasse, a complex that also housed contestants from Uruguay and Hong Kong. The fedayeen belonged to the Palestinian group Black September, linked to Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah. Though they were equipped with hand grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles while the Israelis were unarmed, the fight was not entirely uneven. The athletes in Apartments 1 and 3 included wrestlers and weightlifters. They managed to fracture the nose of one attacker and stab another in the forehead.

The initial phase of the assault ended by 5 a.m. The fedayeen shot and killed two Israelis -- wrestling coach Moshe Weinberger and weightlifter Yossi Romano -- and captured nine. Two Israeli athletes escaped, and the intruders failed to locate another eight in the building.

The negotiations that followed lasted the rest of the day. The Palestinians demanded that "the military regime in Israel" free 234 prisoners. They also sought the release of urban terrorist leaders Ulrika Meinhof and Andreas Baader, captured by the West German police a few months earlier, and wanted to be flown to "a safe destination."

At around 10:30 p.m., the terrorists and their captives were transported in two helicopters to Munich's Fürstenfeldbrück airport. One chopper held four Israeli athletes, the other five. Once they landed, four of the fedayeen got out to inspect a 727 jet that was ostensibly being prepared to take them and their hostages to Cairo. As the four Arabs were walking to the plane, German police sharpshooters opened fire at them.

The gun battle that followed lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. The fedayeen took cover under the helicopters. When, at midnight, the police launched an assault by six armoured vehicles, one of the terrorists lobbed a hand grenade into one helicopter. The explosion incinerated Olympians Amitzur Shapira, David Marc Berger, Andrei Spitzer, Mark Slavin and Kehat Shorr. At almost the same time the terrorists shot and killed Zeev Friedman, Yacov Springer, Eliezer Halfin and Yossef Gutfreund bound up in the other helicopter.

Ironically, had the assault been delayed a few more minutes, the four athletes might have been able to free themselves. There were teethmarks found on the knots of the thick ropes tying them to their seats.

The massacre at the Olympic games opened a new chapter in the war on terrorism. Five of the Black Septembrists were killed during the firefight and three were captured, but they were only the foot-soldiers of terror. Israel's then prime minister, Golda Meir, was resolved to go after the architects of the Munich massacre. This led to the much-debated policy of targeted assassinations.

In the years that followed, Israel launched various operations that resulted in the killing of terrorist organizers. They included the poet Wael Zwaiter in Rome (October 1972), the Algerian theatre director Mohammed Boudia in Paris (June 1973), and the PLO's liaison man with the KGB, Abad al-Chir, in Nicosia (January 1973), among several others.

Israel did engage in some extra-judicial actions even before Munich, such as the cross-border abduction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960. But Eichmann's kidnapping, or the 1976 hostage-rescue mission in Entebbe, though technically a breach of international law, aroused only a limited debate. However, the targeted assassination of terrorist leaders was controversial enough for Israel not to admit it publicly for years. Though Israel's role in the assassination of the Munich terrorists was common knowledge (I traced the story of one counter-terrorist team in my 1984 book Vengeance) the government didn't officially acknowledge it until the early 1990s.

The mood has changed since, especially since 9/11. Israel's assassination of individual terrorists -- for instance, by helicopter gunships -- has been a televised news event more than once.

Following 9/11, Western countries have been taking a second look at their own counter-terrorist tactics, including previously disdained measures. Although targeted assassination is now on the table, some experts doubt not only its legality or morality, but its efficacy as well.

The argument is that shooting terrorists solves nothing. Extra-judicial measures exacerbate rather than reduce tensions; they increase rather than decrease terrorist incidents. All valid objections, yet the utility of counter-terrorism cannot be decided on the basis of what it solves or fails to solve.

The police, the courts or the jails are no "solution" to crime, but this doesn't mean that the justice system has no utility. There are battles that need to be fought every day, not necessarily to make the world a better place, but to prevent it from becoming worse.

By assassinating the architects of the Munich massacre, Israel didn't eliminate terrorism. It did eliminate, though, several terrorists who murdered 11 athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The utility of eliminating individual terrorists needs to be measured against the futility of not eliminating them.

As Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli army's chief of staff, put it in an interview with the newspaper Ha'Aretz last week: "As human beings, we want a solution now. Now. But in the situation of Israel, nowism is false messianism. Nowism is the mother of all sins."

To the question: "How long do we have to live by the sword?" Gen. Ya'alon replied by quoting the late Israeli commander Moshe Dayan. When asked in 1969 what the end will be, Dayan replied: "Do not fear, servants of Abraham." In other words, do what is right, and worry about what it achieves later. Resisting terrorism, by killing terrorists if need be, is right. This is the ultimate lesson of Munich. "We have to go back to the ethos of standing fast," Gen. Ya'alon said, "not because I am enamored of that ethos, but because there is no choice."

©2002 - National Post

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